Conversation with Jumoke Sanwo and Qudus Onikeku on the Lagos arts scene, cultural colonialism and the future of arts in Nigeria. By Bukola Oyebode.
In a dusty meeting room at the historic Glover Memorial Hall in Marina, Lagos, the nostalgia of a glorious cultural and political past hung in the air as Jumoke Sanwo, Qudus Onikeku and myself engaged in a long conversation about the city’s arts scene. The Glover Hall, now a shadow of what it used to be, was once the home of theatre and performances, and an important meeting place for the elites of Lagos. Like a number of such buildings in Lagos, it has enjoyed little maintenance, and nowadays it is a place rented out for parties. Onikeku’s dance and performance organization QDance Center also uses the building, perhaps in a deliberate effort to reclaim it for cultural activities.
A nonconformist dance artiste and choreographer, Onikeku founded the QDance Center in 2014 as an extension of his practice for performance production, touring, and nurturing performing arts talents in Nigeria. The center operates a number of thrilling projects: a performance lab known as Qdance sessions, and an annual dance-performance festival called danceGathering, which is heading for its third edition. His practice focuses on urgent topics from the intensely personal to collective standpoints on political, socio-economic and cultural experiences. Practicing for nearly two decades, he is an important critical voice in the arts scene today.
With diverse experiences and contributions to the visual arts scene for a decade and a half, Sanwo is equally an important voice in current developments in the Lagos arts scene. She is a visual artist working primarily in photography and virtual reality. Her practice incorporates exploring issues of human rights, identity, and religion, while re-imaging the African continent and developing new narratives. She was a member of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography group from 2011 to 2015, where she embarked on road trip projects across Africa to explore migratory issues and engage the environment and the people encountered. In 2016, she founded the Revolving Art Incubator, an alternative art space on Victoria Island, Lagos. RAI enables multi-creative engagement and critical dialogue between artists and the public.
Bukola Oyebode: Considering your multiple roles as artists and facilitators in the arts in Lagos, how would you describe the current art scene? What has changed if compared to twenty years ago? You can also share some of your experiences when you started.
Jumoke Sanwo: I started actively engaging in the art scene in 2003. There were very few shows going on at the time. I remember Didi museum…
Qudus Onikeku: The French Cultural Centre…
JS: The French Cultural Centre was actually one of the most active. There was the British Council and the Goethe Institute. They had very restricted shows. I will call them restricted because there were very few people that would come into that space. It was like taking artists out of their ecosystem into these spaces and then the artists become objects everyone examines in some ways. I found this very odd. These were artists that are now the established names, the like of Kainebi Osahenye. Kainebi was my neighbour at the time, in Maryland. I feel that the major difference now is probably in how people engage the arts. It is becoming a bit decentralized. Before, it was just a handful of these institutions that were running the scene and then a few private gallery spaces.
BO: Which private galleries were there at the time?
JS: There was Mydrim.
QO: Nimbus was there.
JS: Nimbus Art was very active.
QO: Nimbus was the space created for the locals because the other international institutions were a bit more selective in what they do. They had a niche and they were not really interested in developing our local markets or audience. This was my first disagreement with the French Cultural Centre. I am very much a product of the French Cultural Centre. When I left high school, I made up my mind that university was not meant for me. I needed other spaces where I could tap knowledge, where I could see what was going on and the cultural centre gave me that opportunity. They had an amazing archive of videos. Even though they were videos from France, that made me travel, see and broaden my horizon. It made me know that there are real people who actually do dance for a living. I would leave my house by 9 am, go to the French Cultural Centre, and spend the entire day in their library watching videos. I often go back home at 7 pm. This happened between 2000 and 2003. I was pretty much studying there and was persistent till the point they created a space for my rehearsals. The centre was also a hub for some other artists. I met Asa, Seun Kuti, Emeka Okereke, Uche Iroha, TyBello, and Kelechi Amadi Obi who is now a celebrity photographer. That was where I also met Junkman of Africa and several others.
JS: It is very interesting that you brought up your connection with the French Cultural Centre especially the role they played. I was also at the centre at some point. It was the only place of its kind at the time. I was there for about nine months learning to speak French and other cultural activities.
