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Oni: A life devoted to lighting stage, building capacity

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor and Margaret Mwantok
22 May 2016   |   3:52 am
On a hot afternoon, Professor Duro Oni is seated in his office, beaming with smiles. This afternoon, he is poring over files. There’s a gentle knock on the door.
Professor Duro Oni

Professor Duro Oni

On a hot afternoon, Professor Duro Oni is seated in his office, beaming with smiles. This afternoon, he is poring over files. There’s a gentle knock on the door.
“Come in,” he answers.
“The journalists from The Guardian? “ he asks.
Pregnant silence follows.
It’s impossible to turn your eyes away from the professor of creative arts, when he is talking. His voice appears simple like that of a young man. If you didn’t look closely, you would hardly believe his age. “I’m 63,” he says.

His parents met and got married in Minna, Niger State. “I was also born in Minna. If you went to primary school in Minna, then you will learn how to speak Hausa in school and at home,” he says in a voice that appears croaky. “Growing up for me was like speaking Hausa and Yoruba simultaneously, and occasionally, Igbo. My father was a produce buyer, he drove us to school; there were no private schools in those days. I went to St Peters Primary School in Minna, then St. Peters College in Kaduna. After that, I went to the University of Ibadan. I worked briefly at the Centre for Nigerian Cultural Studies, Ahmadu Bello University. I spent a year in England between 75 and 76, and then joined the services of the University of Lagos from 1976 till date. And outside the university, I was special adviser to the minister of culture and social welfare, from 1990 to 1992. I was the Director of Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos, for five years, and of course there was the aspect of CBAAC where, I was DG, from 2000 to 2006.”

He never wanted to be anything else, but a theatre artist — a man of the arts, a man of letters, a man of the humanities. In secondary school, he was involved in a lot of drama and theatre and from there, “it was natural to go to the School of Drama at the University of Ibadan, which later became the Department of Theatre Arts. This is what I wanted to do and this is what I have always done. I never wanted to be an engineer; I never wanted to be a medical doctor. I just wanted to do what I knew to do best and I have stuck to it.”

When you talk about design and theatre, design and technology, and design and aesthetics, he is one of the most respected in the country. He was the first person in the theatre in Nigeria that started using computers and computer aided programmes and software to design work for the stage.

Along the line, he had the British Council fellowship from 1975-76, where he was with a Theatre Project firm in London. There, he worked with some of the top designers around the world such as, Richard Pilbrow, Robert Ornbol and Robert Reed. He also trained at the California Institute of the Arts, which is the arts equivalent of the California Institute of Technology.

Being a theatre practitioner and academic, you wonder what are some of the challenges in Nigeria?
“It is ensuring that the profession is respected,” he talks animatedly, waving his hands. “We have to do a lot of work. In those days, if you wanted to read theatre arts, many would think you would end up working with Baba Sala or something like that; they would not even say you would work with Ogunde or Duro Ladipo, but then, Baba Sala had his own very unique theatre space and he did very well.”

He relaxes and a broad smile fills his face. He snorts: “There is the issue of training. Here, I have spent a considerable part of my career training theatre artists, ensuring that they understand both the theoretical issues of their training as well the practical aspects. This is a profession where people, who don’t even have any training can also excel, by just having inborn talent. Some of those with inborn talent, who have come to the university for more training, have found that very good for them, because it has enhanced their performance beyond the talent to include some training where, they are able to intellectualise the reason why a character must be played in this role, rather than copying.”

He heaves, “we also have the problem of dying culture in Nigeria. People don’t tend to go to the theatre to watch live performances, but I see Nollywood as an extension of theatre anyway, because it is the same people who are doing the theatre that are also in Nollywood. We still have people like Austen-Bolanle Peters, at Terra Kulture, and stage performances at universities all over Nigeria, some at the cultural Centres of all the states in Nigeria, and occasionally, we still have performances at the National Theatre.”

