Screen star, Stephanie Linus shortly after mentoring students at LABAF 2016… in Lagos
Festivals, deaths, awards, new publications, and more awards or prizes marked the outgoing year, 2016. Cultural workers will look back on the year with fondness and sadness at the same time, as the vicissitudes of life became the lot of the culture community in equal measures.
First, was the British Council’s Lagos Theatre Festival that had the city’s thespians in one bowl of performance extravaganza in multiple venues. Thus, Freedom Park, University of Lagos, British Council and Terra Kulture provided acting venues. Kenneth and Brenda Uphopho of Pawstudios were the drivers of the project. The duo would also later stage the social advocacy play Shattered at Eko Hotel to drive home the ugliness of rape on the psyche of society.
Apart from a couple of exhibitions, it was all quiet until the death of novelist, poet and playwright, Captain Elechi Amadi on June 29, when the literary community was thrown into mourning. In a sense, Amadi’s death came as a celebration; he was 82, when he joined his ancestors. It was not until December 3 before he was interred in a Rivers State Government-sponsored burial in his Aluu homestead after weeklong literary activities to celebrate the famous author of The Great Ponds and The Concubine. Thus Amadi joined the ranks of literary ancestors like Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo. Also, the literary community lost the son of murdered environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. and recently, that of Eze Prof. Ike Chukwuemeka, Osita.
Not long after also, the doyen of African oral literature, Prof. Isidore Okpewho, fell on September 5 in faraway New York, U.S. Sadly, Okpewho, the exponent of Africa’s oral tradition and lore, who lived most of his creative life outside Africa, was not given his final resting place in the soil of his homeland among his ancestors.
But soon, things became cheerful, as Professors Femi Osofisan and Tanure Ojaide got international and national honours. Osofisan was awarded the coveted Thalia Prize for critical contributions to theatre and Ojaide had double honours: Fonlon/Nichols Award and the invaluable scholarly award, Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) for Humanities. These awards are a boost for Nigeria’s literature.
Also, a silver lining on the cultural landscape was the memorandum of understanding Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed signed with The Tony Elumelu Foundation, to help boost the economic fortunes of the creative sector. Although, largely skewed in favour of filmmakers as against other stakeholders in the sector, it is the hope of practitioners that the memorandum becomes beneficial to everyone to translate talents from passion to profitable businesses. However, details of the memorandum are yet to be worked out and made public for easy access.
Theatre producer and boss of Renegade Theatre group, Mr. Wole Oguntokun, took a step in the right direction when he decided to open the theatre space in Lekki, Lagos. Theatre Republic is his answer. This is to steal the show from the National Theatre that has failed to yield to the aspirations of practitioners in that sector. Minister Mohammed failed, at the signing of MoU with The Tony Elumelu Foundation, to clear the air on merging of the National Theatre and the National Troupe of Nigeria that have one board but operate as separate entities. The result of that anomaly is that the troupe is denied performance space, especially during the tenure of Kabir Yusuf as General Manager.
So, Oguntokun took up the challenge and built a performance space. But whether that was the best he could have done, given the prime location of Theatre Republic, is another matter entirely. Perhaps, he could have maximised the space better for a more accommodating space that he got. Perhaps, funding constrained him to the current space. Perhaps, Oguntokun has other ideas for the future. Perhaps, just perhaps. What is clear is that he has created a space and young theatre producers and directors, who have otherwise been constrained by lack of space, are flocking there to stage plays every weekend.
By this token, Oguntokun is reciprocating the same gesture he got from Bolanle Austin-Peters’ Terra Kulture’s Theatre@Terra, which gave him wings to soar in the early days. Meanwhile, Austin-Peters is upping the game, too, by upgrading the theatre space at Terra Kulture. Stung by the indescribably high cost of securing venues for her musical theatres – Saro and Wakaa, previously staged at Oriental Hotel and later at MUSON Centre, she reckons that a space of her own would help keep down costs, shore up some profits and be able to pay cast and crew better.
National Troupe of Nigeria excited the theatre scene a little with three performances. First was its Children’s Station performance, with the staging of The Dented Anthill. Maafa and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (to commemorate 30 years since Soyinka was awarded the Nobel prize in literature) were the other two plays the troupe performed that showed signs that the National Theatre was still alive.
OF course, the regular festival runs were not left out. First was the Efe Paul Azino-inspired Lagos International Poetry Festival that brought poets from Africa and elsewhere to Lagos. Local poets also made up the poetic groove. Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) held its 35th international convention in Abuja. Prof. Isidore Diala of Imo State University, Owerri, delivered the keynote that also had Osofisan, Dr. Wale Okediran, and Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo.
Following on its heels was Lagos Arts and Book Festival (LABAF 2016), organised by Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA). And for four days at Freedom Park, writers and painters, performers enchanted the venue in a feast of books and other culture engagements. New books and authors were introduced. Toni Kan unveiled his Lagos city novel, The Carnivorous City, while Henry Akubuiro featured in the new writing category. His new novel is also on Lagos city, Prodigals in Paradise, had a moment in the sun. Sam Omatseye’s new novel, My Name Is Okoro also had its moment of talking point. With ‘Terror of Knowledge’ as its theme, LABAF 2016 scrutinised the ideology and politics of extremism the world over, with Nigeria particularly in focus.
One festival that has remained missing the second year in a row is Port Harcourt Book Festival, Rivers State. With the change of guards in governance in the state, the likelihood of revival of Port Harcourt Book Festival seems slim. Only the burial of Elechi Amadi enchanted the old garden city that has become bereft of any serious artistic engagements since Port Harcourt Book Festival stopped.
From the Theatre Festival that saw to the performance of stage adaptation of The Great Ponds and Isiburu, to the Literary Day for Amadi to the colloquium held in his honour, it should be clear to the Nyesom Wike-led government that cultural production or exhibition, the sort Koko Kalango-inspired Rainbow Book Club helped the previous government to organise, still holds a premium place in the people’s heart. Therefore, there is need for a revival of a cultural offering to engage citizens of Port Harcourt city.
Perhaps, this is where the Lola Shoneyin-led Ake Arts and Book Festival would seem to have stepped up the game in keeping the book alive and buzzing in the country. The weeklong festival in Abeokuta had the Alake of Egbaland, from whom the festival name is derived, in attendance to lend royalty to the feast of culture. Headlining the festival also was Kenyan’s father of fiction, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was presenting his memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening.
Some of the big names in African literary circles, both in and out of the continent, were present in Abeokuta. Prof. Okey Ndibe, Helon Habila (who presented his The Chibok Girls), Teju Cole, NoViolet Bulawayo, Kiru Taye, Toni Kan and a host of other writers from Africa, Europe and America. There were film shows, stage performance, musical performances by Brymo and Falana and visual arts exhibition of paintings and photography.