QO: The centre played an important role in shaping the cultural scene that people are not very aware of now. The people who are chronicling the arts must pay attention to the centre and this important period. This was the only space I saw at that time where dancers, writers, photographers, and so on gathered regularly, but not really on an intellectual ground. For example, I was not really engaging with Emeka Okereke’s work as a photographer but I engaged with him as “Oh I know that guy. He is an artist as well.” The French cultural centre was ‘the Freedom Park’ of that time.
Then we also started making works, and it was the first time I had to say something about art generally. I had an opinion about how things should look, and as I mentioned before, this led to my first disagreement with the French cultural centre, even though that was where they gave me everything. They gave me scholarship to study French and to study in France. I had observed the audience issue as Jumoke mentioned. When I go to France and I perform for French people, it is not a problem, I mean I am in France. But, when I am in Nigeria and we put up shows, I saw that the audience were mostly expatriates, few of our friends and other artists. After three years of doing this, I said to myself something is wrong with this model. I didn’t even imagine that the centre would ever fold up at that time. All I wanted was to perform for a Nigerian audience when I am in Nigeria. Their reaction was important to me.
Then, I came up with the project I called “Do we need Cola-Cola to dance?”. The idea was to do a tour in Africa, in 2007, and that we will not perform in a French Cultural Centre. I realized that it was not only Nigeria that had this problem; it was across Africa. Of course, we had to present this in a more intellectual way and that we needed to see people’s reaction in a public space happening. When we got the funding, we went from Lagos to Cairo, Johannesburg, Maputo, Nairobi and Yaounde. This was when I invited Emeka Okereke on the tour as well. It was like the precursor of Invisible Borders. That was eleven years ago now. Beyond performance, we expanded the idea to talks with producers and artists in these cities. We performed in three different spaces: a common people space, a rich neighbourhood and a school or an educational venue. In Lagos for example, we performed at Bariga, Eleko Beach and UNILAG respectively.
Since this project, I became interested in interdisciplinary forms. Having Emeka on board was not just as a documenter but to create parallel dialogues. We also had a video guy and a sound artist. The goal was to explore the possible conversations between photography, dance, documentary film, sound, urban architecture and so on. How can we capture all of that and translate them into something that we can use almost immediately?
JS: We must actually look at that period again. For me, the two modes of colonization adopted by the British and the French were in full play. The French use assimilation while the British use indirect means. The British sets up councils and use education; speak our language and we will reform you. The French operate cultural centres or institutes and go after you through culture.
QO: And education is part of culture.
JS: They shape you through the language because everything is rooted in the language. So, you find out that as you get shaped within the language, they are also shaping you culturally. They use the language which I think is very vital to note.
QO: I mean, at the end of the day, all of them (the cultural institutes) are involved in soft power and they know precisely why they are here. In the beginning, it was difficult for me to understand. I asked myself why are these institutes doing all these cultural support work? We are lucky when we have a good director at any of the institutes, like Joel Bertrand of CCF till 2006 or Marc André Schmachtel who was at the Goethe Institut until 2016. But it still does not stop the fact that they are like cultural CIA. What they do here is the PR side of their policy, the institutes are a tool. When you have Total oil and Schlumberger milking your resources, then you have the French Cultural Centre or the Goethe Institut to soften it.
JS: They also know the importance of culture. And it is provoking that we are not taking that into cognizance.
BO: Can we say they are taking advantage of the absence of the country’s government role and impact in this aspect?
JS: The government’s absence in culture is deliberate because those are part of the things they sign off when they collect these IMF loans and things like that. They sign off on certain things. Education is one of them. It is a sign off, it is a deliberate thing.
BO: Is this fact or your point of view?
JS: Both! (Laughs) It is part of the neo-colonisation agenda. You get loans and you have to sign off on certain things. Education is one of them.
QO: You have to allow some things to come into play because these powers tell you they won’t force it on you. They come as consultants giving advice. But if you don’t accept the advice, you will not get the money. (Laughs)
It is a very remarkable time to be in the art scene in Lagos. It seems like when people are free and they suddenly understand power.
BO: What are your experiences and thoughts on the current art scene?
