Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Need to Reclaim Public Spaces for the Arts

Convent Garden is a well known public arena, a district in the UK. Year in, year out this Mecca of some sort is a potpourri of creativity and cultural out-pouring in theatre, Opera houses, art galleries, cinemas, shops and all manner of cultural activities including street performances. In the middle ages, the current square was a vegetable and floral field known as the convent garden: it supplied food to the monks of the nearby convent of St. Peter.

The old market which government of the day contemplated on demolishing for some private estate development was later to be transformed into a remarkable shopping and leisure centre due to mass public protest in the early nineteen seventies. And so an erstwhile abandoned public space was converted to become the tourist haven it is today for the United Kingdom.

 In (Lagos) Nigeria however, a good and successful example of how this idea could be harnessed is in the present use of the old Federal Prisons structures at central Lagos, which the Lagos State government has in recent years rehabilitated and turned into a fun, recreational and entertainment centre called Freedom Park. 

Freedom Park

Freedom Park is erected directly on the site of the colonial prison where prominent Nigerians had their jail terms during the colonial era. The park, which is now a peaceful place for individual and collective contemplation and interaction, is open to the public on a daily basis. It is fast becoming an important centre of various artistic and cultural as well as recreational activities situated in the heart of Lagos. Within the complex the park stages from time to time art exhibitions, drama presentations among other activities, hence the facilities in this park include an art gallery, an amphi-theatre, shops, a museum complex, etc.

And today also in Lagos, by the sheer forthrightness and farsightedness of the German cultural centre, the Goethe Institut which had always nursed the hunger to bring about this kind of transformation especially for the art community, is already matching thoughts with action. And so through the able leadership of Marc-André Schmachtel, the current director, the Institute in Lagos is already taking steps towards reviving the vacant Printing Press building and transforming it into a vibrant art space. 

Before now, the ‘abandoned’ old Federal Government Press on Broad Street since the inception of this laudable ‘experiment’ has hosted series of events, courtesy – the Goethe Institut, such as photographic exhibitions, installations, and then ‘The Pop-Up Theatre’. The Pop-Up Theatre which is also an experiment geared towards taking the National Theatre to the people, in that it could be enabled to spring up anywhere instead of the traditional fixated national venue which has seen in recent years a drastic reduction in attendance and, or patronage and consequent enjoyment of these exhilarating live performances.

It was the German duo of smirks Kötter and Fischbeck who dreamt up this idea and sold it to Marc-André Schmachtel of the Goethe Institut. They were later to incorporate their Nigerian counterparts - Burns Effiom and Koku Konu in their project. And so The Pop-Up Theatre had to celebrate its premiere at the old Federal Government Press.

 The point is that art, either by reason of harsh economic realities or sheer lack of understanding has always been regarded as an elitist preserve rightly or wrongly.  It is also evident that the role art and its consequent environments play in the society is that of sublimity and an infinite state of being that can only be appreciated in its overall and long run effects: There is a need to create an ambiance that secludes the madding crowd and the riotous traffic of especially the urban centre: an atmosphere that fertilizes creative energies in the kind of needed public space that the state, local authorities, and corporate society ought to bring to birth. You need to properly integrate art and the artist in the scheme of society by also creating the needed opportunities; we need to harness the available skills, preserve and promote our rich culture and precious heritage as well as the serenity of mind. It is a sense of aesthetics and appreciation for beauty that leads to the flowering of great minds and a cultured spirit, even of the society.

 It is for such reasons that art and aesthetics have always been adopted by governments in advanced societies wherein their great civilizations and heritage had been built upon these factors. What has happened to our own equally great but forgotten civilizations? One would want to ask. And so they have made it common place that public grants, sponsorships for art and public commissions have become the order of the day as a matter of guiding principle by government.

And there are several abandoned public spaces out there lying waste that are suitable and require this sort of attention for the overall benefit and well being of our society. In Lagos for example are – the old Ijora power station structures, the abandoned Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi, the former National Assembly complex at TBS, and the old Cenotaph at Lagos, etc.

By Morgan Nwanguma
(Culled from an article by the same author and published in The UNION Newspaper – March, 2014, Lagos)

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