In Manhattan, New York, a man was juggling barefoot along the street when curiously, a woman asked why. His reply: ‘I want to know how it feels because I am writing a play set in Africa!’ Two years ago, Prof Wole Soyinka admonished younger writers to interest their imagination in science fiction and space literature. This is correct. But when measured against reality, it is ridiculous. How many publishers will accept such manuscripts from African artists? Which award can such win? The BBC annual radio drama competition explicitly states that entries must deal with African issues. And when you scan the winning entries for years past as adjudged by the Whiteman, the themes are really “African”: HIV/AIDS, poverty, wars, prostitution, human trafficking, dictatorship and other bad things. We have allowed outsiders to define, to determine, circumscribe and limits us. That is why when the Blackman is engaged in certain activities like playing or listening to classical music or in America, getting good education or getting high grades, they say he is acting white!
Beneath the controversy over the Zuma monument in front of the Nigerian House in New York is: in terms of content, form and style, what truly constitute Nigeria (African) artistic parameters or what is “western aesthetic traits”. On every account, Fred Okon Archibong the sculptor insisting or replacing the monument is wrong. He is seized completely with a nativist consciousness: a separatist thought in the anti-imperialist nationalism. In his terms, what and what constitute what is ‘African (Nigerian) cultural taste’? Must Nigerian culture or arts remain frozen, fossilized in history? Must it be organically dead to marriage or modernization? These are the issues Olu Oguibe raised in his collection of essays, The Culture Game. A civilization is the summation of a people’s arts, culture and technological know-how. Western civilization is great today because it is not nativist in orientation. They took and stole creatively (otherwise called got inspired) from other diverse civilizations in history. African in order to be great must do the same. Elements from surrealism, renaissance, Chinese arts, Gustave Dore’s impressive use light in landscapes, the sculptural works of Michelangelo, Augusto Rodin, Eduardo Paolozzi, even the postmodern razzmatazz of Jean Basquiat masquerading as childhood paintings also should constitute African heritage too. What is African in all facets of arts and architecture is:
- elements from the old traditional African arts;
- elements from this old tradition that has been creatively stylized, hence making it modern (Africa Remix);
- the fusion of anything from old or new Africa married with foreign aesthetics;
- Anything, be it western, eastern, Arabic, or Eskimo, brilliantly and successfully utilized by any African becomes African too.
A version of this last point is raised in Paulin Hountondji’s classic offering, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. It sounds so contentious because, in the third world arts and culture, there is a pervas
ive dictatorship of nativist consciousness. But when you examine how other great civilizations were able to take or steal from others and make it their own, it is true.
Not accepting the evaluations placed on his sculpture, in a reply, Billy Omabegho explained the “Nigerian” concepts and the symbolic gestures with which his “visually dynamic” Zuma resonates. To allow that monument to be removed is to triumph the retrogressive nativist consciousness. What is more, Archibong, to nullify Zuma’s Nigerian citizenship says its creator is ‘American-based’. Omabegho quickly replied that he just of recent ‘voyaged in’ to America. America-based or not, does not detract from the indigenous citizenship of the piece. Because Uzo Egonu, Yemi Shonibare, Chris Ofili, Lamidi Fakeye, Moyo Okediji, curator Okwui Enwezor, have settled in the West for decades, does it mean that the works they have produced since then are no longer African? Fed Archibong’s arguments are so cheap that they bother on the simplistic.
We are again told that it is the Federal Government that wants to replace the monument but instead of its voice, that of Fred Archibong that we keep on hearing on every issue even on ones that are not his business. It is he who wants to replace the sculpture at all cost not the FG. Even though he is just a consultant to the presidency on Arts and Culture, he is the judge, the jury, the prosecutor and the executor all at once. This does not delight ethics. Why is he bent on replacing Omebegho’s giant sculpture with his own? Why not with other’s? Is his commission to do the replacement an open bid, a democracy or a cult meeting? How was he really selected?
When asked what motivated his campaign he said: ‘The idea actually came when I was holding my last exhibition in New York. One of the diplomats (we challenge him to mention the name of this Whiteman diplomat. Does he have an expert sensibility on arts? Is he an arts connoisseur with intelligent arts interpretation skills?) there who witnesses the kind of reception my work got said, ‘Fred, don’t you think you can do something Nigerian for the Nigerian House?’
The emphases are mine but they represent the tropes of what is wrong with Fred Okon Archibong, his argument and his campaign. Beauty in African arts, is a definition from the Whiteman. Definition belongs to the definers not the defined.