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How absence of government support, bleak economy impede art, culture growth


Chinua Achebe

Art, in Nigeria, no doubt, is experiencing an explosion. The last 59 years of art in Nigeria has witnessed mixed fortune. Its profile has seen a transition from the traditional to regally pleasing and aesthetically urbane art.

Prior the 2019 Nigerian general election, British Broadcasting Corporation did a story titled, Five things about Nigeria: The superpower with no power. The piece looked at some critical areas, noting, Afrobeats and books stand the country out.

According to the report, Nigeria packs a cultural punch in literature — it also boasts some of the world’s greatest writers. Top of the list is the late Chinua Achebe, whose debut novel, Things Fall Apart, has become a classic of post-colonial literature, selling more than 20 million copies since its publication in 1958. It has also been translated into 57 languages.

Wole Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road won the coveted Man Booker Prize in 1991. Lesley Nneka Arimah (2019), Tope Folarin (2013), Rotimi Babatunde (2012), E C Osundu (2009), Segun Afolabi (2005) and Helon Habila (2001) have all won the Caine Prize, making Nigeria the most winners.


The impressive array of writers is part of a genuine literary tradition in the country. The convergence that gave currency to Nigeria’s rise in literature was the Mbari movement at Ibadan.

The essential nucleus of the Mbari movement was around individual writers and artists, who were active in their prime — all born in the 1930s. Achebe had moved from Enugu, in 1961, to assume duties as the Director of External Broadcasting of Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Lagos, Christopher Okigbo moved from the Library of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as the pioneer acting University Librarian to become the West African Regional Manager of the Cambridge University Press in Ibadan, Soyinka had returned from the UK and was a Rockefeller Research Fellow in the University of Ibadan, and had also founded his theatre company, the Orisun Theatre Company; J.P. Clark was an Information Officer in the Western Region’s Ministry of Information in Ibadan, and Ulli Beier was traveling back and forth between Ibadan, Osogbo and Ede for the University of Ibadan Extra Mural Studies, and editing the new journal, the Black Orpheus.

Nwoko was active on return from Paris in the Ibadan Theatre, where he was engaged to design stages for theatre productions such as Kola Ogunmola’s adaptation of Amos Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard and Nkem Nwankwo’s Danda. He was equally busy creating the famous University of Ibadan wall murals; Bruce Onabrakpeya nearby in Lagos came often, and Uche Okeke was at the Enugu end of the Mbari club, on Uwani Street. The effect was a cultural synergy that gave impetus to a new artistic impulse in Nigeria.

Though Things Fall Apart, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year is recognised as Nigeria’s defining literary piece, the country already had an established writing tradition. In fact, the history of African written prose would go back, at least, to 1789, 230 years ago, that is slave trade era, when Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, wrote, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

Daniel Orowole Olorunfunmi Fagunwa started chronicling in written forms and novels, African tales and oral fables. Like Birago Diop and Thomas Mofolo, Fagunwa was a griot telling Yoruba stories in simple, lucid manner with indigenous language as the medium of communication.

Fagunwa wrote Ògbójú Ọodeẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀, widely considered the first novel written in the Yoruba language and one of the first to be written in any African language. His later works include, Igbo Olodumare (The Forest of God, 1949), Ireke Onibudo (1949), Irinkerindo ninu Igbo Elegbeje (Expedition to the Mount of Thought, 1954) and Adiitu Olodumare (1961).

Amos Tutuola transformed traditional myth and legends into a coherent structure that was close to a novel. Writing in a dialect of English that is amateurish, he captured the primitive tone of oral literature.

Some of his works include, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1946, published 1952), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955), The Brave African Huntress (1958) and Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962).

Cyprian Ekwensi’s writing was more structured and mature, but did not have the verve of Achebe. Ekwensi’s early works before Achebe’s were When Love Whispers (1948), An African Night’s Entertainment (1948), The Boa Suitor (1949), The Leopard’s Claw (1950) and People of the City (1954).

The true flowering of literature came in the 50s with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). Achebe broke away from this ‘pamphletic’ literature in order to recapture an identity that was destroyed by colonial past.

Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, which came two years after Things Fall Apart, predicted a future for the new state. The play denigrated the glorious African past and warned Nigerians and all Africans that their energies henceforth should be spent trying to avoid repeating the mistakes that have already been made.

At the time of its release, politicians were particularly incensed at his prescient portrayal of post-colonial Nigerian politics as aimless and corrupt.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti At Orchestra Hall, Detroit 1986

The second generation of writers — those born in the 40s and 50s — developed an aesthetic canon that interrogated economic exploitation, social realism and economic instability as themes. They were concerned with the immediate problem of survival in the face of military adventurism.