He is not one of those, who think politics has destroyed the academic environment in Nigeria. The theatre scholar says, in a calm voice, “I think we could have done better, but you don’t blame politics on its own, I mean politics is politics; it is the operators of the politics that you really must hold responsible.”

He adds, “some people are of the view that the standard of education has fallen, but I don’t agree with that, it has just changed direction; the information available to students now is much more accessible than when we were students. What is important is for us to channel that information to the creative use of these students so, that they are not surfing the Internet looking for far less elevating things. Yes, politics is important because people must always run government; and you don’t thrust government to people who you think are good people and can run the government, they must first show the interest.”

Oni says, “at least now, we have a sitting government that was beaten three times; at least an opposition won the election, which was almost unprecedented. We are maturing, and politics is maturing, I always salute the former president that he saved Nigeria from certain chaos; that phone call to the winner of the election, congratulating him, just elevated Nigeria into another circle. We could still be in court and all the supporters of different parties would still be at loggerheads, fighting each other, but we should go beyond that, this is a very big country, and we must continue to make progress.”

Developing Culture, Tourism Sectors
THE academic doesn’t feel he is putting on a shoe bigger than his feet. He quips, “I have been around for quite some time; I have held some relatively important positions in life. I joined the services of the University of Lagos as a young man; just before I turned 24, and by September this year, I would have been working in the university for some 40 years. All of those periods are periods that build you up for the kind of responsibility you assume in your future.”

As a culture administrator, he feels the Federal Government efforts at diversifying the economy has to be holistic: “You can look at the arts and craft, you can look at the performing arts, you can look at the media arts, in which Nollywood is doing so much. More importantly are the arts and crafts, because we do have quite an enormous range of arts and crafts that can be tapped into. Now, when you talk about other things like weaving or making baskets and handmade bags, these are things that the government can try to support.”

The Deputy Vice Chancellor, Management Services, University of Lagos, believes there is a need for Nigerians to see that a lot of the country’s resources go into importation of things; everything that everyone wants to buy has to be imported. “Why are people not buying Nigerian dresses, why are they not using fabrics made here in Nigeria, why are they always interested in imported items?” he asks.

“You are looking at those aspects from consumer perspective, now looking at it from the intellectual perspective; what is making our people wanting to buy things only because they are foreign, all the orientation work has to tie into this new move to try and get the art and culture to play a major role in the development of people. The reorientation of the mind is very important; there are many agencies: Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), is there, and when you are trying to export what people should consume, first of all, you must create the market here for people to consume it; the quality must be good,” he explains.

A lot of this was put in place when he was the director general of Centre for Black African Arts and Culture (CBAAC). “First, we put the centre on the international arena; that it was not just a local parastatal of federal ministry of culture, but as you are aware in the cultural and tourism sectors, there are very many parastatals, so, our role in CBAAC, is that we are able to intellectualise those aspects of our culture within the world civilisation, saying that what we have is not in anywhere inferior to what people are running to on the other side of the world.”

He reveals, “the situation is bad to the extent that people are now importing toothpicks. Why is there no development in Nigeria? That is why we must support agencies like Bank of Industry and Commerce, to ensure that people who make things in Nigeria will have markets for those things, and also help to make those things better than they are. When we conceive a lot of those things, and we travel abroad, we will take some as gift items, and they will admire them. Look at our adire, look at all our crafts. Occasionally, we do get one or two ministers who just go for entirely made in Nigeria fabrics; you can actually put on a fabric of one or two thousand naira, which saves money for you, and you are not looking for foreign exchange.”
You ask, what’s the greatest challenge of being Professor Duro Oni?
“It’s trying to maintain the name,” he smiles.

He continues, “it is trying to maintain your integrity, trying to contribute to your nation, and to be able to impart knowledge to your students, discipline to your students. One has been around for a while, and sometimes you see the country and you say we could really do better than we are doing now, but at least we are glad that we have an advocate of change who, is running the government of Nigeria, and the international community is taking us more seriously, so this helps, it makes it easier for one.”

