By Chris Onuoha
”Over recent decades, across the world, there’s been a boom in the creative industries, a recognition that festivals, fairs and exhibitions, as well as music, film theatre and visual arts can contribute significantly to economic prosperity and as well, a veritable tool to tackle gender equality in the society,” says Ms. Harriet Thompson, British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria as she speaks at the Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Annual Lecture held in Lagos.
Her Excellency, Ms. Harriet Thompson was the keynote speaker at the well attended event alongside other special guests that include, Her Royal Highness, Erelu Abiola Dosunmu; Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya; Kolade Oshinowo and Allan Davies who made up panel of discussants on the topical issues. The event was moderated by Tunde Arogunmati, Associate Director, Enwonwu Foundation while Oliver Enwonwu, Executive Director, Enwonwu Foundation delivered the welcome address.
Delivering her notes that hinged on the theme: “Art: An Instrument for Peace, Conflict Resolution and Socio-Economic Transformation”, Thompson stressed that; “Over the same period, we have come to understand and recognised the place of art and culture in revitalising urban centres and healing communities or neighbourhoods afflicted by violence or poverty. We began to think differently about the relationship between art, heritage, culture and economy. In the UK, we gave a huge boost to people’s ability to engage with the arts, by introducing free entry to many of our galleries and museums.”
She however noted that across the world, people began to look again at the links between culture and health, culture and education, culture and citizenship – looking at culture not as a separate issue alongside other day-to-day aspects of life, but as an inalienable dimension of all aspects of our lives as individuals and as communities.
According to her; “Culture is clearly central – for good or for ill – to many aspects of social development too. Cultural practices, local customs and values are an inalienable part of society, inextricably woven through every aspect. We know, for example, how much bigger the global economy would be – how many people that additional wealth could lift out of poverty – if women were able to play a full role in society and the economy. And equally we know that the reasons for women not playing that full role are long held, cultural values and norms that will take many years to change.
That’s true right across the world, not just here in Nigeria. But just thinking about Nigeria, the reality is, if I were Nigerian, my husband would likely be standing here in my place. And so those cultural values and norms must change.
Not because I as British Deputy High Commissioner think they should, but because those values and norms are holding Nigeria back.”
Continuing, she said; “But just as culture can hold back change, culture and arts can equally support change, here in Nigeria and across the world. On a very basic level, there are many examples of traditional arts and crafts being used for poverty alleviation – I would suggest a form of economic transformation, perhaps the most important – as people are supported to turn time honoured traditions into small enterprises, and, when it is women producing these works, as is often the case, gender inequality is also tackled.”
“But looking a little deeper, engagement with the arts has the potential to change each one of us, on a personal, individual level, not only affecting our moods and attention span, but also promoting better self-awareness and better social knowledge. There are many and varied studies that demonstrate, for example, how a knowledge of music increases the capacity for reasoning, how theatre can teach us how to interpret complex situations or the motivations of our fellow human beings. Regular contact with the arts help develop our ability for critical thinking, to recognise others, to think differently, to imagine new realities or solutions to age old problems. Engagement with the arts helps develop empathy, encourages people to look at things from new perspectives, and to understand others better. Even to the non-expert, it is clear how important these things are for building stronger societies and, after times of trouble, building peace.
“Then moving from the individual to society: throughout history art has been used as a means of raising awareness, changing behaviours, and critiquing aspects of society, politics or leadership. This is the prime opportunity for me to mention Fela Kuti, as famous for his scathing attacks on the regime of the time as he was for being the pioneer of Afrobeat. Less controversially, organisations like Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, and Five Cowries in Nigeria use art to raise awareness of issues such as climate change, sustainable development and education, and ultimately to encourage people to change their behaviours. From the murals in Belfast, in my country, to the paintings under Falomo Bridge Ikoyi, Lagos, this is art in action, not just something to be looked at in air-conditioned buildings.”
She however, mentioned that, “Gender equality, as you’ll have gathered, is a subject close to my heart. In my time in Nigeria, I have been lucky enough to collaborate with the Female Artists Association of Nigeria, exhibiting work by members to highlight the continuing inequality between the genders here in Nigeria. The theme is carried through to film, for example Up North, which is great fun, but at the same time helps raise awareness of the challenges faced by the average girl child in northern Nigeria. And in theatre, we see wonderful productions such as ‘Hear Word’, which raise awareness of the day to day challenges that mean, many women remain excluded from aspects of social, political and economic participation in Nigeria. Put simply, this is not ok. And again, it’s not that it’s not ok just in my own personal opinion – it’s that it’s not ok for Nigeria.”