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Imperatives of creativity and product design in networking Nigerian arts and crafts

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Prof. Jerry Buhari: PHOTO: Osa Amadi 

Being a keynote address by PROFESSOR JERRY BUHARI, Department of Fine Art, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria,  at the Investment Forum of the 2019 International Arts And Crafts (INAC) Expo, organised by the National Council for Arts and Culture, Abuja, on Thursday 21 November 2019.

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It encapsulates the total essence of INAC and qualifies as a roadmap for getting Nigeria to be technologically self-reliant. Enjoy this scholarly paper couched in elegant prose:

Definition of terms

Imperatives: This is a very strong word that is a darling of many speeches whether economic, religious, political or any discipline for that matter. Imperative (an adjective), is defined by The New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language as, “which must at all costs be obeyed or which cannot in any way be ignored”. The word imperative can be seen as a command, a need, and a necessity. So, if you find the tone of my paper carrying strong adjectives, I am merely trying to deliver on the assignment the NCAC has given me. You are for example asking me to make a judgmental declaration on the kernel issues of the topic. As a scholar, I would like to understand the topic to mean that you want me to address how we can connect creativity and product design to bring about the investment potentials or its realisation in Nigeria’s arts and crafts.

Creativity: We do not need to define creativity; we also do not need to ask if we have creative people in Nigeria or in the Arts and Craft industry. We do, and there are several examples to show, thanks to all the vibrant art programmes and activities in our annual cultural calendar. The social media that we have today is broadcasting these most effectively.

Gone are the days when creativity was viewed as relating to art alone. Today, every discipline acknowledges the importance of creativity in any form of problem-solving or any form of national development.

The critical question is why we have not, or has been slow in effectively harnessing these creative energies into some very coordinated structure for development? We can advance many reasons and excuses, but these will not take us there. In my humble opinion this is and should be part of the mandate of the NCAC; working with similar agencies of government, the private sector, groups and individuals on very specific measurable projects. The international forum today with over thirty international participants and many agencies of governments and incredible innovative initiatives of individual entrepreneurs demonstrates NCAC’s drive to change the narrative of our story.

The vision and mission statement and annual programmes and activities of NCAC have well captured these salient points. Your just concluded annual festival shows how you have expanded the festival beyond the previous ones, although certain aspects continue to generate debate as to their meaning and relevance. These would need periodic review and evaluation as you make progress.

It is always important that organisations such as the NCAC should hold management and stakeholders meetings periodically to perform a postmortem of the year’s activities to determine areas of weakness and progress and as a way of charting the course for the coming year or years.

The NCAC should be the hub of promoting the Arts and Crafts of Nigeria. You can walk the talk by ensuring that the interior decor of your offices, dress code and other forms of performances exude our arts and crafts.

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Product design

What is product design? This is a rather specialised phrase and would require some definition. I say this because sometime in the mid 1970s and to be precise, 1977, I guess it must have been the Federal Government, through the Federal Ministry of Education, that tasked its universities to identify some departments in Nigerian Universities to articulate a Master plan that could reorient their academic programmes to meet the technological aspirations of the country. So, the Department of Fine Art, Ahmadu Bello University, for example, was specifically identified to be among the programmes to lead an industrial design curricula transformation. As a result, graphic design, textile design, ceramics and glass design were amputated from the programme to form the department of Industrial design. Subsequently, Federal Universities of Technologies were established across the country to further drive this vision. I will leave all of us to review the performance of these institutions in answering whether or not we can say that prototype products have emerged from these universities that we are using as made in Nigeria. What has the Federal Government done with these models? Am I saying that these institutions have not done well? No. Far from it! I am saying that their products, if any, are yet to be seen visibly functioning in the drive towards technological advancement. I am also aware that the National Universities Commission has a periodic programme where exhibitions of innovations and awards are given for inventions and designs. But again we ask: what strategic line of actions is taken to advance these great innovations? We are still talking.

But I must say this.  In A.B.U. and other federal universities of technology where I was privileged to visit on National Universities Commission Accreditation exercise from 1993 to date, I humbly submit that most of what comes out are products that require refinement and finishing. Where good and promising designs and products are made, they end up in the corner of a building till the next exhibition. Even the universities have little value in their great product. If they do, they have no befitting edifice/s for them to inspire more or further development. We have often downgraded the importance of exhibition and museums as platforms and arenas for the advancement of our arts and craft and by implication our cultural heritage.

