* ‘Odia Ofeimun our under-celebrated gatekeeper’
By Anote Ajeluorou
THE Lagos International Poetry Festival 2021 that ended over the weekend threw up a lot of interesting perspectives about art practice. One of it was a documentary film show that held on Saturday, October 23, 2021 at Terra Kulture Theatre Arena, Lagos. The subject of the documentary was notable poet and fiery polemicist, Odia Ofeimun. Sadly, a medical condition prevented the small audience from seeing the respected man of letters. But that did not detract from a salient perspective the audience gained.
Earlier in the week, two panel discussions beamed searchlights on Nigeria’s floundering political space and how to rescue it from further sliding over the edge. They were ‘Danfo for Sale: Party Politics as vehicle Change’ and ‘The Tools We Have: Civil Society and the Struggle to Save Nigeria’. For a poetry festival, this was revolutionary as it made foray into a turf it otherwise keeps a wary and disdain distance. But the painful reality of how a disturbed civil space becomes inimical to a robust poetic flowering would seemed to have jolted festival organisers to the reality of some truce or even a mutual embrace of the two seemingly contradictory phenomena.
So when veteran journalist, culture promoter and advocate, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, was called to weigh in on the nexus between Literature an Activism, it was clear to the audience that artistic luxury, the kind that is dead and dumb to societal reality was a dead art nobody wants, something Ofeimun, the man being celebrated will not touch with a long pen.
But first, Mr. Anikulapo properly situated the man both young and old merely but fondly call ‘Odia’ in his rightful place as gatekeeper, mentor par excellence and the man forever in the poetic imagination deserving more acclaim than he’s been accorded.
According to the culture advocate, “Odia has been our ‘baba’ for such a long time like Iquo Diana-Abasi said in the documentary. In fact, by the time I was getting to University of Ibadan in 1982, Odia was already well established, not as a writer, but as a trouble-maker, because he had taken everybody who was anybody to the cleaners through his criticism. He would take their works and & tear it to pieces and then when they will be looking for him by nightfall, he would have gone to Lagos.
“Like I said in the documentary, Odia is a gatekeeper and for that role we have not really recognised him. Odia, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan and many of them were there and they were able to mentor most of us. Some of us became critics and journalists while some others became poets and writers. We all need mentors in our lives and that’s the role Odia has been playing. What I’m not sure of is if we’re doing enough mentoring for the young ones. I work with a lot of them like Aj House of Poetry, Bariga Collective, Loud Thoughts, etc.”
On Literature and Activism, Anikulapo was emphatic that African creatives do not have the luxury that others have to merely beatify nature in their work, noting that African societies need activist creatives who should help create better social order from the current socio-political chaos
“We have been saying it: Africans cannot afford to do art for art’s sake,” he intoned. “We cannot. I don’t know whether some people wake up in the morning in this country and are happy. Just look at our city, Lagos. I spent four hours in a journey of 45 minutes. That was why I got here late. Four hours. I pay taxes here and we still can’t get things right. I was born here; my father was born here. My grand father and also my great grandfather. I’m the fourth generation, yet we can’t get anything right. You can’t move about easily.”
Anikulapo gave the current system hard knocks for causing a general regression rather than a progression in the body polity and well-being of citizens who meet their side of the contractual governance obligation whereas those in government renege on theirs, with the result that society is left fractured.
According to him, “This is the kind of system we run, a system where people are killed, people are being kidnapped, where people are getting poorer by the day. I just wonder how those running businesses cope. Businesses are going down.”
He urged artists of all hues to be angry enough with the system to cause needed disruption and change with works that speak to the current condition of anomie.
“And then you want to do art for arts sake?” he asked incredulously. “The environment where we operate does not allow you the luxury to do art for arts sake. I do not understand why your poetry or story cannot inspire anger and action in a positive direction one way or the other. I don’t know how many of you watched Osundare on Arive TV a few days ago. He said look, ‘I can write poetry about beautiful flowers or butterflies and all that, but is that the reality that we live in in Nigeria? Is that the reality?’ That’s for a man like Osundare who is an Emeritus Professor, who is well secure where he is in his New Orleans University, U.S., where he’s teaching and should be enjoying himself. But he’s still worried about his country that does not inspire hope for the vast majority of citizens.
“So when artists say they just want to do art for arts sake, art that does not really touch on the lives of the people; even traditional art has functions. Check the sculptures that you see, even murals on ancient walls. They were related to reality, what was going on. I’m not saying the Davidos of this world should not be singing about wine, women and wealth, but for those of us who pretend to be intellectuals, who are thinkers, who are writers, who are philosophers, I do not see how activism will not be part of the work that you produce. I have no apologies about that.”
The culture advocate whose Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2021) starts November 15 – 22, 2021, concluded by urging modern creatives to set their eyes on creating works that have ensuring social value like Ofeimun’s, that would remain in the hearts and consciousness of the people long after they were gone, saying that is true definition of art for social change.
“So when you talk of artists having enduring value, it’s because the work they do endures with society. Well, if your work conforms to the three ‘Ws’ I mentioned above – wine, women and wealth – then you will be releasing album almost every month,” he said, to remain relevant otherwise both artist and work will fizzle out soon enough and will be both forgotten.