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From street to gallery, Nigerian creatives sing for ailing planet – Part 1

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
05 March 2023   |   4:07 am
Creatives didn’t cause the climate crisis that is shaping their lives, yet rarely does any art show, new book or performances in the country not interrogate the issue.

Bottle Cap Art… El Anatsui’s signature aesthetic, which is taken fromf metal trash–most often recycled bottle caps

Creatives didn’t cause the climate crisis that is shaping their lives, yet rarely does any art show, new book or performances in the country not interrogate the issue.

Almost two decades ago, the environmentalist, Bill McKibben, had railed against culture’s perceived indifference.

“Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” he wrote in an op-ed for Grist.

“Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS … which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect.” McKibben was right to remind the art world of the AIDS crisis and of the role visual culture played in combating the institutional negligence of government.

Environmental destruction has been on since at least the Industrial Revolution. It’s only recently, though artists have begun to acknowledge these issues in their work. Though many painters, for instance, may have privately lamented ecological ruin, their works depicted rapidly vanishing wilderness as timeless, immutable and impervious to human influence.

The art world has been making up for lost time in recent years, its overdue compensation crescendoing in the past two years, when a host of exhibitions explicitly confronting climate change have been on view in galleries.

From paintings of burning forests, icebergs melting away in urban squares and clumps of Dead Sea grass pinned to gallery walls, works that function as little more than propaganda are emerging by the day.

However, as climate change experts have noted, this is a different kind of crisis that requires a special kind of signification. They note the scale is “simply too vast for any didactic artistic critique to feel adequate. As a species with relatively short lives and even shorter attention spans, humans struggle to grasp the long-term scope of an evolving emergency they will not live to experience in full.”

From the continent, it is contemporary artists that appear to be championing environmentalism, injecting their unique, personal voices—directly from the countries where global warming hits hardest—into the ecological conversation.

Creatives are seeking to assert their cultural identity by finding solutions to combating climate change. These environmental activists have deployed myriad, but broadly engaging themes propelling humanity to a reverse from an ecological tipping point.

Nigerian creative are responding to the planet’s climate crisis and looking for a fresh perspective to the issue, considering that imperial powers focused on resource extraction during the colonial period, with little thought for the ecological consequences.

SURVIVING Hurricane Katrina has been a life-changing experience for the well-known Nigerian poet and professor of English, Niyi Osundare. He was about to leave his house in New Orleans to drive his wife to the local hospital where she worked, when he found floodwaters covering the driveway. Soon after, it got into their basement. He and his wife started trying to save whatever they could.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t much. The water quickly swallowed what was most important to him — his books, manuscripts and computer files. The Osundares fled to the attic, where, without electricity, drinking water or food, or any means of communication, they spent the next 26 hours.

“At that time, my wife was almost suffering a heat stroke,” he said at a forum, years after. “She said, ‘Let’s try something.’ We got a pole. A bag floated toward us. It was red. We tied this bag to the top of the pole, and found a little hole in the roof that we passed it through. My strength was not enough, hers was not enough either. So both of us combined our strength and said, ‘Help! One, two, help!’ We kept doing that.”

Eventually, a neighbour came by in a boat and rescued them. “That was our escape,” he said. The 2005 experience fired up the climate activism in Osundare and in 2022, he authored a collection of poetry titled, Green: Sighs of our Ailing Planet.

“As far back as the 1970s, I had been getting worried about the dreadful possibility of climate change. This was a time when many people were blissfully unaware of the likely consequences of the damage they were doing to the environment and the violence they were inflicting on the earth. At that time (and even up to the present time), there were two trains of thought: those arising from people who believed that those sounding the alarm bell about the devastation of the earth were just crying wolf where there was none; and those who paraded the position that, no matter the severity of the damage, the Earth possessed the capacity for endless self-healing and self-adjustment. I was scared by the willful ignorance of both positions and the dangerous metaphysics of their theology. This state of environmental considerations largely inspired the poems in The Eye of the Earth and their passionately eco-centric engagement. The volume was published in 1985; way before the environments issues became the focus of global deliberations,” he told The Guardian.

