Whatever foresight motivated the management of National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), led by its then newly-appointed Director-General, Otunba Segun Runsewe, in 2017 to change the hitherto African Festival of Arts and Culture (AFAC) to International Arts and Culture (INAC) Expo, it turned out a good vision in hindsight. Three years later, the initiative could be summed up as mission accomplished. The annual arts and craft expo from relative obscurity has become a leading expo, one of its kinds, in Africa for its clout at magneting global participation. This year, 30 countries from Europe, Middle East, Far East, the Americas and Africa are represented at the ongoing 12th edition of INAC, this in addition to 20 states within the federation and a score of private enterprises from within the countries and around the continent who are showcasing various works of arts and crafts in the five-day exhibition that started on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.
The expo took off with a colourful start as a cocktail party for diplomatic staff of embassies of participating countries culminated in a novelty photograph session. It was interesting to see the Spanish ambassador, his Indian, Bangaleese, Venezuelan and Cuban counterparts and others from Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Syria, and Cameroon, don Nigerian traditional royal crown, and sit on a carved African throne for a photoshoot turn by turn. This quaint innovation added glamour and further strengthened the cultural bond between the countries and Nigeria.
The Abuja Pavilion, which serves as the exhibition hall, is a meeting ground of cultures and an aperture to countries near and far. On Wednesday, November 21, I went round the bustling bazaar and had an interaction with representatives of some participating countries.
At 3:30 pm, I was seated among brown-skinned Ethiopian belles and had a few lessons about the country in the Horn of Africa. Actually, I was lured to the stand by the coffee flavour that wafted round the hall and arrested my olfactory sense. “This is Ethiopian original coffee. We roast it right here, grind it, boil it in a clay pot and we serve. If you are looking for premium coffee, come to Ethiopia. It is our number one export item,” said Hermalla Mathewos.
“With or without sugar?” her partner interrupted.
I wanted to know: “Is coffee the best thing in Ethiopia?”
“Oh my God! There is so much to see in Ethiopia, “ Hermalla gushed. “Apart from our historical sites, there is our newly inaugurated Unity Park, right next to the Prime Minister’s office. Oh, so much other things to see.”
At 3:35 pm, I was handed a plate of congri, a dish of rice and black beans, a staple of the Cubans similar to Ghana’s Waakye. It tasted quite delicious. It is part of the daily diet of the Cubans, said Carlos E. Trejo Sosa, the Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba to Nigeria. For the next few minutes, he sold me Havana.
“In Cuba, we eat a lot of pork and the Congri is always present on our table. This is the Havana Club Rum, which is the best rum in the world, made 100 percent from sugarcane and aged in oak barrel for years. It is expensive and widely known all over the world as the best of the best of rum,” Ambassador Sosa said.
He further extolled the Cuban capital. “On November 16, we celebrated the city’s 500th anniversary. Havana is recognised as one of the modern cities of the world that is beautiful. It is by the sea and the nightlife is amazing. Breeze blows over from the sea all the time and there is great music in the capital which mostly was inherited from Africa, a mix of African and Spanish tunes.”
Ambassador Sosa who has been attending INAC for the past five years, said of the expo: “The idea of engaging the embassies is ingenious because sometimes, there are opportunities for people of our country to come directly to participate. With embassy participation, this event will grow and grow.”
Nigerian culture, he said, is widely spread all over the world. “If you go to Latin America, and the Caribbean, you will still see things which are more or less the same with Nigeria.”
By 4:10 pm, I was at the Iran stand where I met the ever friendly cultural consul of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sayyed Mahmoud Azimi Nasrabad, who told me why he makes it a duty to attend this expo year after year: “You know Iran is one of the oldest civilisations with a lot of arts and crafts attractions. We participate in this event to showcase these rare and unique features of our culture and also to become familiar with the arts of other countries, especially Nigerian arts.”
We talked about the world-famous Persian carpets – “The Iranian rug is one of the best in the world; it is one of Iran’s items of export” he added – as well as about new discoveries – “We recently discover a city under the ground, Fire City,” he informed.
He avowed: “Nigerian artists are very active and it is our duty to exchange and share our experience and learn from each other. This is part of my mission here, to show our arts and to connect Nigerian and Iranian artists and culture.”
When I met Maryam Nanvar, a business woman who merchandises Persian carpets, I got from her the basics of the highly-prized item: “Persian rugs are handmade. It takes about six months or more to make one, and two to three person work on it according to a sketch as guide. It is made of a combination of wool and silk. And (this one) cost an average of N1.7m. It is so durable it can last 100 years. Europe, US, Asian countries like Japan, are very familiar with the Persian carpets. Egyptians know about it. South Africans are used to it. And in Nigeria, I have been supplying to some people for 20 years.”
She told me her impression of INAC: “So many people don’t know about the culture and arts of different countries, but this expo is always an eye-opener, to learn something new about the other side of the world and thereafter develop interest in travelling to some countries to see more.”
I rounded-off the day with a chat with Alon C. Ranjan, officer in charge of Yoga at the Indian High Commission.
“Yoga is for balance––balance of the body, mind and soul. Yoga balances the human personality,” he explained emphasizing how it can be used to improve an organisation’s human resources.
Thursday, November 21, was another interesting day. An Investment Forum was convened where a keynote address was delivered by Professor Jerry Buhari from the Department of Fine Art, Ahmadu Bello University, who succinctly observed: “We have often downgraded the importance of exhibition and museums as platform and arena for the advancement of our arts and crafts and by implication our cultural heritage.”
The follow-up panel discussion by Chinwe Ezenwa, CEO, LeLook Bags, Christie Adejoh, a public analyst, Mrs M. Chukura, an entrepreneur of processed and packaged food and Dr O. Ojo, Professor of History from University of Abuja, dwelt on various aspects of the international business of arts and crafts.
Shortly after this, the Chinese came to town. From 2 pm and for the next 75 minutes, we were treated to exotic displays. Lina and Ma Cheng, playing Chinese indigenous musical instruments Guzheng (a plucked instrument) and Dizi (flute), gave a rendition of “Love Under The Peach Blossom”. A scintillating performance by students of Government Day Secondary School Dutse whose Chinese fan dance was a fascinating display of rhythm and sequence and a demonstration of Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese fighting art used as an exercise for health, were some of the highlights of the China Day.
Friday was Ogun State Day, followed by a National Social Insurance Trust Fund seminar.
Today, Saturday, November 22, is a full day. Kaduna, Venezuela and Bangladesh are slated for their respective day, another opportunity to show the world the hidden depths of their cultures.
From 9 am to 5 pm daily the exhibition ground is a world of beautiful works of arts and commercial crafts. Visitors are afforded the opportunity to buy souvenirs from distant land ( such as Boubou and sandals from Libya, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) and exquisite and intricately designed carvings and leather works from places nearer home.
Further depth is added to the exhibition with skills acquisition training sessions in varieties of vocations including photography and makeup. Participants are learning how to make soap, shampoo, candle, air freshener, hand fan and beaded shoes.
An opportunity is also provided for those interested in free health tests such as blood sugar analysis, body mass index screening, dental service, eye tests and free prescription glasses.
Each year the picture becomes clearer. It is becoming evident, the sense in the mantra of the NCAC DG, Otunba Runsewe: “Culture can become the new oil for Nigeria.”
As INAC Abuja 2019 expo wraps up tomorrow, November 24, there is an assurance that more countries will be coming to next year’s edition. There is no gainsaying that in three years, NCAC has discover the platform to truly “sell” Nigeria to the rest of the world.