Though a periphery of my total experience at the International Arts and Crafts (INAC) Expo in Abuja, my ‘Encounter with the people of the East’ was gratifying
In two days, I encountered an array of people from the Middle East and the Far East––Syrians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Indians, Koreans and Chinese. From them to me were various offers. A proposition to join a yoga class. An overture to visit Assad’s country. An invitation to try the Korean mask.
I came in contact with a trove of artefact from these remote corners of the world.
Though a periphery part of my total experience at the International Arts and Crafts (INAC) Expo in Abuja (which held from November 17 to 24, 2018) my ‘Encounter with the people of the East’ was gratifying.
The expo, themed “Networking Nigerian Crafts to the World,” was hailed as a watershed in the reinvigoration of the National Council For Arts and Culture, NCAC, since Otunba Segun Runsewe took over the reins of affairs in April 2017. Previously known as African Arts and Craft (AFAC) Expo, conceived in 2008 by the NCAC as a platform for artisans to interact, showcase and network across Africa, Runsewe rebranded it International Arts and Crafts (INAC) Expo after the 2017 showcase, due to two reasons: its growing popularity and to give it a global outlook. The bottomline was to enhance the sector’s contribution to the country’s economic development.
While it lasted, the Abuja Exhibition Pavilion––put to optimum use for the first time since Julius Berger built it in 2013––was transformed into a bustling, brightly lit, white-walled, air-conditioned cavern where Eastern craftsmanship meld with a spectrum of artworks and artists from Europe, Americas and Africa.
In all, 27 countries (including Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Mexico, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Hungary), 20 Nigerian states and 150 independent exhibitors, were at the seven-day expo to showcase peculiar arts and craftsmanship that defined the event.
African participants were elated at the development. An example was Bibata Traore from Burkina Faso who presented batik, raffia bags, and organic products, such as baobab oil.
“The organisation is very nice, the stands are nice, the environment is very relaxing,” she said.
Her only complaint was the scanty spectators. “We don’t see much people coming around, compared to the International Arts and Handicrafts Trade Show of Ouagadougou, SIAO, which used to be fuller.”
She was nonetheless appreciative. For Traore, INAC was a “nice opportunity” that enabled her to meet many people from different countries.
Halimatou Umaru from Niger considered the expo a boom. “We came for Abuja International Trade Fair; after that, we went to Jos, then to Lagos. It was from Lagos we came here. After here, we are going to Kano. We have been moving round Nigeria, people are buying from us and we are making a profit.”
Her stand was crammed with leather slippers, and sandals and twinkling jewellery.
Different countries at the expo had different motives. Syrian Reem Edrees explained her country’s purpose for participation: “To show people that we are still alive even after the long war we passed through.” She was surrounded by samples of Syrian creativity: photos of historic attractions like Palmyra and Aleppo; hand-woven Aghabbani textile (“made by Syrian hands here in Kano,” she said); sets of Nuhan, the intricate metal works; lovely, handcrafted mosaic boxes.
“We have plenty of crafts, but we couldn’t bring more because we didn’t have enough time. Next year we will be bringing all our crafts here,” she said.
“Syria is good. We are back again.”
She invited me to tour Palmyra and other UNESCO heritage sites.
At the Iran stand to which I was attracted by a woman who offered me wafers, I met Sayyed Mahmoud Azimi Nasrabad. His card reads “consular” at the Cultural Consulate of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
We had a discussion about Iran, the oldest civilization in the region, whose culture diffused to surrounding countries.
Beside the famous Iranian carpets (or Persian rugs), several other kinds of arts and crafts crowded Iran’s space.
“Many nations are not familiar with crafts from Iran that is why I am delighted that they gave us this opportunity to show part of our culture and arts to the Nigerian people and other nations here at this exhibition,” Nasrabad enthused.
It was Agota Horvath, Hungarian artist and commercial counsellor at her country’s embassy, who first dwelt on the economic aspects of crafts.
Declaring marketing as the missing link in the African arts and crafts system, she opined: “The African art is very beautiful, very unique and very colourful. It is difficult to get good materials such as paint, canvas and frames. It means that African artists might not enjoy the kind of success accruing to their contemporaries in Europe. On the other hand, one of the biggest auction houses in the world is in Lagos and it looks out for African arts, that is an indication that artworks by Africans are now popular around the world.”
She hailed INAC Expo as a nexus between artists and the market. “All kinds of expos are important to show to the world your talents,” she avowed.
I took further lessons about the business angle of craftsmanship from her compatriot, Aliz Thomas-Takacs, who was an apt metaphor of the profitability of crafts. She attended Cheryl Gold Fashion School in Lagos and became adept at designing dress and clutch bags out of mixed materials comprising Ankara fabrics, leather, jeans and chinos. “I make money out of it,” boasted Thomas-Takac who owned a fashion label called Ankaradabra.
More business nuggets were dropped at the Investment Forum on November 20, where the chief speaker, Chinwe Ezenwa, Creative Director, LeLook Bags, speaking on “Networking Nigerians Arts to the World: Prospects and Problems,” warned that ignoring arts and crafts amount to ignoring a sizable portion of GDP.
