74 Garlands For Nigeria’s Stage, Screen Matriarch

 Taiwo Ajai-Lycett

Taiwo Ajai-Lycett

Last year when the Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL) inaugurated its celebration series to draw attention to sectors of the economy that setting new standards of performance, many wondered what the founder Prof. Pat Utomi was up to. This reason was still not clear, even as the idea unfolded until the outfit began to attract the arrowheads of blue chip companies, whose organisations have made great impact on the economy to talk on their sectors.

The ICT and telecom sector blazed the trail before focus was shifted to the entertainment industry, with specially attention on Nigerian movies and music. This sector got the attention of CVL because of its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This was how the showbiz sector got the centre’s attention at its 23rd Leadership Without Title (LWT) colloquium in honour of Mrs. Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, the matriarch of Nigerian stage and screen.

With moderation from Utomi, the colloquium theme was ‘Music, Culture and National Image: New Ways Of Projecting Power’. The panelists were playwright and culture communicator, Ben Tomoloju, veteran actress Joke Silva, Executive Programme Director, Culture Advocates Caucus (CAC), Jahman Oladejo Anikulapo and actor Reginald Chiedu Ofodile.

In kicking off the discuss with sub-topic, Why Did It Take So Long For Nigerian Government To Recognise Culture As An Economic Tool And For Diplomacy, Anikulapo said culture had suffered setbacks because of its nature. While describing those in power as philistines, he said government officials were afraid of the power of art in diplomacy. He recalled the role Nigerian government played during Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77) held in 1977, saying Nigeria had a template, which other countries in Africa copied and were still following to sustain their art and culture sector. Anikulapo noted that Nigeria organised the festival so lavishly that no country in Africa is willing to host it, for fear of not being able to equal the high standard Nigeria set, adding that until the people in government go back to the nation’s culture policy, the country would continue to lose revenue.

The CAC Executive Programme Director disabused the minds of those who believe that FESTAC 77 imported strange gods and evil spirits to the country, saying such people were not well informed about culture.

In corroborating Anikulapo’s views, Mr. Tomoloju hinted that culture is the totality of a people’s life. He stressed that festivals such as Durbar, boat regattas and masquerade dances showcase the spiritual lives of the people, and said western education placed higher premium on incidental art without going deep into the Nigerian art. He invoked memories of how the colonial government dealt with Hubert Ogunde by banning him from performing in public space, and informed that the die-hard artiste took his performance to his local church, market and village squares, where he related to the people better.

The art advocate called for the construction of cultural cottage centres across the country, and cited India as country that has used cottage theatres to improve the lots of its people. He stated that Nigeria has the blueprint to also achieve that feat, but for the lackadaisical attitude of the nation’s policymakers that have made such projects unrealisable. Tomoloju stressed that cultural arts from the common ‘mama put’ to fashion and theatre have contributed so much to the economy in terms of job creation and transfer of values. He called stakeholders in show business to up their standard so as to make their acts to match global standards and to stand the test of time.

 All cheers for the screen matriarch...  Mr. Ben Tomoloju (left); Prof. Pat Utomi; Ajai-Lycett (yellow headgear, middle) and others toasting to her health

All cheers for the screen matriarch… Mr. Ben Tomoloju (left); Prof. Pat Utomi; Ajai-Lycett (yellow headgear, middle) and others toasting to her health

In his submission, Ofodile said these were times where activities that do not bring in immediate rewards are regarded as useless. He observed that corporate bodies sponsor or support those genres of art (hip hop) that bring in money to them than theatre or those similar to it that entrench wholesome values in society.

For Silva, there was a paradigm shift in the way art and culture is appreciated. According to the actress, people moved to different parts of the world during the economic downturn and because of the hard times, they began to look inward, to export what is theirs. She opined that stakeholders in the sector should constantly draw the attention of government to the need for the right structure and policies to be put in place.

Silva stated that currently Americans use their art to colonise Africans young minds, adding that this was being done through films, which are also used to retell their stories with which they sell American perspective and culture to the rest of the world. She highlighted the importance of the sector, and noted that art and culture have contributed immensely in promoting Nigeria’s image abroad.

