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Aké Arts and Book Festival… Changing the literary narrative

By Florence Utor
12 December 2021   |   4:12 am
The Aké Arts and Book Festival is a yearlyliterary, cultural, and arts event. It was founded in 2013 by the Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin, in Abeokuta.

Festival director, Shoneyin

The Aké Arts and Book Festival is a yearly literary, cultural, and arts event. It was founded in 2013 by the Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin, in Abeokuta. Although it features new and established writers from across the world, its focus has been to promote, develop and celebrate creativity on the African continent in diverse genres. And to also have a place where intellectuals and thinkers can come together and talk about African issues on African soil.

Named after Aké, a town in Abeokuta, Ogun State, where Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature, Wole Soyinka, was born, the first edition was held at the Cultural Centre, Kuto, Abeokuta, from November 19 to 24, 2013. The theme of the festival was The Shadow of Memory. One of its major highlights was an event titled, The Shadow of Memory, where four young Nigerians, under the age of 21, had the opportunity to quiz the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka on his life and times.

Guests were A. Igoni Barrett, Abraham Oshoko, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Adepero Oduye, Aita Ighodaro, Akweake Zara Emezi, Ayesha Pande, Alan Bisset, Ayisha Osori, Ayodele Morocco-Clarke, Ayodele Olofintuade,  Funmi Iyanda, Godwin Alabi Isama, Ikhide Ikheloa, Iquo, among others.

In 2014, the second edition was held from November 18 to 22, 2014, with the theme, Bridges and Pathways. The unending list of invited guests were Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Ayisha Osori, Ayodele Morocco-Clarke, Ayodele Olofintuade, Ayo Sogunro, Barnaby Phillips, Bassey Ikpi, Ben Aaronovitch, Beverley Nambozo, Binyavanga Wainaina, Bisi Adeleye Fayemi, Bryony Rheam, Bwesigye Mwesigire and  others.

So, it was with the 2015 edition themed, Engaging the Fringe, which held between November 17 and 21. It had in attendance more than 80 writers, visual and performing artistes, researchers and scholars from across the world. The official opening ceremony was held on Wednesday, November 18, 2016, and it featured speeches from the Executive Governor of Ogun State, Ibikunle Amosun, the European Union Ambassador to Nigeria and ECOWAS Michel Arrion, as well as the Director of Marine Platforms, Baji Nyam. The festival was headlined by the poet Niyi Osundare, and other notable writers present included Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainaina, Mona Elthahawy, Chris Abani, Véronique Tadjo, Pierre Cherruau, E. C. Osondu, Taiye Selasi, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Nnedi Okorafor.

The edition featured exhibitions of photographs titled ,Margins and Marginalisation by Andrew Esiebo and Shadows and Dreams by Tyna Adebowale. Hear Word, a play directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa, was staged at the event.

Guests were A. Igoni Barrett, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Adeeko Ibukun, Adeola Fayehun, Adeola Opeyemi, Ainehi Edoro (of Brittle Paper), Aye-Ola Mabiaku, Ayodele Morocco-Clarke and others.

The theme of the 2016 edition was “Beneath this Skin”, and it was held from November 15 and 19. It was headlined by the Kenyan writer Ngugiĩ wa Thiong’o.

It featured art exhibitions, Cultural Dysmorphia by Ayobola Kekere Ekun and Bits of Borno by Fatima Abubakar. It also featured a play, Iyalode of Eti, adapted for the stage by Debo Oluwatuminu and directed by Moji Kareem and Femi Elufowoju, jr. The play was inspired by John Webster’s masterpiece The Duchess of Malfi.

The Festival Film was Hissene Habre, a Chadian tragedy by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, its screening followed by an interview with Clement Abaifouta, president of the Chadian Victim’s Association, which fought to bring Hissene Habre to justice.

The fifth edition had a number of other events, including the launch of Saraba magazine’s inaugural print issue and the presentation of prizes for the Nommo Awards.

The Sixth edition in 2018 was themed, Fastastic Features. For the first time since its maiden edition in 2013, Ake Festival was held in Lagos from October 25 to 28 2018, at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Ikeja Lagos. The theme focused on events and conversations on the ideal future of Africa. The edition celebrated Africa’s art in photography and art exhibitions of young African artists like Abdulkareem Baba, Eloghosa Osunde, Isma’il Shomala, and Roye Okupe.

The poetry evening session featured season African poets like Nick Makoha, Logan February, Saddiq Dzukogi, Inua Elams, Ishion Hutchinson, Wana Udobang, Nastio Mosquito and Theresa Lola.

Attendees were also treated to a drama adapted from the book Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives authored by founder of the festival, Lola Soneyin, as well as festival films featured plays like Rafiki; a Kenyan drama film directed by Kahui, Her Broken Shadow by Dilman Dila amongst a host of other interesting films.

One of the interesting sessions of the festival was writing workshop titled, Getting Started on that Novel by author and screenwriter Ben Aaronovitch, who gave emerging African writers useful tips on how to write the best fictional novel.

Other events like panel discussions and memory room titled, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, which was hailed as a ‘landmark exhibition’ which ‘exploded the myth of the dark continent’ lighted the festival with its peak during festival’s concert by perennial guest artists in Salawa Abeni and Brymo and others.

The seventh edition in 2019 was themed Black Bodies/Grey Matter featuring about 120 guests, over 500 attendees, 17 panel discussions, 12 book chats, three Workshops, one interactive session, art exhibition, eat the book and a launch of Waterbirds On The Lakeshore (Afro Young Adult Anthology by Goethe Institut, published by Ouida Books).

