By Anote Ajeluorou
FOR Nigeria’s art scene to be robust, vibrant and effectively provide employment for millions of youth, educate and permeate society as a healing therapy, there’s need for government to play a major role. Such role, it has been canvased, should include creating Artistic Hubs or Districts for artists to work and market their products and enacting a piece federal legislation to establish Artist Registration Council for the regulation of art practice.
These were some of the views a major visual artist, Mr. Olu Ajayi offered last week at his new studio on Military Street, Onikan, Lagos Island. Ajayi was expecting Prof. Wole Soyinka to pay him a studio visit, but the octogenarian poet and dramatist was unable to make the visit; no reason was given either. Nevertheless, Ajayi took the opportunity to address some salient issues regarding art practice in the country. He particularly tasked the incoming administration of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari to give the entire arts and culture sector a pride of place for the sheer socio-economic roles it plays, as the largest informal sector that actively provides employment for Nigeria’s teeming youth among others.
Ajayi, also the originator of Living Legends, an artistic project that documents the lives of Nigeria’s men and women of integrity and honour who have contributed significantly to society, argued that it was in bad taste for government to continue relegating arts to the margins. Or for that matter, promote or give priority only to the film sector of the arts (also known as Nollywood), as the out-going administration of President Goodluck Jonathan did rather than patronise the entire sector which includes the visual arts, literature (books), film (Nollywood), theatre and culture festivals of all descriptions.
The artist with some 30 years experience in studio practice said in spite of the myriads of sectors like power and the economy crying for attention, which government always focused on, the arts was no less deserving a look in, as the sector’s record in engaging Nigerian youth since the inception of this democratic dispensation has been immense and so could no longer be ignored. On this score, Ajayi said the tourism sector, which government pays lip-service could only be bolstered by the amount of quality artistic and cultural products the country could offer visitors. This, he argued, made it imperative for serious attention to be given to the country’s arts and culture as catalyst for tourism and economic revival.
Even the Geneva Convention stipulates that museums should not be targeted for bombing during wars, a stipulation he said underlay the importance of art to society. He urged government to see the need to patronise the arts sector for its inherent socio-economic benefits.
According to Ajayi, “We’re looking at how we can keep the art community vibrant. What does political players have for the arts sector? Nollywood isn’t the only cultural sector. The incoming government should address us. For instance, Nigeria does not have a proper museum for modern art. And when we talk about tourism you talk about culture. Modern museums will create proper outlets for the works of artists, create employment, children get educated and it serves as tourism destination.
“Also, artists need seed money as grants to set up art studios. Artists’ hubs or districts should be set up for artists to practice their trade and market their products. We need Artist Registration Council; we already approached the National Assembly to set it up, but they are either naïve or didn’t know the role of arts in society. They didn’t see the need, which was sad”.
Ajayi also debunked the often-held notion that art is elitist rather than popular culture that should be consumed by all segments of society. According to him, “Art has therapeutic value for everyone in society”.
He, however, said the persistence of that notion was because of a strangulating economy that has consigned a large segment of society to eek out a living, which leaves many with nothing extra to enjoy the simple pleasures that life and art offer. “So, it becomes a problem as people find it hard to go out and see exhibitions that are not frequent, anyway,” he surmised. “Nigerians don’t travel because there’s no extra cash that can be set aside for the purpose”.
On the Living Legends project, which he said Prof. Soyinka was first to sit for painting, Ajayi stated that the project’s merits rested in providing role models for young people through the exemplary lives such subjects have lived to inspire time honoured values of integrity, honesty and significant contribution to society. Such subjects must be in their 70s and their contributions must span 40 years of consistent service. At the moment, Ajayi said they were sourcing for the next candidate, which was proving difficult to find.
So far six such Nigerians have been captured in painting and sculpture. The last subject was Gen. Yakubu Gowon. Others are Oba of Benin, Omo N’oba Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, Prof. JP Clark and Prof. Soyinka. Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, Pastor Enoch Adeboye and Chief Emeka Anyaoku are in the organisers’ radar for imortalising in painting and sculptural works, as many artists working in the two media work to capture a particular subject at the same time.
However, Ajayi said the perennial problem of lack of financial support for artists of various shades working in the country was a major headache for him and his group in the Living Legends Project. So far, he noted, the only support they have had was during the session with Gowon. He, therefore, solicited for support from corporate bodies as well as public-spirited individuals with love for the arts. He also stated that the project would soon publish a book compendium of all drawings and scholarly materials that interact with all the subjects so far captured in the Living Legends project.