By Anote Ajeluorou
ART practitioners, culture producers, advocates and activists in the country alike are agreed that President Goodluck Jonathan’s interest in the country’s art sector deserves commendation, especially when he has consistently backed up such interest with actual provision of funds.
Indeed, for many years, the sector had cried itself hoarse for government’s intervention as noticeable in other parts of the world, where art and culture are held in high esteem and properly funded for their growth and contribution to the economic and social value chain. It largely remained an orphan, as government and corporate Nigeria stood aloof to its plight.
But then, Mr. Jonathan’s interventions began to trickle in. First was the $200 million entertainment loan scheme made available two years ago. Only about three players in the sector are said to have been able to access the fund because of its stringent conditions not unlike what obtains in accessing loans from banks with collateral and all.
Only recently, Mr. President also pledged N3 billion as grant for filmmakers, also known as Nollywood. This is unprecedented in Nigeria’s culture history.
However, this provision has created a little unease in the creative community, as it had turned the logic of proper funding for the creative sector for which practitioners had long yearned for upside down. Some see it as a one-sided, biased donation from the country’s number one citizen who ought to see the entire creative community as his own and not just one segment as the grant implies.
The President has not hidden his love for the creative community since coming to power, first as deputy governor and then governor of Bayelsa State. Bayelsa was the only state that was receptive to a continent-wide reward system for filmmakers when the state started hosting Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) that was instituted by Peace Anyiam-Osigwe.
Indeed, Mr. President is yet to wean himself from that first love romance with the movie sector even after becoming President. But this is where other members of the creative community that are not filmmakers feel unease; they frown at Mr. President’s open bias for Nollywood, the youngest art form to the others, which is only 20 years old. Some have submitted that Mr. Jonathan has simply fallen in love with Nollywood’s klieglights, and the fad that characterise the world of make-believe to which film belongs.
Some have argued that if Mr. President were not enchanted by the irresistible charms of Nollywood, he would have paid attention to the entire creative industry and not just one segment of it at the expense of others – literature, visual arts, music and theatre. The entire creative community has long advocated for the formal implementation of the National Cultural Policy, which has as one of its primary pillars the National Endowment Fund for the Arts in which the grant Mr. President has generously doled out to Nollywood ought to be a part.
PRO North, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Mr. Richard Ali, is one of those who have voiced out his concerns about the President’s romance with Nollywood at the expense of other art forms in the country.
He noted, “President Jonathan has shown his preference for the kleighlights of Nollywood over other organs of culture such as the Association of Nigerian Authors. He recently gave Nollywood another N3 billion after giving it $200 million. How much has he given ANA and Nigerian publishers? There isn't a lot we can do except continue to speak the truth to power. The President is turning his administration into a philistine one as far as books and publishing are concerned and this is sad, sad in any sort of emphasis you can imagine”.
Ali’s grouse stems from the negligence the President’s own pet project, Bring Back the Book, has suffered. It was designed to entrench the book reading culture among Nigerians, but it appears the project is in limbo at the moment, thus, leaving the writing community in exasperation.
A former academic, many in the intellectual community had hoped that the President’s book project would inject a new lease of life into the book campaign , but these were not to be.
Former president of Association of Nigerian Authors, Dr. Wale Okediran, said, “Nigerian writers certainly need a lot of support in the form of grants and policies. The President may not be aware of the lopsided treatment of Nollywood industry and so, this is a 'gentle' reminder”.
However, current president, Association of Nigerian Authors and professor of English at University of Ibadan, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade, lent another dimension to the argument, when he proposed a National Arts Commission just like the National Sports Commission and similar commissions for various sectors of the economy. While commending President Jonathan for the grant to Nollywood, he further argued that officials in the culture ministry were yet to do their job properly in giving correct advice to Mr. President on how best to approach issues relating to artists and the culture ministry they are supposed to midwife.
