By Tajudeen Sowole
With the implementation of the White Paper on Stephen Oronsanye-led Presidential Committee on the Restructuring and Rationalisation of parastatals, commissions and agencies, the proposed Abuja Biennale, which the National Gallery of Art (NGA) announced late last year appears to have suffered a major setback. In fact, last week, a source from the NGA disclosed that the management of the government agency was not sure if Abuja Biennale has been captured in the yet to be passed national budget.
D-G, National Gallery of Art (NGA), Muku Abdullahi
Also last week, a report indicated that Federal Government's financial commitments to all the affected agencies, parastatals and commissions in the White Paper have been stopped. Last year, the White Paper, among others recommended that the NGA be merged with National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and function under a proposed National Commission for Museums, Monuments and Art Among all the merger recommendations concerning the number of parastatals under the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, it appears that only that of NCMM/NGA was accepted by the Federal Government.
Indeed, there were indications in the last two years that NGA had its activities rationalised, perhaps due to the impending merger with NCMM. For example, one of its major yearly events, Art Expo Lagos did not hold in 2013 and 2014.
And when NGA, late last year, announced its plans to hold a debut edition of Abuja Biennale, one was almost sure that the Director-General, Muku Abdullahi-led agency would source funding for the event from the private sector, at least to prove a point that it could function without government funding. But the disclosure about waiting for the budget suggested that the art event would be the first major casualty of the merger.
Art biennale, in most parts of the world, is usually used as a convergence of artists from different countries for exhibition and conference. Named after a host city, it is most often organised by government in partnership with sponsorship from the private sector. Quite embarrassing that Nigeria, a country that has contributed to the development of modern and contemporary African art resources, in works by artists and input from professional art managers of Nigerian origins has no biennale or any functional yearly art event.
Irrespective of what becomes the status of Nigerian art under the ongoing merger, it appeared that there has been a disconnect, between the NGA and artists, particularly in the planning of big art event like the proposed Abuja Biennale. For example, in his contribution to the issue of harnessing resources outside government's scope to rescue the proposed event, artist and an art academician, Dr Kunle Filani disclosed that "I am not even aware of the Abuja Biennale announcement." A biennale, he argued, was a good development for Nigeria, but suggested a better organisational structure. "I honestly think an expansive creative event such as a biennial requires more time for planning for both the organisers, artists and diverse participants," and hoped that NGA had factored such into the event before announcement.
Apart from the NGA’s proposed biennale, Filani noted that generally, funding of cultural events in Nigeria has been “abysmal.” Government, he argued “always ignore the value chain of culture to the economic and social development of a society." He faulted government policies that "are not implemented to empower culture ministries and parastatals to generate money either from government or non governmental agencies." His argument underscores the great potentials of Nigerians' contributions to successful art events across the world. "One can only hope that with the wealth of curatorial and creative capacities that Nigerians both at home and in Diaspora have, the Abuja Biennale will at least equal that of Dak'Art, Senegal, in quality and spread."
Given the parastatal status under which the biennale was conceived, sculptor, Olu Amoda argued that NGA should have expanded its source of funding outside government. "I think it is not realistic to lump biennale on budget.” He urged NGA to use “its leverage as a government parastatal to lobby for funding from multi-national in and outside the country."
Associate Professor of Fine Art at University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, Enugu State, Krydz Ikwumesi would not exactly fault reliance on government budget “as a primary source” for art events. He however agreed that “there has to be other sources, especially from the private sector and international funding organisations.” And in regards to the proposed Abuja Biennale, the tourism value, he explained, is enough to attract private partners if properly articulated. “A biennale is a good instrument for tourism development. You can see how it has worked in Senegal, based on the Senghorian legacy.” Noting that Nigeria has not been so fortunate to have “art-loving leaders,” in the like of the late Leopold Senghor, he insisted “we can do something with the very vibrant art circuit we have here.”
Given the global scope that most biennales, art fairs and similar art events lean towards, resource persons to lead event, according to Amoda, could be sourced outside the country. “They (government) need to appoint an artistic director from within or outside the country, who may not necessarily be Nigerians.” He explained that if “we can contemplate or engaged foreign football handlers to coach the national football team, I do not see why it can't be done in the culture sector, at least with specific projects such as biennale or art expo.” Amoda cited examples: “The national gallery of Jamaica was a good case study, they went through the moribund as our NGA, but got out the mess when the government took the bull by the horn to appoint a French national who has been active in the Jamaican art scene. Zimbabwe appoints a Zimbabwe trained curator to the national gallery for it to be turned around. In these two instances, the structure is carrier based personal while the head can come from either outside or within the government.”
Amoda’s argument is not out of place: one of the fastest growing art events in the world, Art Dubai debuted in 2007 with a foreigner, John Martin as its artistic director and is currently being handled by another outsider, Antonia Carver; Nigerian born Okwui Enwezor is the Artistic Director for Venice Biennale 2015; Nigerian, Bisi Silva is the Artistic Director for 10th Bamako Encounters: African Photography, Mali.
The new merger, which has Nigeria’s national gallery of art being reduced to a unit, may have its first test in the proposed Abuja Biennale. When the merger of NGA with NCMM was first made public last year via the White Paper document, artists and other stakeholders were unhappy and feared that modern and contemporary Nigerian art would further suffer neglect. Former chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Lagos State chapter, Dr Kunle Adeyemi disagreed with the merger. "With the merger, art would be relegated just as a unit under the new parastatal," Adeyemi warned. He traced the merger to the lack of financial independence of the NGA and blamed "civil servants for mismanaging" the parastatal.
Really, the merger as it unfolds, perhaps affecting the take off of the proposed Abuja Biennale makes no difference. As a full parastatal on its own, yearly events such as Art Expo and African Regional Summit on Visual Arts and Exhibition (ARESUVA) were not sustainable.