Fela’s headless statue as failed mimicry
The festschrift or celebration of inimitable Olufela Anikulapo-Kuti is deservedly being positioned as an international or, even, global art and music event. The essential qualities of Fela’s great art and music characterised by a refreshing admixture of nobility, grandeur and populism have been globally noted or identified as possessing great thoughts and noble feelings. Impressive, exalted and far above ordinary human qualities, Fela’s music, for instance, is sublime being a thing of spirit; a spark leaping from the musician to the listener. Fela has begun a movement in art and music emphasising the expression of the imagination and presented without conscious control. As a movement in modern art and music it has many followers across the globe even though it has discernible roots reaching back to traditional African music lore and practice.
Fela’s “persona” created by the artist commissioned by the Lagos State government and by whom Fela’s “second self” was to be presented to the world through a statue erected in a prominent public place, is instructive of the failure of art when its creator is unable to wear a mask through which he could speak things he dared not utter in his own person. With a proper understanding of Fela as enigmatic, imponderable but savvy and one who is steeped in the mores and values of his people, Fela could not be misrepresented as brainless, witless or headless. Even though Fela means many things to many people, all are agreed that he was a consummate music impresario, a deep-thinking philosopher, a far-sighted prophet and an incomparable grass-roots mobiliser. His many brushes with officials of state who could not understand his audacious insistence on “carpe diem” (exhorting or demanding that things be done right as time was not in anybody’s favour) attest to his populism and the fear or awe with which the state held him. Fela’s apt caricature of Nigeria’s men of power, of their individual qualities or of their lack thereof through dexterous artistic distortion or exaggeration has produced a ridiculous but profoundly resounding effect in his “Vagabonds In Power,” “Suffering and Smiling,” “Yellow Fever” “I.T.T.” and “Zombie” which sorely irked the military junta culminating in the storming vi et armis of his Kalakuta Republic. These pieces, ever so popular and memorable, have lent themselves to the ridicule of political, religious and social foibles in contemporary Nigerian society. Fela’s “Yabis” sessions in his coven, The Shrine, are lecture or enlightenment classes on the “state of the nation” delivered with uncanny sincerity and laced with ribald jokes and witty criticisms. An all-round or robust character, Fela typifies some definite quality, not a nebulous idea or whiff.
Regardless of the method by which a character is presented, the author or creator is allowed to concentrate upon a dominant trait to the exclusion of the other aspects of the character’s personality or he may attempt to present a fully-rounded personality. If the presentation of a single dominant trait is carried to the extreme, not a believable character but a caricature will result. If this method is handled with skill, it can produce a two-dimensional character that is striking and interesting but may be utterly lacking in depth. On the other hand, the creator may present us with so convincing a congeries of personality traits that a complete rather than a simple character emerges. As a rule, a robust character, as we have in the Fela personality, need such three-dimensional treatment.
That so-called statue of Fela, launched recently with so much rude panaché and official fatalism, has done untold violence to the memory of the celebrated icon who used his head, mouth, arms and facial expressions to effectively communicate the sustainable values of a community that is in search of itself and of direction. Fela without his head, whatever artistic rationalisation is conjured, is gauche or rude. There is a tendency to assume that artistic “kinds” have an ideal existence and willy-nilly obey the “the laws of their kind,” these laws being the criteria by which works of art could be judged. The commissioned sculptor seemed to have assured his principals that “headless” Fela is the product of a “stream of consciousness” to which he is entitled even at the expense of cold reality. Certain common assumptions are shared by all who believe in the total range of awareness regarding rational thought. But we have been invited by the creator of “headless” Fela to assume an un-ending flow of sensations, thoughts, memories, associations, and reflections. We are led to assume that Fela without his head is still the same iconic Abami Eda. The sponsors of the art themselves seem to agree as they throw up their arms in smug deference regarding the fait accompli even as they are not considering a re-make or re-moulding consistent with the reality of our shared knowledge of the Fela persona. Even Femi and Seun, worthy offsprings of Fela, may have thinly concealed their embarrassment at the misrepresentation or un-real presentation of their progenitor’s personality. Much colour, vigour, glow, atmosphere and inspiration have been denied the Fela chivalry in this subtly mocking portraiture.
When governments attempt to use the arts or artists to prop their sagging popularity or to draw attention away from their inanities, they merely trap the unwary observer into difficulties even as unsatisfactory efforts to bind together a collection of contrasting and often conflicting elements are exposed for all to see. This headless Fela statue is far less than the picturesque imagery and robust phraseology which are an enriching element in the life of the real Fela and in the lives of his band or tribe of unyielding admirers world-wide. All told, Fela lives on – combative, defiant and stubborn, even in death, to attempts to pigeon-hole or classify him along the lines of not-too-well-formed art types or by art dilettantes or neophytes.
That utterly poor imitation of Fela ought to be withdrawn today and replaced with the reality of our shared values, knowledge and intuitions reflecting that priceless gift-in-gift, that one and only cultural ambassador and star that has remained undimmed even by death, our own Olufela Akanni Anikulapo-Kuti, Omo Iya Aje.
Rotimi-John, a lawyer and public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja.
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