By Anote Ajeluorou and Tony Nwanne
This year’s Lagos Black Heritage Festival opened on Monday with an array of dance groups, dramatic offerings, masquerade dances, drumming and singing and a colloquium to provide intellectual vigour to a rich cultural showpiece. Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola declared the festival opened at Freedom Park, Lagos Island, Lagos, on Monday.
The festival has as theme The Black in the Mediterranean Blue as a way of connecting the continent with its Diasporic presence in the Mediterranean, especially Europe, through centuries of contact, both glorious and inglorious, and how harmony could be best forged between the two for its diverse peoples and cultures. There’s also a sizeable Mediterranean presence at this year’s presence, especially participants from Italy, Somalia, United States of America and parts of Europe
In his brief remark, Fashola welcomed guests and participants from far and near to use the opportunity of the festival and its unique theme to showcase their diverse rich cultural heritage. He also opened Kongi Harvest’s Art Gallery dedicated to literary luminary, Prof. Wole Soyinka for his outstanding contributions to letters and world cultural productions; it will house many African artifacts and other literary works.
The governor them went round to see the exhibition of paintings by 9-12 years old children mounted in their honour titled, The Vision of the Child, to mark the significance of the children as participants in cultural productions in a catch-them-young fashion. With a festival consultant like Prof. Wole Soyinka, for whom children remain dear, nothing less could have been expected.
Performers and masquerades from Ekiti, Osogbo and Ogun States, Ajegunle, Badagry, Bariga, and Lagos Island entertained guests from all over the world. Stilt dancers from Lagos Island called Fame Agere Troupe also thrilled on the opening. Dancers from Osogbo, with their trade mark adire and white hand-woven attires also danced vigorously to syncopating rhythms of drummers and singers.
From Badagry, for instance, came the famous Sato ritual drummers, who thrilled with their dexterous drumming, with sweat beads glistening from their naked torsos from the early morning sun in the open courtyard of Freedom Park. Not left out were masquerades dancers from Ekiti.
According a Director of Culture from Ekiti State, Mr. Mike Yomi-Longe, the eclectic group of performers from the state had heeded invitation from Lagos State to be part of the LBHF celebration and to showcase Ekiti’s rich cultural heritage and market same to the entire world. In his entourage were such groupings as Imole-Oloba dancers, Ajagbo dancers, Egun-elewe and owi masquerade dancers.
Yomi-Longe also informed that Ekiti State was planning to host the world sometime in May this year to a feast of culture tagged, Ekiti State Festival of Culture and Arts Expo, saying it has received the approval of the state governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi.
COORDINATOR of choreography for the festival, Sir Peter Badejo, was upbeat about LBHF attaining a measure of perfection each year as its keep growing on account of the learning curve it has undergone. He stated that with a consultant like Soyinka, who is noted for his brilliance, restlessness and creativity, the festival could only get better as it was a ‘celebration for the people by the people’, and explained that it was on that account that the usual boring speeches at the opening from government officials was reduced to their barest minimum.
According to Badejo, many masquerades, plays, the colloquium, poetry, boat regatta, painting by children and many others formed part of the festival and enjoined lovers of culture to step out and partake in the cultural feast.
Co-convener of the colloquium titled, Black Mediterranean: Afro-Italian narratives, Mr. Wale Adeniran, a former Director of the Institute of Cultural Studies of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, had stated the importance of the colloquium component of the festival to include providing understanding of the relationship that has continued to exist between Africa and the Mediterranean, especially Italy, which dates back to several centuries and how it could strengthen ties between the two regions.
Adeniran stated, “People tend not to remember that Africa has a history of long contact with Italy or Europe in general, and even as far as the Arab world and Asia. So, it’s these various aspects that will be examined by the various experts, retracing our contacts within its proper historical contexts and letting people know that contact with the outside world did not just date back to colonialism or slave trade; that long before these two incidents, there had been contacts between Africa and the rest of the world”.
Another co-coordinator of the colloquium, Prof. Paul Kaplan, a professor of Art History, a research fellow at Harvard University, U.S., said his work dwells on visual images of Africa in European art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period up till about 1700. Kaplan expressed his excitement at the opportunity the LBHF offered him to be in Africa for the first time even though his research interests had been on Africa of the period just described for 30 years.
He stated, “I have studied thousands and thousands of European pictures of people of African descent; sometimes pictures of ambassadors coming from African nations; sometimes of religious figures. I’m excited to be in Africa for the first time. I study these pictures in abstract, but I’m here to witness the culture of this people I have studied this long”.
If nothing else, Kaplan’s impression of Nigeria and Lagos in coming to LBHF is one of ambassadorial one in its positivism, as its contrast with what the West provides its citizens before they set out. What he saw of Lagos and the festival sharply contrasted with what he previously heard or was told before he set out for Nigeria, especially warnings from the U.S. government about security issues and how it seemed so laughable from what he had seen.
