Imagination, Materialism and democracy of the Arts in Nigeria

Posted by on 12/17/2005 3:51:58 PM
Post Comment Imagination, Materialism and democracy of the Arts in Nigeria Nigeria


From the foregoing, it may be inferred that; ..... for the people, the imagination was a way of life rather than an exclusive area of life. The aesthetic experience was democratic and pervasive, not a specific struc ture of experience for a leisure class. (Nwoga, 1978:58)

Partly because of this "democracy", the oral artist (excepting the cult/religious poet who, often, is a professional medicineman), is not really exalted above his peers. This explains why a skilled artist like Unoka in Chinua Achebe's THINGS FALL APART who was "very good on his flute" and who could "sing with his whole being" was, neverthe less, regarded by his materialistic society as a "failure".

In contemporary Nigeria, artists have remained imaginative, radical and skilled. Musicians, fine artists, creative writers, theatrical performers and designers have tended to outgrow the "failure" of classical Unoka even if they have not turned into praise-singer millionaires for dictators and military hegemonists, as the likes of Saddam Hussein have turned artists into in places like Iraq. Indeed, the perception, since 1986, of the Nigerian humanistic artist, despite the economic vagaries during military governance, is not that of "classic failure."

In October, 1986, Wole Soyinka was awarded the million-dollar Nobel Prize for Literature in Oslo, Norway. In October 1999 veteran "eagle-on-iroko" Chinua Achebe received the million-naira Nigerian National Art and Culture Prize, in Abuja. By October 1992 Femi Osofisan had moved West Africa with an Nkurumah - based play The Famished Hoad. This was after Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah had added some monetary feathers to his cap and Wole Soyinka's latest play on the Abacha regime had garnered dollars in New York and Washington D.C.

Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Ezenwa Ohaeto and other poets have not grown poorer although poetry seems to sell a lot more slowly than novels or plays. Many of the artists may not have built themselves marble palaces but they do not live in hovels of failure. Stars like Pete Edochie, Dolly Unachukwu, Esther Idowu - Phillips, Segun Arinze, Olu Jacobs, Zach Orgi and Antar Tunde Olaniyan have been enriched and have enriched the video arts world of home cinema. Producers in this medi um, such as Lari Babatunde Williams, Adekunie Bamtefa, Obafemi Lasode and Richard Damijo, may be classed as "poor failures," but the mar keters, like Abdul Razak Abdul, Sam Loco and Emeka Ani, are not beggars.

There are several interlocking factors that have combined to put Nigeria's humanistic art on the world stage.

First is the conscious or unsconcious accept ance and utilisation, by all compartments of the art world, of the oral roots, the pristine wellsprings of indigenous Nigerian creative sources. An examina tion of the products of Nigerian artists living or dead up unto the end of 1999 reveals this truth and testi fies to its validity. Many Nigerian artists have joined the crowded graveyard as little gods of the other world. Among them are Prince Nico Mbarga, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Frances Kuboye, Comfort Ornoge, Etim Udo, Peggy Kurtis Imanna, Sir Warrior Christo Ganus Ezewuiro Obinna, Mamman Shata, Egogo Alagiebo, Chukwuemeka (Eddy) Okonta and 1. K. Dairo. Before their death, however, they demonstrated in various strands of music in Nigeria that their melodies and tunes were a fusion of several forms in which performance became the supporting of words with the right frantic and musical movements and gestures. Essentially, these music mak ers showed creative skills that could shake or excite governments, institutes, academia or the industrial market place. Their performance was cultural and in oral literature. This mode of existence of the var ious forms made, for instance, Mbarga's "Sweet Mothei" an endearing and unforgettable tune. It made Fela's satires against the 'African Lady or the military-police, "Zombis," irrepressive tunes of classic durability. For, as Albert Lord would remind us, "the oral poem like other oral arts is not com posed for, but in performance." (Lord, 1976:8). Second is that Nigerian art has taken in its stride, and overcome, what earlier was seen as the outright sell-out to borrowed and/or colonial or for eign forms and manners which merely made those arts poor ape-versions of what had no roots within their cultural environment. Poets no longer installed "daffodils" in Kenya but, rather, fell in love with the "cassias" of Uzuakoli, or the "hibiscus" of Calabar; Nwoga (1981:237) a folklorist critic and master of oral forms, from idioms to proverbs, in his The lgbo Poet and Satire ruefully recalled this aspect of performance poem, thus:

We know how to speak English

We know how to speak lgbo

Why are school boys of today so ignorant?

You test them in lgbo they fail.

The School fees we pay are wasted

"Bongo" trousers have ruined them

"Bongo" trousers have ruined them.