Oni confesses, “at some point in one’s career, sometimes, you even get angry that why are we where we are today? We have got the challenges of electricity and water, the challenges of roads and you say, frankly speaking after 56 years, should we still be where we are? When you start thinking of primary things, then the higher level things elude you. For instance, when you are trying to write a poem and the light goes out, next you think of how to get light, and at that point something is eluding you.”

The lighting expert says, “one very important thing to me is that I try to help people as much as I can; I try to help them in the development of their careers, I also try to help them financially when I can within my very limited resources. The development of people’s careers, one aspect that is important to me is self-improvement effort from that individual first, then I do whatever is possible for me to help that person realise their goal. When you are in the knowledge industry, your prayer is that your students would achieve a lot more than you ever tried to do; you must bring them up, you must challenge them beyond the level that you are. I am always happy when I see people progress because I think God has been good to me too.”

ARE you an introvert or an extrovert?
“No, I can be reserved but definitely the opposite of introvert. 30 years ago, I was the president of the staff club at the University of Lagos, and I went there every day unless I was out of town,” he says.

What he enjoys most being his wife’s husband?
“I think I’m a lucky man, my wife is very understanding, doesn’t make trouble and she cooks very well,” he admits. Both of them first met during FESTAC ’77, then she was a student of theatre arts at the University of Calabar. They got married seven years after in 1984. “She is from Ogoja in Cross River state. She doesn’t make demands; if you have 1000, 10,000 or even N1million, and give to her, it is fine by her. Most of the time, I am the one that makes the offer,” he admits, adding, “my favourite meal is pounded yam and edikang ikong soup. My best restaurant is at home, because I get the very best meals there. But we do go out once in a while though.”

BORN on December 15, 1952, Oni is from Iwoye-Ijesa, Osun state. He is married to Francesca, and they are blessed with four children — Yemi, Duro Jr., Dele and Dolapo — all graduates of the University of Lagos.

He was also the Director General / CEO of the Federal Government Parastatal, Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) from 2000 – 2006. He holds the BFA and MFA Degrees from the California Institute of the Arts in the United States and a Ph.D. from the University of Ibadan.

An academic of repute, Oni has a total of nine books and over 50 articles in reputable journals and chapters in books in the areas of Theatre Arts Design and Aesthetics, Dramatic Literature and Criticism, Cultural Studies and the Nollywood/Nigerian Films.

What does he love about Nigeria?
“The people,” he laughs at loud. He adds, “if I were to come back to this world, I would like to come back as a Nigerian. This is a really good country; it’s a friendly country. There are one or two bad people, but essentially, Nigerians are good people. I am very happy to be a Nigerian, even at 63, I still believe that in my lifetime, Nigeria is on the track of being better, and when I say better, it means that we are able to provide basic infrastructure, basic amenities that would elevate us beyond our current level. I have been to 62 countries in the world; I have travelled extensively over the past 40 years, I always look forward to coming back home. This is no slogan. There are certain countries you go to and you are looking behind you all the time; I’m not saying that there is no crime in Nigeria, but it is still a relatively peaceful country. And we have been able to surmount our problems.”

Oni has travelled widely and has trained in and or visited countries such as, the US, Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Finland, Spain, Yugoslavia, Bermuda, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Hong Kong, Canada, Barbados, Trinidad, India, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Australia and a host of African countries.

He is a Fellow of the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artistes (SONTA), Fellow and Advisory Board Member of National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Senior Overseas Fellow of the Ferguson Centre, Open University in the United Kingdom (2006-2007), Fellow, Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, (RSA), UK, Member, Academy of Letters and a Member of the University of Lagos Governing Council (2007-2011, 2013 to present). His latest assignment was as Collating Officer/Returning Officer for the Presidential/Governorship Election in Ogun State in 2015.