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Soyinka becomes ‘honorary citizen’ of cap Haitian


The Banquet Cake

Today, in Haiti, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka will be officially decorated as a ‘Honourable Citizen’ of Cap Haitien, capital of the northern region of the Caribbean Island country. At the ceremony to be held in the city’s town hall, he will formally be handed Key to the country’s second largest and most touristic city.

Yesterday, he had been lavishly welcomed to the city by singing and dancing 500 youths and other eminent citizens of the city, and senior government representatives led by the Mayor, Jean-Claude Mondesir and members of his administration, who later treated him to a reception.

While on the two-day visit to the city, he will also participate in several other activities, including lectures, and an excursion to the famous citadel La Ferriere and the Palais Sans-Souci, a UNESCO heritage site.

The visit to Cap Haitien, is in continuation of his ongoing week-long visitation to Haiti as the 2018 ‘Distinguished Guest’ and subject-focus of the famous international cultural exchange programme, “Meetings of Here and Elsewhere”, curated by the Haiti-based Laboratorio Art Contemporain (LAC) with facilitation by the Lagos-based Culture Advocates Caucus (CAC).

Since he arrived in the Port au Prince capital of Haiti, on Monday February 17, the Nobel laureate, has been treated to lavish receptions and engagements befitting only a visiting head of state. The week-long visitation will end tomorrow, when he returns home.

The haul had started with a State Banquet in his honour attended by top political, economic and intelligentsia of Haiti on Tuesday, which climaxed with the conferment of the country’s highest honour, l’Ordre National Honour and Merite au Grade de Commander (Order of Honour and Merit of the Commander’s Rank, by President Josevena Moise.

The regional office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Educational Organisations (UNESCO), had on Wednesday hosted him to a reception, to which the United Nations Secretary General sent a special representative and, which was attended by 12 ambassadors and other senior diplomatic officials.

Other activities held in past week have included a formal opening ceremony at which he spoke extensively on the continuing debate about Leopold Sedar Senghor-propounded Negritude, to which he had responded with the concept of Tigritude; lectures at three universities and official visit to the Museum of Pantheon of Haiti, the Martissant Park, otherwise known as Garden of Memory, where memorabilia of the infamous Haitian earthquake of January 2010, which claimed over 300,000 lives and displaced more than 500,000 people in the country, stretching to its neighbouring Dominican Republic.

At the heart of the programme is however, the exhibition of about 80 pieces from his collections of antiquities in the holdings of the Wole Soyinka Foundation (WSF), located in his Autonomous Residence of Ijegba (ARI), in Ibara area Abeokuta, Ogun State. The two-month exhibition mounted in the National Museum of Ethnology, located adjacent the State House, will end in April.

The Programme is also showcasing a mini-retrospective on the works of the ace Nigerian filmmaker, Tunde Kelani. Five of his works will be screened, and he will engage students and young filmmakers on his work. A special session held on Nigerian cinematic culture as represented by NOLLYWOOD, and it featured a panel discussion, where the filmmaker and Jahman Anikulapo of the CAC, spoke about the possibilities and challenges of being a filmmaker in Nigeria.

A 70th birthday party is being staged tomorrow, Monday February 26, for the director/producer of such popular works as ‘Saworoide’, ‘Thunderbolt’, ‘Arugba’, ‘Abeni’, ‘Maami’ and lately SIDI ILUJINLE, an interpretation of yet another Soyinka classic, ‘Lion & the Jewel’, which will be screened at the birthday bash with eminent artists and culture workers of Haiti expected in attendance.

Other films to be screened in the course of the programme are Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine, Femi Odugbemi’s Gidi Blues, and Headgone by Dare Fasasi. CAC had on Wednesday made a special presentation on the resources of the creative sector of Nigeria with special focus on Freedom Park (Lagos), as a good example of reclamation of public space for the Arts.

On Friday, before he departed with his delegation to Cap Haitien, Soyinka had held a book signing event at the Pleasdes Library and gave a brief talk on “Identities” moderated by one of the Haitian best known writers, Lyonnel Trouillot.

Other highlights of the programme as diarised by the CAC team are:

DAY 1 (afternoon): Tuesday, February 20

Busy day in Port au Prince as the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, is given State reception by the Haitian Government, led by President Monsieur Jovenel MOISE, at the State House. The first lady of Haiti, and eight cabinet ministers as well as many senior govt officials assisted President Moise in decorating Soyinka with the Haitian state’s Medal of Honour.

This was followed by a Banquet, with eminent Haitian artists a d culture workers, political and economic leaders in attendance.

President Moise said the honour was in recognition of his service as “a fighter for humanity” and leading advocate for the “elevation of people of African descent”.

