Tuesday, September 30, 2008

UNESCO and Obasanjo's Library

For more than a year now, news have been circulating about the effort to establish a UNESCO-backed "Institute for African Culture and International Understanding" (IACIU) along with its sister "Center for Black Culture and International Understanding" (CBCIU). The first is to be hosted by the Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, while the second will be sited in Osogbo, the capital city of Osun state. Ordinarily, I would sing praises to both the Nigerian government and UNESCO for pushing this project to the fore of what no doubt is a competitive process. After all, the possibilities of two well-funded, staffed, and maintained sites for research, study, documentation and exchange on matters relating to Black/African culture and international understanding (whatever the latter means) is a good thing, especially given the decrepit state of existing institutions of learning and research in post-oil boom Nigeria. With the proposed institutions in place, I can imagine scholars from all corners of the planet flying into Nigeria to participate in the programs of the UNESCO-funded center and institute, and there is no overstating the positive impact this sort of intellectual traffic can have on the work of scholars in Nigeria who never get the chance to travel overseas to fellowship with their colleagues "out there."

Moreover, the prospects of the CBCIU whose signal role will be as repository of the Archives of Ulli and Georgina Beier--two individuals who arguably were unsurpassed in their influence on mid-20th century African culture, literature and art--is tremendous no less because the Beier's archive, which I have seen, is unprecedented. It fulfills the Beiers' longstanding wish to return these holdings to Nigeria from where most of the material came, rather than have it lodged in overseas institutions with limited access to Nigerian and African scholars. And it is not a bad idea to have a first rate archive with proper facilities in Nigeria; that would be a rare change in the scheme of things.

But, I am totally opposed to the coupling of these two proposed, very much needed UNESCO initiatives to the sordid, ridiculous affair otherwise called Obasanjo Presidential Library. To begin with, Obasanjo scandalously established the so-called library while in office, and as countless reports have indicated, much of the funds raised for the white elephant were either purloined from the state coffers or coerced from private individuals and organizations beholden to that regime. Thus, it is fairly clear that this "library" is nothing more than a monument to the corruption of Obasanjo's regime.

Second, it is an insult to link any respectable institution with a cultural mandate to the name of Obasanjo who, as president, displayed unusual contempt for the arts. Who does not remember his admonition to arts and humanities students in Nigerian universities to go do something more worthwhile with their lives, ostensibly because he failed to see how their future careers in these fields could contribute anything positive to Nigeria's progress?

Third, why should UNESCO want to establish this IACIU in a "LIBRARY" rather than in an institution with a wider mandate, such as a university? Moreover, why tag this international project to something dedicated to the controversial work and memory of an individual? Especially given that this individual (OBJ) is definitely not MLK or Mandela!

As it is, the Nigerian and Osun State governments have shown unflinching support for the UNESCO initiative, and the question is why the federal government could not upgrade one of the existing institutions, such as the Center for Black Arts and Cultures (CBAAC) and then combine its mandate with that of the proposed IACIU. Don't tell me that the Nigerian government could not build an adequate structure to host the combined institutions! Or, if the business of merging the two institutions is too bureaucratically complicated, then I cannot imagine how difficult it would have been for the state--through its Ministry of Culture--to establish the IACIU/CBCIU as a parastatal, in the league of the National Gallery of Art, the CBAAC, etc.

The bottomline is this. Much as I can see the gains of having two UNESCO-sponsored institutions on African/Black arts and cultures in Nigeria, the greater concern is that both the IACIU and CBCIU increasingly look like trojans, in other words alluring propositions meant to validate a terribly unfortunate, corrupt endeavor called the Obasanjo's Library. For that reason, I am completely opposed to the UNESCO initiative. And, if it is a question of Obasanjo library or no UNESCO support, then to hell with both! Quite simply if this project goes ahead with Obasanjo Library at its center, it will be clear that the United Nations organization has made an unfortunate judgment in the matter of Obasanjo’s legacy in Nigeria. By establishing the IACIU in the library UNESCO tells us that it has judged the owner of the library worthy of this kind of honor. From the way that that government conducted itself—-whether we think of the official mass killings in Odi and Zaki Biam, the impunity with which the regime defied the laws of the land, and most unforgettably the disdain for democratic processes and institutions that led to the massively rigged elections of 2007—-it is a wrong position.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Frightening Beauty of Drama



One of these two is an interview with a possible president of the free world, the other a spoof of that interview. commentary is superfluous. And that is frightening.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nnenna Okore at The October Gallery

The October Gallery (London), that indefatigable gallery long committed to the work of African and "black" artists, will host the first solo exhibition in England of the rising Nigerian artist, Nnenna Okore. Okore, assuredly making her mark as a sculptor of tremendous promise, uses fragile, ordinary materials--newspapers, magazines, sticks, clay, etc--to make work of considerable visual and conceptual power. A former student of El Anatsui at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Okore reminds me, in her ability to manipulate fragile media to create sometimes diaphanous but insistently poetic work, of the Cuban post-minimalist and conceptual artist Ana Mendieta who, like Okore was an MFA graduate of the University of Iowa.

