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How pandemic opens new vista in art, culture

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Arts and Culture Editor
07 June 2020   |   4:20 am
Towards the end of last year, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, looked worried. He was at the receiving end of punches from the critical...

A scene from the shooting of a Nigerian movie

Towards the end of last year, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, looked worried. He was at the receiving end of punches from the critical culture community. Criticisms gainst him mounted from all corners. He seemed exhausted and drained.

This Sunday, afternoon in October, like a bull pushed to the wall, he charged back. He debunked all criticisms against him and went further to unveil his second term plans for the sector.

The minister spoke on his achievements in the first four years, describing them as remarkable and laudable.

Stakeholders in the culture, creative industries (CCIs) believe that the ministry paid more attention to the information sector than culture and tourism.

Be that as it may, the first year of Buhari’s second term has seen the minister, at least, in the first few months, making definitive statements that were indicative of government’s vision for the ministry.

Though President Muhammadu Buhari’s government set out some well-intentioned policy thrust for the creative sector, however, the first four years did not show much significant improvement from what the lot of the ministry had been since 1999, when the fourth republic started. What couldn’t be dismissed was that this government made conscious effort to push out some stimulus packages to support the industry in those four years .

Many culture workers and stakeholders are of the opinion that the sector did not achieve much, because of lethargy in culture administration. They said there were many things that government glossed over, especially the funding of culture agencies and parastatals.

They said the arts and cultural vitality of today has nothing to do with government’s patronage or support., as the plethora of government arts and cultural agencies that should be seen at the forefront of supporting the players in the industry are busy competing with them or running them out of business.

They also said all the government interventionist policies to support the sector such as the Project Act Nollywood, Film Fund and the newly announced CBN initiative for special loans etc for the sector have to be warehoused under a central initiative as in the National Endowment Fund for the Arts, as it is done in other saner countries, who value the immense contribution of the arts to society’s civilising ethos.

They believe that government should pay some more attention to the sector and not leave the parastatals without full chief executives. Culture and Tourism parastatals and agencies have been around for a while and there are in-grown staff that have served their time. They believe the time is ripe for staff that have developed from within to be considered for such appointments.

Between October 2019 and February 2020, the minister had a planned list that he urged investors to take advantage of.

Speaking in Lagos at a media briefing to unveil his ministry’s agenda for the culture and tourism sectors in October 2019, the minister reiterated government’s determination to lift the creative industry and make the country a tourism hub.

He revealed government’s plan to create a proper regulatory environment for the sub-sector that has put Nigeria’s name on the global map, thus, attracting the much needed investment to the sector.

He noted that plans were afoot to make the National Summit for Culture and Tourism, which first held in April 2016, a yearly affair, starting from the first quarter of 2020.

In November, he equally unveiled another plan, which would see Nigeria holding a yearly national conference on restitution of cultural property in line with recommendations in the declaration by Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of States and Governments in Abuja.

He directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately implement measures aimed at repositioning the broadcast industry with a view to sanitising the sector, creating jobs, promoting local content and bringing it up to par with the best practices from around the world.

Major highlights of the directive include new regulations to compel broadcasters to utilise the content and services of Nigerian independent producers in fulfillment of the regulatory requirements for 70 per cent local content, rather than the current abuse of the rules, which allows many loopholes for the production of such content in jurisdictions outside Nigeria.

How COVID-19 pandemic changed culture landscape
But like the proverbial saying, if wishes were horses, then beggars might ride. COVID-19 pandemic wiped clean Alhaji Mohammed’s plan for the sector.

By March 2020, the creative industry had already become vulnerable, with most cultural institutions indefinitely closed (or at least with their services radically curtailed). These include, libraries, archives, museums, film and television productions, theatre performances, concert tours, zoos, as well as music — and arts — festivals. Also art shows, events and performances were cancelled or postponed.

According to the General Manager, Terra Kulture, Joseph Umoibom, “the lockdown had a massive impact on our business. We were in the middle of a production when it started. We had to cancel the show and refund tickets that had been sold. We had also completed pre-production on another show that was supposed to run during the Easter season but had to call it off. We also called off an exhibition we were planning. We incurred significant financial losses in all of these. We had to temporarily shut down Terra Kulture and BAP Productions.”

While noting that there is a lot of pressure on art, culture, entertainment and tourism businesses due to COVID-19, he said chances are some may never come back up after the pandemic.

Umoibom said, “it would take a couple of months after all of this is over for entertainment businesses to pick up because people would still be skeptical about large gatherings. It would take time to gain the confidence of audiences. The entertainment and art industry needs to thrive. That means the string of losses would continue for some time. If there could be measures to help reduce the losses, that will go a long way in cushioning the effect. Tax waivers, reduction of interest on existing loans, deferment of interest and principal repayment, support to organisations to prevent layoffs etc.”

