A look back on literary season
It’s a new year but book-wise, I am still in November, a month now firmly established as peak literary season in Nigeria. In November, writers and book lovers, already a restless and flighty pack, become even more migratory and flock to Lagos one week for the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF); and the next, they berth in Abeokuta. The sedate capital of Ogun State is fast becoming better known for the Ake Arts and Book Festival, which had its fourth edition in 2016. It all makes for a heady few weeks, such that writers and readers spend the best part of the following month coming down from the literary high of November.
It is all the more fascinating because this period of artistic intensity is not entirely exclusive to November, nor does it solely encompass literature and books. Film and visual art have a look in, and in a big way. Take 2016. The buzz of activity started early, with the Lagos International Poetry Festival (LIPFEST), held at Freedom Park, Lagos, from 26th to 30th October, 2016. It featured international and home-based poets including Sage Hasson, Kwame Dawes, Shailja Patel, Wana Udobang and Inua Ellams.
Some two weeks later, sitting in the Food Court in Freedom Park on November 13, just before catching a session on Olufemi Taiwo’s book, ‘Africa Must Be Modern’ (as part of LABAF) – I saw echoes of LIPFEST all around. Boards with lines of poetry from the previous month’s festival stood around the Food Court like an art installation, proving that literary season’s many programmes are part of a continuum.
November started with a bang with Art X Lagos. The only show in town on November 4 was the opening event, as all roads led to the iconic Civic Centre. It was a dizzying round of greetings and hurried and largely inconclusive mini-conversations, for there were still lots of art aficionados to interact with. There were also reunions. An unassuming lady in orange iro-and-buba was passing by quietly when it suddenly dawned on me. Sokari Douglas-Camp! Last seen by me in the flesh in London during Africa 05. She pushed into my hands several leaflets about the travelling art in honour of the late Ogoni activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, ‘Bus To Niger Delta: Road To Justice’. The bus has “been rotting away” at the Lagos port for some reason. Wouldn’t it be great if this tribute bus could have a glorious run in Saro-Wiwa’s homeland? No doubt the bus formed part of the soft-spoken Kalabari artist’s conversations at Art X, even more poignant in the wake of Ken Wiwa Jr’s death.
Another corner and another reunion, with Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, curator and director of ANO Ghana, an arts organisation based in Accra. We had been part of the African art crowd in London a decade ago, now since returned to our respective countries. Oforiatta-Ayim was part of the panel for the final talk event of Art X, in which Ghanaian artist El Anatsui – who is based in Nsukka, Nigeria – looked over his illustrious career. The highlight of day before was master printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya in conversation with curator Sandra Obiago. Onobrakpeya, vibrant and productive into his eighties, has held the Harmattan Workshop for artists in his hometown of Agbarha-Otor in Delta State for nearly 20 years. It therefore made for an interesting moment when, told that Harmattan Workshop alumnus Patrick Akpojotor won the first Art X Competition – Onobrakpeya drew a blank on being asked about the special qualities of the winner. When you’ve taught scores of younger artists over many decades, indeed, how was the man to know the outstanding qualities of each and every one?
Founded by Tokini Peterside and curated by Bisi Silva, Art X Lagos was touted as the first international art fair in West Africa; and featured 65 artists and 14 galleries from several countries. It held from 4th to 6th November. Let’s not forget that the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) also held in the same month, from 13th to 20th November, with Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ having a relatively controversy-free run as Opening Film. Soon, festival organisers will have to start liaising to ensure their dates don’t clash, so art lovers can enjoy November with ease.
Literary season kicked into top gear with the 16th edition of LABAF (10th to 13th November), peaking with the Ake Arts and Book Festival, which held on 15th to 19th November in Abeokuta. Founded by the poet and novelist Lola Shoneyin, the rise of Ake (as it is known for short) has made up for the demise of another major litfest, the Port Harcourt Book Festival (PHBF), once organized by Koko Kalango and her Rainbow Book Club. Originally known at the Garden City Literary Festival, Kalango’s PHBF ran for some six years from its inaugural edition in 2008, and enjoyed the unswerving support of the then Rivers State Government. PHBF and the Rainbow Book Club had their highest moment with the designation of Port Harcourt as UNESCO World Book Capital 2014.
It was to be the last hurrah, at least for now. In all the years of the Port Harcourt festival, there were questions and debates around how to endow it for sustainability and posterity. But it appears to have been all for nought, for the PHBF (once held around September/October) sank without trace in 2015, without a whimper, with not so much as a face-saving press release by way of explanation to book lovers.
Filling the gap most impressively is Ake Festival. Gracing the 2016 edition’s opening ceremony was the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Gbadebo III. A most refreshing traditional ruler who called out ‘Aluta’ like any self-respecting old student activist and referenced William Wordsworth in his speech, even disclosing that he had been to the poet’s Lake District home in the UK. Where will Teju Cole rub shoulders with Hadiza el-Rufai, wife to the Kaduna State Governor and whose first novel is out soon? Ake, of course. It’s where you’ll see South African Lebo Mashile jump up like dynamite on stage while performing her riotous poem, ‘Vulva Volcano’. Singer Brymo, writers NoViolet Bulawayo, Jennifer Makumbi, Sarah Ladipo-Manyika, Yewande Omotoso – they were all there.
Odafe Atogun’s debut novel (‘Taduno’s Song’) and his publishers (Ouida Books) were launched at Ake by none other than African literature giant, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. The closing event of Ake was magical, with a reading of Ngugi’s short story, ‘The Upright Revolution’, which had been translated into 55 languages. It was read first by him in Kikuyu and then by other writers in several languages including Igbo, Fulfude and Sheng – with poet Kola Tubosun supplying the icing on the cake of the 56th translation on the night, in Yoruba, to wild applause.
So much for 2016. Let the activities commence towards the 2017 literary season.