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French culture mission gets its groove back

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor (Editor, Arts and Culture)
14 August 2019   |   4:22 am
Is the Lagos art scene thriving or dying? It may be doing both, depending on where you look. Blue-chip culture centres and galleries are expanding, and a surprising number of international facilities are opening here, too.

Adenuga and Macron When the Globacom boss was awarded French national honour

Is the Lagos art scene thriving or dying? It may be doing both, depending on where you look. Blue-chip culture centres and galleries are expanding, and a surprising number of international facilities are opening here, too. However, many of them are equally in survival mode, facing rising and unpaid rents.

It seemed the city is breaking out in culture centre since it gained fame as West Africa’s art capital. The city is now home to a thriving creative scene that rivals those of New York, Dublin, Paris, London, Berlin and Rome.

The Alliance Française (AF) on Osborne Road, Ikoyi, is gradually becoming an epicenter ofthe city’s culture explosion since its emergence in 2018.The centre has also been intertwined with the pursuit of foreign relations since the 19th century. The practice is highly informed by the belief that culture in diplomacy possesses potential for enormous influence.

Not only is it attracting patronage, the French culture mission centre has become a new rallying ground for the discovery of new talent. Notwithstanding, it is also helping in the development of new collectors, those with independent taste and a sense of risk-taking.

Its main vehicles are exhibitions in the visual, literary and performing arts, interpersonal communication achieved through exchanges of artists, journalists, writings, filmmakers, cultural workers, teachers and instructors or through lectures, symposia, seminars conferences, competitions and accession to treaties designed to promote mutual interests and improve understanding.

Nigeria currently hosts so many foreign agencies, whose mission is to promote their language and protect their culture, which many of these agencies engage in.Following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, the French Government sought to repair the nation’s shattered prestige by promoting its language and literature through L’Alliance Francaise, created in 1883.

The projection of French culture abroad thus became a significant component of French diplomacy. Other countries such as Italy, Germany, Britain, and the United States followed suit.For instance, the activities of the British Council; German Goethe Institute; United States Information Service (USIS) (now defunct) were all aimed at penetrating host countries through lectures, films, libraries, press, cultural and academic exchanges and other means without having to go through the rigors of normal diplomatic practice.

On May 31, 2019, when the New York-based, Nigerian fine art photographer, Iké Udé’s solo photography show opened at Alliance Française at Mike Adenuga Centre, 9, Osborne Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, it received critical acclaim.

The exclusive preview was attended by art connoisseurs, members of the Nollywood industry and top corporate gurus including Mrs. Bella Adenuga Disu, an Executive Director at Globacom, Sandra Obiago, a renowned Curator, Osahon Akpata, Project Manager of the Nollywood Portraits, Actors Sadiq Daba, Ozzy Agu, Uti Nwachukwu and Eku Edewor.

Titled, Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty, the exhibition is showcased 64 enthralling portraits of members of Nigeria’s vibrant movie scene, Nollywood. According to Maurice Chapot, Chargé de mission culturelle / Cultural Coordinator Alliance Française de Lagos, the centre “is aiming at promoting French and francophone cultures through regular screenings, concerts and shows featuring French and francophone artists. For instance, in November, Alliance Française Lagos will partner with the French Institute and the French Embassy to present French Connexion, a digital related event featuring the best of French and Nigerian production in the field of digital creation (VR, video games, dance, animation, music, etc).”

He continued, “as a Nigerian-run association, Alliance Française Lagos also aims at supporting the local talents in music, dance and fine arts through monthly exhibitions, residencies and performances making the most of the new Mike Adenuga Centre where AF Lagos will be operating for the 10 years to come thanks to the vision and support of Mike Adenuga (dance studio, auditorium, gallery space, amphitheatre).”

He continued, the centre would partner with major festivals in Lagos this autumn, including Ake Festival, Lagos Photo Festival, Lagos Fringe, Lagos Design Week among others, thus, “positioning itself as a new cultural hub in Lagos.

“The exhibitions presented at centre so far were not only photographic exhibitions, some installations were presented as well, including a pop up exhibition showcasing the works produced during the two weeks residence of French art students from Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Art de Paris-Cergy and Nigerian students from Yaba Tech and Nsukka University in April.”

This is not the first time the culture mission is intervening positively in the culture space of Nigeria. Back in the 1990s to the early 2000, when the French Cultural Centre wasn’t just about French language teaching alone, many Nigerian artists got their groove on. Then it was located on Alfred Rewane Road, Ikoyi.

In 1994, the French Cultural Centre, Lagos, organised a workshop on dance, where Claude Brumachon and Benjamin Larmache were invited to impart on Nigerian choreographers and dancers Europeans dance concept.

The workshop had over 300 dancers in attendance, but only seven were selected to participate in the artist-in-residence programme at the Centre Choreographique National de Nantes, France, in 1995.The seven successful dancers were Abel Utuedor, Faith Benson, Abubakar Usman, Esther Olaniyan (now Esther Abubakar Usman), Adebayo Liadi, Bayo Ogunrinade and Christopher Abdul Onibasa (now Christopher Emmanuel Onibasa).

These dancers went on tour of West Africa and France in 1996 with a dance piece choreographed by Brumachon titled, When the gods go crying.During the years between the first contemporary dance workshop and the birth of the first festival in the country —Danse Meets Dance (DMD) Festival —the genre has grown much bigger and more complicated than the origin would have suggested.

DMD, which started in 2001, was first organised and run by the French Cultural Centre, Lagos, until 2004, when the centre closed in the country before it was reopened last year by the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, when he visited Nigeria.At the time, it seemed idiosyncratic, to say the least, for Nigerians to embrace such a dance with no correlation with traditional dance.

Less than three decades after, the landscape has been transformed in the country. Chapot said, “in September, the centre would showcase the work of Life in my City Art Festival 2018 winner Badru Taofeek, and later on, an exhibition by Nigerian plastic artist, Wilfred Ukpong. It is also willing to collaborate with local community projects such as Iwaya’s Vernacular Art Space to promote emerging local artists and cultural initiatives.”

He said, “the centre, while being a high standard space, is aiming at opening its door to a large public, by presenting free events like Fête de la musique concerts, free screenings, free conferences, free exhibition openings. We are facing a huge challenge here trying to bring together very different crowds. In order to make our program more visible, we are currently working on a monthly newsletter to promote our activities, trying to make our line and objectives more visible and clear for all.”

For him, response to the facility has been excellent, “everybody is delighted that Alliance Française Lagos is back in the cultural landscape in the beautiful Mike Adenuga Centre, trying to revive the heritage of the French Cultural Centre, and bringing support to the local scene offering a new platform for the Nigerian artists to present their productions. The numerous collaborations that are planned for this autumn speak for themselves here. Alliance Française Lagos is trying to promote an alternative model for culture offering a new platform for free or for a very limited cost to artists willing to develop their projects with us. Money shouldn’t be an obstacle for the creation. If one wants to really develop and structure the cultural scene, helping emerging talents to make a living from their art is crucial.”

The mega cultural centre was built by Dr. Mike Adenuga, who in recognition of his efforts was conferred with the award of the “Chevalier la Legion d’Honneur”, the highest French order of merit for military and civilian merits established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte by the Federal Republic of France conferred.

After only eight months, Adenuga was promoted to the level of ‘Commander’ by France, a process, which ordinarily takes 13 years. In July 2018, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, personally decorated him with the ‘Commander of the Legion of Honour’ award. President Macron applauded Dr Adenuga on his promotion of the French language and culture in Nigeria, and also commended Bella Disu, Adenuga’s daughter who conceived, coordinated and executed the Alliance Française project.