Farmer-born, peasant-bred, Osundare grew up in the rainforest region of southwest Nigeria among a pervasively agrarian and deeply spiritual group of people. “The trees, iroko, oganwo, araba, etc grew tall and majestic. They were never cut down except for the purpose of serving vital needs. The rivers (chief among which was Osun, the one that gave us our family name) were treated with absolute respect and prevented from pollution because they were the main sources of life and sustenance. The lakes were treated with similar respect… Then came our era of waste and want. Most of the trees were lumbered out of existence for the benefit of timber merchants and speculators. A gigantic emptiness has afflicted the forests. With the tree, powerful natural windbreakers now gone, human habitations are at the uncheckable mercy of progressively powerful winds with their orgies of death and destruction. This has been the pattern in many parts of the world,” he explained.

He writes in Green: Sighs of our Ailing Planet:
Once-in-a-century hurricanes
proliferate into ten- in- a- year
while countless typhoons pummel the peace
of once Pacific regions Green, p.30

“It has been pointed out that while global warming is largely responsible for the increase in the number of hurricanes and other wild winds, the increasing severity of these winds on the Louisiana coast is attributable to the undermining of the swamps that for many years have served as wind-breakers protecting the coastal areas,” Osundare said.

“Nearly all coastal cities and communities are now in danger of being overwhelmed by rising oceans. Environmentally Displaced Persons (EDP) is increasing in alarming numbers. A chilling warning for the rapidly expanding estates in Lagos, built on lands borrowed or stolen from the ocean and its lagoon,” he said.

“The impact of rising seas is already creating new sources of instability and conflict,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The UN chief warned that under any temperature rise scenario, countries from Bangladesh to China, India and the Netherlands would all be at risk.

Mega-cities on every continent will face serious impacts, including Lagos, Bangkok, Mumbai, Shanghai, London, Buenos Aires and New York. The danger is especially acute for some 900 million people living in coastal zones at low elevations –one out of every 10 people on earth.

Devastation is already evident in many parts of the world, he said, noting that rising seas have decimated livelihoods in tourism and agriculture across the Caribbean.

Sea level rise and other climate impacts are already forcing people to relocate in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere. For Osundare, “at the global level, a pernicious chain of action: the fewer the trees with their carbon-absorbing capacity, the more carbon goes into the ozone layer, the more intractable the problems of global warming.”

Osundare’s fourth collection of poetry, The Eye of the Earth, is entirely devoted to mother-earth and other forms of physical nature. In the collection, he laments the deforestation going on in the world, pointing to economic trees that have been reduced to mere stumps as a result of exploitation. He evokes a world after the capitalist plunder and despoliation of the earth, its resources and its ecological balance, saying nature is angry with man for this despoliation.

He said writers and other artists have no other place to stand but the very front of the battle for the protection of Mother Earth. He is happy that many Nigerian writers and artists have responded in laudable ways: Ken Saro Wiwa (who paid the supreme price for the cuase), Gabriel Okara, JP Clark, Tanure Ojaide, Nnimmo Bassey, Ogaga Ifowodo, Ibiwari Ikiriko, Greg Mbajiorgu, Stephen Kekeghe, Tosin Gbogi, Victor Ehikhamenor and Tunde Odunlade.

Osundare’s words: “It is the artist’s abiding, even self-preserving interest to be in the fore front of the Salvation Army of the Earth. As I asked in “Nature, the Ultimate Metaphor: Literature and the Ecological Imperative”, my public lecture for the Department of English, University of Ibadan, in 2018, where would art be if humanity no longer had a place for the Artist to ”stand and stare”? The writer/artist needs to keep reminding oblivious Humanity about that timeless Native American verity: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

IN the lead-up to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) held in Glasgow, Scotland, from November 1 to 12, 2021, the British Deputy High Commission, the Consulate General, Federal Republic of Germany, Robert Bosch Nigeria and United Nations Information Centre for Nigeria (UNIC) have partnered with the Creative Youth Community Development Initiative (CYCDI) — Solution17 for Climate Action to promote Climate Adaptation Solutions and Climate Art Exhibition.

The conference also featured the Climate Art Solutions Initiative, which presented 34 finalists, who emerged from the call for solutions across Nigeria launched on June 7, 2021.

The finalists emerged from over 400 participants, who took part across the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria. In a breakdown of participants provided by the organisers, the North Central had 22 per cent; North West, 6 per cent; South East, 6 per cent; South West, 62 per cent; South South, 6 per cent). The entrants went through three levels of screening and interview sessions prior to the final selection.

