Controversy and the National Arts Theatre in Lagos

The theater, built by the military and finished in time for FESTAC in 1977, has always been a site of public disagreement.

The National Arts Theater in Lagos, Nigeria. Image: Wiki Commons.

The National Arts Theatre is visible from the motorway system which connects Lagos Island and the mainland: an iconic modern structure which rises, it is often noted, like the peak of a military cap from the surrounding parkland. On the first day of the four-day Eid public holiday there are no arts to be seen: the theatre and the art gallery operating within are both closed for business, guarded by relaxed-looking men in military uniform. The park is full of children walking, running, sitting, playing; smartly dressed children shooed by their mother, clip-clopping along the pavements; colorful stands sell snacks and drinks; miniature bottles of liquor scattered in the grass. This enthusiastic misuse of the site reflects some of the reasons for which it has, in the last two decades, become a huge problem for the Federal and State Governments.

The Theatre was built during the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo, by a construction firm working from a plan of the Palace of Culture and Sports in Vama, and finished in time for the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977. Until recently the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) printed elegant and ambitious books of Nigerian, African and international black culture from an office in the Theatre. The sale of the building in 2001 was a significant part of Obasanjo’s program of privitization when he returned to power as Nigeria’s elected President. The idea of the sale prompted furious protests from many Nigerians. Wole Soyinka, whose fable of abusive sovereignty, King Baabu, premiered at the theatre the same year, said “You can liken this to a horrendous fate suffered by the black race, pauperized and victimized by public office holders who transform power into an instrument of repression and oppression”.

Having failed to convince the public that privitisation would be beneficial, but nevertheless still incapable of fulfilling the ambition of the site’s original architects, buoyed by the oil boom of the 70s and inspired by a program of cultural nationalism and black internationalism, the state has remained an unhappy steward of the site. The theatre appears to have lost its status as a beacon of cultural nationalism: there’s a National Gallery of traditional arts, two cinemas showing films. Try-outs for the popular tv dance competition, the Maltina Dance All happen in one of the cinemas; the main auditorium has been closed for decades.

In April this year, a new controversy around the use of the Theatre site arose, and quickly became emblematic of the fraught relationship between culture and development in Lagos. This April there were more rumblings after rumours circulated that the National Theatre would be sold by the Federal Government and replaced by a five-star hotel. Following an outraged response, the Lagos State Government promised to challenge the federal government’s decision. The federal government eventually made it clear that they were proposing the development of land surrounding the theatre — where the Lagos Rail Mass Transit Project is already under construction — into a hotel, restaurants, offices, shopping malls.

On one of the plots adjoining the Theatre lies the Artistes Village. A “para-statal” organisation, the village was built by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation on land set aside for use in FESTAC and intended to become a vibrant part of the city. This is one of the communities threatened by the state government’s plans for redevelopment of the National Theatre site. The village offers a valuable example of the resilience of culture in Lagos, whose artists are given little support in from the state, showing the resilience necessary to survive and create.

Aremo Tope Babayemi, aka Baba Tee, (pictured above) is busy preparing to leave for the Osun festival but before he leaves he has come to welcome us to the Artistes Village, where he is the coordinator. Baba Tee, who tells us he was the original percussionist for UB40, also runs a performance space, The Little Theatre. One of the first institutions in the village, it was built in 1986 and holds regular events. As with most of the activities of the village, their performances are open to outsiders but primarily made for the extended community of artists.

Baba Tee sees the village as a rare example of a community which supports itself; he says about his younger colleagues, Jude Udueni and Shaggy Don: “if they were lesser men they’d be out doing “419” [email scams], pimping, robbing.” Instead they are Chairman and Secretary of the village, both writers who have been working at the village since it started properly in 1996.

The artists in the Village see the government as out of touch, “officials in plush offices with no sense of artistic energy.” While the National Theatre stands, in one minister’s memorable phrase, as a “gigantic empty shell”, here in the Artistes Village an creative community has been living for the last twenty years. “This is where the content is.”

Sixty people — not only artists but dancers, writers, sculptors, musicians, animationists and filmmakers — work in the village. In addition to the many artists’ spaces, there are three recording studios, six dance studios, a theatre school and a run-down National Art Gallery which contains relics from FESTAC. Jude says the government gives the artists subsidised rent, “the only thing we all enjoy.” They say FESTAC Town, originally built to house the FESTAC visitors, is too expensive for most artists. Even those unaffordable streets are now neglected, its internet cafes are now the epicentre of the “419” email scams.

The government’s threat to concession the land on which the Village is built represents, Baba Tee says, “a failure of management on behalf of government: too much and too little: instead of admitting it they put in political appointees and expect results. They put us in double jeopardy. The presidency are imposing this executive recklessness.”

