The restless geo-artist
It was on a Wednesday the peak of our production for the usual arts pages of the weekend edition of The Guardian. As expected, we were all busy trying to put finishing touches to our copies with Jahman, who also had only a few months before he assumed the editorship of the des, venting his anger and frustration on reporters who would always wait till the last minute before sending in their copies, which of course would still require some editing before Ngozi, the long-suffering ‘secretary’ of the team would type the copies.
It was a metaphorical madhouse; and it was at this point that this gentleman with an unusual swagger walked in and from the front desk, you could hear colleagues hailing him variously: ‘Baba,’ ‘Toyeen, ‘the world publisher,’ ‘bros’ and he had his answers for everyone. But when he approached the Arts Desk, Jahman was in no mood for jokes because apart from the Friday pullout pages, he had another four pages to produce for Saturday and then his self-inflicted page on Sunday. This visitor looked around, greeted everyone and moved towards Jahman and literally barked: “Baba editor! Agbara po!” And the entire newsroom simply burst into laughter including the same Jahman that a few minutes earlier was in no mood for jokes.
I became curious to know about this guy that simply melted the rock! Steve Ayorinde, my comrade in all kinds of reportorial adventures, said: “That’s Toyin Akinosho. He was once a reporter here but currently works with a multinational oil company and also runs the Artsville column in The Guardian on Sunday.”
So why do some people call him publisher? I asked.
He is the publisher of Festac News, a community newspaper that was more of a Culture newspaper, offered Steve.
I had not seen a copy of the newspaper so once Jahman was out of sight, we ‘borrowed’ a copy from his office, and I spent the latter part of my weekend studying that not-so-conventional newspaper.
On Monday, I had a lot of questions to ask. Was this newspaper really targeted at the residents of Festac Town or for artists? There were more stories about the arts from different parts of Lagos and even beyond than real Festac news (cannot help the pun here). Is he able to break even because the adverts in the publication were few; there were even stories of some being free! To this question, Jahman, first laughed and said even the publisher might not be able to provide an answer for this because though intended to be a business, this is more of a passion or something around providing a platform for the under-reported community and the artists community. He jokingly said if I went to the National Art Theatre, I would see a lot of artists clutching copies and not a few of them got their copies for free!
For the publisher, there is a historical and almost spiritual connection between Festac residents and the arts community. Festac Town was originally designed to house the participants of the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture of 1977 (Festac77). The houses were later allocated to civil servants through a balloting scheme.
But then there was still a lot to unravel about the Toyin mystique who successfully married together a daily paid job with a multinational oil and gas company and his passion for the arts. He often joked while still in employment that he was a geologist in the daytime and a reporter at night. He needed the day job to live his passion. It was interesting to see how he easily switched from being an oil man in the daytime and a newshound in the evening, keeping late night but still waking up early enough to resume work the next morning.
And he did this for more than 20 years!
The Culture Advocate, Activist
Everybody admired Toyin’s doggedness in solely funding and running the Festac News for so many years and for being a tireless minstrel of the arts terrain. He lives and breathes the arts. There is no time you see him without him clutching a book and at every gathering, his major contribution is often to inflict on the audience an excerpt from any book that he is reading at that point.
But then his greatest contribution is in culture activism. The argument is that his earlier foray into journalism and publishing was really to create a platform for his activism. And this soon emerged in 1991 when he and fellow travelers formed the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) to help create an enabling environment for the flourishing of contemporary arts in Nigeria. The Committee came at a time the arts sector was crying for a platform on which artists and culture workers could express themselves and sustain their relevance, especially at a most trying period in the life of our nation.
It started a quarterly meeting called the Arts Stampede during which artistes were celebrated and issues around arts and culture were discussed over music and free palm wine! Again, Toyin almost single-handedly funded these events which has helped to give shape to cultural issues and policies. Many would agree that some of the most profound cultural positions were expounded at these quarterly CORA events that attracted both the old and the young; the experienced and the fledgling in the sector. Culture administrators and members of the academia knew that to feel the pulse of the cultural landscape, the place to be was at these events. Every edition was an agenda-setting session. Culture administrators were being held accountable and things began to happen. Even appointments began to ‘make sense’ as it is said in street lingo. At a point, Culture even became a full-fledged ministry after being treated for so long as a poor cousin of its Information counterpart.