JS: It is a very remarkable time to be in the art scene in Lagos. It seems like when people are free and they suddenly understand power. There is also that ‘scramble for art’ going on. Everybody is in a doing state of mind. Everybody wants to do but then, in the midst of this, some are doing the dodgy stuff, and some are going after things for themselves.
BO: What structural changes are visible? For instance, does the French Cultural Centre have a local replacement?
JS: No, not yet. We don’t have a replacement.
BO: Perhaps the changes are in fragments then. What are the fragments you have observed?
QO: What is happening now in the art scene is very similar to what happened between the pre-independence era and the immediate post-independence era. Before, we called it colonialism, but now we call it neo-colonialism, so there is a kind of replacement. I have seen different empires rise and fall in this short time and if there is something that I have thought was missing, as we were moving up until this point, it is you guys, the TSA platform. There is no serious critique. There is no serious space for critical thinking about what is really happening. Not the drama, the jamboree and the cocktail, which are fine, but somebody who is taking a step back and being fearless. That person must be fearless. But, courage is not something that is very sexy in our country. If you are courageous, you will be hungry.
All the things that are happening now are interesting. After the second edition of ART X Lagos for example, I observed an increasing development. In my own submission, it was Bolanle Austen-Peters that started that move of a new crop of elites interested in the arts. Eventually, there will be a new multitude of them that will come on board and take the role of the government. Though, somebody is always taking the role of the government. Before, it was the foreign institutes, now it is the elites. Until we have a government that takes responsibility for the arts, the artist will always be like the pendulum, always waiting for where the ball is going to fall. I will be happy when more artists set up institutions. Until we do that, it will always fall on the wrong side as the primary motives of those doing it on our behalf is never the same as ours. For instance, Peju Alatise will shed her blood and sweat to make things stand. Personally, I will die for my centre to stand. And I see this is happening with some other artists who have more resources, connection, visibility and money to set up their own spaces on their own terms. This is very fresh and perhaps, that is what is happening now.
JS: The major thing is, we now have artists running these initiatives which brings a great energy to the mix. At the end of the day, all of these are because the government has refused to take charge and navigate the cultural space in a way artists, schools and all other parts of the ecosystem can latch on. For instance, we don’t have a national gallery, museum or theatre. We don’t have any national cultural space.
BO: But they exist or rather, ‘they used to exist’?
JS: They used to exist and you find that they have been neglected for many years and misused.
QO: “They used to…” This was why I said we need to go back and study what happened between the 60s and the 70s. If we do, then we will realize how we are in the process of re-fabricating the same phase. Governor Ambode is also building new theatres. In twenty years from now, maybe we will still say “we used to have” six theatres. It seems we are starting again, every time.
BO: Now, this is an interesting point and I have wondered about it for a while. Why are we not able to build on existing structures and strengthen them as against returning to zero and the popular ‘first of its kind’?
JS: Everyone wants to leave a physical legacy. Everybody wants to say I built this field. But, it is not the physical building that matters but structures (that is systems). I think a lot of the people in governance or local institutions don’t understand this. We don’t have to keep building physical edifices.
QO: Also, it is about interest. Restoring an existing building may not cost much for the elite class to cash in but an entirely new one is incomparable. The second thing is the calibre of people that are into the culture now compared to the previous ten years. They have the money and resources to pull things, to buy people, even creators, to their side. They also make themselves very visible. Now, what will happen is that the more we have those kinds of people at the forefront they will inform the kind of policy the government will make. The person that is most accessible is the first person that the politician will grab. This person is mostly thinking about the financial reward and contracts. This is the big problem that artists of my generation will have to deal with if we want to achieve anything with all these our new coming together.
JS: I think Qudus and I have had this conversation before. I find it fascinating that artists are not situating themselves to be the first point of call when it comes to anything culture. You are an artist and you are not accessible. Nobody knows that you exist beyond your cluster of friends who hail you whenever you post something that you think is sensible on Facebook. I think artists need to start thinking beyond this. They need to think of how they fit into their ecosystem beyond the collectors and the tangible aspect of art: I create work then I look for a collector when my work is done. This is not even in itself what artists are meant to do. Artists are meant to drive forth. They are meant to be thinkers. The bi-product of the thinking is the artwork. They need to understand this so that when it comes to what matters, they can make a difference. The government will not come to look for you in your house if you are not accessible or unique.