Show me the quality of your exhibition and the edifices you keep them and I can tell you how important this means to you.

In 2007 I was a visiting scholar to Savannah College of Art and Design. The President gave me the full status of a University Visitor; we call them Vice Chancellor here. This means I was given the highest protocol, audience, meetings with faculties, delivered a lecture and interacted with the students of Fine art and Industrial design. From my experience, I can say with some level of knowledge that we are not anywhere close to running an industrial design programme that is capable of products of international standard. Before the visit to Savannah College of Art and Design, I have visited universities in Japan, as a Fellow and Germany in 2001 and 1992 respectively. I must note you that we are yet to have a programme that would deliver product design. Somebody would say but NUC has promoted the exhibition of innovative designs and products from some of these universities, I proceed to ask the question, so what? What have we done with these designs and the prototypes?

You see, one of the ways you know a serious country is when it has museums that house products of its human endeavours. These are places where we can always return to for education, inspiration and road mapping as we chart our way to a better country or nation. But what do we find, demolition of historical cultural heritage, antiquities, looting of cultural treasures, and sometimes executive dashing away of antiquities, etc.?

Networking

I see Networking Nigerian Arts and Crafts across our borders as identifying partners, sponsors and consumers of these creative endeavours to build our cultural heritage, tourism, economic advancement and national integration. I am convinced that this INAC has all it takes to set the stage for the exploration of possibilities that we can only imagine the great gains that will reveal.

Networking requires the establishment of a coordinating structure informed by some policy backed by implementation strategies. NCAC has the opportunity and in fact, it is her mandate to generate this network. In addition to annual festivals, competitions and exhibitions, what else can we do to improve on existing structures?

Networking is synergy; it holds the secret of progress or development for any nation. We have a high deficiency of that in our country. The clean broom philosophy in governance destroys almost everything in governance and leave behind abandoned projects.

Nigerian Arts and Craft

Nigerian arts and crafts came from a very rich traditional and cultural history. Sadly, this enviable world heritage that we possess is more highly valued by foreigners than Nigerians themselves. Yet from time to time we cry about colonial plundering of our artifacts and make noise that they should be repatriated. But we hardly walk the talk, do we?

Consider the state of the artifacts that are still in our possession, the value we place on them can directly be related to the budget allocated to the organs that manage and preserve them. The value can also be determined by the way we as a people treat and handle the works. Most of what we have managed to keep or that the colonial masters have left behind for us have been plundered, ironically by us. Furthermore, the value of a country’s arts and craft is driven, propagated or promoted by the leadership of that country.

Somebody aptly observed that, “leaders are brand influencers”. Sadly here under our very nose, we have watched how, as if the colonial plundering of our artifacts is not enough, as if the plundering of these treasures by us the managers is also not enough, a former president “dashed” some of these works to a French government. Haba!!

Let us all note that the maker of a product significantly determines the value of anything, or the holder. If the maker places important value on it, it will be so taken. If he or she does not, it is very unlikely that others will. This is a perceptual matter and it is a key thing in product reception.

The commercial value of /in our arts and craft

Do our arts and crafts have any commercial value? We have seen that historically they have. If that were not the case, we would not have produced them in the first place. Secondly, if they do not, foreigners who do not even know what they are will not plunder them or acquire them as a souvenir to take back home. Thirdly, if they do not have any value they will not be objects of theft till date.

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So, the critical question that we may wish to advance at this point is how can we make our products commercially viable? To address this question requires a well-articulated marketing strategy that is driven by a complete reorientation of both we the people, as it said in the preamble declaration of our constitution. But perhaps more significantly the advancement of any national product should be the business of the political leadership of that country, leading by example, followed closely with the private sector. It also involves a leadership driven by every individual in that country. In Nigeria, we have very brilliant young men and women who are investment experts, some are even organised in groups; if only we can set aside the “Nigerian factor” and employ a square peg in its right place, irrespective of political considerations, imagine where we would be.

