Friday, August 28, 2015

Fine Art as a Tool for Societal Development, and the Dire Need for a Revival

The social nay political direction of any given society will definitely be predicated on the norms and societal values that guide such a community. But when there is a lack of these, it should not come as a surprise to anyone why things do not seem to work. Thus there must be a philosophical direction; there must be certain ideals or national values which a society must uphold in its quest for national development and sustenance. These values are not necessarily packaged in any form of written constitution, but they are qualities and ethical behaviours that the generality of the society cherish and are avowed to defend. Nigeria, I can say definitely lacks this for now.

Watercolour painting by Morgan Nwanguma
In a society whereby it does not matter how you attain positions and climb the social ladder; in a society where mediocrity and nepotism is the order of the day; and in a society where ethnic, religious and tribal leanings are the pre-requisites for decision making and agitations, such a society is next to a failed society. In a society where primitive acquisition rules, there cannot be any meaningful progress, justice and genuine peace. My drift is that there is so much intrinsic value imbued in art that our society can tap from for the upliftment of the human spirit; it is the lifting of the human essence and spirit that paves way for genuine cross fertilisation of ideas and consequently, the fledgling of creative thoughts for the building of a greater larger human society.

 I have always believed that honest leadership begets honest followership; leadership owes society more responsibility for the pace and tone of development. It is quality leadership that galvanises every other human elements including but not restricted to men of skill, thought leaders, technocrats and scientists, etc to bringing about growth and development. But it is in the letters, and it is also in the art of a people where you are able to find the right ingredients for the flowering of any great society. Art delivers to society refinement of mind, and the possession of quality value essence.

Oil painting by Jerry Buhari
The appreciation of art and the application of it in everyday walks surely have a lot to do with how any society – ancient or modern, crystallises into that model entity that even we in Nigeria must earnestly yearn for. But the question is: what kinds of hunger have you; what do you earnestly yearn for? Obviously there is a dearth of earnest ‘devotees of art’ in our society, and so students’ enrolment is on the decline; we do not have a good number of art trainers who are actually called to this profession. The quality of tutoring is overtly low and competence has become a scarce commodity in the Nigerian art pedagogical sphere. Patronage has for long been, and is continuously centred just around a ‘few good men’. The general apathy among the youths, the parents and potential sponsors, let alone government, has been generally one that calls for emergency diagnosis.

Painting by Ben Enwonwu
Professor Jerry Buhari was my lecturer at Ahmmadu Bello University, Zaria many years ago; he remains one of my mentors, and in him burns this same passion for the need to change society by the inculcation of the right values and ideals. He also knows art can be a formidable tool for social engineering. I want to at this point open up his mind to you so we can begin to forge ahead on that lane.

*The following is a write-up by TONY OKUYEME on some of the thoughts of Professor Jerry Buhari:

“Yes, there is a general drop in students seeking admission to tertiary institutions to study art in the country. Some of the reasons that may account for this include: strong reservation of the discipline from parents, guardians, sponsors and others. This impact negatively on the number of students who choose to study the visual arts,” renowned artist, Prof. Jerry Buhari said. He also said that the quality of competent art teachers is continuously in the decline across all levels of education.

Painting by Abayomi Barber
Added to this, according to him, is what could be regarded as the general apathy of some of our youths against education today in general, (rightly or erroneously), because they do not seem to see how that translates into job opportunities or ability to use the certificate to create self-employment. “This seeming apathy to education is further strengthened by the questionable wealth of politicians and certain individuals whose educational background can be said to be rather vague. However, in Zaria, we do not seem to have problems meeting our quota for admission.

“So we can go back to see that the poor perception of art generally by our society as an important subject at both primary and secondary school level of education account for why even interested students fail to get the opportunity to take the subject. I have met many graduates at art events who lamented how they lacked opportunity to study art even at primary school. Many of them believed that if they had studied art their worldview would have been richer and that their capacity to appreciate the intangible aspects of life would have been better,” Buhari said, adding that because of this situation the quality of art teachers at primary and secondary schools impact negatively at the entrance to tertiary level.