An hour before the conference, four Climate Change Artists — Anjola Olanrewaju, Victory Ashaka, Oluchi Nwaokorie and Tobi Titiloye staged live drawing and painting session on canvases mounted on easels in a section of the open courtyard of the UNIC office in Ikoyi.

The live creations by the Naija Climate Change Now art ambassadors depicted their various interpretations of the theme, which dots on the intersection between the arts and the climate. The works reflected on how the painting and the literary arts could make interventions in finding solutions to the challenges of climate change. The artists in their drawing, painting and mixed media techniques touched on such profound concepts as: infusing renewable energy, waste to wealth, climate-smart agriculture, biodiversity protection, sustainable fashion and others.

“The intersection of arts, culture and the environment in Nigeria is undeniable; from our agricultural systems to the industries that dominate our societies,” stated Ms Michael. “It is, therefore, important to explore climate change through art as a means of bringing about behavioural change and fully addressing the climate emergency.”

Ms Michael said in a passionate advocacy tone and poise: “We are running out of time to protect the planet; everyone must act to prevent the looming climate crisis. Naija Climate Now presents an opportunity for all stakeholders within the environmental space, including government, non-governmental, private sectors, education and research institutions and international entities, to reflect on Nigeria’s issues and proposed solutions towards climate adaptation on the Race to Zero.”

The British Deputy High Commissioner, Llewellyn-Jones praised the Naija Climate Now project, and in particular the multi-lateral collaboration that is driving the current initiative.

He acknowledged the objective of the Climate Naija Now project, which he said aimed to work with a generation of innovators on ideas that address the climate emergency and to explore climate change through art as a means of bringing about behavioural change.

Stated Llewellyn-Jones: “The global climate crisis is arguably the greatest challenge for the 21st century. It is an issue that scientists from all over the world have been researching, discussing and urging us to mitigate. I am sure every one of us has seen that people are being displaced, and homes and businesses damaged and destroyed, due to the catastrophic effects of climate change. In whichever part of Nigeria you are joining us from today, you will have seen the impacts of flooding, heatwaves and changing weather patterns; and unless we act swiftly, the losses to our global community will be unimaginable and irreplaceable.

“If we want to halt this trajectory, we need to work together to implement our most innovative ideas and approaches to address these climate challenges; and you may be wondering what the role of art is in the global climate change movement. The answer is simple: art can communicate in a different way than science the threat that climate change poses to our planet.

“Environmental art addresses our relationship to the natural world and so when we look at art that has been stimulated by climate change, we become engaged in deep reflection and we contemplate things in a different way.

“I have had the opportunity to engage with passionate Nigerians who create art to engage the public on the climate agenda. One thing that stands out for me is how well they can articulate the important societal issues using art – whether it is inspiring people to begin to think of waste as a resource or how the livelihoods of people in local communities are affected by the changing climate, these artists are communicating the message of pro-environmental behavioural change. Not everyone can be a politician, scientist, or an investor, what some people have is their creativity and art and if these people understand their role as cultural influencers, they have the potential to be strong collaborators and influential leaders.

“The UK’s Creative Earth Competition launched in collaboration with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) is a part of the Together For Our Planet Initiative and it encourages young people to use the power of art to capture their hopes and dreams for the planet in the future. The best pieces that were selected will be displayed at the COP26 Summit,” he said.

Also at the event, the German Consular General, Munchow, said: “The German government recognises climate change as one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, and has committed to significant emission reduction goals to reach a carbon neutral economy. The fight against climate change is also a key element of German foreign policy. In this context, our mission partner with governmental institutions and particularly with civil society to promote climate resilience, mitigation and adaptation.

“As we speak, humanity as a whole appears still to be set on a path of head-on collision. The dire warnings are written on the wall, and the latest report published by the UN has drastically underlined how far we are off the mark to reach the 1,5 degree goal, and how little time we have left to mend our ways. The biggest net polluter of the atmosphere, China, is yet to commit to concrete emission reduction targets. This year in particular, has so far served as a grim reminder what our future will look like if we don’t change tack: floodings of unprecedented scale, raging wildfires, tropical storms of a destructive strength we have not witnessed before, extended droughts, food shortages and widespread hunger. Large sections of Lagos are predicted to be under water.”

Late last year, climate change activists gathered at the Didi Museum, Victoria Island, Lagos for a show organised by Our Tomorrow, a pollution and climate change organization, with the verdict that more urgent steps needed to taken to save the planet from threat of climate change.

