Friday, October 14, 2005

On Nigerian art

I caught a piece on AIT last night on Nigerian art. All the big guns of the Nigerian art scene were at an exhibition featuring some of their older work: Oshinowo, Onabrakpeye, Okoko etc. It was a depressing spectacle. As each artist stood in front of their pieces, they bumbled on about the most obvious aspects of the work in a semi-articulate manner. The fact that most of them are Professors was shocking. Oshinowo stood in front of a portrait he’d done of a woman wearing a yellow scarf and all he could comment on was how much he loved the scarf. Other commentators (including the journo) tried to give a history of Nigerian contemporary art, starting with the “natural synthesis” approach of the Zaria School and its descendants in Ibadan and at Yaba Tech. All natural synthesis amounts to is combining motifs from modern Western art – mostly impressionism – with indigenous forms. Both the artists and the commentators approach to art criticism and art history was rudimentary. One artist’s work was based on building an almost photographic image from tiny dots. He claimed to be the originator of this technique: betraying a complete ignorance of the trajectory from pointillism all the way to contemporary artists such as Chuck Close. Of course none of this should be a surprise: where would any interaction with the outside world come from within any Nigerian art school? When would young artists get the chance to sample art scenes elsewhere in Africa, let alone beyond the continent?

It seems to me that contemporary Nigerian art (at least in the hands of the old guys) is a form of alienation. Nigerian art does not do what art does elsewhere: provoke, incite, seduce, inspire – all reactions grounded in the contemporary moment. Rather, Nigerian art is simply a form of decoration on the walls of the elite. It speaks towards a much larger point: that contemporary Nigerian culture is estranged from itself. The root of the estrangement is the stranglehold fundamentalist monotheism has on the culture and the aversion the majority have towards any form of traditional polytheistic practice or ritual. Contemporary Nigerian art is simply a symptom of this collective alienation. I return to a point I have always made about development in Nigeria: that the country will not begin to develop its own forms of autonomy unless it first achieves a form of cultural autonomy: the collective being grounded in a historical imaginary. The colonial legacy and its Bible-belt continuation are ensuring that Africans in Nigeria at least are fundamentally disconnected from their own historical ways of being and doing.


Molara Wood 9:41 pm  
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