‘…Cultural dislocation has done a lot of damage to our collective psyche’
…Installation art has always been home to Africa’
By Godwin Okondo
WITH the 2023 elections fast approaching, experts in the performing arts recently had a conversation around Sogúndogójì, a performance piece by Yusuf Durodola. The performance was a reflection of Nigeria’s combustible political atmosphere ahead of 2023 general elections. Sogúndogójì reveals the truths, lies and wrong dealings in Nigeria’s political system, and a clarion call on citizens to make wise decisions during the coming elections, so as to entrench good governance and neutralise the negative effects of bad governance currently plaguing the country under the Muhammadu Buhari administration.
The virtual programme themed ‘Performing Arts as a Tool for Political Consciousness” featured many outstanding figures in the performance arts space. They included performance artist, Jelili Atiku, artistic director of Crown Troupe of Africa, Segun Adefila, artist-curator, Aderemi Adegbite, founder of Arts in Medicine project, Kunle Adewale, social analyst, Niyi Olayiwola, visual and performance artist, Yusuf Durodola as convener, and artist-curator, Matthew Oyedele, who served as moderator for the session.
Speaking on the effects of performance arts on the artist and response to it by the powers that-be in the polity, Atiku said, “I did a performance in 2016 and I was arrested. It was because by body was involved and you could feel the energy of which the content was radiating, and it touches the area it was supposed to, and there was a reaction. That is how pivotal art can be as an instrument for political awareness, and it’s not just limited to political consciousness, it covers all ramifications that have to do with human life.”
Sharing his thoughts on the importance of performance arts, Adewale said, “Most of the people on this call are people I admire a lot in terms of what they do, and it’s just not about the political concept, it’s about activism. One of the things we do in my organization called Art in Medicine project is not just about the health programme, we also think about social justice, about political consciousness, activism, the bottom line is just social justice — people who have been affected by bad governance and leadership.
“Students have been at home since February, and people were out there sharing millions — it seems they’re irresponsible fathers. Their children are wandering the streets and they were spending foreign currencies just to get into political positions. Look at the consequences that come with bad leadership; there’s a huge mental health problem in terms of what is happening in the educational system. Some students are having mental problems and are depressed, and some people are looking so happy, spending money, and they want to govern us, how? I feel performance arts is a response to the happenings in our environment, and the artist is curating the story, because those in power want to monopolize (or determine) what the people want to see, so they sanction the media.
“Looking at the (party) delegate system in Nigeria, you don’t vote for competence, you vote because of inducement. It’s a game of money now — no one cares if the person is useless, as long as money is being made from him. There is a mind reprogramming towards values that are not valid. The election isn’t here yet and people are giving out foreign currencies and being induced to select who has more money. What is before us is such that we can’t have a free and fair election. The delegates already know who the winner of the election is, so you better collect your portion or miss out eventually (becomes the damning mindset). So, there’s no accountability or integrity. So, I see the performance artist just trying to educate the people what their rights are, because when you don’t know your right everything they give you looks like it. Ignorance has really blinded people, so I think the negotiating opens the eyes of the masses.”
For Adewale, the citizenry can look up to the performance artist to show them the right way to go in determining what their right should be, and how to attain it through subtle value-oriented education embedded in the performance. Ultimately, he said, the performance artist holds leaders to account through his agenda-laden performance.
“The performance artist has a role to play in educating people on what their rights are,” he said. “Don’t sell your birth-right for a bag of rice when you can have a land and get several bags of rice. There is so much that needs to be done in the area of education, and consciousness and values, because a society without values is a society without future, because anything goes.
“There was a time Twitter was shut down, and now everything in the media is being doctored because they don’t want to hear the truth, but the performance artist comes to the public and tells the truth about what is happening. In a way, the performance artist holds the people in power to account.”
For Olayiwola, “There is what we call garbage in, garbage out. It’s what you put in that comes forth. You cannot have the luxury of a beautiful output when you have put in an ugly input. In my own opinion, there’s a story to everything. Sometimes, you understand what you’re being taught, but you really don’t know until you put it into practice. I would not limit the concept of performance arts as a tool for political consciousness only. In my own understanding, it is a tool that creates consciousness to establish the values of right and wrong. I see it as a form of advocacy.”
About who performance artists speak to, Atiku said, “Art is not where you have your audience being restricted. The performance is in a public space, so you won’t make selections on who should see the performance if the performance is for the public. People derive meanings from the performance and put it in their own way of understanding. I think what Yusuf is trying to do is to open up discussion for everybody to engage in. I wouldn’t say he is addressing something in particular.