Gabriel Jideonwor, an artist and proprietor of Vivid Exclusive Art Gallery, said his scheduled art trip to Europe was put on hold.

“As an artist, I am supposed to exhibit in an art fair in Europe, but it’s been postponed all because of COVID-19. As a gallery owner, I can’t sell art at the moment in order to promote my artists,” he lamented, adding, “even promoting artists that the gallery represent has been slow because of lockdown and restrictions on gathering in Lagos.”

Making creative industry the next oil
With the challenge ahead of the sector in Post COVID-19 era, the task becomes how government can make culture, creative industry the next major revenue generator.

Before the pandemic, the Nigerian government had been grappling with weak recovery from the 2014 oil price shock, with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth tapering around 2.3 per cent in 2019.

The country’s debt profile was already a source of concern for policymakers and development practitioners, as estimates put the debt service-to-revenue ratio at 60 per cent, which was expected to worsen amid the steep decline in revenue associated with falling oil prices and COVID-19.

In February, the IMF revised the 2020 GDP growth rate from 2.5 per cent to 2 per cent, as a result of relatively low oil prices and limited fiscal space.

However, between March and April, partial and full restrictions on movement, thus causing consumers to spend primarily on essential goods and services. There was fall in household consumption as a result of movement restrictions not only reduced the consumption of nonessential commodities in general, but also affected the income-generating capacity of these groups, thus reducing their consumption expenditure.

Recently, the minister inaugurated a post Covid-19 initiative committee for the creative industry. The committee’s Terms of Reference are: Assess the expected impact of the pandemic on the industry in general; advise the government on how to mitigate job and revenue losses in the sector as well as to create succour for the industry small businesses; suggest the type of taxation and financing that is best for the industry at this time to encourage growth and advise the government on any other measure or measures that can be undertaken to support the industry.

For Assistant Professor at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, Nduka Otiono, the key needs for a rebound are: ‘stimulus funding’ and ‘appropriate policies’. He, however, doesn’t believe in “the capacity of the cultural bureaucracy to process the challenges of cultural production in the present times as well as developing a programmatic ‘competitive model for the future’.”

According to him, “Nigeria doesn’t have a structured model to construct any new visionary cultural architecture for the creative industries. I am confident in the capacity of independent Nigerian artists and cultural producers to take their destinies in their own hands. This much they have been doing by establishing the country as the cultural capital of the continent with reference to literary, filmic, and musical subsectors of the arts.”

He said, “I foresee our enterprising creative artists rising from the ravages of the pandemic to create enduring works informed by the experiences of this terrible season. It is too early, in my opinion, to see the emerging creative works in terms of a ‘competitive model for the future’. The works will speak for themselves in terms of what ‘models’ emerge and how competitive or not they become. The simple reason being that there is no operational school or movement at work as we had, say, ‘the Zaria Rebels’ back in the days. But if the pointers are to be taken seriously as evident in some recently released compositions such as Erigga’s Quarantine Cruise or Bella Shmurda’s Colodia Drive Us, then we should be expecting works driven by humoUr as metaphor.”

A remarkable irony about the current COVID-19 pandemic, he noted, is that while it has upended life as it used to be known and continues to overwhelm the old and young, “it has also sparked creativity among artists across the world. Next to medicine and emergency medical professionals in the frontlines of the war against the pandemic, the arts and artists have become everyday consolation companion. Much so that songs, music, films, books, skits, etcetera have been weaponised to ‘edutain’ citizens of a world stretched to the limits by a merciless scourge that has claimed over 348,000 lives worldwide. And so, while some artists are rediscovering their muses, the people have had to rely on the arts for intellectual and spiritual nourishment as well as comic relief. I consider this significant contribution to the war against the socioeconomic problems created by COVID-19. As you know, artistic creativity is often associated with innovation. The arts will continue to complement medical care as therapy or psychotherapy for healing an ailing world.”

The filmmaker, author and actor Olayinka Ogundaisi advocated for a cultural economic reconnaissance. He said while Coronavirus has managed to make nonsense of this year’s budget, plunging the oil price to less than half its benchmark projection and suddenly “putting our economic experts on their toes for alternative incomes, this is yet another clarion call for our governments to look inward to our culture as a way out of the economic quagmire.”

For Dr. Sola Balogun, a theatre teacher at the Federal University Oye-Ekiti, “countries of the world (particularly in Africa) should use the experience of the COVID-19 to revisit culture as the bedrock of development.”

Eghosa Henry Oseratin’s Fragments of Unity, oil on canvas, which won the 2013 LIMCAF competition.

