Artists should be discussing wealth creation, not just content creation, says Fringe boss, Uphopho
‘I’m tired of this narrative that artists have to go hungry’
By Anote Ajeluorou
LAGOS artists. Abuja artists. Port Harcourt artists. Enugu artists. Kano artists. Gombe artists, and the list goes on ad infinitum. But is there really such a thing as artists affiliated to a city in a country like Nigeria in dire need of organic growth for its arts and culture sector? Should some producers be concerned that artists are coming over to their city to take jobs? Should one city halt its growth so another city could rise artistically and culturally? Isn’t there room for everyone to grow at their own pace? Should toxic rivalry define artistic relationships or an embrace of collaborations that make for healthy growth?
These were the minor but irritating questions that Nigeria’s fringe festival exponent, Mr. Kenneth Uphopho surprisingly had to ask himself, as he set about this year’s ongoing Abuja Fringe Festival 2022, the third edition, at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The festival started on Tuesday, December 6, 2022 and ends on Sunday, December 11, 2022 barely a week after Lagos Fringe Festival 2022 was staged. The very concept of fringe as a platform for the growth of aspiring artists through the provision of unconventional spaces and other logistical supports for young artists need to exhibit their craft is fast gaining ground with Lagos and Abuja fringes well established.
But the notion that Lagos artists always go to take over jobs in Abuja had riled the CEO of Rivera Water Productions, Mr. Patrick Itoro to the point where he ominously canvassed that Lagos’s art should stop for Abuja’s to grow, and charged show Abuja organisers to first consider Abuja art producers first before anyone else. At the time of this outburst, Itoro was preparing for his November 12/13, 2022 musical theatre show titled One Good Man. Ironically, Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), supposedly a ‘Lagos artist,’ was to star in Itoro’s musical theatre production. By that act, Itoro unwittingly punctured his own illogic. But in a gentle rebuke regarding such negative mindset, Uphopho reminded creatives anywhere to make efforts to collaborate with any ‘foreign’ artist coming to work in their cities and not see them as competitors or rivals.
In a tentative chat on his experiences as activities at Abuja Fringe heated up, Uphopho said, “And we needed to tell them that ‘we no come take over as Lagos-based people’. It’s the initial fear, and then our profile and my individual profile. E be like say I be terrorist wey wan take over! That’s not true. We’ve made friends though. We will take it one year after the other to build a sense of ownership. That’s the most important thing for now. I want them to know that the festival is for them and their (theatre) practice. We are all Naija Artists!
“And no, you can’t say (like Itoro threatened) that Lagos should shut up for Abuja. That’s out of place. Abuja should grow to the level of Lagos and then surpass it. That’s the goal. Every state should become as vibrant as Lagos. The challenges with venue and exorbitant rates are similar. Mind you, only artists refer to the venues as exorbitant. These guys are in business to make money. We have to meet them halfway as we go about our work. These spaces are multi-purpose spaces. The people and companies that pay will pay to use those spaces. Hence our unconventional approach to repurposing spaces for the arts at the Fringe and Lagos Theatre festivals, including Lagos Book Art Festival (LABAF), Ake and ArtX. ArtX repurposed Balmoral (Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos) hall to suit what they needed. We have to be creative.
“Also, whether artists come from Lagos or Jamaica to Abuja, as long as the audience in Abuja recognises and adapts to seeing consistent shows in Abuja, it’s a win-win for all of us. That’s what we all want. We don’t want to lose the audience with disposable income to concerts and the likes; we want them to see our shows, the same way concert promoters will bring Beuna and Wizzkid to drive attendance. We should do the same if we can afford it. Nobody cares if Beuna lives in London or America, as long as he comes to give us a show in Abuja, we will be there. We should be saying the same thing and doing the same thing.
“If RMD will sell out a play in Port Harcourt, then by all means bring him to PH. Nobody cares if he’s a Lagos or Abuja Artist! It’s sad, because you don’t hear moviemakers talk about division when they cast for their movies. We need to all come together to discuss how we want to be perceived. We can’t go about bashing each other, just because we want to sell our shows. We can do better.”