The artists circulated news of a protest about the plans on July 29th, which took place in the style of the Turkish duran adam (standing man) protest. This idea came from Tümay Kilincel, a German-Turkish dancer-choreographer who was staying in the village while on a teaching fellowship in Lagos. The protest was well documented in the Nigerian media, whose busy association building is conveniently nearby.

We walk down the shaded corridors of the studio complex, past a small courtyard wherecolourful costumes are drying in the sun, and turn into a room in which three men and a woman are moving, almost too much for the small space, choreographed to a remix of Beggin’ by Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. This is the Emmanuel family, preparing for their next audition on the Maltina Dance All. As we watch them Jude explains that he sees the village as a kind of laboratory, where practitioners of different kinds of arts can meet and collaborate.

In another corner of the village an unguarded door onto a workshop presents work by a sculptor from Benin (pictured below): animal and human figures carved out of wood. There are several FESTAC masks, named after the mask originally used for the festival’s logo.

I ask about the government office on site, charged with running the complex, and the artists say “we have a good relationship with them, but they are government. They are breaching the national contract of arts and culture.”

The artists see Chief Edem Duke, the Minister for Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, doing little for the arts. In a city which has seen rapid and noisy development in business and enterprise, unprofitable activities struggle to make a claim for themselves.

Walking back past the entrance to the village we encounter the recording artist Zule Zoo singing with his friends, one playing the guitar, some dancing, some sitting. While we listen to them sing I talk to Jude about his practice, making theatre for school-children.

We enter the workshop of a sculptor introduced as Mr Smart, whose negative moulds covered the floor with dismembered limbs. The only finished work visible was a small prototype model of a shackled slave, highly varnished.

Mr Smart (pictured below), who has been working in the village since 2009, believes the government threaten to concession the village land “would show they are ignorant and unserious”.

“All my years here I’ve never sold anything to someone walking by. Working with performing artists has inspired me a lot. I have used shots of them with my work. We all work together. This is the only place you get the visual arts, performing artists, producers all together.”

The value of the village, it seems, is not its economics but the strength of its community which the government subsidy — and the artists’ determination — makes possible.

“The government didn’t bring you here. They’ve been messing with FESTAC Town from day one. It’s meant to be the original artists village. This is just an incidental artists village.”

As we leave Mr Smart asks my companion, “where are you from?” And then adds, with a model-maker’s eye for form, “I like your nose.”

Out the back of the studio another man is working on a fiber-glass bust. Behind him runs a canal, full of rubbish, an oil patina sparkling in the midday sun, and a pig wades through, its snout held just above the water, navigating between refuse. The government now claim the artists have failed to take care of their area, using this excuse to validate their attempt to repurpose the land. In the Village, however, there is much evidence that its inhabitants care for their private and communal spaces.

We find Benjamin Graves (also pictured below), his hands lined with cement, fixing the step outside his studio. He’s lived in the village since 2001, but his studio is more recent, and reflects his new interest in music production. Once a dancer with the national dance troupe he has started to record tracks, which he describes as Afro hip-hop; he plays us one on his computer, dancing in the tight space of the cubicle with serious intensity.

As we leave the village on the road leading back to the National Theatre, we encounter a man wearing a furry waistcoat who is introduced to us as Jolof Rice, a clown, and he dances past us, making lewd gestures.

In recent interviews, Chief Edem Duke, the minister leading the case for redevelopment, has spoken out against the current use of the theatre site.

“I am a bit a flustered when I saw that the National Theatre Lagos has become a den for all kinds of unholy activities, the environment completely compromised and has become a habitat for hoodlums and undesirable elements,” he lamented.

Anecdotes such as this one from the Nigerian daily newspaper, This Day — an account of corruption by pseudo-officials working on the theatre site — correlates Chief Duke’s story. But the minister insistently confuses that corruption with the resistance of the Village.

The minister said, “If they are proper artistes, they would not be dwelling in that kind of squalour and projecting an outward façade that they are creative people when that place is literally being turned into a brothel of some sort. That must not be a benchmark for artistes for Nigerian community.”

Culture in Lagos has a precarious relation to the rapid development of business and construction. It is difficult to be optimistic about the government’s plans for new construction in a city where a thriving community like the Village is threatened with destruction to make way for a luxury hotel. In time that hotel may have its own art gallery, as several hotels in Lagos do, but it would be unlikely to offer artists the diverse and invaluable support they receive in the Village. The state’s attempt to clear the “undesirable elements” out of the National Theatre site and prepare the way for a new cultural quarter, may destroy a rare community which exists for culture and where culture exists for the community.

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