What was supposed to be the greatest achievement of CORA was the midwifing of the Coalition of Nigerian Artists (CONA), which was meant to be an umbrella body for all arts and culture practitioners that would become a pressure group to fight for the interests of the sector, especially at a time that the then military administration was talking about a National Conference. Artists rightly felt they had always only been given the short end of the stick and the thinking was for whatever it was worth, artists should make their voices to be heard. The optimism at the University of Lagos venue of the event was infectious. But these initial promises soon gave way to suspicion as some art associations felt this was an attempt to muscle them out of existence and so everyone went back to their tents and of course, the project though noble in intent, failed.
This explains why the 1988 National Cultural Policy and the Endowment Fund for the Arts remain on some bureaucratic shelf gathering dust as successive governments paid lip service to its review to make it relevant to modern day reality. There was an attempt to resurrect CONA in 2007 when it became obvious that the government of the day was bent on the sale/concession of the National Theatre but again this attempt was short-lived!
Watching Toyin from a reportorial distance, it was obvious that he felt disappointed but then for him, it was CONA that failed, CORA would continue and so it has since then. The quarterly Art Stampede continued and some other projects to celebrate culture and help unlock its potential for sustainable development. It did not matter if nobody seemed to be listening. There was no stopping the music. And like the proverbial prophet that is unacknowledged at home, recognition came the way of CORA in 2006 when it was awarded the prestigious Prince Claus Award for encouraging and creating an environment for the flourishing of contemporary culture through “energetic activities which highlight the contributions of committed citizens in stimulating the arts.”
CORA’s collaboration with the German Cultural Center also known as the Goethe Institut, flagged off the Great Highlife Party which helped to reignite the musical careers of such legends as Fatai Rolling Dollars, Tunde Osofisan, E.C Arinze, Apipah Jay, Maliki Showman, Billy Bassey, Y.S.Akinnibosun and others.
But the question begging for answer and there is no better time to ask than now that Toyin is 60 and by right has joined the Elders’ Council, is, what has become of all the proceedings and brilliant submissions at the various art stampedes? In a more organized set-up, all of these should have been documented in books which aligns with the call for a more organized structure around CORA that would outlive its present prime movers. For a nation that plays politics with its own history, there will soon come a Pharaoh that knew no Joseph and then we begin our usual macabre ritual dance of nothingness.
Arguably the most successful Lagos Book & Art Festival organized by the same CORA seems to have done better than the old ad-hoc arrangement and this explains why it enjoys some level of support from Corporate Nigeria. The programme content is rich with fresh ideas and it’s good to see younger people being brought in to take the lead in organisation. But what is uncertain is if these support that are at best token aren’t as a result of relationships around individuals.
Age hasn’t slowed down our very own Poblisha. He has sustained his liberation from conventional forms and become even more daring. His life without a doubt still revolves around the arts but he has also made a success of his other vocation — Journalism. The vagaries of the marketplace forced him to rest the weekly Festac News (published between May 1993 and august 1997) but not before giving birth to what has now become the highly authoritative Africa Oil+Gas Report, a monthly journal which “interprets trends in the continent’s Petroleum Industry to a diverse audience everywhere on the globe” with print circulation in Nigeria, South Africa, Angola, Ghana, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Britain and the United States. Interestingly, if you look beyond the cover stories and take a keener interest in the Editor’s Notes, you will see how Toyin tries to draw a relationship between art and oil and gas!
FOR over 40 years, Toyin has been an active participant and major interventionist in Nigeria’s cultural landscape. He deserves every loud applause for his commitment and fidelity to our shared value. He is a free spirit like the mythical Peter Pan with unending adventures and forever a youth. The difference is that he has not refused to grow and that is why we celebrate him at 60. To paraphrase the immortal Shakespeare through Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come” because with this ‘Publisher’, age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety.
Congratulations on your second childhood Baba Poblisha!
• Adeniji, art journalist, writer is now a corporate communication executive with an oil company