Uphopho said Nigeria’s art and culture community needed to grow its art patronage to persons who ordinarily do not know the healing property inherent in the arts and not needless bickering among culture producers, adding that all culture producers, irrespective of where they reside and ply their trade, have the same purpose of making the arts work. He advised that producers should preoccupy themselves with how to expand the space for more players and patronage to come on aboard.
According to him, “It’s the same thing we are trying to achieve, to make some noise to let everyone know there is an artist community in Nigeria, and we need all the funding and support we can get. It’s for everybody to be seen, and that’s the logic I’m trying to push across. The only logical conclusion here is that everybody gets am opportunity. We should compete to make ourselves better and show the people that this is what we do and we want investors to bring in money, not us trying to pull each other down.
“Some of us have got talent, but there is hard work attached to that talent. So, some people feel a sense of entitlement, that they have to be the ones in the forefront, and it’s a human thing to want to be on top, but while going to the top, you have to bring others along with you. Our community is very small and we all know each other, and we also understand how many years some have spent in the industry, and we respect that. We all need to respect each other because those under will one day be at the top. If we are going to the top together, people will know that we have a sense of ownership and we want to build this thing together.
“All that we are doing (at Abuja and Lagos fringes) is not about us. We got support, but it’s very minimal when you check out flight tickets and all. Who is paying for my time? Thanks to the US Embassy for supporting us and easing our work around here, but we want the smallest artists to be seen. Just extending a hand of support has brought so much joy to the units here. They are very excited to see me here with them. From my years of experience, I understand and feel what they are going through and understand what it means to work in solo.”
The Co-founder of Pawstudious Africa and Director of Nigeria’s fringes said he was more concerned about establishing structures and platforms for young artists to ply their crafty by way of leaving a legacy as the likes of Herbert Ogunde and the likes did years back that is giving him and others impetus to work. He stressed the importance of platforms that the fringes embody, as foundational work for young creatives.
“Humans feel that way, but you have to rise above your emotions, because we’re trying to leave a legacy here, so that when we are gone, people will say we were doing these things at a certain time. We talk about Herbert Ogunde and his travelling theatre, going from city to city and selling tickets with his wives and actors, and he was also a producer. It was a collective thing. If not for people who went out of their way to do something like that and form an institution called The National Troupe, because they came together and insisted that it had to be a certain way. We would demand respect while being in a collective where people will respect us. It’s a good thing.
“We talk about NANTAP today because it’s a national umbrella for theatre practice in Nigeria. If we don’t have associations like that, then who are we? I can’t tell you the immeasurable support NANTAP has given for the fringe we are doing in Lagos and Abuja. I think it’s the fear of the unknown, people thinking that immigrants are coming to take over their jobs. Migrants go there because they want a better life for themselves, but also where they are coming from is not comfortable for them.
“In this case, what we are trying to do is to take artists who can’t afford a particular space to a place that already has an audience, so they can come and promote their works there, and the money is wholly theirs. It’s why we go around looking for grants and funding so that the bills are covered. We could go to a venue and make an agreement to pay for their diesel (fuel) if they would allow an artist perform, and they are open to negotiations. There’s no cause for alarm, so to speak. I’ve told some of them that if they need me as a director, for grants and proposals, they should call me. I have some experience and I can help them with it or teach them how to do it. And if I can’t do it, I can refer them to people in the business community who can. You’re an editor, but not everyone knows you or have access to you. I can refer someone here to you. When we had a training in Lagos and Abuja, this was the kind of conversation we were having: how to make (art) works that can travel. Everyone is trying to do something big but they don’t have the money or resources. If people can collaborate and produce and showcase at festivals, it’s easier that way. We have the eyes and ears of the international artist community, and they see the works we post on our social media platforms. Be rest assured that someone will see you and will like it, and would want to engage.
“Our programme in Lagos, some of our people are facilitators because they’ve grown over the years and now they’re teaching other how to make films with their mobile phones. This fellow is doing mobile cinematography, and he started on our platform. He came for training and about 15 months later, we invited him as a facilitator, and he trained people who did you know their mobile phones were tools they could use. People are doing a lot with their mobile phones now, even sharing their shows on digital platforms. We have Tope Sanni who is our programme director and she has grown over the years. We are always developing capacities and that’s the most impressive thing for us. If you don’t, when you get to the top at the end, it will show. I’ve taken a step back and I’m pushing the other guys forward. They’re the ones doing the interface and running the operations. I’m an artist, director, performer and writer, and festival management and training are things I developed over the years, and I’m sharing that experience with people, and that’s how it should be done. If someone says he’s a Lagos artist, then that person knows nothing about being an artist, because there is nothing like a Lagos artist. Every artist in Nigeria is a Nigerian artist.”
