Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chimamanda's Interview in Bookforum

BF: Are the people of Nigeria still grieving and processing this war?

CNA: A lot of people haven’t dealt with it at all, in part because we haven’t dealt with it as a collective nation. Nobody learns about Igbo culture in high school. You’re told that a war happened and nothing else. Igbo people have a sense that we’re supposed to pretend nothing happened. Now there is a new Biafran movement that’s been going on for about ten years. Mostly, it’s the poorer people in Igbo villages and rural areas who adopt things from Biafra and fly the Biafran flag. When I told people I was writing about the war, they thought I was crazy. They’d say, “You are just looking for trouble, you are encouraging violence.” I still get a few angry e-mails from people who feel I shouldn’t have written about that war. But then I do get pleasantly surprised by the many people who are asking questions about that period because of the book, people whose parents had been through the war and never said anything to their kids. Sometimes I get stupidly emotional. I did a reading in Nige­- ria, and a woman came up to me and said, “Because of your book, I can finally talk about what happened to me, and I thank you.” And then I start crying [laughs].

(Excerpt of interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)


Chimamanda s interview in the December/January 2008 issue of Bookforum, the literary magazine of the most influential contemporary art magazine, Artforum, is one more indication of the extent Half of a Yellow Sun, her award-winning novel set in Biafra during the war of 1967-70, has insinuated its story into contemporary consciousness. Thanks to this novel, Biafra, and the still-unaccounted-for, systematic mass murder of thousands of Igbo in Northern Nigeria in the months before the war—which remains a taboo in Nigerian political discourse—has returned calling for reexamination. As Chimamanda rightly points out, there has not been any effort by the Nigerian nation to grieve for the thousands of innocents murdered by fellow citizens in 1966, before the war. A pall of anxiety remains, while many Igbo await the process of healing of a nation.

The responses within and beyond Nigeria to HYS particularly the new interest in the story of Biafra and Nigeria of the 1960s is an encouraging sign that, perhaps, literature might actually provide the basis for open discussions about that dark period in Nigeria's postcolonial history. Already an important opportunity was missed when in the early 1990s an exhibition of war-time work by Biafran artists (works that circulated in Europe at the time and had just been repatriated to Nigeria after more than two decades) planned to take place in one of foreign cultural centers in Lagos was canceled after it became clear that the authorities might deem the show a dangerous attempt to open unhealed wounds. Then and even now Nigeria—the authorities and significant section of the citizenryfail to learn from history: that old wounds cannot heal unless they are opened, cleaned and treated, carefully. Which is why the recent colloquium on literature on Biafra, which featured readings of HYS, and other works by Cyprian Ekwensi, Chukwuemeka Ike, and Ken Saro-Wiwa among others is a bold, courageous gesture on the part of CORA, the organizers of the Lagos Book Festival. These are signs that there might afterall be a gradual movement towards beginning a process long overdue. In which case Nigeria owes Chimamanda for helping weave the fabric of the nation, by writing a book of compelling, powerful fiction!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"Africa Remix" and the Hunger for Contemporary Art

The tremendous response and reception of Simon Njami's touring show, Africa Remix at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) where it showed between June and October says a lot about the inavailability of important contemporary African art exhibitions on the African continent. With more than a hundred thousand visitors, several media reports/reviews, and many critical reflections on the show by South African commentators, the show indeed attained a truly blockbuster status in South Africa. Given that none of the previous shows of comparable significance, including Africa Explores (1991), Seven Stories (1995), The Short Century (2001) never made it to the continent, Africa Remix is a landmark show simply because having originated in Europe, it succeeded in showcasing the work of contemporary African artists to an African spectatorship and audience who usually encounter (that is if at all) the work of artists inside and outside the continent only through media reports, published sources, and hearsay. Except you lived in Dakar whose Biennale is a different kind of event anyway. Having been involved in two of these shows, I know that it is problem has a lot to do with the absence of infrastructural and financial resources inside Africa (JAG spent at least $450,000 to host Africa Remix) on the one hand and hard commitment and vision on the part of officials in the abysmally few institutions in the continent that can actually host important contemporary art shows (Nigeria has no space for such exhibitions but now wants to build some stupid, half-billion dollar Millennium Tower for culture--see previous post on this--instead) . This is why I must use this space to express my eternal gratitude to Clive Kellner, the curator of the JAG and Steven Sacks, the Director, for mustering the resources to successfully bring Africa Remix to South Africa and publish the JAG's outstanding version of the exhibition catalogue. This is hoping that this precedent will be sustained at the JAG, and that institutions in other parts of Africa will see this as a challenge, as it is impossible to overstate the case for direct encounter and experience of the work of significant contemporary artists by "home-based" critics, scholars, curators and, perhaps most important, practising artists most of whom are unable to travel to see art from beyond the confines of their places of residence.