BO: A lot is happening right now, what is holding it all together? Is there a centre or initiative connecting visual arts with performance, theatre, music, in the creative space?
JS: Money is holding everything together, sadly. You will find out that even creators in the music industry have sort of found a way to ensure that they dominate the space. They are not necessarily adding any value so it’s just about dominance. Look at the quality of the music and the artists. But then, they make a lot of money and the community respects this without asking for quality. With this kind of pattern, you will ask yourself: If you want to change the system, how will you do it if you don’t have the resources?
BO: What do you think Qudus?
QO: For me, I wouldn’t say it is only finance that is holding us back.
BO: I think I should rephrase the question. What I meant was, is there an agenda that holds everything together right now? Or are we just creating in silos without an agenda to connect?
QO: There is. In the 70s, we were almost there and the 70s got there from what happened in the 40s, 50s and the 60s. The 70s became the height of cultural awareness with brewing energy in all the spaces just as it is now. The 80s came with some anarchy. The 60s created a boom because of freedom, so, art flourishes under freedom. Next came the 80s with all its chaos, lack of freedom, of speech, of expression, lack of being in space and everything. We were constrained all through the 90s. 1999 was a turning point. I am saying this based on what I know of it; my own study of the body and how the body has been liberated in the last twenty years. So, 1999 came, it was all freedom even though nobody knew what it was. The freedom came with different groups like the Agberos, OPC, Bakassi, and Arewa. Everybody came to express all the anger, bigotry and other things they had been boxing up. It was in between that brewing energy that the creative cluster started getting inspired and feeling the need to express different things. Twenty years down the line, we are at a point where we are getting a lot of attention. All our energies in music, fashion, Nollywood, photography, dance, and theatre are getting attention. For me, if you ask what is the common thread, it is the attention. Now, attention is bringing money, fame, structure, and so on.
BO: Who are the people paying attention?
QO: It was local at first but eventually it became international. As far as I’m concerned, it is about the attention. The attention given to Wizkid is what is translated into cash. The attention that is being given to Davido or Olamide is what is transforming their career. So, the more we get attention on our side, we will be able to transform this thing into sustainable plans and we can work with that.
BO: Do you think all of these energies will synergise at some point like in the 70s?
QO and JS: It will.
JS: It will. I think it is gradually shifting towards that and people are beginning to connect. As Qudus said earlier on about collaborations, all of these industries will fuse together at some point.
BO: How did you become a photographer and also made it a profession, Jumoke?
JS: I started as an enthusiast and I just took photos for my own pleasure. Then I met a guy a while back who complimented my work and suggested that I should start a blog to publish my photos. He eventually did the blog for me and named it “Jumoke shot me”. This was before Instagram. I was documenting lifestyles and aspects of our culture that I saw fading away. Aspects that I felt people were not taking note of and maybe ten to forty years from now we’re not going to remember existed. This led to doing projects about scarification and things that are more pertinent to our culture. Most photographers that I met around the year 2000 were interested in covering weddings, and studio portraits. It was a bit troubling. I met Yetunde Babaeko at the time too. Although she was working on a project related to culture, they were more like editorials and looked staged. I found myself moving between documentary and imagined works. Then I met Emeka Okereke of Invisible Borders. I felt this was a little realistic. I liked the idea that they were capturing and documenting Africans across the borders. This was between late 2010 and early 2011. Then I went on a road trip with the Invisible Borders group in 2011 before I eventually joined the group and started doing projects together.
BO: How did your roles shift from artists to setting up spaces to enable other creatives, for example setting up Revolving Art Incubator?
JS: I am trying to create what was lacking when I was practising as an artist. We didn’t have enough spaces for artists to converge, to meet up, to have conversations, to have a stimulating dialogue away from studio spaces or personal spaces. There was a need for that. Just creating the work or an expression, showing it, engaging people and not having to think about sales were a part of my objectives. Then, I also felt that artists should have a multidisciplinary space to converge and work together. These were the things that prompted setting up the incubator.
