Friday, April 14, 2006

On Nigerian Art

Perhaps I'm not sufficiently aware of what is going on with Nigerian art, but it seems to me that apart from the Junkman (Dilomprizulike), Nigerian art is decorative, polite, bourgeoise, serving the genteel philistine tastes of the elite and therefore entirely uncritical and inoffensive. All one ever sees are market women, fruit and the odd Durba effort, or perhaps a pirogue in the Lagoon mist.

There is nothing that engages with contemporary existence for those that do not live in constant air conditioned luxury - no whore on pavement, dead okada, agbadas congregating at the Hilton, area boys fighting etc etc. Nowhere typifies this polite meaninglessness more than Terra Kulture on Victoria Island. They have exhibition after exhibition of the same old stuff, with the odd ebony sculpture thrown in. Yawn.

Nigeria is probably at the same stage as say mid-19th century France, with all the polite vacuousness of impressionism, pre-Cezanne. In other words, the art scene is ripe to be utterly shaken up out of its complacency, and the standard formalisms smashed into shards a la cubism. Nigerian art at present is yet one more layer of insulation against reality for the elite.

I've staged this argument several times with art-lovers here. They tend to get defensive, and sometimes go on about people imposing Western values onto non-Western subjects. Or they talk about colour being the field of meaning within African art. I don't buy this at all. Trained in my John Berger, I think there's always a class-analysis at work in art. This to an extent reflects material realities. Nigerian artists can make a living only by selling the elite what they want to see. But then artists the world over should never be focused on material success if they want to remain true to their vision. Its time more followed in the wake of the Junkman and trashed this narcissistic hall of mirrors..


St Antonym 3:09 pm  

Friend, I don't know if we can take a monolithic view of "art"- we can't presume it encompasses the visual arts only. I agree with you that the gallery art in Naija, not to mention the products of Nollywood, are largely rubbish. But, then again, so are the productions of Hollywood, so is much of what you read in British newspapers, so are most of American pop songs.

In other words, instead of isolating the visual arts in Nigeria, the question that needs to be asked is: where are the nascent nodes of resistance. For complicated historical reasons (the absence of a vigorous native art critism being one of them), the visual arts are not likely to be the initial site of that resistance.

But a lot of popular music (start with Fela, go all the way down to Edrees) has spoken truth to power. Even Lagbaja does it, in his humorous way.

Soyinka used to do a kind of guerrilla theatre on the streets of Lagos. Wonderful stuff. Remember when he held up National Radio to counter the announcement of a coup? Performance art at its scintillating limit.

Before long, I believe, there'll be subversive novels, there'll be shocking independent films (there already are: "Emotional Crack" is one). Also, don't forget the considerable work being done from the outside (by art journals like NKA which are tearing down received notions of African visuality) and inside (Depth of Field, Jide Adeniyi-Jones, and that lot).

The thing with resistance is that the timing has to be just right. People hate change. And you don't want to end up like Wycliffe or Jan Hus, burnt to cinders, when you could have been a Martin Luther.

St Antonym 3:41 pm  

Oh, and we can't leave out the impressive cadre of young Nigerian art critics/historians working within the US academy: Sylvester Ogbechie, Chika Okeke, Olu Uguibe, and, the big daddy of them all, Okwui Enwezor.

They are daily expanding the concept of "Nigerian visual art," and it will eventually start to have an impact on Naija itself.

There's hope! (I hope)

Jeremy 4:43 pm  

I agree there are forms of creative resistance emerging outside visual art in Nigeria (comedy is another to mention). But visual art is a vital realm of resistance that is a mark of the critical health of a society. Contemporary art in the uk is for the most part all washed-up and flaccidly conceptual (witness the Turner Prize in recent years). It shows that contemporary cultural values are a bit skew-whiff in the UK (bit of a generalisation, but there's truth in it). Only a tiny fraction of Britons give a damn about contemporary conceptual art, which shows how self-reflexive and full of itself it has become. Tracey Emin is the epitome of this narcissistic/confessional theme.

The trouble lies in not wanting to engage in one's own historical-cultural resources and myths. If one can't return and re-engage with one's own cultural history, creativity will always be diluted or worse, imported. I think this is what is going wrong with contemporary Nigerian art.

If there is good visual art and art criticism in the diaspora, it needs to find ways of engaging in country. Otherwise, it becomes a purely reflexive discourse, confined to the more refined spaces of the west. When will we have a contemporary African art show that goes to anywhere in Africa except South Africa for instance?

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