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Identity, culture in fate, fortune of underserved

By Sola Adeyemi
26 March 2023   |   2:14 am
I would like to frame this talk on the fate and fortune of the underserved in Nigeria’s artworld around the general definition of culture, to help us contextualise an agenda for change in the structure of arts partnership.

I would like to frame this talk on the fate and fortune of the underserved in Nigeria’s artworld around the general definition of culture, to help us contextualise an agenda for change in the structure of arts partnership.

The choice of the title – ‘Identity and Culture in the Fate and Fortune of the Underserved: Agenda for Nigeria 2023’ – is deliberate, as it is designed to guide us through an exploration of the connection between our identity as artistes and the cultural precepts that bind us together.

So, I shall start by first stating my meaning of culture, to evoke the uniqueness of our culture and how we can exploit it to better create a new culture to serve us in our profession, and in our ideals, going forward from now.

Culture embodies the values, the aesthetic qualities and moral frames and attributes, which people consider basic and important in their contact and interaction with one another, and with the world around them.

It embodies a community or group or society’s structure or framework of values; it is the basis of the community or group or society’s worldview, of how members see themselves and their place in the world in relation to other peoples, communities and societies.

In our case, this is very important, as it not only defines us, it also describes us and locates us in the multiverse of people, in the community of artists, and in our own group or individual silos. Culture therefore provides the foundation for both the individual and collective image(s), which we have of ourselves, and which people have of us, of our identity as artistes, since it is both a intellectual and visual ideological expression of the totality of our activities and life processes.

So, when people see us, whether in our work or in our compositions, they observe whatever we present through the prism of our culture and what it means to them.

A culture scholar, Raymond Williams, writing in his 1976 Keywords (New York: OUP, 1983), proposed three broad definitions for culture, all of which apply to us as artists.

First, culture is ‘a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development’. This is the definition of culture that illustrates and describes great philosophers, artists, poets and creatives of all kinds as individuals (in their duality of existence), and indivisuals (in the facades they present), in what they do and how they do what they do. It examines the relationship between the mind and the heart of the artist, and creates an image that allows us to recognise the artist.

You may call this the personal stamp or the signature; the difference between, say, Bolanle Austen-Peters of Terra-Kulture and Segun Adefila of Crown Troupes of Africa, or the identification criteria between poet Odia Ofeimun and performance-poet Akeem Lasisi, and between cineaste Femi Odugbemi and cinematographer Tunde Kelani.

The second definition from Raymond Williams is more general but it is a guide for us. He says that culture is ‘a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group’. I would want to draw our particular attention to this, as it points to a pathway of collaboration for us. It asks us to procedurally examine what unites us as artists and how we can combine the power of our personal identities to the ‘power of one’, in our literary pursuits and in our festivals, associations and collaborations.

The third definition refers to the outcomes of our collaboration, to the works and practices of our intellectual and artistic activity, to those significant efforts that signify, or that produce meaning, and give the rest of our community access to our processes, to our work, to our creativity in poetry, theatre, fine art, film, etc. In what our ‘audience’ see and use in defining us.

As you can see from what I have said so far, recognising our culture is important, and what is more crucial, even, is recognising how to promote our culture and how to employ it in developing our art and improving our fortune as an agenda for 2023.

Culture is a good thing to have, to be aware of, to be proud of, and therein lies the problem of culture, which we must acknowledge; otherwise, we shall continue to wallow in our little pools of masturbatory insignificance. The problem is that those things, that make culture good and that enhance our life, and our output as artists, are also the very things that make culture dangerous.

Culture binds and yet divides people; it is inclusive and exclusive, and all manner of contradictory and contentious attitudes and behaviours arise from people’s relationship with, and attitudes to, their culture. And not acknowledging this creates a circle of exclusion around our art and us.
Culture has the ability to give identity and a sense of belonging, though this also makes it exclude others, and create the feeling and attitude of ‘us’ and ‘them’. So, we need to accept this ability to identify who we are and how we can work in partnership

But how does the foregoing help us to understand our fate and determine our fortune? The answer lies in the second definition of culture, that culture is ‘a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group’. Once we are familiar with that particularity, we are in a strong position to assess our fate and define – or re-define – our fortune.

My proposal is for us to create a new culture, a different outlook for our collective engagement. As artists, we like our independence, our exclusivity, but I would like us to consider the benefit of inclusivity.

Identify avenues to network with one another, to challenge or create works together. Economically, this can reduce expenditure and increase productivity. For this to work, we have to suspend our distrust in one another. No partnership can work successfully with the shadow of exploitation and game-upmanship masking good intentions.

Know what you want to get out of such collaborations and agree a working culture based on shared ideas, interests, methods, and audience. [Don’t forget copyright!]

Base that working culture on shared goals and vision. How would collaborators’ ideas amplify inspirations, or if there are differences, as there are bound to be, how do you use this to create a better or stronger narrative?
Strategize and share feedback. And above all, make your working culture recognisable for primary ideal of serving you, the current underserved. Nobody else is going to care about you, not even your audience, if you do not first care for yourself.
Adeyemi is Director of Drama, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

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