By Anote Ajeluorou
TIME was when the Lagos mainland played host to the bulk of artistic and cultural performances in Lagos. In fact, back then Lagos Island, specifically Victoria Island, was in its formative stage, a far off suburban area whose main attraction was the famous and sometimes infamous Lagos Bar Beach that hosted beach lovers and firing executions for armed robbers in alternate terms. But since Victoria Island took over from Lagos Island as the financial capital of Nigeria, things have not been the same for the mainland, as it lost its prime artistic position. Traffic for virtually all artistic performances became directed towards Victoria Island; it inevitably became the hub.
How can this trend be reversed for equilibrium to be achieved so the mainland can as well play host to artistic expressions? This is the headache for a few cultural producers on the mainland, especially so when, ironically, majority of those who patronize cultural productions and artistic performances are on Lagos Mainland. Mainlanders are forced to take a trip to the island to experience a performance and do a return trip back home. Ironically, they find it difficult to patronize such productions in their neighbourhoods no matter how attractive. Attending a performance on the islands has since become a status symbol of sorts. Also, almost if not all the producers of artistic and cultural expressions are from the mainland, even the nouveau riche of the comedy and music genres who migrated to live in the posh neighbourhod of Lekki were struggling mainlanders of yesteryears before they hit it big!
Before Victoria Island overtook the mainland as cultural hub, the National Theatre was a prime facility for artistic and cultural expressions and patronage. It was the beacon and cultural producers and lovers alike flocked to it with uncommon zeal. But as is synonymous with all government facilities in this part of the world, the National Theatre soon fell into bad times, as one bad manager after another left their poor imprint and the facility fell out of repute in the eyes of culture producers and patrons alike. It soon alienated everyone in the cultural community and patrons alike. Insecurity was the first major cause, as art lovers were brazenly robbed after seeing a production. The car park became a den for all forms of attack. Then poor air-conditioning and ventilation followed due to poor maintenance and power outages during performances. MUSON Centre on Lagos Island had readied itself for the depreciation of the national edifice, and it became the centre-piece of cultural expressions.
But even when the National Theatre was at its peak, there were other smaller performance centres on the mainland. Majekodunmi’s Jazzhole at Onike, Yaba, had its good days as a place for young musicians to expose their skills. Older ones also took to the stage to entertain the audience. Nightshift Coliseum on Salvation Road, Ikeja, also provided a rich outlet for musical performances for old and young artists. Also in Ikeja, there was La Campagne Tropicana on Adeniyi Jones Avenue, Ikeja that served as watering hole for art lovers. Not least was Fela’s Afrika Shrine in its old, hay days when the maestro was alive and later when his son, Femi built a new one at Agidingbi, Ikeja.
But these places have since fallen out of favour. In their places have emerged, and even become triumphant, such performance and artistic centres as Terra Kulture, Eko, Oriental and Intercontinental Hotels, all in Victoria Island. Now Freedom Park has joined the fray as the newest art centre on the island. Although these centres, especially the hotels, are not purpose built for performances like theatre productions, the ample space they offer is the main attraction. For instance, performing Saro the Musical last year at Oriental Hotel was a big challenge for the producers; the acoustic output was appalling. It nearly marred an otherwise great production. Even Fela! On Broadway some two years at Eko Hotel didn’t come off as well as it should.
Therein lies the bane of cultural productions in the country. With the National Theatre still being bogged down by the vice and incompetence that civil service now represents in Nigeria, and investors not looking to invest in appropriate venues for cultural productions, the country will be the worse for it for a long to come. Though MUSON Centre is a great venue, it has a limited space and cannot always guarantee returns on investment for a stage performance, for instance. What is worse, corporate sponsorship isn’t forthcoming to help cover some of the costs of putting up productions. But the few restless and relentless producers are marching on nonetheless in spite of glaring sponsorship handicap.
IKENNA Jude Okpala, who describes himself as a creative entrepreneur and a staunch theatre practitioner, is preaching the gospel of Mobile Theatre Series with his Wazobia Theatre House. Alejo is the first in the Mobile Theatre Series, aimed at bridging the gap between theatre enthusiasts and location-based productions. He has worked at Terra Kulture’s Theatre@Terra. But he’s a mainlander, and is sad that his beloved mainland is bereft of cultural productions and is sad that mainlanders have had to go to the other islands before enjoying art and cultural productions. He is desirous of reawakening the artistic scene in the mainland, and determined at his quest to stage drama performances on the mainland, but the obvious challenges of lack of venues and poor attendance dodge his path. Which way to go?
“We will have to keep doing it till we get it right”, he said ruefully at QDance Centre on 194 Herbert Macualay Way, Yaba, venue for his experimental stage performance Alejo, last Sunday. He had seats for only 20 people in the small, seminar hall at the centre, but almost an hour gone, there’s no one yet to occupy the seats. But he’s undaunted. Two shows were advertised for 3pm and 6pm. But it’s past 4pm already, and it was becoming clear he’d have to merge the two shows as audience for the first show was still being awaited.
“We have venue problem on the mainland,” he noted, “but not the audience. Sadly, the audience that goes to the islands (Lagos Island and Victoria Island) to see productions is from the mainland here. I think producers didn’t do a balancing act from start; we took all productions to the islands, and forgot the mainland where we all came from. How to reverse the trend and bring mainland audience to see productions in their backyard have now become our headache”.
A certain mindset is also at play in the neglect of the mainland for artistic and cultural productions. As the financial hub of the city and the posh part of town as well, culture producers naturally felt inclined to tap into the wealth of the islands. But what they forgot was that most of the operators of that wealth travel daily from the mainland to work on the islands. So much so that even the operators of that wealth have begun to see themselves as the two islands’ citizens and if it’s not happening on the islands it wasn’t worth the effort. So, they’d rather do another round trip - at great traffic cost to their time and health - to go back to the islands to see a stage production, an art exhibition, a book reading, a book launch, an art auction, and musical and comedy concerts during weekends rather than have them at their backyards on the mainland at Ikeja, Yaba, Surulere, Apapa or FESTAC Town. It doesn’t matter that the over-priced venues of the islands necessarily make ticket costs spiral out of the reach of a majority who would have seen the shows to make life easy for producers.
ARTZERO, jointly coordinated by the duo of Ato Arinze and Muraino Akeem, is another body keen on showcasing art expressions and cultural productions on the mainland. But they’ve been having a hard time maintaining their mission of “creating a platform and avenue to show their works and bring art closer to the people and market our products to people around us on the mainland. The major challenge we have is that we don’t get sponsorship and we record small attendance in our shows; and then the people don’t buy art”.
But lack of sponsorship and patronage to drive their mission sent them on a 3-year recess. Although they are back in business, they are still battling with the old challenges. But they are undaunted in their resolve to get mainlanders.
Like Okpala, Akeem and Arinze are determined to wake up the slumbering artistic and cultural spirits of mainlanders, and if possible, reverse the traffic of art and culture patronage from the twin islands of Victoria and Lagos back to Lagos Mainland. This objective seems high, but the trio is not short on optimism either, as they march on doggedly to fulfill their quest.