Prof. Jerry Buhari
And this has become a predictable circle. Of course we know that the crisis of education in the country is a subject for continues debate. “I humbly submit that the quality of competent art teachers is continuously in the decline across all levels of education. There are a number of reasons that account for this. Part of it, at least at the university level, is the unfortunate perception about the scholarship or what constitute the scholarship in the visual arts. In my opinion this has dealt a devastating blow on the morale of the teachers leading many to abandon art practice almost completely. Some have taken refuge in the theory of art and have completely stopped practicing. Over time I question the nature and content of what they would deliver to the students in the studio.

What inspiration would they offer to their students? On the evidence of success in the career of artists that should have encouraged a change of attitude, we must recognize that Nigeria is a country that can be said to be stereotypical rather than critical. Till date “educated” parents are still forcing their children to read courses that are considered the “main courses” or “real courses” rather than the “soft courses”. Sadly, authorities and educational policies advance these perceptions also. We are therefore witnessing the cumulative consequences of this myopia. It would be an interesting research topic if we investigate the extent to which prejudice effect choice of course and performance among our students. “I recall that as a young man after graduating as an artist in 1981, I was sent out of a prospective father-in-law’s house on account that his daughter has brought a prospective fiancĂ© who “draws” as a future husband.

US National art gallery, Washington
His argument was, how could he feed his daughter? It would be interesting if we can talk today on that question. “As a university teacher of over three decades, I have seen the destructive consequences in the lives of children whose parents, guardians, or sponsors of students insisted that their wards must read certain courses. Today, I can only say, perhaps fairly authoritatively that, it is not what you read that matters but what you make out of it. For example, the first person that bought a new four-wheel drive in my university read one of the so-called “soft courses”. (That is if we want to judge these things by material acquisition). And, to me this is part of the problem. Where is the place of passion, where is the place of excellence?” For Prof. Buhari, government policy towards arts and culture has really not changed in the last decades, as there is still no working policy for the arts and culture. “What has government done for the visual arts? Let us take an inventory.

Do we have a working policy? Can we be made to account for its implementation? Where are artists and creative people when we formulate strategies for national development? I dare say that the visual art discipline in tertiary institutions in the country has the poorest structures and facilities. Some date back to colonial times. In a global village what can you expect from this situation? So, I think the vibrant and excellent works that are coming out of the studios of Nigerian artists should be commended and considered as works of miracle.
“There are many issues working against art development in Nigeria. We have said earlier that public perception is one. Governments have often paid lip service to art promotion or have bluntly declared war on it. In an environment like this, it is no wonder that you cannot identify a working structure that can be used for sustaining the visual arts or develop it. A simple example may suffice.

Has it occurred to us that despite the rich cultural heritage of this great country, the only national museum that we have is one bequeathed to us by our colonial masters? The ones scattered around the country are in deplorable condition. This includes the staff in these institutions. Has it occurred to us that till date we do not have a single befitting National Art gallery? There is no established grant for artists as can be found in other countries where culture is considered a major factor in its heritage and national development. Whatever development you see in art today is majorly driven by the individual artists themselves, the private sector and a few individuals who intervene from time to time. I stand to be corrected.” On the state of art appreciation in Nigeria today, he argues that it has greatly improved despite the negative atmosphere. “This is not contradicting my earlier observations.

Painting by Abayomi Barber
The truth is Nigerians have developed alternative structures for survival independent from government. The increase in private art galleries in response to the absence of government museums and galleries is one good example. The development of art auction is another example. The rise in the price of art works sold at exhibitions, auctions and other forms represent good art appreciation. Many artists are gradually choosing to live off their practice. This means that the number of art collectors is increasing. Not long ago a student of mine came to me to say that she wants to start collecting art. Many friends of mine are now asking me to give them one of my art works; this was not the case in the early eighties.
I think that these can be considered to be sufficient indicators of improved art appreciation. But we are not there yet. In addition to critical art publications we need art historians to specialise in the various areas of art practice in order to develop critical discourse and authority in the discipline.

“I can summarise and simplify the challenges as follows: lack of a structured institutional patronage and sponsorship that is appropriately funded; lack of good and affordable exhibition venues; and a lack of creative approach of many artists in generating alternative ways of creating markets for their work,” Buhari said.

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