Kaplan noted, “Once I arrived, what I saw is a relatively modern city. I stay in a very pleasant hotel. The traffic doesn’t seem to me any worse than in New York. So of course, you get a somewhat distorted picture from the U.S. government. But I have a sense of the cultural richness of Nigeria even before I came. And also, I was told the food would be delicious; so far it has been; and even the spices, which I like”.
Kaplan gave a paper on the images that resulted from the visit from an ambassador from the kingdom of Congo in modern Angola to the Pope in Rome, Ambassador Antonio Manuel. Kaplan said when Manuel arrived in Rome, he was received by the Pope and Rome officials with great enthusiasm because he and the ruling family in the Congo had been converted to Christianity. Unfortunately, Kaplan remarked that as soon as Manuel arrived in Rome he died from illness he contracted after traveling four years to get to Rome.
But his death didn’t stop his guests from celebrating him as he was honoured with a beautiful tomb in one of the major Roman churches from a marble burst representing him.
Although there were other images of African people in Europe that predated the slave trade era, the professor of Art History said such images were very few as they evoked racist tendencies that tended to embarrass Europe.
AT the colloquium opening on Monday that was moderated both by Adeniran and Italy’s Alessandra Di Maio of University Palermo, Italy, Prof. Alessandro Portelli of the University of Rome La Sapienza, delivered a keynote on Olaudah Equiano and the Mediterranean based on his famous travel narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African.
But before Portelli’s paper, festival consultant, Soyinka, gave a perspective to the entire event, while welcoming guests to the colloquium, especially the sacrifice he had to undertake to appease the gods to ward off the rain clouds that had threatened to disrupt the tedious preparations. He gave interesting narrative of his trips and the demands of the officials of the gods and how they settled for salami, an Italian food, before they could agree to perform the rites needed to ward off the rain. However, the rains still came after the opening of the festival on Monday in the afternoon, before the colloquium opened. So, indeed the gods did accept the sacrifice, as it did not disrupt proceedings.
Portelli, who was visiting Africa for the first time, said Equiano was one of the great men of the 18th century in his ability at capturing what the blacks thought the white to be in print as a reversal of what the whites thought blacks to be. He said it is his ability to play up this relational complex of both parties that mark out his writing. His writing thus gave voice to a silent continent that could not articulate its feelings at that point in time.
More importantly, Portelli argued that through Equiano’s narrative of his travels both as a slave aboard British warships and later in his own travels as a businessman trying to buy his freedom from slavery, provide the impetus for the connection between Africa and the Mediterranean as he had cause to pass through the shores of Italy, Turkey, and Spain several times. Through these travels also, Portelli stated, Equiano gave his impression of the people and places along the Mediterranean coast thus providing the similarities and differences in the cultures, traditions and manners between his native Africa and his European hosts.
According to Portelli, “White people see blacks as monsters, blacks see whites as deformed; whites call blacks ‘savages’ and Equiano writes that “the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner”…Both blacks and whites see the other as a monster, but formulate monstrousity in different terms. The black gaze sees whites as disembodied spirits; whites, instead, see blacks as soulless bodies…
“While Euro-America white imagination has represented itself as the only meaningful historical presence, black eyes have insisted from the beginning in looking at whiteness as absence, immaterial and ghostly emptiness…”
Portelli described Equiano’s first encounter with the whiteman as that of astonishment and terror – terror as he saw the whiteman as a spirit capable of devouring him; and astonishment as he came to encounter mystery and magic that was Europe, even the ship that sailed in to capture them, as being radically different from Africa. Portelli said, “His adventure at sea are a passage into experience, knowledge and a degree of assimilation” into a different culture other than his own from which he was violently uprooted.
Although he regarded himself as almost an Englishman, Equiano still saw himself as an African, and Portelli regarded Equiano as a bridge or mediator between continents as his narrative provided a means of understanding Europe and Africa at the time. Because he traveled through the Mediterranean several times, Portelli argued that Equiano saw Catholicism and Islam as middle point for his native African religion.
For Portelli, therefore, Equiano’s narrative suggests how multiple the world is as exemplified by his encounters with the people and cultures of the Mediterranean, the plurality of people, life and religion. Significantly, Portelli also argued that Equiano’s writing helped to dispel the mistaken notion prevalent in Europe at the time that Africans were beasts not capable of rational thinking, saying there is a correlation between writing and reason, with an African like Equiano qacquiring and appropriating that craft to tell his tale. He noted that Africans not having the same writing system as Europeans didn’t mean Africans was incapable of reasoning.
On the question whether the Equiano’s book was actually written by him or someone else, Portelli maintained that evidence abounds that suggests Equiano was the author. Soyinka also intervened by stressing that those in doubt about Equiano’s authorship of the book would do well to read Catherine Acholonu’s extensive research about Equiano’s place of origin in Igboland.
Although the opening of the colloquium had a poor attendance, it was nonetheless an exciting presentation.
