Saturday, 23rd September 2023

A tale of two art ‘cities’

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
20 March 2016   |   3:20 am
On Dunga Road, Nairobi, creativity is at work. The creative industry is brimming with hope and confidence. But first, you have to be inside of the GoDown Art Centre to feel this vibe..
Front view of GoDown Centre, Nairobi

Front view of GoDown Centre, Nairobi

On Dunga Road, Nairobi, creativity is at work. The creative industry is brimming with hope and confidence. But first, you have to be inside of the GoDown Art Centre to feel this vibe. There’s nothing grand about the centre — but inside the building, there’s a dazzling cornucopia of art pieces ready for connoisseurs’ consumption. As you amble on, section-by-section of creative exploration from the plastic to the performing arts, some of these pieces make you wonder, which of the studios to enter.

This evening, there’s a healthy trade in the former discarded warehouse. A legion of artists is handing out dose of artistic production to available consumers. The centre is the shop window for the now thriving creative industries in Kenya — almost half of the new generation of artists from Kenya has one thing or the other to do with the facility.

The first of its kind in East Africa, the centre is housed in a renovated 10,000 sq. metre warehouse located on the fringes of an industrial area, five minutes away from the Central Business District of Nairobi (CBD). It houses a performance space, several creative businesses and artist studios. It’s a multidisciplinary arts incubator of sorts, with a mission

It was created by a group of art conscious individuals, who sought new approaches to the development of creative industry in Kenya. The founders were all returnees from the Diaspora, having made the choice to come back home and invest in their urban ‘home’.

Finding the right space for the centre took close to two years. And after reviewing such spaces in Europe, the group designed a two-year plan for the centre to consolidate organisational frameworks; establish centre management and operation systems; try out programming for audiences; plan financial sustainability and identify regional networking and collaboration opportunities. That was in 2000.

By 2003, however, GoDown was ready to launch itself as a performing and visual arts centre, providing a unique multidisciplinary space for arts and art forms.

The mission of the centre has been to develop independent artists across multiple art forms, to participate in the advancement of the cultural sector, thereby, contributing to the establishment of a robust arts and culture sector with an expanding, receptive audiences, to develop independent artists across multiple art forms and to participate in the advancement of the cultural sector, as well as contributing to the establishment of a robust arts and culture sector with an expanding receptive audiences.

As a result, both resident and non-resident artists regularly use the centre for shows and exhibitions, book launches, workshops and rehearsals. In fact, given its location in an industrial area, visitors do not find it difficult to access either by public transport or car.

In less than 13 years, it has become a focal point in East Africa for innovation, creativity, performance and promoting professional development through regular training workshops that encourage collaboration. Already, it is a partner of Google Culture Institute, as a result of this partnership; activities in the facility are given mileage on Google platform.

Not long ago, it launched Nairobi – Urban Cultural Anchors and Their Role in Urban Development, a project, which explored questions of identity and belonging in the city and implications for city planning. It was organised in collaboration with writers, visual artists, photographers, performing artists, as well as architects, city planners, other anchor institutions such as, Kenya Polytechnic and the Kenya Railways Corporation.

While on a visit to the centre in October 2015, Joy Mboya, the executive director of the centre told The Guardian how the warehouse was bought and transformed into Nairobi’s epicentre for performing and visual arts.

It was gathered that at the time of its formation, the Kenya Cultural Centre (at the Kenya National Theatre) was badly run down. The GoDown, thus, provided the much-needed creative and ‘breathing’ space for artists from Kenya and beyond.

“Basically, it is a response to government’s insensitivity to the arts,” adds Judy Ogana, GM and programme coordinator of the centre.

Mboya, who has spearheaded a variety of ambitious projects, including the visual narrative Kenya Burning (2008) and the Nairobi-wide festival Nai Ni Who (2013), has developed programmes showcasing artists’ work within the centre’s facility as well as at other spaces in the city.

For the lady, who is in her 50s, and had also served on the Governing Council of the Kenya Cultural Centre, which oversees the Kenya National Theatre, the greatest achievement of GoDown is that artistes in Kenya today have a variety of avenues to present their work. Now the focus is to improving their skills, especially, the business aspect, under the concept of cultural industries and the creative economy.

The centre has contributed to the current gradual shift in artistes choosing their career path based on talent and is now involved in capacity building and policy work. It offers an internship for communications and general office work to college students, which will enable them to develop interest in the sector.

