Mature Tanko Okoduwa
The theme of this year’s Art Day is very appropriate because of the epoch are passing through now. We live in precarious times, a time that W.B. Yeats captured in his poem “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 and first printed in The Dial in November, 1920:
Turning and turning in
The widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear
Things fall apart; the
Centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed
Upon the world ….1
From the theme for this year’s celebration, you must agree with me that there is an urgent need for art to take its rightful place in an insecure society like ours. A society that has suffered terribly in the hands of our so-called leaders, men who beg for power from all and sundry, and, when not given, take it by force, through ballot snatching and manipulation of electoral figures after voting, as Joseph Stalin puts it,
The people who cast the votes
The people who count the votes
Since the 1914 amalgamation of Northern and Southern protectorates to form Nigeria, it has not been uhuru. Art was first practised as far back as 1900 when Aina Onabolu travelled abroad to study art in academic form and came back to help draft the curriculum and syllabus for art teaching.
Literatures that flourished during this period were Arabic or Ajami, the Hausa version of the Arabic language in the North. While in the South, oral literature, folk literature, oral traditions were the order of day. One of the major writers who deployed folklore in their works was Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard (1952), Daniel Olorunfemi. Fagunwa’s Ogboju-ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale (1939), later translated by Wole Soyinka as The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Sage (1968), and many others.
In the south, in 1933, Pita Nwanna from Ndizogu in Imo State, published the first Igbo novel, Omenuko. This book, which has been used for decades, mainly in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s was “loved for its wit, volatile humour and its insistent over-tones.” There were others like Ije Odumodu Jere (The Trip Made by Odumodu), written by Leopold Bell-Gam in 1963 and Ala Bingo (Bingo Land) by D. N. Achara 3. There were the Ogunde, Achebe, Soyinka, J.P. Clark, and many others of later generations whose works were a reflection of that age.
Art and the artist
Art can, in a word, mean “creation.” So an artist is one that creates a work of art, be it literature, visual art or performance art. An artist shouldn’t just create a work based purely on aesthetics. The work should be able to confront, provoke, engage and arouse in man the retrospective capacity to react.
The artist is the voice of the people; he is a prophet, teacher —in short, he is the conscience of the society. And as such must give voice to the voiceless in the society4. His work must not only entertain and educate, but must speak to the noble, elite, the bourgeois and the ordinary.
The role of the artist
Long before the emerging literature that focused on contemporary happenings in the Niger Delta by writers like Isidore Okpewo’s Tides (1993), J.P. Clark’s All for Oil (2000), Ahmed Yerima’s Hard Ground (2006), Mature Tanko Okoduwa’s Lamentation of Onajite (2010), etc
Nigerian musicians, visual artists and writers have used their works to speak against societal ills, man’s inhumanity to man, and to help fight corrupt governments. Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, Chuka Ameafunah’s works lament the sufferings of the people of Biafra from 1967 to 1970, and there are so many other artists.
In the area of music, one musician stands out. He is no other than the Eba mi eda himself, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with great hits like Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake am”, “Water no get Enemy” , “Gentleman” , “Beast of No Nation”, “Original Suffer Head”, “Teacher No Teach Me Nonsense”, “Suffering and Smiling”, “International Thief”, “Thief”, etcetera.
Fela was so vocal, so fearless that he became a thorn in the flesh of the military junta. For that, he was beaten, incarcerated and his mother attacked by soldiers in his Jibowu house, but he came back each time stronger, releasing more hit tracks. Fela can be described as an “artist with a deep insight, a man with a vision5.” There have been other singers like Edris Abdulkarim, Tu Face Idibia, Chinaman whose music have addressed sensitive issues etc.
Art as the lifeblood of the society
Art is the only thing that has the power to derive from the tradition from which it was created. Thus, most of the art that has been created – that is being created, to my understanding — is lacking in the tradition of the environment through which its breath emanates.
“Art, then, is nothing more than a mental activity, a special way of gathering feelings in a planned procedure so as to express them in a more artistic form, be it in words, in tunes, in gestures or by other means, which sometimes are quite material, as in architecture.”6 Art can also affect one’s feeling in what Leo Tolstoy called “a means of infecting men.”7 An artiste, take for instance, a musician or singer, can compose a song from his own feelings, thoughts or ideology and, when it is released and heard by men, sometimes have the capacity of affecting, influencing and even move them to extraordinary things. Poems,L and fiction written by poets and novelists, in the past, have moved men to riot, vote against, fight and even die for their nights. And poets and novelists have been stoned, hanged, incarcerated for their satirical and political writings.