There are no purpose fit art venues in Abuja, but Uphopho has found a way of navigating that tricky terrain with repurposing unconventional spaces for art shows, and he said it was paying off for Abuja Fringe.
“I think it’s the same with Lagos,” he said. “We have enjoyed partnership with Freedom Park for so long and those guys are phenomenal. We take over the entire space for the week and we can demarcate as we want. In Abuja, because they didn’t fully understand the concept in terms of what the Fringe is all about, the current challenge in Nigeria because of the fuel crisis, we had to pay for power, because the personnel has to be paid, whether we sell or not. We’ve come to an agreement with some of them to programme our events. Mamba Cafe is extraordinary; they’ve been phenomenal. I hope we can continue this partnership. We chose this place because it has the vibe of Freedom Park as well. It’s a very expensive and artistic place, though not as big.
“It’s a place where people can just sit down, chill and connect with people. One thing to note is that Fringe is seeking to connect with the artists at the grassroots, so I don’t really believe in the cocktails and wine, because at the end of the day, it’s the artist community down there you’re trying to reach. They don’t attend those events because they feel left out. What we do is try to connect investors and the artists directly; we are just the bridge, and partnering with these venues helps us to do that. So, they can be expensive but I’m hoping that moving forward, they will understand the concept and ask us to bring our works. Some other venues had programming conflict, that’s why we couldn’t do some work there. Aside that, some of them have been very open with us; they love the concept, and they want to be a part of it.”
With the gospel of Fringe for unconventional people gradually spreading, how soon will it get to other cities in Nigeria, with Lagos and Abuja already taken? Not just Nigeria Fringes connecting each other, Uphopho canvassed a need for a connection of global Fringes for inter-connected networking for Nigerian artists to make good money as well as showcasing their craft to the world within an inter-connected global Fringes system.
“We are getting there,” Uphopho said, but expressed caution. “We are in Abuja still trying to connect, and some people are already saying that Lagos artists have come to take over their jobs. We also have to be careful with the language. I will love the Nigerian Fringe, where all the fringes connect at some point. Fringe is for the unconventional people, people who will never get to the commissions. National Arts Festival 2022 (NAFEST) happened recently and no private company was invited. Private companies are the pillars that hold the artistic community with extraordinary hands and extraordinary resources they don’t have. There will be Fringes for the six geo-political zones, then we will see how we can stretch to other places. In the end, all these Fringes will have directors that will be running them, while we just help, assist and supervise.
“We want to be like Edinburgh Festival and Brighton Fringe in the UK. The Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industries (NCCI) should be involved, so the Fringe will be a tourist attraction and people can come from all over the world. We would like to get the ministry or tourism and the government involved eventually, so that these challenges we have with insecurity mad kidnapping will become a thing of the past. We can also get our international investors to come in. In Lagos, we got the British Council to help us bring in Julian Caddy, the CEO of Brighton Fringe, and he was supposed to come to Abuja, but because of the security threat thing that happened he couldn’t come to Abuja. So, we got him to come to Lagos instead. Imagine if we got like 50 people like that from different places to come in to facilitate workshops, collaborations, and take the works created here to their countries. It’s money in the pockets of our artists.
“On this Fringe, we’re focused on audience development and international touring. The resource person for this has had tours, and I want him to share his experiences so that local artists can create works for touring, not just local showcase. Artists should be discussing wealth creation, not just content creation. We have lots of bills to settle, and I’m tired of this narrative that artists have to go hungry. We are very creative people and we shouldn’t be hungry. If we are creative with our works, we should be creative with wealth too.”
Uphopho also stressed the wealth creation potential of the arts to be quickly made manifest, adding, “I don’t want artists evading paying their taxes. Artists need to make enough money from their craft so they can pay taxes. That way the sector can be captured in the GDP, with a view to being considered for government’s funding based on return on investments.”