“When you work as performance artists, you don’t begin to put yourself into an illustrative work and then make it more connected. When I saw the performance, I could bring out some elements that ere actually not connected to what he is saying, and I think that is the way a dialogue should be opened. Those who don’t have the time to read what he is saying could, perhaps, pick some meanings from it. I think he is trying to be more dynamic in presenting to the public and bridging communication between the citizens and the leadership, but leaders don’t usually understand the welfare needs of the citizens.”
And on the commodification of citizens rights in the performance, Atiku continued, “I do not think the performance has this direct definition. In drama, you have a text written that says an action will lead to another. Performance is imagery, and it’s left for the audience to have their personal meanings from this imagery. Let’s look at the scene of a marketplace where the performer will negotiate with sellers in this discussion, meaning that we all become negotiators in Nigeria when you negotiate your own rights, and then some people begin to sell theirs. I’m trying to clear this air of trying to make the performance look descriptive, otherwise you are just narrowing it down to one area of understanding which could mean more.”
But Aderemi turned the conversation on its head when he said, “There was a part where a woman asked which party they supported, and that reminds me of a lot of things. What he’s trying to do is to make the conversation very didactic, and I think this adds to the discussion. It’s very interesting that the number of people who encountered the performance at that point in time were able to get the materials and processes of politics. People can engage in the conversation, and you don’t need to have a script before you engage in this kind of conversation with people.
“You can liken our politicians in Nigeria to these beggars. They are not coming to you with policies or tangible things to what you have at the moment; they are only after your votes. They talk about electricity, water and good roads but put the important policies aside, like what affects the educational system (when they get power). They are throwing money about, but none of them reflects on the fact that schools are on strike and our ‘future leaders’ are at home. You can even find pastors buying forms for N100 million, when you can do charitable work with that sum of money.
“As artists, we should be able to reflect on what is going on in our community and the world at large, and be able to use our arts to reflect on these. For me that’s the most important thing as an artist, and also the reason why this performance must be very interesting to quite a lot of people that might have seen it.”
Aderemi picked out one of the scenes in the performance to highlight his point, saying, “You are engaging with people who are interested in what they get, because that’s what our political landscape has become. People depend on what they get, rather than what would be beneficial to the public.
“In my community (Oniwaya, Yaba, Lagos), I told people I wanted to become a counsellor, because I engage with people from the grassroots, and then they asked me to pay some sums of money before they could take me to the next governor of the state; they assured me that after he becomes governor, I will surely get something from him, something that would help me get back my money and make more money. I told them I don’t want more money; I want to be able to engage with the people in the community.
“A lot of us get very intellectual with politics, and a lot of us do this on social media and you find a whole lot of this coming from the diaspora. These are the people that won’t vote during election, and majority of those who follow them won’t vote, but the thugs and market women already have their numbers. And when the politicians come, these thugs and market women give their numbers and make their demands.
“The politicians aren’t interested in making policies that affect everybody, they just want to settle the thugs. Meanwhile, those of us who say we are the intellectuals and we understand what is going on, we just sit back when the election comes. We are so scared that those thugs might come out with weapons and attack us. If we continue this way, we are going to keep on having this kind of political system.
“It’s interesting how our political system is and where we find ourselves now as people. One thing they have done is to mess up the educational system, and it’s been degenerating since then. Now, all of them paid millions to buy nomination forms, and students are at home; these politicians don’t care, and I’m not sure ASUU will resume anytime soon. The politicians today have made the political system very useless. A lot of graduates don’t know what to do with their lives. Those guys at the local government level are political thugs, and we sit back and we want the system to change? It won’t!”
The Crown Troupe of Africa boss, Adefila spoke on the issue of negotiation of votes, “Cultural dislocation has done a lot of damage to our collective psyche, because if this wasn’t happening, I don’t think what we were doing many years ago would be the same today — it would have evolved, and that evolution is what you see in modern day performances. For example, installation art is supposed to be an innovation in Africa but it has always been with us. If you go to some African homes, you see shrines for different gods, and these weren’t just for aesthetics, they were also functional. You also see people beautifying their rooms with clay pots, and the functionality of this is to preserve water.
“A performance done at the village square can be taken to the market and adapted to the scene, so Jelilli is right in saying the performance isn’t scripted because you’re responding to the immediacy of your environment. Fifty per cent of the performance goes to how you want to pass your message across, and the remaining fifty belongs to the receivers of the message to predict it.
“Cultural dislocation has done so much that we do not know that so many of these things belong to us, and that is why those who are daring enough to embrace it wholeheartedly are the ones at the forefront. The danger our performances face now is commercialization, because if you think of something to say, you need to think of the marketability of it, not how it affects your community and that’s dangerous to us, because those who are not interested in the progression of your culture will be the ones to fund whatever you’re doing, so you have to be careful about what you’re trying to say.”