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Culture and its discontents

By Obi Nwakanma
In the pit of Nigerian politics lies the soul of philistines. A nation cursed with a political leadership without the subtle refinements of culture is doomed to crassness. We see this truth as a matter of fact, reflected in the utter disregard to which the political establishment places culture and matters of cultural policy.

For example, this federal administration, and I’m quite certain, all the administrations of the governments of the affiliating states in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, has no policy on culture and no cultural programs. In other words the federal government of Nigeria has no cultural policy upon which a culture program can be administered.

This has been so for a long time. Indeed, it does seem that the last administration in Nigeria to appoint a Federal Adviser on Culture was the short-lived administration of General Aguiyi-Ironsi, who retained Nigeria’s famous, world renowned Painter, the now late Professor Ben Enwonwu as Federal Adviser on the Arts, a preferment he held with Balewa also as the Prime Minister’s Adviser on the Arts.

But it was a different era, when political leadership was well educated and highly conscious: the founding president of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, it must be remembered was a renaissance intellectual and a poet of some significance, and the Prime Minister Balewa was not only an intellectual, a well-read man, but also a novelist who wrote one of the most important Hausa-language novels to date.

The difference today is quite apparent in the emergence of a badly educated and philistinic political leadership who view politics only in terms of the crude structures of power. These men and women today, its often seems, did not receive the kind of sophisticated orientation and exposure that could allow them the judicious insight offered by abstract thought and the subtle power of humane intuition inherent in aesthetic awareness.

Many have never been to a gallery for an exhibition or to an evening of classical musical performance or to a reading of poetry. The Nigerian political leadership is in sum crass and profoundly uncultured. It is an elite without culture; unaware of Nigeria’s artistic heritage and the complexity of her cultural production.

Let me give two startling examples: this past week, I heard about the passing of the poet and publisher, Dr. T.C. Nwosu and the famous broadcaster, Lawrence Emeka. None of the governments in the East, or even the Federation itself, put out a notice in acknowledgement of the contributions of these men to our cultural life. These are just two most recent examples.

When the sculptor Lamidi Fakeye recently passed, there was no gesture to celebrate his contributions. The various governments in Nigeria are unaware of the damage they do in obscuring Nigeria’s cultural capital. Toyin Akinosho, Geologist, Journalist, culture critic and art collector, has done more for the Nigerian artist as an individual than the entire federal government of Nigeria. I am talking of a modest man with modest means.

He has used his personal resources, and at no personal gain, to promote and circulate the works of contemporary Nigerian artists and writers. His home – Mars House – had become a sort of refuge for writers, artists and musicians who find themselves at the edge, or who are passing by, or who need a little consoling space for a bit of solitude to create.

He takes in stray artists like stray dogs. It is easy to run into the cream of Nigeria’s contemporary artists, poets, dramatists, novelists, and critics at Mars House.

I too found occasional refuge in Mars House myself while writing the Okigbo biography for instance, a fact which alas, I failed to acknowledge fully by some inscrutable, inadvertent oversight in the book, but which I make bold here to testify, as part of my gratitude to such easy generosity.

But people like Akinosho cannot, irrespective of their willingness be expected to support Nigeria’s cultural infrastructure as lone rangers. It is unsustainable. It is a burden that requires more substantial foundational support.

There is an urgent need therefore to overhaul the entire culture establishment.

For many years, the ministry of culture has been shunted about and paired with Information, and most recently with Tourism. This is sacrilege. There is need to establish a proper culture ministry, and if it is to be paired with another, the Ministry of Education should be appropriate.

The Ministry of Education and Culture should be overhauled to situate the basic mission of a Nigerian education, and its exposure of its recipients to Nigeria’s classical and contemporary contributions to human cultural production – in literature, in music, in art, in craft, and film.

There is such a thing today called contemporary Nigerian literature and contemporary Nigerian film, but it seems like the basis for affirming and producing as well as circulating these remain fundamentally ambiguous. It is this ambiguity that stultifies Nigeria’s intellectual tradition; the production of citizens civilized by the humane essence of culture rather than by the crass pursuit of deadening lucre.

There is an urgent need to rehabilitate our edifices of culture, and create a very responsive culture administration that should connect heritage to contemporary expressions of aesthetic and social thought. It is time for instance, to place all traditional shrines of our indigenous religions and their scared groves under a heritage trust, make all these federal protected areas under a heritage administration.

There is equally an urgent need to introduce a serious culture curriculum in our public education: I speak of giving our young children opportunities to acquire aesthetic habits through music, art, reading, and other forms of education in our schools.

Art and music education in Nigeria seems dead.

The enrichment, through government aided opportunities for young Nigerians to acquire violins, cello, trombones, saxophones, or even participate in studios and art exhibitions will in many ways reduce dependency on other kinds of distraction.

The opportunity to have music classes or art classes will not only strengthen the visual education, it will also provide serious capacity for abstract thought necessary for creating original and inventive minds.

There is an urgent need to review our funding regime for city, county, regional, and municipal libraries, and the kind of programs that these libraries can embark upon to create a literate society. It is such a terrible shame that some of the ugliest public buildings in Nigeria are its centers of knowledge.

This speaks to the moral condition of Nigeria. This administration must treat as urgent, the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the humanities that should provide grants to artists and intellectuals and support public libraries, independent galleries, bookshops and residences in Nigeria, and generally provide stipends for those engaged in artistic creation.

Nigeria wants rebranding, it has the cultural resource, all it needs to do is put its money where its mouth is. It is time to create a full, sufficient, and fully engaged and forward looking culture establishment. This mistreatment of culture – and I do not mean the “Durbar” and “virgin dance” version of national culture – is a mark of our hollowness.


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