Writers such as, Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan, Olu Obafemi, Kole Omotosho, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Isidore Okpewho, Odia Ofeimun, Bode Sowande and Ben Tomoloju, leaning on Marxist ideology, deployed myths, legends and fables to write their poetry, drama and novels.

The archetypal second generation writer lamented the loss of spiritual fulfillment and embraced dialectical materialism, violently amputating ancient customs, the daily presence of supernatural and honoured humanity in the terrifying rituals of ‘being and nothingness.’

They assumed the role of priests in the cathedral, who, through their homilies, attacked the social system and reflected the cosmopolitan nature of the society.

And contemporary writers like Chigozie Obioma, Helon Habila, Chibundu Onuzo Sefi Atta and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani are keeping up the tradition, to name just a few of those scooping up prizes.

For the contemporary writers issues such as, Lesbianism, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and feminism dominate their themes.

Arguably, the face of feminism in the 21st Century is award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who neatly summed up the feminist cause in her book. Dear Ijeawele: “The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina.”

In the last few years, there have been many literary gatherings for readers and writers in the country. In fact, book fairs have become a window open to the world where young people have access to world literature.

Between 2008 and 2014, Port Harcourt was the country’s mecca of books, as it hosted some of the best writers in the world, including two Nobel laureates. Port Harcourt, during these years, hosted one of the most successful literary festivals in the world. The culmination was the World Book Capital in 2014.

The longest running festival is the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) founded by the Committee of Relevant Art (CORA) in 1999. The festival, which happens yearly in Lagos, the arts and culture capital of Nigeria, has been vital in the nation’s push to be recognised as a culture capital.

One other festival making waves is the Lagos-based Ake Arts & Book Festival, founded in 2013 by Lola Shoneyin, the author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. The festival is one of the most eagerly anticipated on the continental literary calendar with thousands making their way to the event yearly.

Another platform created for book to thrive is the Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by Nigeria Liquiefied Natural Gas Limited.

In 14 years, $880,000 has been given out as prize, which in today’s naira market (1 USD = 360 NGN), is about N316,800,000 million. Last year, Soji Cole’s Ember won the award. He got $100,000 in the process.

The Nollywood industry today is the biggest film industry in Africa and one of the leading industries in the world with respect to the number of films produced per year.

The first celluloid movies were introduced to Nigeria at the beginning of the 20th century by colonial Britain, but an indigenous film industry failed to grow due to the prohibitive cost of raw materials and the lack of expert technicians.

As in other African countries, film production used to be a sporadic, elite cultural activity. At the same time, Nigeria experienced the growing success of the popular traveling theater along the Yoruba cultural tradition.


Starting in the 30s and 40s in Lagos, Yoruba speaking artists traveled around the country with performances that combined “music, dance, acrobatics and drama.”

This tradition flourished in the 80s and provided a platform where genuine storytelling about indigenous traditions, costumes and aspirations developed at great length.

In 1992, Kenneth Nnebue, armed with a cheap digital camera and a number of good-hearted friends, shot a movie along the tradition of the Yoruba traveling theatre titled, Living in Bondage, a movie about human sacrifices. The movie became an instant hit and gave birth to the modern Nollywood.
Nigerian musicians are touring the world and picking up awards at the forefront of the global craze for Afrobeats. This is not to be confused with the late, great Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat (without the s) — Nigeria’s soundtrack to the 1970s and 1980s, which mixed traditional rhythms with funk and jazz.

These new stars, including Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage and Jidenna, are proving to be some of Nigeria’s biggest exports – so much so that global music giants such as Universal Music Group and Sony have set up offices in the country. Davido’s Fall, released in 2017, is the most popular Nigerian music video ever — clocking up more than 100 million views and counting on YouTube.

The sound evolved from Nigerian and Ghanaian Afro-pop music, incorporating genres like hiplife, azonto and dancehall – and it was D’banj’s track, Oliver Twist, that launched the Afrobeats bandwagon in 2012, getting to number nine in the UK charts, she says.

Other Nigerian talent include Afrobeats musicians such as, Yemi Alade, Tekno, Falz, Olamide, Simi, Mr Eazi, Mologo and Patoranking.

And the country’s music industry is one of the biggest in Africa. The revenue generated from music in 2016 was $39 million (£30 million), a 9 per cent increase from the previous year, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report.

Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka

It also suggested that the industry should expect an annual growth rate of 13.4 per cent in 2021 to reach $73 million.

Late 1950s and early 1960s witnessed in Nigeria art history the beginning of radical revolution in visual art. The periods consciously witnessed the change of art style from ancient traditions and also jettisoning of western-style realistic approach to execution of artwork.

The credit for development of Modern Nigerian art is traced to Aina Onabolu (1882-1963), who by teaching himself to draw without any formal art education, proved Africans were capable of producing academic and naturalistic paintings, contrary to general misconceptions at the time.

Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu is arguably the most influential African artist of the 20th century. His pioneering career opened the way for the postcolonial proliferation and increased visibility of Modern African Art. He was one of the first African artists to win critical acclaim, having exhibited in august show spaces in Europe and the United States and listed in international directories of contemporary art.

Onabolu and Enwonwu set the stage for the ensuing creative departure that was to occur at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, between 1958 and 1961 through the efforts of some young art students, namely Uche Okeke, Solomon Irein Wangboje, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Simon Olaosebikan, Oseloka Osadebe, Felix Ekeada, Ogbonnaya Nwagbara, Yusuf Grillo, Emmanuel Odita, Simon Okeke, Demas Nwoko and Ikpomwosa Omagie, the only female among them. They were not all classmates except for the fact that their duration of training in Zaria overlapped.

The new consciousness ushered in what was referred to by Filani as ‘New African’ concept, which simply means an admixture of traditions and modernism, the philosophy, which was later developed as ‘Natural Synthesis’.

Another generation of artists later discovered after the 1950s and 1960s progenitors was the 1970s graduates of mostly the Zaria Art School. Among them are Shina Yusuf, painter now dead; Joshua Akande, painter; Nelson Cole, painter now dead; Dele Jegede, painter, cartoonist and critic; David Dale, painter and mosacist, now dead; Kolade Oshinowo, painter and Gani Odutokun, painter now dead.

According to the painter and former Director General of National Gallery of Art, Joe Musa, Nigerian art of the 80s was that of “absolute rabid industrialisation and capital success similar to the French 19th century Montparnasse replay of banters, repartee and saloons. Visual artists featured prominently in the cultural life of the city.”

He continued, “artists maintained residences and studios in the city and the buzz of the gathering was the National Theatre Complex, Iganmu in the day to the brilliance of the exhibition hall of the National Museum in Onikan in the evenings. The dominance of visual imagery took sway from ordinary culture. Their ascendency and centrality in scholarly debates took a positive leap forward. The visual artists began to cultivate a voice.”
Osogbo Art School

The first group of students that participated in the Mbari workshop (Ibadan) conducted by Beier comprised the late Jacob Afolabi, the late Rufus Ogundele, Chief Muraina Oyelami, Yinka Adeyemi, Ademola Onibokuta, Adebisi Fabunmi, the late Tijani Mayakiri Jire and Alake Buraimoh (nee Ajibola). On the second run of the workshop that was conducted by Georgina Beier in Osogbo in 1964, over 30 participants attended – comprising Duro Ladipo Theatre Company members and others.

At the end of that exercise, four major artists: Chief Taiwo Olaniyi (aka Twins Seven Seven), Oyelami, Adebisi Fabunmi and Jimoh Buraimoh emerged from the lot – all of whom later became internationally renowned studio artists. Incidentally, none of them had gone to a college before attending the workshop, neither were they previously involved in the arts.

Despite the global recognition, the industry still has challenges. Pirated music on blogs, the illegal sale of CDs on the streets, and the legal structure around contracts and records are big issues. Artists lose millions of naira, the local currency, as a result of the illegal distribution of CDs.

Two years ago, Sony Music Africa set up shop in the country, signed deals and collaborated with some of the biggest acts, including Wizkid, Davido and Ycee. However, its presence has not led to a solution to piracy.

Books that are launched and bring in money in the country are those of hagiographers and the memoirs of corrupt politicians and their supporters who are able to raise millions and billions at such launchings.


According to Dr. Diran Ademiju-Bepo, an Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Jos, “poverty for the writer in Nigeria is like a calling. If you don’t get your work(s) on the reading list of the educational institutions, you will answer the calling. For instance, the novel used by JAMB for UTME candidates in the last two to three years, In Dependence, the author can’t claim the calling of poverty. You know the number of applicants, who have to read it. Before that, it was Last Days at Forcados.”

Ademiju-Bepo also said, “it’s difficult for a writer to live on his royalties because no royalties are paid any more. Most writers now are contented with self-publishing since the big publishers will not call for our scripts. Even when publishers like Kraft, etc publish you, you pay the full amount. And he just ships your books over to you for marketing. In the last 10 to 15 years, I have not heard of royalty payout to writers.”

For Professor Duro Oni of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, “there is really a need for the government to establish the National Endowment Fund for the Arts. It not envisaged as another parastatal, but a body to who tax deductible contributions can be made to support the creative and cultural industries.”

In Nigeria, a country with millions of potential book buyers, publishing is a tough business. Many readers will happily pay for religious texts or textbooks but sometimes balk at paying for contemporary fiction or creative nonfiction. Yet local publishers like Parrésia, Ouida Books, Farafina, and Cassava keep feeding Nigerians with high quality literary works, even with the ever-looming piracy threat and unfavorable business environment.


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