MORE papers were presented on Day 2, which was Tuesday, April 3. The evening was also the Night of Poets, with 16 Nigerian and Italian poets in performance at the open Food’s Court at Freedom Park…
An evening of Poetry at LBHF
As part of the celebration of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival, poetry took its turn on Tuesday evening in A Night of Poets to honour the men and women gifted in the art of fine words. The poetic dialogue was between Nigerian and Italian poets as a way of sharing multiple experiences across the divide. It came under the thematic framework of ‘Black Mediterranean: Afro-Italian Connections’ and featured 16 Nigerian and 16 Italian poets. It held at Freedom Park, Lagos Island, Lagos.
Although the themes and sub-themes that came through included but not limited to trade, migration, religion, politics, trafficking among others; there were others like pain and anguish, joy and despair, hopes and aspirations, essentially arising from Africa’s sad encounter with those on the other side of the Mediterranean divide. But in all, the readings and performances were brimmed with all the emotions that characterise any such trans-Atlantic literary expressions.
But to also spice up the evening, famous highlight singer and storyteller, Jimi Solanke, was on the band stand with his group. He effectively set the tone for the evening with his melodic tunes that made ace choreographer, Sir Peter Badejo, take to the floor before the show proper started to display some of his famous choreographic dance steps that earned him his Knighthood from the Queen of England. Novelist, Lola Shoneyin also could not resist Solanke either; she showed her stuff as well.
Co-coordinator on the Nigerian side of the event, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo reminded the gathering of cultural enthusiasts of the strong connection between Africa and the Mediterranean, which Italy symbolised and how the poets would explore issues relating to that connection. Jumoke Verissimo set off the evening performances when she read ‘Size of the Mediterranean sea’ before Gimba Kakanda read his piece on visa-related problems that Africans face when applying for that item to go to Europe.
Then Uche Peter Umez took the floor and called for one minute’s silence to remember one of the poets billed to perform on the night, but whose life was cut short in a road accident, Ify Omalicha Agwu, of the University of Ibadan. Then he read ‘Crows in flight’. Razinat T. Mohammed also read her piece.
Then culture advocate, playwright and poet, Ben Tomoloju, took the floor and gave his well-known tune Ajakubokubo with drumming accompaniment from the band, with Adaotor supporting him. As is usual with him, Tomoloju spiced up his musical performance with poetry rendition to the admiration of the audience. He got ovation for his effort. Then Richard Ali read ‘Beneath the wind’, followed by Funmi Aluko’s reading spiced with a folk song. Chiedu Ezeani’s reading followed with a theme on exile.
Verissimo was called up to speak about Omalicha, who recently passed on. She said Omalicha would be happy wherever she was to see the performances since that were what characterised her short life. She gave testimony of the beautiful soul that the late performer was, saying Omalicha was full of life and ideas and that she was one dancer whose memory would linger on. Segun Adefila then read Omalicha’s poem, ‘To him who will never return’, as if prophetic of her passing; it was read in accompaniment of a bamboo flute playing in the background, reminiscent of an Igbo warlord going to battle or celebrating a great achievement.
But it wasn’t all Nigerian poets that read and performed their works. Although the Italian poets could not make it to the festival, they were amply represented. Christian Alifarah read a piece by one of the Italian poets titled, ‘Aksun’; she also read the Italian version and another poem. Co-coordinator of the poetry segment of the festival, Prof. Alessandra Di Maio, also read both in English and Italian; she got applause for her Italian version.
Then Solanke took the floor again with his musical performance. This time, the dance-floor was packed. Prof. Femi Osofisan had as dance partner culture icon, Mrs. Emanuel Francesca. Ace actor, Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett also joined the floor. Children’s author, Ayo Olufintuade, indeed, was the first to claim the floor before others joined and sang along with Solanke. Some white ladies too could not resist having a taste of African music and dance, as they also took to the dance floor to rock with Solanke.
After the music, Deji Toye read his ‘Cross currents’ piece before PEN Nigeria president and notable poet, Tade Ipadeola, read ‘Island Interludes’. Tolu Ogunlesi, too, read ‘A Never ending flood’ to capture the hazardous trips desperate African youths undertake to cross the Mediterranean to Europe for the proverbial Golden Fleece. Then Odia Ofeimun read ‘Travelogue’ before Shoneyin read ‘Migrants’ on behalf of Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, whom she said did her great honour by asking her to read his poem.
Di Maio then gave a vote of thanks for all who had come and to those who performed to lend credence to the cross currents of relationships between Africa and the Mediterranean, with Nigeria and Italy representing both sides of the divide. She commended the poetry project, saying how wonderful a project it was to have conceived it. She said a book of poetic offering to commemorate the evening would be published soon both in Nigeria and in Italy to further strengthen the spirit of the Black Mediterranean that the Lagos Black Heritage Festival was forging in its third edition, especially with its overall theme, ‘The Black in the Mediterranean Blue’ that had a colloquium and the night of poetry that explored the gamut of experiences on both sides of the Mediterranean.
All the poets and co-ordinators took a group photograph, and Solanke was called upon to strike up a tune for then to dance to before the event drew to a close.