Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nonsense as Art History

Earlier today, I came across an interview in the "Arts" section of The Guardian Online(Lagos, 10/25/2008) that is symptomatic of the malaise in contemporary arts journalism in Nigeria and the abuse of the history of art in Nigeria by commentators who had better be doing something else. In this interview with the Guardian journalist, Bridget Onochie, the artist/pastor/ public relations officer Rev. Adedapo Tayo had quite a few things to say about his multidisciplinary career. But the part that caught my attention was his comment on "The Art school and schools of art"

"It is high time people knew that the school of art is a department in an institution having art or creative art as a curriculum. It could be art department in any tertiary institution but art school is a different thing entirely; example is the Osogbo Art School, where Oliver Bier came into Nigeria and discovered some people, grouped them together, gave them some inductions and exposed them to art. Subsequently, a school of thought came, and that is the art school. As Fakaye would say, he never belonged to the art school of Oliver Bier because he already existed as an artist before Oliver Bier came to Nigeria. So, the school of art is different, an academic institution where formal training is giving to students to discover their potentials but art school is a pattern of art and its good example is Osogbo Art School."

I am not quite sure why The Guardian thought that this sort of nonsensical statement about the so-called difference between "art school" and "school of art" deserved the honor of its pages. But I find it embarrassing to read stuff like this in this respected newspaper. Why did the journalist not follow up with, "could you please tell me what the heck you are talking about"? More important did this artist actually speak about an "Oliver Bier", when he clearly was referring to Ulli Beier, the co-founder (with Duro Ladipo) of Mbari Mbayo Club, Osogbo? Even if one blamed the printer's devil for the spelling "Bier," or "Fakaye," how "Ulli" morphed into "Oliver" thrice in this passage is incomprehensible. Imagine a student relying on this passage as a credible source (after all it is published in The Guardian!) on the history of Osogbo art, you get why I am miffed at, and cannot give a pass on, stuff like this.


Anaele Iroh (Adis) said...

I think what you have just described is a representation of a postcolonial predicament where people are trying to grasp the modernity, taking place around them, within the limits of the tools they have. Art history is part of our colonial inheritance. In the absence or collapse of the colonially inscribed institutions that should have recreated and consolidated the western standards of Art history, what we have is a hybrid mode of interpretation and practice akin to the one you describe. That practice lacks the western cultural capital that informs your privileged gaze. From a New Jersey standpoint, I can see how such manifestation reeks of ignorance. I am disinclined to judge harshly how things are done in Nigeria, especially in the cultural sphere. I think it is more important to accept and engage these formations as genuine expressions of ongoing Nigerian modernity, contingent on a series of events and development in our history. In other words, we are figuring it out.

Chika Okeke-Agulu said...

I am not sure you are right in suggesting that the kind of impoverished writing represented by the text to which I responded is a matter of, "people trying to grasp the modernity taking place around them.” If you read what critics were writing in Nigeria Magazine (in the 1960s), or the Guardian Literary Series and Daily Times Review (in the 80s and 90s), it becomes apparent where things went wrong. As editor of the TR, Afam Akeh would not have published such writing, art history or not. (And btw, I have written in no less uncharitable tone, when confronted by bad writing masking as criticism or art history, long before I ever set my foot out of Nigeria. So you don't need to be in Dublin or Moscow to say, “no, this is simply bad writing,” especially when such is published in your flagship newspaper). These so-called "formations" may be a genuine manifestation of the state of intellectual work in present-day Nigeria, but they are certainly not the way to develop a sound colonial or postcolonial, hybrid or original critical practice. Nor is the kind of exceptionalism implied by your response. Any engagement that begins by accepting, rather than questioning the state of affairs in art criticism or art history, has no value beyond a short-lived feel-goodness about "the WE do things."

Moreover, I am curious about your suggestion that you'd not "judge harshly how things are done in Nigeria, especially in the cultural sphere." Are you saying that other "spheres" are fair game for harsh judgment, but not the cultural one? Why so?

okechukwu nwafor said...

This guardian article sounds like a comedy show. I laughed while reading it. But i sensed the comedy right from when I read that the writer is an artist and a pastor at the same time. I regard all those pastors with some skepticism. Self proclaimed pastors! In fact, the so called artist/pastor should have known that it is no longer fashionable to wear the title, 'Pastor.'