The exhibition, aimed at creating awareness among the younger generation about the dangers of climate change, saw presentations of brilliant artwork by students of various public and private secondary schools in Lagos, depicting the threat of carbon emissions, and proffering solutions.

Speaking at the event, Prince Emeka-Obasi Jnr, founder of the NGO noted that the idea was to create awareness among younger generation about the danger climate change poses to the society, so that they would begin early to adopt behavioural changes, and add their voices to the demand for governments to take more action.

“We decided to launch this initiative because we are aware of the dangers climate change poses to our environment. The idea is to create awareness, especially among the young people, because it’s important that we begin to address this problem,” he said.

“Of course, if climate change is not tackled, it is going to significantly affect the quality lives that we live. We are going to see more floods, more droughts, conflicts and so on. So, it is important that governments across the world speed up effort to tackle these issues.

“On our part, we’ve been trying to create awareness; to bring attention to these issues with a view to compelling action. We believe that as more young people join their voices, more can be achieved in this regard.

“We’ve also done on the spot assessment of areas that are most impacted. Earlier this year, we visited Ogoni land in Rivers State. We’ve also seen how desertification is encroaching in the north. Here in Lagos, rising sea levels present serious threat. We see increased rate of flooding. So, there is need to act more swiftly.”

NIGERIA’S topography is threatened by rising sea levels, flooding, desertification, drought, hunger and security challenge. Flooding has laid farmland to waste and displaced more than a million. Desertification has deepened conflict in Nigeria’s agriculturally rich middle belt. And elsewhere in Africa, drought has increased food insecurity.

But government has continued to take necessary measures to mitigate the threats to combat climate change.

Abuja-based fashion designer, Vivian Zadok, owner of VZ Creations, an eco-friendly fashion brand, is a climate activist. She uses her creativity to ensure a sustainable planet and its social responsibility. Her pieces raise awareness towards a sustainable and eco-friendly fashion industry and preservation of the earth.

According to Zadok, “VZ Creations aims to address the adverse effects of garments on the environment, the ethical treatment, pay and occupational health standards of garment workers.”

She added, “the brand seeks to improve all stages of the garment life cycle to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycle the product and its components. Our goal is to increase the value of our production and products, to prolong the life cycle of materials, to increase the value of timeless garments and to reduce the amount of waste and harm to the environment.”

Issues surrounding impact of climate change and the urgent need to find measures that would ensure environmental sustainability was the focal point of an event, which held at the Alliance Francaise/Mike Adenuga Centre, Lagos.

Themed “Point of view: Art as a Driver for Environmental sustainability”, the programme was organised by the Ben Enwonwu Foundation in collaboration with the Society of Nigerian Artists and supported by Alliance Francaise/Mike Adenuga Centre.

The event featured presentation and panel discussion sessions that examined how creatives have begun utilising their talents to deal with threats of climate change, and more importantly, sustainable ways to ensure art becomes a major driver of environmental sustainability.

Opening up the floor with his detailed presentation was Chairman, Lagos State Urban Forest and Animal Shelter Initiative, Desmond Majekodunmi who prefers to be addressed as the Chief Gardener. His presentation, preceded by an eye-opening documentary on how much the earth has been affected by climate change, showcased efforts towards keeping the environment safer through music and other art genres.

According to him due to climate change, a factual prediction indicated “rising sea may wipe off Lagos by 2050. Lagos is at risk of being partially submerged and if we don’t start doing the right things, we will be under water.”

Citing examples of works by artistes such as late American pop musician Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ and those of other singers as well as songs he did with his wife Sheila before she passed on, Majekodunmi called on more artists to join the Ben Enwonwu Foundation to continue in the business of saving the earth.

Speaking on the sub theme, “Waste to Wealth”, award winning film maker, Founder and Director, SMO Contemporary Art, Mrs Sandra Mbanefo-Obiago said one crucial area to look at was how art can bring us close to wealth through recycled materials. In recent times she noted, African art has done well in the global art market with Professor El Anatsui, the king of recycled art, taking the lead adding that most Nigerian artists doing well in the global art market are using recycled materials.

