Wole Soyinka. This tree wonâ€™t make a forest.
The period between the two decades before and after Nigeria’s independence is described by Femi Osofisan as the ‘age of innocence’. Nigeria experienced a golden age of extremely creative talents who shook the world; they are so many that I have decided to pick one of them as the focus for this article. One with whom I feel closest too. Wole Soyinka. That lone tree, which might not make a forest in this ‘age of madness’. As a Dancer/Choreographer and one of the most privileged young artists in contemporary Nigeria, with a wide access to the international art market / scene.
I consider myself one of the very rare remaining Nigerians — not to say Africans — who have access to the prerequisite elements for creating, and who is able to retain the precise mental balance that their creative temperament requires. I am able to get residencies when needed, an access to theatres to conclude technical aspects of creations, and a ready network for touring. However there is a price here as those who are aware of the loss that comes with negotiating one’s space of influence and cultural backdrop before the unforgiving gaze of the ‘other’, will understand that every traveling artist, especially in this contemporary times of flux and mixing, where every notion of ‘roots’ and ‘home’ is perpetually shifting, the need for a locality is much stronger than any time.
As a traveling artist who continuously struggles to fix his sense of locality on Nigerian terrain — like many of my likes — I have mostly relied on the brains of such writers as Wole Soyinka to regain the memory of a time before time. For the purpose of authenticity and that of choice, I recognize the need for a body memory, which has lived longer than my own lived power or freedom. Soyinka’s writings have helped me a great deal in recognizing such mental territory of existence, but that is a locality solely based in a psychic asylum. Let me get back to earth; let’s take a quick excursion around the nation state called Nigeria. Let’s search all around the entire nation. Where is the cultured person whose appreciation of poetry has transformed them to a better citizen, where is that person who can understand that rather than having and doing, we can as well just BE — human BEings. — Where is such person who finds art as relevant as going to their temple? Where are the spaces required for the attainment of such person as Wole Soyinka builds perfectly well with his inks and imagination? The “man” died I guess! I was barely two years old when Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for literature. Not for peace, not for social criticism that is linked to activism, but for literature. So, I first and foremost see Soyinka as an artist above all other preoccupation of his, in which he himself acknowledged.
I was only a kid when I heard Soyinka would receive calls from leaders of this world for one on one meetings. From the comfort of his home in Abeokuta, he would even be called for a dinner in Paris, he would sit on the same table with the likes of Nelson Mandela and other decision makers in Africa. What I mean to say is that he achieved the status of those who run things, therefore he could do things, only when he believed strongly in it. I however find it hard to reconcile with the fact that, at the age of 16 when I decided to become an artist — in a society where such individual emerged and lives — I still had difficulties in not only convincing my parents about my chosen career, but had no single argument when they asked me ‘how will you go about it? What institutions are you going to survive on?’ It was in my dire quest to prove them wrong that I decided to study outside Nigeria. Where are the structures in place in Nigeria, solely dedicated to the fabrication of a different kinds of Nigerians, who have a different appetite for beauty, sees a different purpose for life and a vital need for artistic expressions?
I guess that challenging question is still lingering in my head till this very day, and now it has led to further questions, quite hard to wave away. “The artist in African society has always functioned as the conscience of his people” Wole Soyinka Any society that finds it unnecessary to create necessary spaces for the lunatics amongst her citizens, it is such society that is lunatic. Did Soyinka ever believe in the power of art and what it can do? Did he ever understand that it was useless to build a nation, when the people’s minds are underdeveloped? Did he think one could teach an appreciation of a higher reasoning by speaking down at them from an unreachable height? It was Soyinka himself who taught me that the values which we live by as a people. The values that led us into the present in the first place. That “the distorting mists of national euphoria, moral negligence andideological barrenness which led us to this point are still seen as continuing in the identity of this nation, and since this national identity has not changed, has undergon no revolutionary purge either in its guts or at the head. Therefore, for (any) revolution to be felt, it must be made of fragments, and not as a whole body.” So, where are the ARTISTS in NIGERIAN society? Are they all gone? Almost all? Forget the laborious corruption of that title — Artists — within the Nigerian sphere, and make a distinction between who for real is an artiste, from those predators who exploit and profit from human misery. Here I refer to those whose minds are like every other mind, got one head and two feet, therefore not superhuman.
Those who possess a superlative mental power of sensation, perception, memory, and imagination which seems to be supreme and makes them appear more alive, more susceptible to the world that surrounds them. These are the people who deal less in artificial aesthetic values. More like visionaries who lead the way to the unknown, and not a manipulator of the present, doing all they could to stop time, for enjoyable moment of power, fame, self aggrandizement and material wealth. The task I have placed upon myself as a human being and as a Nigerian, resides solely in the terrain of the arts. I believe strongly that the artis might go a long way in doctoring our moral negligence, ideological barrenness, create a purge in our heads, and strengthen the cultural fragment of this ‘revolution’ which signifies that, as a people we cannot begin to build until we have been able to control the damage by first discovering its sources. This discovery must sink us down to the roots, to demolish and rehabilitate the foundations of thoughts and actions responsible for such damage, then begin to re-create. A people who can appreciate art are a people of high morality and matured choices.
No wonder It is now a common knowledge that the powerful – clueless leaders – will always reach for their guns each time they hear the word ‘culture’, because they are aware that the destiny of the artist is to be a perpetual rebel. Through access to the arts the people ultimately learn to know themselves and their humanity socially. For these reasons, it is not difficult to understand why theatres and music halls are closed during these reigns of tyranny. For there is nothing more radical than creating theatres for a people living in anomie. There is nothing more profiting than creating conducive spaces for a disillusioned youth, to experiment and express their creative energy. There is nothing richer than a soul that can sit in front of a painting, or listening to poetry and having either the intellectual, human or moral baggage to appreciate it. There is nothing more transforming than a people who can single handedly make distinction between what is meritorious from what is merely meticulous, and determine which endeavors are worthy of their best efforts.
What spaces have we to function with, as artists in Nigeria? ——————————
Qudus ONIKEKU* is a Nigerian Dancer/Choreographer. He blogs at Qudus
*CALENDAR* 1 July – 7 July – Lagos/Abeokuta (Research *QADDISH* – Creation 2013) 7 – 11 August – *Dancing in LevÃ©e des conflits by Boris Charmatz Hamburg. Germany. 14 August – 24 August -* *Festival Correios em Movimento Rio De Janeiro (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 25 – 26 Sept – MC theatre Amsterdam (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 27 September – My Exile in Parktheater Eindhoven. Netherlands (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 28 September – Bijlmer Parktheater Amsterdam Zuidoost (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 1 – 3 October – Tilburg Netherlands (Modul-Dance conference.) 4 October – Albany Deptford. London (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 6 October – Dukes Theatre Lancaster (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 9 October – The Black-E, Liverpool (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 11 October – Lakeside Arts Centre Nottingham (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 13 October – Drum Theatre Birmingham (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 16 October – Contact Theatre Manchester (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 20 October – Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (Show *My Exile is in my Head*) 18 November – 18 December – Residency at Rimbun Dahan. Kuala Lumpur (Research *QADDISH* – Creation 2013) 6 January – 10 March 2013 – Visiting professor. University of California. Davis (+ Research *QADDISH* – Creation 2013)