Ezenwa was upbeat about the sector. Expressing her faith in the abundance prospects in the sector, she was ecstatic about a coming boom––but added a caveat. “It is not enough to make anything in Nigeria; we have to be globally competitive.”
She emphasized the importance of innovation, quality and steady supply as crucial factors that aid the growth of operators in the craft sector. Drawing lessons from the experience of LeLook Bag, she explained how training and product standardization are crucial factors and urged stakeholders in the sector to exploit every opportunity to network and to perfect the art of wooing corporates with CSR budgets.
Her message was simple: To flourish in the world of art, be prepared from the start.
The third set of art business advice came from Sam Nda Isaiah, publisher of Leadership newspaper who was the chairman that declared the expo open. Parts of his speech sounded like a paragraph from The Richest Man in Babylon.
Said he, “Exporting our arts and crafts is an important way of branding a country.” He followed up with another zinger––“Crafts are no decorations for homes, they are forex waiting to be earned.”
How did the Nigerian exhibitors fare? Not badly according to a cursory assessment. Maijida Abubakar was a good study, the artisan from Kura Local Government Area, Kano, whose stock-in-trade was the patterning of metal kettles and household utensils. The skill bequeathed to her by her parents has been her source of livelihood since the past 15 years. Her wares are sold in major markets in northern cities of Kano, Maiduguri and Jos. She sells an average of 20 of her N2, 500-priced kettles. The sales doubled at the expo.
There was Richard Nake, 43-year-old sculptor trained in wood carving at the Artisan Handicraft Center and Training School, Kpalime, Togo. The man from Bwari, Abuja, was busy as a bee from the first day to the last day of the expo. He has survived on his skill these past 25 years, he proudly announced. There was also Tammy Sinclair and his wife, Abiodun, who were versatile in different kinds of arts, from painting to sculpturing. A self-taught artist exploring string art, his depiction of a woman in the nude, sensuous and riveting, was a testament to his dexterity in the medium.
The voice was the wife. “INAC affords us the platform to showcase our work. We have had various people come around to look and marvel at our work,” she said, thankful for the exposure.
I found photos of their works on their Instagram [email protected]_for_my_beloved.
In the month of October at the 2018 National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST) in Rivers State, Kano State won the Children Arts and Craft Contest.
Ibrahim Muazu, executive secretary, Kano State History and Culture Bureau, HCB, affirmed the feat was not accidental.
“Our organization works non-stop in schools to boost pupils involvement in arts and crafts and in prisons where inmates are encouraged to develop their artistic talents,” he said.
Each of Kano’s 44 local government areas has its peculiar crafts, and according to Muazu, HCB harnesses the various potentials, for instance, via its regular organization of arts and crafts exhibition for schools.
“That is why we do not have problems presenting skilled artists and craftsmen at expos,” said Abdullahi Lamido, HCB’s information officer.
Halfway into the week, the tempo of the expo changed with the introduction of special days. It was China Day on November 20. India Day was November 22 and 23 belonged to Bangladesh.
On China Day, attendants were warmly welcome by Xii Zuda, cultural counsellor of the Embassy of the Peoples Republic of China. The evening unspooled with a performance of the traditional Chinese ‘Lion’s Dance’ by students of Government Girls Secondary School Dutse, Abuja, dressed in colourful, lion costumes.
After an interlude of pop songs “One Love” and “Treasure” by Alex Tang, then came the real McCoy: lithe Chinese women, from the Chinese embassy who enacted a scintillating fan dance.
India and Bangladesh days were no less colourful.
Eventually, on the fourth day, I had a one-on-one with the NCAC Director General who breezed in very early, bringing with him, a rush of energy that animated the whole complex. Our interaction, a mere seven-minute quick-fire Q&A session.
“For a very long time, we didn’t understand the importance of this industry as a potential major contributor to the national GDP. For instance, most of those working in the sector don’t require big loans to give themselves a sustainable likelihood. That was why I approached the Bank of Industry (BoI) for N300m loan. Once it is secured, we would get it to the geopolitical zones, particularly to the clusters, where the impact will be felt.”
And the bottomline: “Using the platform of this expo to network the entire world to the arts and crafts of Nigeria aimed at giving Nigerians a window to communicate with investors and other international bodies in the business.”
Runsewe, who is also the president of World Craft Council, African Region, asserted: “It is the sector that will save this country and we must get more families involved as a way of beating the poverty scourge. This is the only sector where nobody is a failure. Have you found anyone who had F9 in his school? Bring him into this sector. Here, you don’t need a PhD, only common knowledge and skills of your own. That is why it is called the creative sector. All that is needed is interest, focus, commitment and self-belief.”
November 24, the closing day of the expo recorded the historic launch of the International Cultural Diplomacy for Peace, an ideological panacea to insecurity mooted by Runsewe since he became director-general of NCAC.
In light of the country’s hydra-headed security challenge, Runsewe noted, “it is a signal to the world that Nigeria is leading the struggle to entrench peace locally, externally and globally.”
In 2018, the NCAC has executed two highly acclaimed events.
Last Question––How did he rejuvenate the once-moribund agency?
“If you are lucky to have the grace of God, everything will fall in place for you. I have been lucky,” was his modest response.