QO: In my journey, I realized very quickly that my experience as a dancer from this part of the world is quite unique. I have gone way ahead. So, coming back to Nigeria was me restricting my professional activities. I pacified myself with the thought of helping the multitudes of young people who are not even aware that they can actually make anything out of dance aside music video or posting their video on Instagram. I realized that I needed to stock the industry or the dance scene with intellectual capacity, with space, and showing possibilities. Before, I never felt any need to show my work in Nigeria but since I came back, all the works I have created I made sure I showed them not only in Lagos and in Abuja but also wherever we can go to. Iwalewa and We Almost Forgot, for example, created a shift in the minds of dancers. They never imagined that they can make works with the deaf, the crippled and that you can make work of a full-length piece of one hour. They never imagined all of these things. My work becomes a showing of possibilities beyond looking for money. I always make it known to them that I am also looking for money but they are doing everything that is going against that money they want to make. This is because they are not putting enough energy on creating value and quality. They are not putting enough time on paying attention to details. Instead, they are looking for cheap money.
BO: On average, how many dancers do you work with?
QO: Physically working with about 20 in Lagos, but for each workshop I have done in Jos, Kaduna, Ibadan, Enugu, Abuja, Lagos, in Africa. And I am mentally working with… (laughs). I have a huge following. For any video I post, I am aware of the number of people that are also learning something from it. It is really about the thousand others that just follow me and watch. Things I never had as a dancer when I was growing up are the things I am trying to create like Jumoke said. When I was trying to convince my parents that I wanted to be a dancer, the two questions they asked me, I didn’t have answers for them. I was asked to mention the name of the dance institution and who I looked up to or wanted to be like. I couldn’t.
BO: If you look back, who was that person you can point at that influenced you?
JS: I would say at different stages, I had different people I looked up to. When I first got into photography, there was Tidiani Shitou who was a photographer that came out of Shaki in Oyo State and ended up in Paris. At some point, he was really famous. I was quite fascinated by his work. There probably isn’t any image of him as an artist in circulation for someone that is a photographer. It is very interesting that he managed to keep himself aloof though his work is out there. For a very long time, I looked up to him. Then, Vanessa Beecroft, an Italian-American artist. She does photography, and performance as well. She has made videos with Kanye West, “Runaway” for example and most of his runway show where you have the models positioned in a particular way. She does the artistic direction for that. I like her aesthetics and the way that she presents herself. Now, in our ecosystem, there are a few people I have liked their works. I like the work of Kemi Akin-Nibosun. I like Deola Olagunju’s work as well. For the older artists, I actually like some of Lola Cameron-Cole’s work. She has some works on rituals; a documentation on circumcision. I like collaborators as well.
BO: Where is Kemi Akin-Nibosun now?
JS: She went back to school – Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She kind of abandoned photography.
BO: From which disciplines do you draw inspiration, Qudus?
QO: I have always had to draw strength from other disciplines because my discipline does not give me anything that I need. So, from Fela to Wole Soyinka – I have read almost every non-fiction by Wole Soyinka. There is Amos Tutuola. Ben Okri is presently fanning my vibe crazily. Literature has done it for me. From the calibre of writers I have mentioned, it is difficult for me to find the kind of courage and fire I get from the ones coming up now. It is very, very critical. This is why it is good that one also has the time and space to work with them. For music, of course, aside Fela, contemporarily, I have been a huge fan of Tuface, of Asa. Presently, I am a big fan of Olamide. As in a huge, huge fan! I like his poetry and how he has been able to capture the contemporary reality. Almost nobody has been able to capture contemporary reality like Olamide is doing in his music and in a very concise manner, spot on and succinct. In fact, you need to read it deeply to get the whole message.
BO: What is the energy you find in Olamide? Is it in the work, or in the delivery?
QO: I think it is in the non-conformism. Olamide, as well as a number of other young guys especially from the 90s, are not conforming to a school of thought or a norm or selling. They are moving away from the idea of commodity that has been rampant in the last ten years. These kids, their primary worry is not about selling because most likely their parents are still giving them food.