I recommend this show.

Breytenbach and Iweala event

Uzodinma Iweala, at Princeton University, Sept. 24, 2008. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

This past Wednesday, I attended a rare event here at Princeton; one of those days that, if you kept a diary, you begin by marking the date with an asterisk: a joint reading session by two remarkable writers, Breyten Breytenbach and Uzodinma Iweala.

Uzodinma Iweala reading, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Uzodinma Iweala, the 23-year old Nigerian author of the brow-raising first novel, Beasts of No Nation, and currently a medical student at Columbia University, invented a writing style that is as poetic--particularly when you listened to him read from the novel, the cadence modulated by the inventive remaking of verbs and nouns into present participles--as the narrative is horrific. He read the passage in which the boy soldier experienced his first killing orgy. The beauty of fiction, in the hands of Iweala, is that it could present this story of sickeningly degraded childhood in a way that still made the boy soldier a sympathetic figure.

Of course during the Q/A, someone wanted to know more about the language of the novel. Did he invent it? Was he reflecting the way of speaking of this fictional West African boy? By way of response he stated that his was a conscious refracting of pidgin english to satisfy his own literary aesthetic, but also to come close to the inventiveness of the pidgin language spoken in West Africa, emphasizing that his effort follows on the tradition mined by writers such as Amos Tutuola, Ken Saro-Wiwa (who wrote in naturalistic pidgin), and others.

Breyten Breytenbach, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

The day before this event, I had been watching the 1978 documentary film "Afrikaner Experience: Politics of Exclusion, (in prep for my course on Art, Apartheid and South Africa) and therein was a discussion of Breyten Breytenbach as the foremost Afrikaner Poet, tried and jailed for 7 years after he "betrayed" his Afrikaner identity by marrying a Vietnamese wife (a crime under the law) and committed high treason by campaigning against the Apartheid regime while in exile. It makes you wonder why some South African artists never got the memo, considering that his older compatriot, Ernest Mancoba married the Dutch artist Sonja Ferlov and wanted to return to South African with her. Apparently in a more generous mood in its early years, the Apartheid regime persuaded the Mancobas to not come to South Africa. And they never did.

Breyten Breytenbach reading, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Anyways, having watched the Afrikaner Experience the previous day, seeing the now 69-year old Breytenbach, gentle with a killing smile perpetually flickering across his face, you realize that such men as he have an incredible reserve of humanity that differentiates them from the crowd. For how else to understand the quiet decorous presence he shares with another former "terrorist" and compatriot Nelson Mandela? He read from his Windcatcher and the brand new All One Horse, which is illustrated with his own watercolors. I tried to count how many times the word "love" occurred in the poems; I could not, lost in the aura of a remarkable man, artist, and writer.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The National Gallery of Art (Abuja) and Art Fairs

Earlier today, I got news of an Art Off The Main: African, Caribbean and Latin American Art Fair taking place during the first week of October. As usual, I thought this was news worthy, as I did not know such a fair existed (pardon my ignorance!). I checked the website. It is always exciting to see any effort to represent, or rather to present, work from Africa and the Caribbean (and Latin America) in sites where they have greater chances of attracting attention of the "art world." I am not sure who will see this art fair, but from the list of participating galleries and artists, which includes none of the major galleries invested in the work of artists from these regions, one could almost predict that the fair crowd will be, in the context of Chelsea as the center of contemporary art in NY, a "marginal" art crowd.

Actually, there is perhaps nothing wrong with this. Because that's how things are. And perhaps I would not be concerned with who is or not participating in this fair, if I did not see the National Gallery of Art (Nigeria) listed among the galleries. I am sure there must have been some reasoning behind the decision of that institution to be associated with this event, but I do not think it advisable. To begin with, this is not the type of forum the NGA should be officially identified with, not so much because it is wrong to support fairs for African, Caribbean and Latin American artists, but because as a national institution, I would think it should set its sights higher. I am sure many would wonder if the listing of Nigeria's National Gallery as a participating gallery is mistaken, given that no other peer institution from the relevant regions are involved, not even the important Chelsea galleries that normally include artists from Africa and the Caribbean. So it is either the NGA has seen a great potential in the event and thus hopes to invest in its future with its support, or it underestimates (and thus undermines) its own symbolic capital.

Maybe I am surprised by the NGA's participation in the Art Off The Main, because I don't quite recall its official presence at the Johannesburg Art Fair this year. If, as I believe, the NGA seeks to insert contemporary Nigerian artists' work into the international critical and commercial networks, it seems to me that being in Johannesburg, where several of the serious galleries focusing on or having sustained interest in the work of African artists (including October Gallery, Michael Stevenson, Jack Shainman, Goodman Gallery, Galerie Peter Herrmann, Perry Rubinstein Gallery, Townhouse Gallery, etc) would have been the right thing to do. So, if the NGA really wants to promote the work of Nigerian artists overseas (I commend it for sponsoring a Nigerian contingent to the Dakar Biennial), it ought to make a smarter choice about how to invest its limited resources. There is no doubt in my mind that participating in the Johannnesburg Art Fair would have been much more useful for the NGA and the artists; it is a much more respectable site to pitch a tent bearing the name of Nigeria's National Gallery.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chimamanda Wins "Genius" Award!

