*Independent artists, writers are never the best friends of governments for reasons we all know
Denja Abdullahi straddles both the administration of culture as director and its production as an artist. Therefore as manager and practitioner, he finds himself in a peculiar position – having to defend government’s policies, if need be, and also frown at the slow pace of government in meeting the expectations of his fellow practitioners and their needs. The perennial ‘lean resources’ of government, when it comes to culture, and its seeming non-alignment of vision with practitioners to better reposition Nigerian culture for its huge economic benefits as it continues to play its ambassadorial role as chief positive sales item of a country that is floundering are some issues the writer and former president of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) provides some context. He responded to some issues ANOTE AJELUOROU raised as a postmortem for the National Arts Festival (NAFEST) held in Lagos last year
HOW would you score the festival as organisers? Is it achieving its purpose?
NAFEST is in its 35th year now at the last edition in Lagos in the year 2022. It is a festival which began as a cultural device used to start the healing process after the Nigeria- Biafra fratricidal war of 1967-1970. Since the first edition in 1970 to the last one, the festival has succeeded in forging a tight bond of unity in Nigeria culturally. Year in year out, the festival has been used in its unique cultural template to address issues and matters impinging on the nation at each given point in time. The festival is not just a cultural jamboree, as it is themed each year around a given issue in which participants from all the multicultural outlay of the country are tasked to forge a common front artistically. The festival has greatly contributed to national integration in the country. So I score it very high and it has been achieving its set purpose.
In terms of galvanising culture in the country, how much of that would you say NAFEST done?
This is a festival that all the cultural workers and practitioners in the 36 states of the country and the FCT look up to each year. They prepare all year round for it, attending several festival technical brainstorming meetings and researching into their forgotten performance cultural features and reviving some in their attempt to respond to the festival syllabus to fashion their presentations at competitive and non-competitive events. NAFEST has therefore kept the culture of the country alive in all ramifications and has continued to provide the laboratory in which cultures of the various communities in the country engage actively with one another and thereafter forge a national cultural identity. Beyond performance, material and intellectual culture of the people are always on display at NAFEST.
NAFEST is once-a-year festival. Do you think it comes anywhere near satisfying the yearnings of culture producers and consumption of Nigerians?
A festival such as NAFEST cannot happen more than once in a year. It is structured in such a way to be the last grand Festival to round off the year. The idea is for other local, states and community festivals to have taken place all over the country, from which the states will now source the participants and unique cultural features and resources to take to NAFEST. NAFEST in a way set the cultural agenda for the country. It is a government-organized festival with the organizers adept at and having developed core competence in modern festival organisation over the years. Participating in NAFEST by states greatly rub off positively on them in terms of learning how to keep their performance and material culture alive and vibrant.
What informed its exclusive involvement of only state-sponsored troupes?
Well, I was not at the beginning of the Festival, so I may not know what exactly informed that. But if I may guess, the festival began as government’s attempt to provide a forum where brothers and sisters who have been torn apart by conflict to come together again in the spirit of human and cultural camaraderie. It is just apt and administratively convenient to group participants at the level of the states, as states are made up of several communities. The states are just mere markers of geo-political groupings for ease of participation. It is different cultural communities that make up a state and the cultural features brought to the festival are owned and practised by individuals and groups within the communities, and not the states themselves as government entities. What many people following the festival may not know is that states are free to make use of private troupes if those troupes best espouse the culture of the people or the particular cultural features being focused on at a particular festival. It is left for participating states to involve individuals or private cultural troupes with needed performance content and given cultural expertise within their domains. States that have done this in the past have been known to win so many laurels for their performances at NAFEST. NAFEST may be a government festival in name, but it is really a festival powered by the people. It is not government that owns or practises culture; culture is owned and practiced by the people.
Why is it that National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) does not work with independent culture producers?
Independent culture producers have never been left out of NAFEST; they have always been part of it right from the beginning. In modern times, they participate as guest artistes or help various states to package their presentations as participants or consultants. Many independent culture producers have featured in previous NAFEST up till the last one as resource persons at the festival colloquiua, festival special events, investment forums, cultural skills acquisition workshops and as adjudicators of most festival events. Independent culture producers have roles cut out for them at NAFEST and they are playing it. What should be looked at is how to expand those roles or redefine them to enhance the impact of the festival.
Nigeria Magazine was a hallmark of the Ministry of Culture years back. Why hasn’t that magazine been revived or even rebranded in whatever other formats to meet new realities?