He stated thus: “The award of N3 billion to Nollywood is greatly welcome. It is unprecedented and a good move in support of the cultural arm of our civilization and development as a nation. Yes, Nigerian writers and industry do need this kind of patronage. The proactive governmental support for writing and writers is long overdue. Commentaries have been made on this issue in the past; suggestions have been made, and arguments have been pushed that lack of funding and support for literary writing in this country may just be one reason why the art of scripting, even in the film industry, is stunted.
“I should qualify the nature of grant that Nigerian writers deserve from governments and corporations in this country. The kind of support that we expect from government is one which will outlast individuals and endure. It will be better to have residencies established for writers and other artistes (including musicians, painters, sculptors and actors, handicraft artists and designers) under a properly organised National Art Commission that has a UNESCO grade status. The example of the South African Art Commission with panels and divisions for specialist and particular creative arts is worthy of emulation. A one-off grant to writers, without real enduring institutions, is only half-measure.
“I do not think that the President is biased in that award, because it is an ‘award’ which is determined, sought for and granted, a present handed-down to a group, albeit for a purpose. Given past experience, we get and give support depending on different arbitrary terms, and you cannot fault the Presidency on that. You can only say that perhaps there are people in the cultural ministry who are not doing their job properly. There are people who should know better who are not giving the right and dispassionate advice to our leaders when it comes to support for the creative writing industry. Isn't it therefore a systemic problem? Let the right things be done at the right time. As I said earlier, Nollywood itself suffers from the lack of federal support that Nigerian writing currently enjoys!”
But Managing Director of Ibadan-based University Press Plc, Mr. Samuel Kolawole, argued that doling out money never really solved problems unless a holistic assessment of an industry was made and policy issues followed through thoroughly, especially in the book business. He stated, “Yes, the industry needs money, but it may not be by bringing money and putting it down like that. The biggest mistake we make is to think that money solves all our problems; it doesn’t! It’s not all about money. N3 billion grant for the book industry may not solve all its problems. If you’re not careful, that money will split the industry apart. They will see it as part of their national cake and seek means to grab it and lose sight of the reason for the money.
“What the publishing industry needs is policy issues, especially policy implementation. That is what we need. Take a look at the copyright commission and strengthen its operations so it can fight book piracy. That way you would be helping the book industry in a long way. It will also help the reading culture because many authors are frustrated right now because they don’t get royalties for their books because of pirates that are at work and they don’t get money from their publishers. They quarrel with their publishers because they see their books everywhere but no money comes to them because the publishers are not the ones distributing them but pirates.
“If you want to improve reading culture, it’s not about giving money to authors to say ‘go and write books’. In my own opinion, that is not what the publishing industry needs. Ensure that the copyright system works; fight against book piracy; recognize those in the book chain as important contributors to policy decision-making; carry them along while making policy”.
SOME have argued that President Jonathan’s attachment stemmed from the perceived ambassadorial role Nollywood has played for the country outside. They argue that Nollywood has opened up the space for outsiders to see Nigerians up-close even to their dressing rooms, bedrooms, dining tables and other intimate areas of Nigerian social life.
So much so that to see Nigeria as an open book all you need do as an outsider is to see a couple of Nollywood movies.
Arguably, Nollywood, as a culture product from Nigeria, has done a lot to open up Nigeria’s social space to the outside world with its peculiar storytelling. As a popular culture, it has been doing its part in exposing the different lifestyles of Nigerians to a wide audience, perhaps, far wider than any other art form has done to date. But hardliners in the more intellectually engaging, stimulating art forms question the real worth of Nollywood’s ambassadorial role and its true significance as a culture export. They point at the poor quality, the often poor usage of language whether spoken or sub-titled English from the local languages and the sheer indiscretion of some of its exposes, especially its inability to subtly, intelligently represent certain aspects of Nigerian culture or ways of life.