DAY 1: (Late Afternoon): Tuesday, February 20

Soyinka was later in the late afternoon, honoured by the University of Haiti, through the Institute for Studies and Research of Africans of Haiti (IERAH/ISSERS), founded by his ‘comrade’ and ‘intellectual sparring partner’, Leopold Sedar Senghor, where the auditorium was named after him, and he engaged the students on the connection between Africa and its many Diasporas.

He formally opened an exhibition by the Art students curated in his honour. In a short review, the Guest of Honour recognised the deep consciousness of the young artists for African cultural heritage. He said (paraphrase), I came from the source to Haiti to see the essences of Africa in the way the young people have represented

Sango, ifa and so on through voodoo symbols and images. He said he was happy the young people have not lost their Africanness in a so-called ‘civilisation’.

DAY 1: (Evening): Tuesday, February 20

In the evening he was in Dialogue with Haitian renowned writer, Lionel Trouillot, moderated by the journalist, Emmelie Prophete at the Anne-Marie Morisset Centre.

A highpoint was the appearance of French famous writer, Franketienne, who paid special tribute to Soyinka for deploying his writing and influence in advancing cause of humanity and giving Africa a potent voice on the global stage.

He recalled a conference in Italy in the 80s, where he said the laureate made a case for the black race as deserving greater honour and recognition in discourse about global civilisation. This he said, changed drastically the way world intellectuals began to reevaluate contributions of the black family to issues concerning human race and development.

DAY 2—(Morning): Wednesday, February 21

A CARNIVALEQUE atmosphere heralded the formal opening of the Meetings of Here and Elsewhere, with over 300 people drawn from diverse segments of the Port au Prince gathering in the banquet hall of hotel Montana in Petionville.

With welcome and goodwill messages given by specially selected speakers including the Haitian Minister of Education, Pierre Josué Agénor Cadet and the Swiss Ambassador,  Jean Luc Virchaux, whose office is facilitating key aspects of the programme.

While the education Minister stressed on the significance of Soyinka’s visitation to the “opening up of the minds of Haitians, and especially ‘liberation of the psyche of the youths of Haiti’ who are always in search of “models and icons to inspire them and to emulate”, Ambassador Virchaux said, as a diplomat, he was elated at the global political and cultural significance of the visitation and the Programme that brought Soyinka to Haiti.

The Special Guest himself, while expressing appreciation for the invitation, said he considered himself a ‘Haitian at heart’, and that he was glad that young Haitians unlike youths in some other countries of Black diaspora, continue to keep their sense of cultural pride.

He seized the opportunity to clear the air about what is conceived as his lingering conflict with the concept of Negritude as promoted by the late Leopold Sedar Senghor.

Saying that there was no fundamental disagreements to the idea of Blacks and Africans asserting their cultural philosophy, certain aspects of the concept needed to be interrogated for it to connect more roundly with all Africans, especially those on the continent.

And that was what he did, and which other intellectuals, especially Aime Cesair had since justified in their own interventions. The event ended with a sumptuous luncheon.

DAY 2 (afternoon): Wednesday, February 21

The Special Guest paid an official visit to the Museum of National Pantheon of Haiti (MUPANAH), which “preserves preciously the remains of the ‘fathers of the Fatherland’: Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henry Christophe and Alexandre Pétion.”

In one and half-hour educative tour, the charming curator, Rachelle Charlier Doucet , herself a scion of past heroes and icons of the Haitian society, took Soyinka and his company through the history and memory of the struggles of the Haitian nationalists and statesmen. She said the main preoccupation of the Mupanah is to ensure that young Haitians are exposed to the history of their founding fathers; the “struggle that brought us to where we are today”.

In his comment after tour, Soyinka wrote in the visitor’s book: “A memorable institution for History and Memory.” He commended the enormous and meticulous work that had been done to document and preserve the memory and history of the Haitian people and their struggle for emancipation.

He said the collection of information should be very viable for anyone who steps in there, and especially for people from the continent, to appreciate the journeys of the Haitians and others in the Caribbean from the ‘source’.

Created by decree of October 20, 1982, and inaugurated on April 7, 1983, the museum is conceived to “perpetuate and spread the memory of the ‘fathers of the Fatherland’; and it houses archaeological and ethnographic pieces like the Tainos objects, artifacts of the Spanish and French colonial eras, as the anchor of the Santa Maria ora irons slave dated XVIIth century, historical documents showing the sale of slaves, a mold of sugar loaf, the bell of liberty sounded during the abolition of slavery on August 29, 1793, bayonet guns of the officers of the native army, and many other treasures”.

The museum also has a rich repertoire of works of art, which brings together the paintings of the great masters of Haitian painting. In two sections, the first devoted to the permanent exhibition, showcases historical objects and documents from the pre-Columbian period to the contemporary period, including the revolutionary period during which the indigenous army fought the colonial system to achieve the abolition of slavery and the creation of Haiti, the first independent black state.

