Deep As The Ocean… celebrating Oba Gbenga Sonuga at 70
OBA Gbenga Sonuga, Fadesewa of Simawa, in Makun Sagamu, Ogun State clocked 70 yesterday. Activities lined-up to mark the septuagenarian’s birthday started yesterday at the Freedom Park, Lagos Island with a photo exhibition running all week; the formal book launch, theatre performances by the Lagos State Council for Art and Culture and the National Troupe, an evening screening of SALT, and a night of music entertainment by the likes of the legendary Tunji Oyelana, Highlife by Victor Uwaifo among others.
Oba Sonuga’s friends, family and fans turned out en mass yesterday to witness presentation of the art and culture aficionado’s photo autobiography titled Deep As the Ocean at Freedom Park.
Before being crowned Oba, Fadesewa of Simawa, in Makun Sagamu, Oba Gbenga Sonuga, sometimes fondly called ‘OBA ART & CULTURE’ or BABA CULTURE was the Director for the Lagos State Council for Art and Culture. In his autobiography, he recounts his experience, and viewpoints as a heritage of historical photography that pans over 70 years. The launch also gave birth to what the monarch proposed to become an annual lecture on the importance of retaining our essence of Art & Culture particularly in its affectation of community building, and the selection and election of leaders.
Oba Gbenga Sonuga has long been a voice for change and excellence in the Arts & Culture scene, having been under the tutelage of Prof Wole Soyinka, whom he fondly calls ‘Mon Prof’, then working under Demas Nwoko for a decade at the New Culture Studios in Ibadan, then running a film company called 4Reels, before becoming the director of the council under the late Governor Mudasiru where he served for another ten years.
As Director, he produced a touring performance of Ori by the state troupe to the United States, he also wrote and produced a play for the World Decade for Cultural Development, declared by the UN via UNESCO in 1989 called SALT, which was rehearsed for three months and then performed for one night only at the National Theatre Main Bowl where few have been privileged to perform. After formal public service, he founded the International Centre for the Arts, Lagos (ICAL).
Remembering the performance at the National Theatre, Oba ‘Art & Culture’ bemoaned the under-investment and limited patronage in the area of arts and Nigerian culture, citing the under utilization of the National Theatre as a big example. SALT, he said, was performed in the Main Bowl of the theatre, which has now fallen into disrepair, and never shown again.
In celebration of his 70th birthday, he hopes to premier the video recording of the play – SALT for the first time ever since its performance in 1989. The National Theatre, the monarch declares, is a national heritage and should be brought back to the standard needed to support long running performances and shows in the main bowl and annex halls. He said it was a shame that the artistes having worked so hard and rehearsed for three months, never got to perform that play again. In the audience then were General Mohammed Buhari, Governor Mudasiru and the Late General Sani Abacha amongst other dignitaries.
On why he wrote and produced the play, he mentioned the adage ‘of being the Salt of the earth’, that nothing in life is sweet without Salt. “And art and culture is like the salt of life. Without it we can never truly enjoy life. Leadership without an appreciation for art and recognition of local culture is prone to all sorts of gaffes and misdeeds. Followership outside of a cultural context appropriate for instance to Nigerians only fosters an identity of individuals and communities that are alien to the local sensitivities of our surroundings.
“They will never truly fit in well, like a square peg in a round hole. Trying to shoehorn western ideals of leadership without application of our Nigerian culture of selecting leaders with a good head through consistent demonstration of leadership in their communities leaves much to be desired. Obas and Baales and community leaders have a strong role to play.”
Recalling his time at the council in Lagos, he edited and published one of the first dedicated books on Lagos Life & culture to wide and global acclaim. It serves as major feature on the coffee table of many lovers and residents of Lagos today. Oba Gbenga is truly a living legend and cultural icon in Nigerian Art & cultural history.
Recollecting how he came to be Director for art and culture, he fondly cited that that was the only job he ever applied for, and the only one he ever got. However, it was not all smooth sailing as he did not get the job for another three years because it transpired that the then governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Jakande did not want to give the job to someone from outside Lagos. Then he was still at New Culture Studios, with Demas Nwoko. But following the coup in 1983, and the appointment of Colonel Mudasiru, the job became his because he was deemed the most qualified for the job at the time. Smiling, he recalled the Late Chief Segun Olusola calling him to say someone in Lagos clearly wanted to give him a job because the wanted advert literally published and read like his personal resume, asking for 10 years experience in art and culture, and international exposure amongst other things.
By then, he had successfully taken a troupe to FESTAC 77, where working with him then was the current DG of the National Troupe of Nigeria, Akin Adejuwon. As Director of the council, he would go on to work with and often help shape many of today’s greats in theatre and film; Otunba Sola Fosudo, Mufu Onifade, Toyin Gbajumo, where they performed the play ‘Ori’ meaning head of destiny. The philosophical undertones of the play were that the greatness of the nation was key to having a ‘good head’ at its helm of leadership.