These artists point at the level of voodoo or witchcraft, where most outsiders see Nigerians as patrons of fetish and magic for vainglorious purposes. Such critics point to Nigeria’s literature (which they, like their literary grandfather Chinua Achebe superbly put it in his famous novel, Things Fall Apart), has a fame that ‘rests on solid personal achievement’. They point out that Nigerian literature has long played a great ambassadorial role before the existence of Nollywood, Nigerian literature’s wayward grandson, was born.
Achebe with his famous Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka, as Black Africa’s first Nobel Laureate and John Pepper Clark, as Africa’s first professor of English had long been great cultural ambassadors for not just Nigeria but the entire black Africa and beyond. Younger generation of writers that successfully followed as successors have won every available international prize on offer: Niyi Osundare – Commonwealth Prize; Ben Okri – Booker Prize; Chimanmada Ngozi Adichie – Orange Prize and Helon Habila, E.C. Osundu and Rotimi Babatunde – Caine Prize. These are all international prizes the entire world of writers strongly covet.
In spite of these towering, landmarking achievements by Nigerian men and women of letters, Mr. President hasn’t seen it fit to give a grant to the book industry to help writers and publishers produce more award-winning books or to properly equip the nation’s dilapidated libraries so the country can continue to produce succeeding generation of writers of immense promise.
After 20 years of existence, no Nollywood film has been screened inside any of the major pavilions at Canes Film Festival in France or any major international film festival. Nigerian filmmakers are usually mostly spectators in these milestone events. Only Jeta Amata’s Amazing Grace managed a side screening at Caines a few years ago.
The visual art community isn’t left out in projecting Nigeria’s culture abroad. Names like Ben Enwonwu readily come to mind. He was the first black African whom Queen Elizabeth daintily sat for to have her portrait painted!
Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy was another Nigeria to be so honoured with the royal sitting for a portrait. Other visual art masters such as Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Lamide Fakeye and David Dale have all put Nigerian name indelibly on the visual art history of the world. Yet that cerebrally acclaimed art sector is yet to receive a grant for its huge contributions.
Of course, there was a time when a Nigerian ex-leader was referred to as belonging to Fela’s country! That was the immense power that the Afrobeat legend possessed outside the country so much so that a head of state was so obscure as to belong to Fela’s country. Now, Fela’s son, Femi Kuti and King Sunny Ade had sat alongside other world acclaimed musicians to compete for honours at the America Grammy Award. They did not win, but they shared the stage with some of the world’s best. For now, Nollywood’s best still have a long way to go!
FOR former president, National Association of Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) Mr. Greg Odutayo government needed to either build cottage theatres or empower individuals to build them so as to facilitate the staging of plays at the grassroots and thereby employ those in the performance arts. Odutayo stated recently, “NANTAP’s cardinal objective for 2013 is building theatre audiences across the country, so that practitioners can again start to speak for the people. And to achieve this, we need sustainable development for the sector.
“Government must, as a matter of urgency, look into the establishment of cottage theatres in at least in every local government in the country. For this will help bring theatre and the allied arts to the people, aside from creating employment for the vast theatre graduates that are churned out every year from our numerous universities; it is the only way to bring massive development to the sector and generate employment for the youth. Such grant from government can help put cottage theatres all over the country to stimulate theatre practice”.
Also, a respected but retired visual art teacher and practitioner, Mr. Kolade Oshinowo berated government for not doing enough in the visual art sector. He said such neglect had huge monetary loss to the country and stressed that government must wake up and take advantage of Nigeria’s vast art talent and potentials and takes its pride of place on the continent. Oshinowo noted, “I am usually not very impressed when government makes such grant pronouncement without consideration given to other sectors of the arts. I believe government should adopt a much more holistic approach in the giving of grants to the art sector rather than being selective. For instance, the visual artists have been crying for years for a purpose-built art gallery for the nation. This is one of the reasons Nigeria is conspicuously missing on list of countries that host International Art Biennials which would have been a major source of revenue earning for the country. What about artistic monuments in our public space? The list is endless”.