BO: There is also something that is not happening, which is interrogating each other as creatives. Have you asked yourselves – how does our work challenge the space and what value is it adding? – For instance, what do you Jumoke know about Qudus’ work and vice versa. How much do you relate in this way? Do you question what Qudus is creating? Does Qudus question what you are creating? Won’t it be interesting to operate on this level?
JS: I think Qudus and I have some sort of conversations here and there.
QO: I think the thing is this, it is not about talking about our works. It is about connecting regardless of whether you like it or not. Do I connect with her work and what she is trying to do? Simply because it is not in the same space that we are operating, I am going to lack some information about what she is doing. But, if I don’t connect with what she is doing, we will not even be sitting down in the same space.
JS: I was going to say that.
QO: However, we have not gotten to this point of serious cross-examination because there is no platform for that presently. What we are all trying to do now is to create that platform because before now, there was no space. I don’t know if I have seen Jumoke’s works.
BO: You are getting to my point. I wanted to know if you can identify a work by Jumoke.
QO: Exactly! Jumoke has been busy (with RAI) in the last few years. In 2014, I was telling people I needed a studio, I need a centre and the whole of 2014, I didn’t create anything because I was busy keeping the space up. In 2015, I told myself, it won’t be like 2014; I must create at least two works this year.
JS: You are absolutely right. You know, I haven’t created much even though I did something last year which was for TIERs. It was about domestic violence. Aside from that particular work, I haven’t done much because as he said, I have been busy trying to make sure that RAI survives. It is like using two sides of your brain. Now, I am using the administrative side to ensure RAI is running.
QO: This is the price our generation is going to pay. If I wasn’t doing this, I would be touring. I will be everywhere.
JS: That is the challenge when you have artists’ led initiatives. It technically means that the artist has to give up their career, their practice, to be able to sustain the initiative. What I decided this year was that I am going to do a solo show. I am working on that already. I am currently working on a project with virtual reality so I am going into a different media. Anyway, that is really not the point. The point now is how do we critique our work. I find that it is very challenging within the space to have criticism because people often take criticism very personal. I really do encourage criticism. If I am doing something that you feel does not really make any sense, I am very open. I am actually drawn towards people that criticize my work. I want to know, so long as your criticism is constructive. You can’t just tell me I don’t like your work. That is just very banal. Why don’t you like it? You have to come from a point of engagement and it has to be very constructive. This is lacking as he said because at this point, we are building.
Now, with all the freedom that we have, with all the social media that we have, with all the access to the world that we have, what are we saying?
QO: Also, I think we are in an environment where people, though they went to school, though they are making works, though they are travelling internationally, they are still very largely illiterate about art, speaking ideas, speaking philosophically or even sociologically. People are not very equipped to do that. I think the scene is still more dominated by those who studied in this country and were not taught critical thinking and appreciation as part of that process. On social media, it was necessary for me to disrupt the praise singings. I think the more we have those kinds of friction…once in a while… of course, it will take time before people get used to it but it will improve our quality of work. But like I said, the 90s babies, they are my big hope. The radical chunk amongst them.
BO: Thank you so much for your time so far. Would you like to share something that is significant to you? Or a lesson that must be passed on?
QO: For me, I think this will be Fela Kuti. This is because of the amount of change or shock that Fela brought to my consciousness. I feel like now, people are beginning to misunderstand or misappropriate Fela in the way he wasn’t. The image, the form is now beginning to have more importance than the depth. Of what he was or what he was trying to achieve. What Fela was trying to achieve is more important, for me, than what he did. What Soyinka was trying to achieve should take more of our attention than what he did. What Ogunde was trying to achieve is more of a case study than what he did. So, we must be able to see what they did and understand where they lacked. Maybe if they had Instagram, they would have done better. You know, just to be able to look at present times and say how can we update what these ancestors have done. These are the answers that we are left with now. And we must have the courage in the midst of all the jamborees, the carnivals, the musicals and all that. We must have the courage to hear the truth these people spoke in the midst of shackles. Now, with all the freedom that we have, with all the social media that we have, with all the access to the world that we have, what are we saying? Now that the attention is there, what are we saying? This is very important.
JS: That’s very powerful, you know. I don’t think I can top that. With the attention that we have now, what are we saying?