He added, “governments, at all levels, should create enabling environment for workers and artists in the creative sector…create cottage industries and markets in all council areas where indigenous creative materials could be produced and marketed. National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) should be further expanded and empowered to discover and promote artists of all categories…ditto for the state councils.”

To tackle or manage what he refers to as ‘Covidnomics’, Balogun urged government to give interest-free loans to local artists such as, makers of adire/aso oke batik, pottery and carvings.

He said theatre producers and directors could explore viable options through the audio and screen to promote and market their works.

To him, “artists can also come together in groups and guilds to create and market their works through social media platforms. Musicians too can provide relevant jingles and theme music for radio stations to fight the scourge, many have done that already.”

Dr. Tunji Azeez, Department of Theatre Arts and Music, Lagos State University, Ojo, believes that no society can make any meaningful progress without anchoring its plans on its culture and the culture industry.

He said government should use this moment to map out strategies to rekindle moribund and untapped tourism potential; historical and natural sites and monuments, traditional and modern festivals, sports and recreation centres.

He also recommended a situation where theatre, film and musical festivals were created or supported if they already existed. “These sellable assets abound in all regions of the country but attention has not been paid to them. Our museums are not funded to attract people. So, there are so many opportunities that can bring in more money than oil is currently doing if only the government is serious about investing in the future.”

He said, “some things, including the way we live, would change post COVID-19 pandemic. One major negative effect that we’ll witness would be job loss. This is one area where the culture industry can come in. For instance, our entertainment industry can absorb more people than the civil service and corporate organisations. Imagine how many people can be engaged as fashion designers, craftsmen and women, filmmakers, theatre producers, music producers, writers, with just a little sum of money. And I’m not talking about Bank of Industry (BOI) kind of audio loan where simple folks are asked to provide collateral like houses, land, vehicles and such movable and immovable properties before they get N500, 000 to start business. No. I’m talking about a truly people-centred credit schemes that will make people accountable and productive. Mind you, I’m also not talking about going to market places to distribute money without any idea what the money will be used for.”

The theatre scholar said, “there is need to place premium on local contents and regulate what comes into our country. Right now, Nigeria is a dumping ground for all manner of content from Europe, America and Asia. Without a rejig of our policies, we cannot tap from our arts, culture and entertainment industries.”

Dr. Ayo Adewunmi, art director of Life in My City Arts Festival (LIMCAF)and lecturer at the Institute of Management (IMT), Enugu, said, “the problem facing the sector is multifaceted; there is no effective culture policy, no coordinated national programmes as well as the issue of corruption. There is a need for total overhauling of the culture sector. Outside that, we need to embrace new technology, look into training and staff development so as to keep abreast of what is obtainable globally. In my opinion, post pandemic era would witness paradigm shift in the way culture is understood.”

Adewunmi said Nigeria’s culture operators must have to join in the deployment of technology in the cause of carrying out their business. “For the visual art, unfortunately, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) is not meeting up in their responsibility of availing necessary platform for the artists. The NGA seems a bit uncoordinated in its efforts at promoting and giving due exposure to art professionals.”

He continued, “whereas the need to take advantage of the crisis and rethink how to carry on art business is paramount, there are challenges we must first overcome. These challenges include, electricity supply, technology know how, availability of Internet services and provision of world class facilities such as galleries, workshops and so on.”

He said culture institutions have blossomed in Nigeria due to the efforts of the private sector. His words: “Government’s duty-bound involvement has been basically insufficient and poorly coordinated. The COVID-19 crisis has set back cultural institutions economically and socially. Palliatives are required to cushion the effect. Recall that culture industry is the highest employer of the youth in the country. To survive the crisis, measures will include a deliberate support system; it will require funding and grants that must get to the real operators of the sector. It will require e-platforms the can help sustain the industry in face of the pandemic.”

In the words of Israel Eboh, president of National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Nigeria has a very rich and strong culture base and a talented creative sector. However, ehat has consistently handicapped the country’s cultural and creative space is the lack of structures and regulatory framework that give direction on how to harness its strength and potential. Unless we set out an agenda, which deliberately promotes our culture — an approach, which makes our culture an essential fabric of our development and identity as a people, we shall continue to find it difficult to adapt or use our culture to address issues in a uniquely Nigerian way,” he said.

To the thespian, “either directly or through encouraging private sector participation, government must be prepared to invest in infrastructures that will grow the industry. Government may also have to consider granting the sector a tax holiday for a period, as it tries to recover from the effects of the pandemic. Now is the time to look at the many intervention funds put in place, and review the many stringent conditions that make it inaccessible to players in the sector. The culture and creative sector must be sustained to avoid adding more unemployed youths to the already large number on the streets.”