Nigeria Magazine played a great intellectual role in advancing Nigerian cultural offering in those days before the advent of what is popularly called Cultural Studies today. Even today, all the volumes of past issues of Nigeria Magazine are treasures for anyone interested in Nigeria culture, as a scholar, administrator or even as a practitioner. I have a good number of Nigeria Magazine in my library which I consider a much valued cultural archival materials. What happened to Nigeria Magazine is what also happened to other such popular journals in the tertiary institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, when the publishing industry collapsed. If journals died in universities where they were the platforms for presenting research results, what could have happened to a Nigeria Magazine, situated in a government ministry? They say if gold rust what will iron do?
A friend of mine who recently retired from the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and who was a desk officer at a point in time in the ministry overseeing Nigeria Magazine, reached me recently with the same question you are asking. I offered to him that it is possible to revive the magazine by bringing back that old synergy that made the magazine possible in the first place. That synergy is that between intellectual and research-minded civil servants and researchers and scholars in the academia. That cooperation brought about Nigeria Magazine and sustained it and other brilliant cultural initiatives that marked out that era. Go check the make of the public servants of that era and what they did with scholars and practitioners in the field. We still have people in the public service today with that mindset and skills set. We also have scholars, researchers and practitioners doing good work in the area of cultural studies. These set of people need to come together again to have a rebranded Nigeria Magazine that can have a name such as ‘Journal of Nigerian Cultural Studies’ and can be domiciled in the ministry, a fitting culture parastatal or in any of our notable public universities. That does not preclude any other institution or agency already running similar publication.
Many have argued that foreign culture agencies like the British Council (Britain), Goethe Institut (German), Alliance Francaise (French) have done more for Nigeria’s culture sector than whatever the entire federal Ministry of Culture and its counterparts in the states have done. Doesn’t this damning perception worry officials of the ministry?
Let me remind you at this point that I’m speaking here and since the beginning of this interview as Denja Abdullahi, not as an official or spokesman of any agency of government or the ministry. I am speaking purely from what I know, have participated in or read about as factual. This perception is not true. Yes, these foreign agencies have greatly helped our cultural practitioners, but they do what they do to also sell their own cultures and worldviews to us. They cannot love us more than we love ourselves. They will not leave their own cultures and propagate ours. I have just narrated how just one cultural project NAFEST has contributed a lot to Nigerian culture. Consider other cultural projects done year in year out by a number of government cultural agencies. Government at both the federal and states levels right up to the local government level have invested in Nigerian culture more than any foreign cultural agency and that is the truth. The problem with government sometimes is that it is not systematic in its activities or it does not follow through on some things because of its many commitments and the spreading thin of scarce resources. The perception you mentioned is mainly held by private sector independent culture operators who gravitate mainly towards those foreign agencies. They have their valid reasons and I would not blame them for that. What I think government should do to erase this perception is to do more of enabling and assisting independent culture producers in their various programmes and projects. Government cultural agencies should not be seen as contesting or competing in the field with independent culture producers. Government is an harnesser or shaper of resources for worthwhile national objectives.
And are there plans to engage more with Nigerian independent culture producers in all fields in near future?
Definitely, there should be as that is the way to go now.
The National Culture Policy has been dormant for ages whereas independent culture producers believe the document has the potential to revolutionise the sector, particularly the Endowment Fund for the Arts component of it. Why has the ministry remained mute about the policy?
This question should be answered by the ministry. All I know is that there is an extant cultural policy which has undergone several reviews with input from the private sector.
Culture producers played major roles in the First Republic, with being Wole Soyinka commissioned to produce A Dance of the Forest. What happened that distanced writers/artists from government such that even ANA’s yearly convention does not attract government’s interest and participation, etc?
Time has happened to everyone and to all things. We are a long way from the high end values that governed the First Republic you talk about. Nearly everything has degenerated, name it: politics, education, agriculture, manufacturing, etc. A new dynamics is at play in the world today and it has affected how government and the art world relate. Even the Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests play, commissioned for 1960 independence celebration you mentioned had its problem then. It was never allowed to be performed because of the grim message embedded in it about Nigeria’s independence. Remember Ola Rotimi had similar problem when he was also commissioned to do a play for Nigeria’s 25th Independence Anniversary. He came up with Hope For the Living Dead and a government official somewhere thought that a play to celebrate Nigeria’s grand independence anniversary should not have anything to do with a lepers’ colony, which was the setting of Rotimi’ s play. Independent artists and writers are never anywhere in the world the best friends of governments for reasons we all know about. But government should know writers and artists are patriots and writers should be there to assist any government getting it right to do more for the people.