Congratulations Clive and the JAG!; congratulations to Simon and his curatorial team!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Biennials and their Lagos critics

I cannot help but discern a certain dunderheaded nationalism when some Nigerian, especially Lagos-based, artists comment on contemporary art. A few years ago, (following New Energies, a show organized byEl Anatsui at the Goethe Institute, Lagos) the big question, believe it or not, was whether installation and conceptual art were too alien, in other words too western to be condoned in Nigeria! If not that the "anti-installation" critics were also people one otherwise had reason to respect, I would not have given any much thought to that debate. But I did, in a lecture at Jazz Hole, in Ikoyi Lagos, in the summer of 2001 (published in The Guardian of Lagos a month later). This time around, a few commentators, including my good friend Olu Ajayi--a fine painter and current president of the Lagos chapter of the Society of Nigerian Artists—fulminate against art curators and biennials. In a recent report published in The Guardian Online (accessed Nov. 9, 2007), the paper’s art critic Chuka Nnabuife maps the biennial debate, describing it thus:
WHENEVER the word 'biennale' is mentioned in a gathering of Nigerian artists, a hot debate ensues. Artists take positions behind factions that appear like old foes: ‘them’ against ‘us’.”

As in the past, the arguments made by Nigerian critics of biennials have often reflected a hermit or siege mentality, the illusion that Nigerian artists are the better if left alone, without any supposedly “foreign” contamination emblematized by “installation art” or “biennials.” There is sometime pathetic, incredibly reactionary about contemporary artists who refuse to speak or understand the language of contemporary art, yet paradoxically miffed by the fact that curators of international exhibitions ignore their sometimes pretty but usually unambitious paintings and sculptures. The Nigerian art market is no doubt a large and thriving one, with local patronage that has produced a significant number of artists that can be rightly counted among Nigeria’s relatively small middleclass. So long as this local clientèle is satisfied with the canvases and fiberglass and wood sculptures produced by many a Lagos artist, all is well. Yet, the Lagos artists must also live with the fact that there is a world of contemporary art out there, to which is connected a zillion communities of artists, critics, curators, museums, institutions from Sao Paulo, Alexandria and Bamako to Beijing, Tokyo and Rome, from Los Angeles, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Dakar to Mexico City, Edinburgh, Mumbai, Istanbul and Sydney; a world the Lagos artists, should they care, have to speak to in the language of contemporary art. It is a matter of choice. Good thing though that there are a several photographers in the same city committed to exchange with other artists elsewhere; and artist-teachers like El Anatsui at Nsukka, and Tony Okpe and Jerry Buhari in Zaria who, against odds, continue through their work and teaching to expose young artists to the possibilities contemporary art, beyond staid notions of art canvassed by some Lagos artists.

Given the tone and tenor of the debates in Lagos, it should not surprise me that the longstanding, though somewhat insubstantial, campaign to initiate a Lagos biennial will either not succeed in my lifetime, or (God forbid!) if it does will be perhaps even a noisier version of Libreville's Bantu Biennial established years ago to promote the purportedly unique Bantu cultural identity of central African countries.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Cyprian Ekwensi (1921-2007)

I am deeply saddened by this news of the death of the pioneer Nigerian novelist Cyprian Ekwensi this week. He was 86. Ekwensi, the author of arguably the earliest major novel in Nigeria (People of the City, 1954) and other vastly popular novels--Passport of Mallam Illya, African Night's Entertainment, Lokotown, Jagua Nana, The Drummer Boy, etc--that, as secondary students in Nigeria in the 1980s, captured, intrigued, and liberated our fertile imaginations and youthful fantasies. His simple, uncomplicated plots, while a subject of longstanding critique by literary scholars, was the very reason we read, and re-read his incomparably entertaining works. He was the people's novelist!
Ekwensi was scheduled to participate in the key event of the Lagos Book Arts Festival (which begins this week), by reading from his novel on the Biafran War, Divided We Stand published in 1980. The CORA-organized Festival and its colloquium, Constructing the Nation: Stories Out of Biafra, will now serve as a memorial to a man who used his unpretentious yet prodigious fictive imagination to instill in me and a zillion others the love for the novel and for literature. Rest, Old Man; travel safely.