In the colonial era, Agostinho Neto, who later became Angola’s president, used his poems to arouse his peoples’ consciousness to a level of revolt. Dennis Brutus, the South African poet was exiled from his country due to the power of his poems to invoke a dreadful spirit in the people. Our own Christopher Okigbo joined force with the Biafra troops and he rightly predicted his own death at the warfront. Here him: “If I don’t learn to shut my mouth, I’ll soon go to hell / I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.”8
Regrettably, the present generation is lost to the past. It saddens me greatly. As a result, we are faced with a not too clear future – a vague one. This is where the words of the poet at the beginning of this lecture come to mind: “Take it or leave it, we are historically, socially, philosophically and psychologically members of the walking past,”9 working towards an utopian society — The ones that have largely eluded us, and will continue to elude us with the way we are going: one step forward, two steps backwards, this has brought us to a dystopia state.
In our quest for a better society, we have wobbled and fumbled. But the undying urge to work for a coherent and more refined artistic future is not lost. We shall not cease from exploration, as T.S. Eliot has remarked: “And the end of all exploring will / be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.”10
That is why we must be sincere in our dealings. Anywhere we find the opportunity to provide essential services, work or create something we must not be afraid to make mistakes. Modern learning has prepared artists, students and all to “fear, hide or avoid mistakes.” Mistakes should be seen as the raw material for learning, for, if we don’t make mistakes, we are unlikely to make anything at all. Mistakes, thus, is rehearsal (practice) that helps an artist to reach his aptitude through a gradual means of correcting and perfecting ones skills or trade. That is why it is said that: “Where education and training have failed, art stands tall.”11
So, the essence of art is to create – keep man conscious of his environment, to engage him, to keep him constantly interactive with the fourth dimension so that what he has created will conjure double immortality on the creation and the creator. Just like Christ told His disciples, do this in remembrance of me.
We as artists must brace up to the challenges that life in a hostile society presents to us. We must be willing to make sacrifices. We must sometimes forfeit the flesh and think of the greater good of our society. We must as a matter of urgency think of tomorrow, today. We must consider our children’s future – the outcome. Let us not forget that man must not live by bread alone. Let us remember that “Education and training both have a way of putting learning in small boxes.” Art liberates all, sets the mind free, in a form of free play… reshaping, breaking, and lengthening12, etcetera. Art must take its rightful place henceforth in helping to put the society right.
Pushkin has always been at the forefront of positivity. This is his reminder of how we should approach art and life in an insecure society:
Ashamed of love, they chase away
All thoughts and their own souls they sell.
Bowing to idols and their spell,
For money and chains they pray. 13
And lines in Ikeogu’s Heresiad, winner of the 2017 NLNG Prize for Literature, helped to buttress Pushkin:
I will arise and go before my hope is spent
And go to beg the monarch to relent
This mortal cast, though blemish that I have
I’ll rather keep them hasten to the grave14.
Yes, to save our pride remains our right;
But, then, I think I feel a genuine fright:
To think I have to die for what I write
The way a candle dies for yielding light.15
I would like to end this discourse with a special thanks to the intellectual foot-soldiers that have helped to fuel what Salman Rushdie statement is hinged on, when he remarked that, “I throw dust into the air to start an argument. I write to keep the world awake. If I do not write, the world would go to sleep.” Can you see why without them we would go to sleep at the expense nce of an awakened world?
1. Yeats, W.B. The Second Coming. The Dial, 1920.
2. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.
3. Joseph Stalin quotes.
4. Literature, Languages and Diversities: How has Nigeria Fared Since 1914?, J.O.J Nwachukwu, December 12, 2014
5. Catherine Acholonu, ANA Review, 1985.
6. Schreier, Helmut Mathias. Never Again: The Holocaust’s Challenge for Educators .1997
7. Maynard, Solomon. Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary, 1974, p.133
9. Christopher Okigbo, Labyrinths p.
10. Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
11. Max Romeo, Ultimate Collection
12. Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Melbourne: Penguin Random House, 1988.
13. Okoduwa, Mature Tanko. Private Correspondence. August 6, 2013.
14. Homecoming: African Literature and Human Development, keynote address, 30 annual ANA international Convention, Tanure Ojiade, 2011, p.3.
15. Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts. London: A Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Book. 1990.
16. Okoduwa, Mature Tanko. Lamentations of Onajite. Lagos: Mahogany Books, 2010.
17. Okoduwa, Mature Tanko. An Island of Self. Lagos: Mahogany Books, 2010.
Being a keynote address presented by Tanko Mature Okuduwa at the 5th Art Day. Okoduwa is an artist, poet, historian and critic.