Earlier today, the MacArthur Foundation announced its much anticipated annual Fellows Award, otherwise known as the MacArthur "Genius" Award, and the Nigerian writer, and author of Half of A Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Adichie made the list! Following on the heels of the Ethiopian artist, Julie Mehretu who won the award in 2005, Chimamanda's award speaks to the accomplishments of a generation of African artists who have continued to break new grounds and to insinuate their work into the consciousness of our world. Chimamanda's terrific gift for storytelling, and her stunning ability to broach through elegant fiction difficult, complex historical material, marks her out as a major force in the world of letters. The MacArthur is not the first major acknowledgment of Chimamanda's genius, and it won't be the last!

Here's the MacArthur's citation:

Chimamanda Adichie is a young writer who illuminates the complexities of human experience in works inspired by events in her native Nigeria. Adichie explores the intersection of the personal and the public by placing the intimate details of the lives of her characters within the larger social and political forces in contemporary Nigeria. Dividing her time over the last decade between the United States and Nigeria, she is widely appreciated for her stark yet balanced depiction of events in the post-colonial era. In her most recent novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Adichie unflinchingly portrays the horror and destruction of the civil war following the establishment of the Republic of Biafra. Using multiple narrative voices, a precise movement back and forth in time, and prose that is at once witty and empathetic, she immerses the reader in the psyches of her characters, whose loyalties to each other and their ideals are tested as their world gradually falls apart. In humanizing the Biafran tragedy, Adichie’s novel has enriched conversation about the war within Nigeria while also offering insight into the circumstances that lead to ethnic conflict. A writer of great promise, Adichie’s powerful rendering of the Nigerian experience is enlightening audiences both in her homeland and around the world.

Chimamanda Adichie received a B.A. (2001) from Eastern Connecticut State University, an M.A. (2003) from Johns Hopkins University, and an M.A. (2008) from Yale University. Her additional works include the novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) and short stories that have appeared in such publications as the New Yorker, Granta, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


The British Art Historian Michael Baxandall died month. Easily one of the most influential art historians of the past 100 years, Baxandall's rigorous examination of sculptures and paintings, as well as textual and contextual sources to reveal what he termed the "period eye," but also his original work on art and perception remain among the groundwork of art history of the European Renaissance. Here is one scholar who has given a tremendous account of his time here. Adieu, Mr. Baxandall.

Nigerian President missing?

The Nigerian President, Umaru Yar'Adua, is missing. According to media reports, he was supposed to have gone for the lesser Hajj in Saudi Arabia 3 weeks ago. Since then, no one has seen him. And those who have dissemble. He is reported to have been hospitalized overseas, because of his longstanding kidney disease, yet his spokesmen denied the illness, announcing, as if to assure an anxious nation that, "he will return soon". If this is their own stupid idea of comedic suspense, it is not funny. Now, there are reports that he was flown back to Abuja yesterday or so, still no one has seen him. What the heck is going on in our democracy? Do not Nigerian citizens have the right to know where their elected leader is? what he is up to? Is he in good health? If not, is he still able to function as the leader of a nation of 140 million, restive citizens? The way the government in Abuja is handling this matter, you'd think the elections of 1999 never took place. If I had money, I would pay a huge reward to anyone who can show irrefutable proof of Yar'Adua's whereabouts. It will be money well spent.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The ARESUVA event in Abuja

I was looking forward to attending the events of the inaugural ARESUVA (African Regional Summit on the Visual Arts) taking place in Abuja, Sept. 7-13 under the auspices of the National Gallery of Art, Abuja. Unfortunately, I cannot make it; certain things don't change when it comes to organizing stuff, from the Nigerian end. Nevertheless, I am curious about ARESUVA. Joe Musa, the Director of the NGA is the force behind the project, which I understand will include an exhibition of work by artists from many African countries, and several discussion panels on various aspects of contemporary art in Nigeria and Africa. The program, for an event organized by a Nigerian institution, is quite ambitious and I hope the organizers meet some of their expectations.
But I cannot help but call them out for what I see as clear case of sloppiness. In the list of invited artists, Sane Wadu from Kenya is listed under Cameroon; Odili Odita who was born in Nigeria and resident in the US, is listed as a South African artist; and the list has "two" artists from the Congo (DRC): one is "Isek Bodys" and the other is "Kingelez." In addition to many glaring misspellings of artists' names, someone ought to take a look at the ARESUVA website. It just does not speak well of everyone associated with the project.
Yet, ARESUVA is a bold effort especially in an environment that, since FESTAC 77, has shown a pathetic lack of ambition and vision in sphere of contemporary art. Joe Musa seems poised to shake up things, but all things considered, it is not going to be easy...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Senator John McCain's portrait

I could not but share this with anyone with the least interest in this season's US presidential elections. I have neither seen nor read a better unvarnished portrait of Mr. John McCain, whose "Straight Talk Express" clearly has gone off the road, badly damaged, and dire need of recycling, for the sake of the planet.