The Art of Bulldozing Culture in Nigeria

The Art of Bulldozing Culture in Nigeria
The Artistes Village, which is annexed to the Nigerian National Theatre, witnessed a demolition in the early hours of Saturday, 23rd January 2016. This news came at a time when we were rejoicing with Jelili Atiku, on his release from Kirikiri prison, a world renowned performance artist who was arrested on the order of the king of Ejigbo, who thought monarchy still meant a thing in the modern world, stuck in his own delusion, thought it was his ancestral right to alter or allow a performance in Ejigbo. Nonsense.

The news of the Artistes’ Village came through eyewitnesses, who  reported that Mr Kabiru Yusuf, the Director General of the National Theatre Lagos, in company of a battalion of fully armed policemen, came to the Artistes’ Village with bulldozers at exactly 5am and started demolishing workshops and legal structures that housed veteran actors, painters, sculptors, drummers, dancers, musicians etc.

The DG ordered that anyone obstructing this move should be shot. An artiste, Owie Smart, was shot in the leg by policemen during the demolition and was rushed to the hospital. In fear of the reaction of the angry youths at the village, the DG brought out a pistol, shot in the air, before escaping from the scene. The ugly incidence have rendered a lot of the artistes mentally homeless and destroyed their priceless intellectual properties.

Artists Village 3

Here, I take a deep breath, and the thought of Ayo Sogunro’s recently published book Everything In Nigeria Will Kill You  comes to mind , and I complete the phrase, “Even a Director General of the National Theater will kill you.” The irony of this general is that he forgets that he is supposed to be the bridge between the artistes’ community and the Federal Government, that the lack of conversation and the blockage of information and funding had already placed him in the front page of our bad books, now he adds salt to injury all by himself.

Let it be on record before the battle begins, that the DG (Mr Kabiru Yusuf) of the National Arts Theatre in Lagos, has become a complete nuisance to the artists’ community. And since he is a representative of the federal government, his recent action further tells us that this present government has taken their art of bulldozing arts and creative expressions to a different height.

I, like many others began our careers in this village, this is a very sad news for us, for we still got our memories imbued in those demolished edifices, and the destruction of that space may lead to trauma and a creative discontent which the state is not willing to go into with its creative citizens. This madness is becoming a norm, and as you know, when some shylocks are given power, they misuse it and become tyrants to the society. This is the case of the DG of the National Theatre. He has called for a battle and artistes’ community is prepared to take him up beyond his wildest imagination.

Artists Village 4

The symbolism of constant menace to the artists in our society, should makes one worry at the level of inconsideration that is yet to hit many within the larger society. In the name of advancement, cruelty is becoming the proposed weapon here. I am highly worried because obviously this is an order coming from the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Muhammed who visited the edifice two weeks before the action.

In his words during a visit to the venue after the demolition: “The last time I came here I said I do not want to see any shanties around here, because such do not add value to this place as an entertainment hub.

“The government is doing everything possible to transform this area and harness its tourism potential. For now there is nothing here.

“We are looking for N800million ($4million) to achieve our goal. So, we should be thinking of how to get the money and not all these issues.”

This artistic invention now referred to as “shanties” or as “nothing”, can be readily considered as the only space that still brews creativity within the entire structure of the National Theatre, whose glory is constantly sinking into the muddy grounds surrounding it. The contribution of the Artistes’ Village to the creative and cultural production of the country is of unmatched value, yet the government wakes up one morning and decides that human beings must be treated like animals.

Artists Village

The government, which gives no regards to the human as the center of development, finds it difficult to consider the artist as a something, but a ‘no-thing’ an inconsequential parasite creating “shanties around here, and such do not add value to this place as an entertainment hub.” The act of bulldozing the Artists’ Village, while they are still in search of funds to transform it, is in itself symptomatic to the total disdain and complete lack of understanding and consideration for the arts and culture, as a worthy sector which requires any attention, hence the presence of heavyweight incompetent elements handling it’s affairs.

This “shanty” can equally be considered the direct situation of the arts vis a vis our national heritage and cultural preservation. This Artistes’ Village has stood as the last resort for many youth who found in that “shanty” a space of learning and of refuge for so long. This space has always stood as a space which offers self realisation to thousands amongst us without asking for our school certificate nor our fathers pay check. That it asked nothing when it transformed us into enviable artistes all over the world, should at least mean “something”.

The “intrinsic” values and aims of culture and the arts, are not merely to be found in their ability to participate in the national economy, or to entertain, to decorate and to delight the senses, they are also to honestly challenge, to propose new meanings, to interpret, to raise awareness, and to stimulate. The Artistes’ Village is not any different from any artistes’ squat, where egalitarian lifestyle of community and communal support is practiced, as a direct response to the total neglect and abandon of such creative citizens within the social structure.

These community of artists live in peace and tranquility and dwell in the midst of kindred spirits, so that there could be collaborations, knowledge sharing, shelter, and a local economy that sustains the community. The Artistes’ Village cuts a picture of that essential enclave, which when juxtapose with the highly extravagant and make believe agenda that the government would like to portray, it disturbs the outlook of that very image.

If the custodians of arts and culture in this country have any idea, they should at least see beyond the shanty and discover the raw gold in that, but while the government is still looking for 800 million naira (Approximately 4 million dollars) to transform this no-thing into a kind of Disney land, what becomes of our rights to survive, rights to exist, rights to create and be dignified as equal citizens? Art is a profession and not a hobby I insist. Artists should be respected just as other professionals I insist. It is time to speak truth directly to power.

Qudus Onikeku.

Qudus is the director of QDanceCenter Lagos and YKProjects Paris, a working and traveling dancer, choreographer, teacher and social entrepreneur who shares his time between Lagos and Paris. He presently writes from Paris where he is in creation of his next work “We Almost Forgot”


Note: Prof Wole Soyinka together with other artists has invited the media to an URGENT exchange in the context of the demolition of the Artists Village at the National Theatre, Iganmu. The venue of this exchange could not be more symbolic and pertinent, since Freedom Park itself is the product of a spirited struggle by a few individuals who were committed to a creative option for the disposition of national landmarks, pitted against real-estate developers.

VENUE:  Freedom Park, (Former Broad Street Prison), Broad Street, Lagos.
DATE:     Tuesday, Jan 26
TIME:  11 a.m.
Photos courtesy Qudus Onikeku

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