He then observed that the singer/dancers left no doubt as to what they meant by 'bongo' trousers as they threw their articles wide out as they danced to represent the flopping around of wide-bottomed trousers. THE MBARI CLUB, was founded in lbadan in the late 1950s by Soyinka, J.P. Clark Bekederemo, Christopher Okigbo, D. 0. Fagunwa, and others. It seemed at some time, in spite of the root-name of their club, Nigerian elite writers were so Eurocentric that critics observed that:

The dominant influence among them is Hopkins. The individual and group indebt edness of these Nigeria poets to Hopkins is stark and heavy. In the early Okigbo, and in Clark, Echeruo, Soyinka, and Wonodi, as well as in the younger members of their coterie, there is an abun dance of Hopkinsian infelicities. The employment of these devices amounts to a widespread manner in a species of modernist practice which we have called The Hopkinsian Disease. (Chinweizie and Madubaike, 1980:173-4)

Later works, such as Okigbo's - "The Path of Thunder" on Nigeria's civil war; Clarke's, "Casualties," Achebe's "Mango Sedetive;" Soyinka's 'Apprise la guewwe'; Kalu Uka's "Silver lining," and Gabriel Okara's "Air raid' - are rooted in traditional orality and perfomability. Thus, for instance, many of the poems were set to music by a German lady and by Nwaokolobia Agu, Meki Nzewl and Nelly Uchendu.' "Bongo" trousers would not now "ruin" any indigene. For they had, by experimentation, recovered their time roots. The poetry grew strongly into ethnographic salvage mis sions in tone, form, "logarithms" and philosophies. They traversed into the resonant "pidgin" English sophistication of Ezenwa Oheato, Tunde Fatunde and their "school." They also rejoined the earlier trends set by the little - recognised Frank Aig Imokhuede and late Yerunde Esan (Don't say it in writing) becoming in the process, tough tools and weapons for slinging back, at military misgoverns, the darts of acerbic criticism, cynicism, wisdom and rejection of dictatorships.

Third, complementing this stride in overcoming colonialism and borrow obstructing obfuscation was a return to aesthetic nourishment in traditional African theatrical entertainment as found in the games of African moonlights now turned neon-light and blitz kriegs. Theatre and drama are now weav ing into the film and video entertainment phenome non. Indeed, while the written poem (or play, or novel) exists and is transmitted and perpetuated in PRINT, Nigerian oral poetry, like all oral works of art (and their dramatic derivatives), exists and is transmitted and perpetuated in PERFORMANCE."

Today, Nigerian theatrical performance science has gathered all the truths from local and international practice, through the practices of Soyinka, Rotimi, Uka, Osifisan, Nasiru, Amankulor, Enekwe and Adelugba, in direction and production of plays. It has also accepted the concept of the post-modernism linguistic, visual, aural, olfactoral and tactile communication methods summed up in SEMIOTICS. Nigerian theatre directors have so struc tured experimentation that the rich, complex, multi-layered performances of Nigerian artists have established their humanistic arts as a giant striding into the 21st century.


Nigerian arts have resisted being swallowed up totally by alien and alienating forms from pre colonial, through colonial and post-independence eras of their growth. In various tones, and in vary ing degrees of anger, protest or frustration, various Nigerian writers, critics, and other practitioners have noted and decried what might have been a state of cultural depression, a colonialism linked with Christian and Islamic forces to disorient indigenous values. Writers, from the creator of 'Zacharia' in The Poor Christ of Bomba, to the creator of 'Caribbean' and his foul-mouthed victuperations against himself and his kinsmen, have noted the negative impact of the foreign forces. However, in all areas, particularly as the struggle for emancipation into nationhood gained steam and tertiary institutions of comparative learning and research came on line, African Literature, indeed the Nigerian humanistic arts, developed its own body, themes, tenor, twists and turns. Like an unbolted genie, it has emerged into light in the water of technological advancement and cultural irridentism.


The corpus (body), themes, tenor, twists and turns of Nigerian creative humanistic arts have, and will continue to be, shaped by and directed from the history of the nation. For instance, before the Jihad, Islam as a religion had coloured the style and themes of Hausa-Fulani literary productions using the Arabic medium. The Jihad watered the growth of Islamic literature with groups multiplying and employing the medium of literature to propagate their cause having taken inspiration from Mecca. Attempts at indigenising the Arabic script gave birth to a version of Arabic known as Ajami which was then used for literary purposes that were still Islamic.

lbrahim Yaro Yahaya, however, maintains that Hausa literature also benefited immensely from the "Boko" writing - an adoption of Roman letters used mainly by people educated in schools modelled after or oriented towards patterns of schools in Western Europe and American.(Yahaya, 1988:10 21). Kofoworoala and Peggy Hill have further traced and shown how socially relevant anthropo logical features and dramatic theatre Denetrated the rural Hausa by these means.