THOUSAND kilometres (3,817) away fromNairobi. The crisp January air whips through Lagos horizon, skipping past the National Theatre and crossing to the lagoon. It is sunset and windowpanes reflects tawny gold from the banks of cloud.

The long, winding road from the main gate stretches on to acres of unused land. Along the road is a mini-market, abe-igi, where food and drinks are on offer to visitors. Just by the turn on Entrance C of the complex, some youngmen and women are gathered in an open space, sketching objects of significance. They are students of the popular Universal Studios of Art, Lagos.

The facility is a tourist route that was mapped out in the 80s with a handful of artists. Now it has exploded in popularity and there are more people, who contemplate nature in its serene environment. The studio is a bridge between art trainings – formal or informal – and the mainstream practice.

USA, as it is fondly called, is one of Nigeria’s oldest post-independence group art studios. Three to four of 10 art pieces of Nigerian origin, in art galleries, public spaces and private collections across the country – exported abroad too – in the last three decades, perhaps, have a direct or indirect link to the place.

You could be forgiven, when you describe the place as a junkyard. Actually, it started at a spot that was once used by the National Theatre management as a mechanic workshop. But here, very little is done in half-measures. There is perfection. And to know that it is more of training centre, than a tourist haven, is simply encouraging. Every year, at least, 50 students from across the higher institutions of learning in the country sharpen their skills as industrial trainees in the studios.

A private initiative, USA has its origin from the current space of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), in 1980, when the Ministry of Culture invited some artists to use the premises of the National Art Studio to work.

The aims of this gesture were to use the gallery to groom young artists and other art enthusiasts. The initial membership of the National Studio included, Bisi Fakeye, Erhabor Emokpae, Garba Ashiwaju, Felix Osieme, Olayinka Ali, Joe Musa, Olu Ajayi, Amos Odion and Kunle Akran.

Filled with the spirit to deliver, the artists took over the challenges to work, but as soon as all was going well with the studio, with more youths developing interest, because of the quality of names associated with the studios, the artists were asked to move out in 1995, due to change in the administration of the NGA.

Dr. Paul Dike, director of NGA, served a quit notice to occupants of the studios, who were already well settled professionally in their much loved art environment. The situation united Fakeye and all members of the studios against NGA’s decision.

For several months, both the Gallery and the Studios were at war of words. But eventually, the artists were forced to move, but to a nearby location, where they eventually operated under a new name, Universal Studios of Art (U.S.A).

That development led to what is now known as Universal Studios of Artists, a group of 12 professionals, who run 11 departments or studios.

Inside the Universal Studios of Art, Lagos                                                                                                                                                               PHOTO: CHARLES OKOLO

Inside the Universal Studios of Art, Lagos PHOTO: CHARLES OKOLO

Among the 12 artists are four founding members, who are also board of trustees: carver, Bisi Fakeye; sculptors, Bunmi Babatunde and Monday Akhidue. There is also the painter Biodun Olaku.

Over the years, the concept and horizon of the Studios have been expanded to accommodate other ideals and needs. The studio, which came for a desire and a hunger to ensure that creativity, is leading the way in culture business.

Today, apart from the numerous art studios owned by artists who have been producing array of works there, it has come to be a home to many other young artists – students artists in short, who are being given the opportunity to train and be trained.

The chairman of the Universal Studios of Arts, Bunmi Babatunde, told The Guardian, “here, we have students who come for one year and who have even begun to major in one medium or the other. Also, we have people who have never been to school at all to study fine arts but they have the skills. We call them the trainees, they have some talents and we believe they can pursue art as a career. So, we have so many of them that we have trained over the years. Then we have people we call executive students who are doing some other things, but they just want to acquire some skills. These people come here as big people and we train them too.”

For Babatunde, “nobody can come here and see anything as a museum or collection of art. What we are suffering is a carry over. I am not surprise at government’s indifference on the sector. Art is about the people, value beauty, direction of the people and the values one wants to propagate. It is about the value that would later become the culture.”

ACROSS the two art cities, a lot of facilities struggle for space to develop the potentials of the people. These initiatives generally build on existing heritage or craft resources and interface with cultural tourism.

In Nairobi, there are Nairobi Art Centre, which is committed to providing creative, innovative visual art, craft and design education to learners and educators of differing abilities in an inspiring environment.