Prof Bruce Onabrakpeya who was also present at the event according to Mrs Mbanefo-Obiago, has used recycled objects from the environment to revolutionise the art. Others in the pack are Olumide Onadipe, Nnenna Okore, Ben Enwonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Biodun Olaku Peju Alatise, Kainebi O, Kolade Oshinowo, etc.

Also, artists such as Junkman, Nnenna Okore etc, have been involved in beach cleanups through their art. She posited that the country needs interdisciplinary approach that engages the youth, research, good governance and political will without which, there would be no head way. “We can’t leave arts in galleries; they must be taken to public spaces,” she said.

Despite the campaign has been on for several decades, evolving effective strategies to address the issue of climate change has been a challenge. There’s a little doubt that today’s children will inherit a world without environmental challenges.

Many have wondered how to engage young people with a topic that is seen as abstract, distant and complex. Some climate activists have, however, adopted arts and humanities as one of the ways you can easily reach the world, though its potential remains untapped and underutilised
Stanley Aneto is one of Nigerian artists on a mission using their art to interrogate environmental issues.

From watching Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, he has gone on to become a climate ‘artivist’ or more appropriate, eco-artist. It brought up a lot of concerns. I had of course noticed climate change in Nigeria.

Anaeto said: “There are two major issues. One is power: we don’t have enough clean electricity. Politicians would rather people buy diesel generators, which of course increase carbon emissions and are often dangerous. We need more opportunities for clean electricity run for example by hydropower.”

“Art is the only language you can speak that will get across to the younger generation. Our generation doesn’t listen so much to mainstream news and finds politicians boring, so art is a very powerful medium to talk to them. If you talk to people in a language they understand the results can be amazing.

Olowookere is an ecoPreneur and initiator of #PP40WastetoPlayground, an initiative to 40 Public Pry Schools in Ibadan, Oyo State where she was able to reach out directly to over 16,000 students and 1,500 teachers in 13 months teaching them waste upcycling skills for free to mark her 40th birthday.

She is currently the Creative Director at African Creative Hub a Social Enterprise Company on a Mission to Create a Sustainable World Without Wastes through education and upcycling wastes into functional, durable and affordable products towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 1, 4, 8, 11, 12, 13 and 17.

“Jumoke Olowookere runs a startup in the waste management value chain changing the circular economy landscape in Nigeria. Definitely someone to partner with if you are looking at Nigeria and plastic waste”

A 2019 alumna of the U.S. Consulate’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs, Olowookere, recently opened the first of its kind waste museum and upcycling training center in Nigeria with support from the United States Africa Development Foundation.

The Waste Museum is expected to provide environmental education and equip women and youth from underserved communities with upcycling skills, a statement from the U.S. Consulate read.

“Environmental risk factors of indiscriminate disposal of waste and the rising pile of garbage in our cities are huge. With the Waste Museum, we are showcasing the value of waste,” Olowookere said.

“We want people to see how waste can be turned into wealth. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that no waste goes into the landfill –– a zero waste future is possible.”

Olowookere, who says her museum is the first of its kind in Africa, joins a growing number of Nigerians who are using waste material to make art and fashion to highlight the damaging impact of waste on the environment.

In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer with more than 200 million people, plastic waste in particular, in the form of discarded bags, food and drink packaging, is ubiquitous and dropping of litter is common place.

Gbenga Adeku, an upcycle artist from south-western Nigeria, is helping protect his local environment through art and uses his works to promote climate action and awareness.

About 100 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated globally each year. 90 percent of discarded plastic isn’t recycled and ends up in landfills, drainages or oceans, which, in addition to polluting the environment, exacerbates the climate emergency through the release of methane and ethylene.

According to the World Bank, Nigeria is the biggest generator of plastic waste in Africa, and has the fastest growing e-waste problem in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Over 88 percent of about 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in Nigeria annually is not recycled, and the crisis only appears to be worsening due to the country’s growing population rate, low waste management capacity and lean investment in recycling and upcycling.

In 2019, he founded Xtetixupcycle, an upcycle art company aimed at building knowledge capacity to meet climate change through art as a visual educational tool, training, material exploration and research in upcycling.

can art help to stop climate change’? Daniel said: ‘I think art can help us solve the climate crisis as it can raise awareness and give people a boost to make a change to their actions and help the earth. Nature can make us more resilient to the effects of climate change as it can help us to prepare for natural disasters.’ In general, the group surmised that art could help to stop climate change, alongside education and systematic change.

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