In Southern Nigeria, literacy and literary humanistic arts also increased with the coming of Christianity. Lagos, as scholars like Echeruo in Victorian Lagos and other researchers have shown, became the launch-pad for the colonial-Christian missionaries and empire builders who used the church and school in the service of both God and the British commercial empire. It is usually presumed that a process of brain washing of Africans to accept the white race as "superior" may have started and been entrenched in and through the schools. Yet, Africans, like any other people, coming first-time into contact with ways alien to their own, also tended to hold the new ways of the white man with alternating sense of aloofness and magnetic wonder. Thus inspite of a cultural gap and language difference, the impact of Christianity and colonial commerce and trade was enormous. For instance, indigenous newspapers such as The Lagos Standard, The Angle-African arose and, in addition to news and information dissemination, fostered interest in literature, even if such literature turned out to be poor imitations of European forms.

Before long, the catalytic effect of the impacting European influence showed up in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere. Lord Frederick Lugard's exploits there on behalf of Queen Victoria inspired an ava lanche of protest literature and other writing against British colonizationa and against Christianity.

But European scholars and administrators investigating cultures and examining the need for literature produced such works as L.CharIton's A Hausa Reading Book (1908); and F. Edgar's Tatsunniyoyi Na Hausa (1911). A few educated elite attempted fiction-writing to produce, among others, Isaac Thomas's Segilola, a prototype of Cyprian Ekwensi's Jagua Nana and Mohammed Dulse's A Daughter of the Pharaohs.

History continued to direct and fashion the images and the temper of local literacy endeav ours. The strong moralist temper of the works of the time reflected the intense evangelical crusading spirit of the period. Echoes of racial and political emancipation thoughts reverberated in the writings of Black scholars such as Edward Blyden and W.E.B. du Bois: In addition, nationalism writers, like Nnamdi Azikiwe in his Peinascent Africa (1937), and Mbonu Ojike his famous "Boycott all boycottables," emerged on the scene.

Nationalism and anti-colonial struggle gained momentum and received vigorous expression in poetry. Among the notable poets were Mulazu Hadeja, Aminu Kano, Saidu Zungur, Akolu Aliye and Aliyu Namangi, a blind poet whose "wakar infi raji," a narrative in twelve books, remains a classic to this day.

As a result, authentic indigenous language literature and literary arts were on the rise. Yoruba language had been reduced to a written form by the mid-19th Century and Church literature was produced in Yoruba. Missionary activity also enhanced lgbo, Efik and Nuger, among others, in written forms by the early decades of the 20th century. The first lgbo Primer was S. Ahamba's Azu Ndu (1927).

Peter Nwana's Omenuko, the first novel in lgbo, appeared in 1933. The Bible had been also assid uously translated in Yoruba and lgbo . In Hausa, Rupert East and Malam Tafida edited a short-story titled, "Jiki Magaji' in 1934. And in 1948, C.H. Robinson edited Hausa Poems published by Cambridge University Press.

A major work belonging to the missionary - education inspired literary humanistic arts was D.O. Fagunwa's Ogbuju Ode Ninu lgbo lrunmole, which Wole Soyinka translated into English. Another was the famous Efik classic Mutanda Oyom Narnondo by E.E. Nkanga, The established premier novelist in lgbo, Tony Ubesie, ranked with Faguriwa as a pioneer. Ubesie has written more than half a dozen novels in lgbo including some on the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970.

The missionary-cum-religious instigation of local growth in humanistic arts made waves in the theatre, especially in mobile entertainment pio neered by Hubert Ogunde. By 1988, when he left the centre stage of Nigerian theatre Hubert Ogunde, (M.O.N.), had bequeathed a legacy of rich materials, artists and a performing company. With an imaginative combination of the choreographic and the musical resources originating from the Sacred Church drama, Ogunde excelled his predecessors, such as A.Ajisafe, E. Dawodu and Ajibola Layemi, in creating the tradition of the Native Air Opera with his company, the African Research Music Party. From theological themes like The Garden of Eden, and Journey to Heaven, he moved into social, secular and political themes with "Worse than Crime," "Strike and Hunger," "Tiger's Empire," "Herbert Macaulay," "Towards Liberty," "Bread and Bullet' Ogunde's art created that kind of syndrome of fear and resentment by the ruling authorities which can be traced from John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1928) through Bertolt Brecht's adoption of it into The Three-Penny Opera (1928) to Wole Soyinka's Nigerian rendering of it in Opera Wonyonsi 1978)) which led Soizhenitsyh to declare that "artists always constitute an alternative Government" to ruling hegemonies. Other deserv ing trackers are Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipo, Moses Olaiyas (Baba Saler) Oyin Adejobi and Ade Afolayan (Ade Love).