The poetry evening session featured seasoned African poets like Logan February, D’bi Young Anitafrika, Wana Udobang, Tanya Evanson, TJ Dema and Onias Landveld. A solo performance by Tope Tedela was also featured at the festival.

The festival films featured a documentary by Nadine Ibrahim, which is about tribal marks in Nigeria, Malaika; an animated film by Roye Okupe and Toni Morrison’s The Pieces I Am.

Three writing workshops took place simultaneously during the festival, titled “Fiction-Writing”, “Storytelling With Film” and “Culture Journalism” with brilliant facilitators like Nicole Dennis-Benn, Jennifer Makumbi and Sulaiman Addonia – for Fiction-Writing, Adepero Oduye, Nadine Ibrahim and Tolu Ajayi – For Storytelling With Film and Gary Younge, Adrian Harewood and Nichelle Smith – For Culture Journalism.

In attendance were a wide array of guests including Ayobami Adebayo, Nnedi Okorafor, Mona Eltahawy, Tsitsi Dangarembga and others.

The eight edition of the festival, themed African Time, which was earlier announced to be scheduled for Lagos, from October 22 to 25 2020 was moved online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though online, the festival was still awash with exciting content day one starting with poetry with Wana Udabong as host because it was the time for Africa as they took participants through a journey round the world with the most talented poets from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Jamaica, UK, Uganda, Senegal, Sudan, Kenya and Algeria. The poets in attendance were Jubir Malick,Vanessa Kissule,Titilope Sonuga, D’bi Young Anitafrika, Samira Negrouche and others.

NO doubts, this year’s Ake Arts and Books Festival has left remarkable feeling in the minds of arts enthusiats. The festival featured 30 events, including book chats, panel discussions, documentary and film screenings, a poetry video album, an art show-case and a music concert. The festival curated five intergenerational conversations that reflected the 2021 festival, Generational Discordance.
The three-day festival featured ‘The Life and Times Series’ event with Booker-Prize shortlisted author, Maaza Mengiste, in a conversation with the festival headliner, Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was announced as the winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. 

Gurnah, a Tanzanian author, spoke about the invasion of East Africa and noted that until recently, most conversations about colonial presence in Africa had always excluded Germany. The Nobel Laureate, however, used his novel as a medium to narrate how Germany established colonies in present-day Namibia, Cameroun, Togo, parts of Tanzania and Kenya as well as Rwanda and Burundi.
According to him, German colonial rule was as brutal as colonial enterprises were in an era known for its oppression and violence. The author, in Afterlives noted that it was Germany that perpetrated the first genocide of the 20th Century in 1904 and 1908 respectively. The genocide was part of a campaign of ethnic extermination and collective punishment waged by the German Empire against the Herero, the Name and the San in German South West Africa (now Namibia).

Commenting on this year’s theme; ‘Generational Discordance’, founder and Director of the festival, Lola Shoneyin, said the Internet has amplified generational differences in almost every area of African life. “From relationships, love and marriage; spirituality and religion; gender and feminism to politics and activism, the differences in perspective are glaring. Where earlier generations of Africans are anchored to their cultural identities, our younger compatriots see themselves as a part of a globalised world. It is easy to assume that our aspirations are poles apart but they are not. Africa cannot afford the luxury of endless culture wars,” she said. 
“Engagement and communication – characterised by a willingness to listen – as well as mutual respect and empathy are what will face down the retrogressive forces and the structures and systems that oppress and dehumanize us. We must eschew the sensationalism and divisive influence of digital algorithms and find a more harmonious continental rhythm that allows us to talk to, and not past, each other,” she remarked.
Some of the book discussed include Bring Back Our Girls by Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson; Lionheart Girl by Yaba Badoe; His Only Wife by Peace Medie; Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi; Prince of Monkeys by Nnamdi Ehirim; An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon; Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi; Born in Blackness by NYT columnist Howard French; When the Sky is Ready The Stars Will Appear by EC Osondu; The Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Dorkoa Sekyiamah and The Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon.

Alongside the intergenerational conversations, panel discussions also focused on African crime-writing, conspiracy theories and healthcare; disability rights and repatriating Africa’s stolen treasures, with discussions moderated by Harper Collins’ (UK) Nancy Adimora, which explored Of This Our Country; a new collection of essays and reflections by 24 Nigerian writers. 

In her closing remarks, Shoneyin commended Sterling Bank for their support. She said, having the bank by their side makes their heads swell. “From their commitment to the belief in the transformative power of our stories and for helping us document and archive our ideas, we thank you, she explained”
She said Ake Festival is the envy of cultural entrepreneurs and organisations across the African continent, adding that the financial institution has become the code word for companies that support the Arts with sincerity of purpose. 

Also speaking, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer (MD/CEO) of Sterling Bank Plc, Abubakar Suleiman, said the bank has continued to support Africa’s biggest literary festival because education is one of the five sectors that the bank is currently concentrating investments in. The other sectors are health, agriculture, renewable energy and transportation.

Virtual visitors enjoyed interviews with Denrele Sonariwo of Rele Gallery and Ade Bantu, Founder of Afropolitan Vibes.

So far, the festival has proved its mettle as it has met all its requirements as it gathers Africa’s finest artists of all genres. That has helped to broaden young writers horizon, opened their minds to more possibilities it has also given young artists an environment to showcase their talents with little or no fear because they are with like minds. There is no doubt some younger attendees must have found mentors that they look up to or that are ready to nurture them to greatness.