DAY 3 (Evening) Wednesday, February 21

FORMAL opening of the exhibition: ‘WOLE SOYINKA: Antiquities across Times and Spaces’ at the Museum of Ethnology, Port au Prince, Haiti on Wednesday.

Curated by Awam Amkpa, the exhibition is at the heart of Soyinka’s week-long visitation to Haiti as Special Guest of MEETINGS OF HERE AND ELSEWHERE, organised by Laboratorio Arts Contemporain with support of Culture Advocates Caucus, CAC. It also features five pieces by US-based Nigerian artist, Moyo Okediji, one, Elesin-Oba, an abstract interpretation from Soyinka’s classic play, ‘Death &The King’s Horseman’, and others showing his continuing exploration of the masquerades and Ifa motifs; two of Olu Amoda’s three pieces reflect on the Market women characters in ‘Death…”; and a fascinating piece by Peju Alatishe’, ‘ABRACADABRA, Government Magic, an installation of hanged men in a box, which kept drawing attention of guests, many taking selfie with it, at the opening.

DAY 4 (Afternoon) – Thursday, February 22

IN continuation of his weeklong visit to Haiti, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka led discussion on the theme ‘Dynamics of Artistic Creations and the Role of the Private Collection.’ This is in context of the  ongoing two-month display of his art collection, titled ‘WOLE SOYINKA: Antiquities Across Times and Spaces’— at the Museum of Ethnology, located adjacent the Haitan State House.

Held in the auditorium of the Quisqueya University, Haiti’s leading private university, the conference had been preceded by a tour of the university campus, which had suffered destruction during the country’s last earthquake. It ended with visit to the ‘museum of memory’ specially created  to honour the memory of the students who died during the disaster, and the survivors still undergoing trauma of the after-effect.

Recalling his experience with the shocking disappearance of an African village,  ‘Bekuta’ (an obvious reference to Abeokuta, capital of Ogun State), which he had encountered while on earlier visit to mountainous part of Jamaica, he said this was a strong metaphor for  the gradual erosion, (and continuing erasure) of cultural  and spiritual identities of many of Africans in the Diaspora. He stressed that the preservation of memories and identities should be paramount to the people of Haiti, and in fact all of African descent anywhere they are located.

Speaking to a roomful of young and old, academics and townfolks, Soyinka said he was sad when — while earlier in the day, visiting the Maryissant Park, popularly called ‘Garden of Memory’ because it hosts memorabilia about the recent earthquake that devastated the Haiti Island — he learnt that some Christian evangelists had been destroying a certain tree associated with voodoo.

Noting that back at home, extremists and religious fundamentlists have also been destroying totems and symbols of tradional religions, he urged Haitians, especially the  young, to ensure they challenge such selfish moves, which is targeted at erasing vital aspects of their identities, eroding their intellectual liberties as well depriving them of their fundamental rights of worship and freedon of expression.

On his collections, now in the holding of the Wole Soyinka Foundation (WSF) — located in his Autonomous Residence of Ijegba in Abeokuta, he said his choices were determined by his “Discoveries” and “Recognition” of the meanings of the antiquities to his essences and identity as an African Being. He said these two ideas — rediscovery and recognition — ought to be at the base of why people collect beside from other private or pecuniary reasons.

In fielding questions from the audience, Soyinka said he understood why a lot of collectors of antiquities prefer to be ‘selfish’ with their works, and would rather lock up such works or “bury them in an underground locker room with strong locks”, and not daring to show or share  them with the public.

Such reasons include possibility of damage, theft, mishandling. He assured the audience that he has since been ‘reborn’ and has now decided to share his own collections of priceless antiquities with members of the public, who in truth own the patrimony. Hence two current tour of a section of the collections, coming in the wake of an earlier showing in Nigeria.

Curator of the exhibition, Awam Amkpa of New York University, gave a detailed explanation of the art collection and the choice of pieces that made it into the show. He said though the works reflect the personality, belief, philosophy and taste of the collector, they were essentially selected to emphasise spiritual essences of African art, stress on the meaning and importance of the works to the cultures and communities that produce them, show the strength of African aesthetics, as well as ensuring continuous connection of the Black Diaspora to Africa.

He said he included works by some contemporary artists to show that there is a continuous flow between the style and techniques of old artists and the artists of today. Hence he included works by Moyo Okediji, Peju Alatise, and Olu Amoda — all leading Nigerian contemporary artists.

Other speakers in the conference reflected on the relationship between Africa and its many Diasporas, stressing that there ought to be stronger engagement between artists on the continent and those who had been displaced by the consequences of histories of slavery and colonialism.

For the young people, especially, Michele Pierre- Louis, a leading gallerist in Port au Prince, she said they have greater opportunities to develop stronger ties and networks to artists operating on the continent.

• This piece was put together by Culture Advocates Caucus (CAC).

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