From eastern Nigeria, what has been labelled by scholars as "Onitsha Market Literature," was an intellectual revolution involving a whole range of writers, readers, journalists, traders, booksellers, printers and teenage students. It involved over 200 titles published between 1945 and 1966. The most outstanding was the drama script, Ogali A. Ogali's Veronica, My Daughter, which sold more than 60,000 copies within a few years. It was made, by Arthur Nwankwo's Fourth Dimension Publishers into an excellent video instruction and entertain ment film, Ajalli, under the direction of Kalu Uka, with 0' Ndubisi, Andrew Ukaegbu, K. K. Oyeoku and Uka himself as leading actors. The stage per formance was held in 1977 .

E. N.Obiechina, in his Tradition and the West African Novel, asserts that "simplicity of language, brevity of favour,...." endeared the Onitsha books to their wide readership. Cyprian Ekwensi's When have Whispers, Ikolo, The Wrestler and other lgbo Tales, along with E. 0. Emenyonu's Tales of Our Land (1999) recall the durability of that glorious tra dition. Further, in south eastern Nigeria, literary drama has grown into a formidable theatre of pop ular acceptance in the works of James Ene Henshaw, Medcine for Love, Enough is Enough; Sam Eyo Abidua, My Husband's People, The Inheritance: Sonny Enobong Samson-Akpan, Mfon, Asabo Tail, Found and Lost and Statements (with 0.0. Enekwe); Bassey Ubong - Freeworld Square', Uwem Atakpo - Edisua; Edet Otu Essien Ekeng Ita; Obi Egbuna, The Minister's Daughter, Kalu Uka, Killing the Eagle, Rag-day, Chris Nwankwo, The Squeeze; and, Ogonna Agu's The Cry of A Maiden.

The "domestication" of the English language through literary expression was a gradual process. Its advantage is that it tends to overcome the ten dencies of "transliteration" of ideas and thoughts from the borrowed culture into the indigenous.

English words cannot fit African thoughts. The Onitsha popular market literatures openedthe way. Some of the most significant novels, following this tradition, were The Voice, by Gabriel Okara (1964); and Things Fall Apart, Arrow OF God (1964) and No Longer At Ease (1960) by Chinua Achebe. Amos Tutuola's Paimwine Drinkard (1952) belongs to the group that "domesticated" the English lan guage to convey thoughts and sensibilities peculiar to specific African contexts.

Indeed, following the challenge posed by Achebe and others to Europeanize on Europeans terms, Nigerian humanistic arts creativity gained confi dence, especially after independence in 1960.

There also occured a greater specialisation or genius compartmentalisation. For instance, popular music grew in the 20th century. The Nigerian music artists include Fela Anikulapo-Kuti from 1965 with 'Afro-beat;' Rex Lawson, Victor Uwaifo and E.C.Arinze, Roy Chicago and Tunde Osofisan's, 'high life,' among many others. Before the 'high-life', grassroots entrenchment of the Nigerian music idiom was achieved in the popular tags "apala," "sakara," "goge," "kalagu," "fuji," "abirinwa," "kpa longo," "waka", "zigiwa" and many others. With the formation of the Performing Musicians and Artists of Nigeria (PMAN), and with the shift towards studio recording of music and dance, the arts then could be preserved in association records, books, com pact discs, phonographs, video films and exhibition brochures.


As the 21 st century gets on the way, our under standing of the shift from traditional orator into creative expressions by Nigeria's humanistic creative arts will increase. From localised protests in mid 20th century Nigerian arts have now moved beyond sterile debate between uncompromising Westerners and equally uncompromising preservers. The Nigerian humanistic literary arts have grown into a world giant attested to by the proliferation of prizes garnered by Nigerian writers, Musicians, Models, Dancers, and Designers. The second half of the 20th century did, indeed, belong to Africa. The 21st century, holds even higher promises as democracy takes hold and provides greater latitude and free dom for Nigerian artists.


Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and lhechukwu Madubuike, (1980) Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers.

Lord, Albert. The Singer of Tales (New York: Antheneus.

Mbiti, John (1977) in Journal of Africans in The Black World, Lagos: FESTAC Publications, Nwoga, Donatus Ibe (1978) "African Traditional Literature", in (ed.) Ogbu U.Kalu, Readings in African Humanities - African Cultural Development, Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers

Nwoga, D. 1. (1998) "The lgbo Poet and Satire," in Oral Poetry in Nigeria, (eds) Uchegbulam Abalogu, Garba Ashiwaju and Regina Amadi Tshiwala, Lagos: Nigeria magazine.

Ogunbiyi.Yemi (1981) "Nigerian Theatre and Drama: Acritical Profile", in Yemi Ogunbiyi (ed.) Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book, Lagos: Nigeria Magazine.

Tahaya, lbrahim Yaro (1988) 'The Development of Hausa Literature", in Yemi Ogunbiyi (ed.) Perspectives on NigerianJLiterature - 1700 to The Present Vol. I, Lagos: Guardian Books.

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