The role of packaging and presentation

The advancements of Arts and crafts are about functionality, finishing, packaging and presentation

I have observed that when it comes to these four letters, FF P & P, in our built industry we rely on our neighbours, Ghanaians, Cameroonians and Benin Republic. For example, the Nigerian masons have almost vanished from the built industry. I observe that we are rather clumsy and take things for granted when it comes to the finishing, packaging and presentation of our arts and craft. The art of packaging has become very elaborate, professional and sophisticated. We cannot continue to package our arts and craft in the same way we use to in the 1970s.

Packaging requires professional finishing of product in the first place. A product requires a container that is suitable and appropriate. Then there is the question of how the product is presented or displayed. This is very important and determines the export value of any work. Consider why rather shamefully Nigeria at one point in time was obsessed with China and Dubai furniture. The attraction was on finishing, packaging and presentation. The furniture is a fraud. Sadly some offices still patronize them. The colonial mentality is still very much alive. What we need are orientation programme that is capable of healing colonial mentality virus and its consumerist tendencies.

The value of talk

We have come to realise that flowery words or oratory spoken through a microphone in a situation such as this is not enough. We must be seen to proceed by making clear declarations and time-based commitments to deliver on these speeches. They must be backed by realistic implementation strategies. This would be the way forward. Talk is cheap; action is different.

Investment in the Creative Industry

The role of government in the promotion of arts and craft cannot be over-emphasised. Imagine the establishment of friendly laws, infrastructure and perhaps above all, government’s patronage of the arts and craft. This is given attention by the current government, but it must be sustained beyond this government.

Li Na (right and playing the stringed musical instrument called guzheng), and Ma Chen (left, playing a woodwind instrument called dizi), all of the Embassy of Peoples Republic of China, performing an instrumental song, TAOHUA NUO, meaning “The promise of peach flower”, during Chinese Day @ the 2019 INAC in Abuja. PHOTO: Osa Amadi.

Cultural inferiority complex is still one of the major hindrances to the development of arts and craft in Nigeria.

Colonial hang-over and blame shifting has become easy and convenient strategies used, even by scholars to justify or excuse our failures for nation-building or failure to make progress in self-determination and self-development.

To promote arts and craft in Nigeria we need to return to the elementary economics of demand and supply. If we buy more of our arts and craft, especially, if the government and the private sector drive the consumption of our arts and craft, you can imagine the economic boost that will be generated in the industry. We need an orientation programme that can heal our obsession for imported goods, create and promote love for country and by implication patriotism.

Let us start with our personal lives.

Conclusion

Let us conclude by putting this address within the context of Investment.

First, I must immediately confess my deficiency in the discipline of investment. I am a simple artist and teacher and not in the business of turning art into money. So, kindly forgive me if you find my engagement with this aspect of the paper rather shallow. So when we speak of investment I make reference not only of the potentials of art in developing our economy, I say we can see this already happening.

This event is situated under the umbrella of investment. Who have we invited? What is the role of NCAC? How potent is NCAC is driving this laudable initiative? What is the relationship of NCAC with other related parastatals?  Does the NCAC have a database of the finest and representative arts and craft groups and individuals in the country? Do we have a workshop programme that can improve their craft, packaging, and promotion?

Does NCAC have an audience with the various organs of government that can encourage patronage of made in Nigeria arts and crafts?

2019 International Arts and Craft Expo means we have had many of this type of Expo before the one of today. What visible gain/s or progress have we made so far? We need to take stock of how far we have come.

Let me conclude by returning to the point that I made, which is that the value you place in your product is what others will place on it.

Bash the Woodman, was or is a furniture maker, a graduate from a London college where he studied furniture making. He arrived in Nigeria with his merger savings but with sophisticated machines for making first class wood furniture. At the height of his practice most regional banks in northern Nigeria patronised him.

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One day the National Assembly committee responsible for procuring furniture commissioned him to make furniture for them. He took a loan from a bank and invested all that he had saved to execute the contract. Somewhere midway the Committee terminated his contract and rendered him bankrupt. I am told the Committee opted to import the furniture.

Imagine all our federal Government offices adorned with made in Nigeria furniture and interior decor? Imagine if most of what we wear is sown in Nigeria. Imagine if we patronise made in Nigeria goods?

Imagine if the National Orientation Agency decides to mobilise Nigeria in a mother of all campaigns for Use Made in Nigeria (UMIN), just imagine what investment, what pride? What national patriotism/ what nation we can build.

Vanguard

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