There is also Kuona, established in 1995, and has been in the forefront of developing the visual art scene in Kenya in the last 17 years with at least 1,000 artists participating in its programmes.

Kuona mentors artists, giving them skills and opportunities to advance themselves, while increasing the profile and role of visual arts in Kenya.

In Lagos, you can get Terra Kulture, a leading art, culture, lifestyle, and educational centre. Since its establishment in 2004 by Bolanle Austen-Peters to promote the richness and diversity of Nigerian Languages, Arts and Culture, Terra Kulture has become the premier recreational destination for those looking for an immersive and definitive Nigerian cultural experience.

There is Freedom Park, born out of the ruins of the prisons on Broad Street. It was reconstructed to preserve the history and cultural heritage of the Nigerian People. The architect, Theo Lawson, designed it.

In the heart of Lagos Island, situated conspicuously between the National Museum, the City Mall and the age-long Onikan Stadium is one of Nigeria’s foremost centres of artistic excellence: the MUSON Centre, an acronym for the Musical Society of Nigeria.

MUSON was founded as a result of the interaction and commitment of some friends, who love and appreciate classical music. These included, Mr. Akintola Williams, Mr. Louis Mbanefo, Chief Ayo Rosiji, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi and Mrs. Francesca Emanuel. Along with Sir. Mervyn Brown, then British High Commissioner in Nigeria and Lady Brown, these distinguished Nigerians stimulated interest and awareness of Nigerians, especially, in Lagos of the richness and elegance of classical music.

All of the interaction ultimately led to the formation of the Musical Society of Nigeria in 1983 with the primary objectives being to: Promote the understanding and enjoyment of classical, promote the education of children in the performance and theory of music, promote interaction between Nigerian and Non-Nigerian musicians, promote the performance of serious music with emphasis on classical music, provide facilities for the realisation of the above mentioned objectives.

Outside these, Lagos also has lots of studios, galleries and performance centres, which make the arts ever bubbling.Only on January 25, raging bulldozers, guided by a troop of well-armed and combat-ready policemen, patiently tore down all structures that housed audio-visual studios, dance studios, drama rehearsal rooms, visual arts studios, craft-making and textile workshops in the Artists Village, National Theatre annex.

The Village had served as a community for over a hundred members of the Nigerian creative industries. Notable among the tenants in the facility were the famed actor, poet Mr. Lari Williams (OFR); the renowned fine artist, and former chairman of Society of Nigerian Artists (Lagos), Olu Ajayi; the famed eclectic theatre director, Felix Okolo, and one of Nigeria’s best known dance artistes, widely-travelled Adedayo Liadi aka Ijodee.

These facilities are not without challenges. The constraints that block the cultural value chain include, the lack of trained people and/or technical facilities, very scarce funds, the absence of distribution networks and the limited size of local markets.

Mboya says running GoDown means you have to consider limited resources, lack of support for programmes, inability to attract professional managers, administrators and marketers for the sector.

And this is the bane of creative and culture industries in Africa. Development programmes to support and expose young, talented and less established artists are not properly funded, except when foreign funders come to their aid.

For Babatunde, any government that wants the good of the people must promote art and establish the right culture for its people. He is disappointed that government only focuses on film production, as if it is the only sector in the creative industries. “If we are provided with an enabling environment and assisted with funds like filmmakers, government would be surprised at what we can do. The visual and fine artists, sculptors, carvers and others have been ignored for so long,” he says.

According to him, “government has forgotten that visual and fine artists equally depict societal happenings in their works, just like filmmakers.”

The creative industries in Africa offer massive potential for continent-wide job and GDP growth, which is projected to be up to 5 per cent this year, up from 4.5 per cent in 2015. While the continent has a deep pool of talent, it lacks the infrastructure and capacity to commercialise its creative talent and reap the vast fortunes that are lying in wait.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 2010 report states that the full employment potential of the cultural sector is still untapped in the continent.

The report says by virtue of its underinvestment in the creative and cultural industries, Africa is largely absent in the global market of ideas, values and aesthetics as conveyed by music, theatre, literature, film and television, thus, African consumers tend to imbibe the ideas, values and perspectives embedded in creative goods from Europe, North America, India, Brazil and China.

For Africa to stake its place in the global arena of ideas and aesthetics, and to increase its market share in the world’s creative economy, there is need for greater vision and political will on the part of government and the private sector to invest in all aspects of the value chain: education, creation, production, distribution and consumption.