Silva recounted some of her experiences abroad, and informed that President Joseph Kabila of Sierra-Leone used the slogan ‘igwe’ from Nigerian movies and also spotted the Igbo traditional dress in his campaign posters. She said Nigerian artistes were accorded respect outside the shores, but at home the reverse was the case.

ALSO speaking on the value placed on Nigerian art and culture, Anikulapo opined that independent culture workers were doing a lot to promote the Nigerian art, but that governments was yet to really looked in that direction. In expressing the hopelessness of the situation, the CORA Programme Chair noted that British Council, Goethe Institut or World Bank usually led the way while Nigeria’s government slumbered on in indifference. He said while some concerned Nigerians had done the mapping and calendar for Nigerian art government was yet to adopt them. Anikulapo commednded the governments of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and former President Goodluck Jonathan for their interventions and efforts to promote art and culture, as they were able to map out policies on art and culture. However, those concerned with implementation of the policies were yet to sit up.

Also for Tomoloju, building cottage theatres across the country was key to changing the art space. The playwright reiterated that Americans conquered USSR with the use of their films, which were employed, as diplomatic tools. He noted that building 774 cottage theatres across the country with seating capacities of 250 people or more will not only create jobs, but will serve as platforms to teach culture to the young ones.

On the role of social enterprise, Silva called on actors and actresses to embrace the right skills for the job. She emphasised on the need to build skills and teach young people how to move the sector forward. Also a producer, Silva observed that paper qualification would lead nowhere and harped on the need for parents to make their children take short courses that would build their skills.

For filmmaker, Mahmoud Ali-Balogun civil servants were frustrating the implementation of the culture policy. While former President Jonathan made positive efforts to move the film industry forward, he said some of the artistes working with him frustrated his efforts. He noted that there was lack of understanding of what art and culture policy was and until it was made clear, the sector would continue to be foggy. Nevertheless, he called on stakeholders to mount pressure on government to make the policy on culture see the light of the day. He also asked fellow culture workers to begin advocacy programmes that would shed more light on the policy.

Also on advocacy, Anikulapo stated that the culture policy was not working because civil servant saw it as their meal ticket. He sued for advocacy. As a way forward, he called for regular town and gown meeting, with seasoned actors and actresses going to universities to teach for a semester or more. He recalled that Prof. Wole Soyinka used the same technique when he brought Mr. Kola Ogunmola to teach at the University of Ibadan.

On her part, the honoree Ajai-Lycett noted that it was only in Nigeria that people were not aware of the value of entertainment, what showbiz people do, the fact that artistes can inspire, galvanise people, make people think and generally switch on lights in people’s mind.

She said, “People think entertainment is about play-acting and as such not a serious business. I consider acting possibly the most serious thing in the world, particularly because it encompasses virtually the whole facets of life. A scientist is a scientist, but a scientist can be so narrow-minded and just focuse on his own specialty. But an actor has to have an open mind.

“Well, I know the word generalist may sound demeaning, and not quite the sort of thing, but a generalist is not necessarily a bad thing because it means that you can see many different facets of the same thing. You straddle the whole spectrum of issues; you have to have an open mind; you have to have the ability to be in other people’s shoes, and you have to be acting clear”.

She harped on the need to use art and culture to further project the country, tell the African story and leverage on its importance to improve the nation’s economy. As she put it, “I feel show business is in a position now to start telling the African story from the African perspective. It is incumbent on us to have that voice, to say this is who we are rather that other people telling us who we are. So the responsibility is enormous and I think it is time we start doing something about it.

“Art is a tool that we need to use to reorient our people, to encourage them, to inspire them to great heights, to make them know about their inheritance and of, course, provide jobs and improve the economy. We are actors because we want to project ideas, ideas that will change the world”.

She also spoke on the challenges facing the industry, “A lot of people went to universities, but they are not educated. They have PhD, but they have no idea what to do with it. This is a country that is generally greedy. So, if you tell them (corporate sponsors) that the only reason you are in show business is to make money, they will not take you seriously because they can’t see through your shallowness. You have to be in showbiz (entertainment industry) because you have something to contribute, not just because you just want to be rich.

“We are not dumb as artistes, but if all we are doing is allowing those who just want to have fame and be celebrity to have free reign, and be speaking for us, nobody will take us seriously. We as entertainers, as artistes, have to take ourselves seriously”.

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