Category Archives: Art

Writing Companions

“La Danse” (second version, 1909-1910) by Henri Matisse, Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When I was a teenager and I still had an already old fashioned record player, one of my favourite albums from my parents record collection was a record of Ravel’s “Bolero.” The cover was the second version of Matisse’s painting “La Danse.” (I would love to take credit for my great knowledge of art, but I actually found it by first googling “Ravel’s Bolero record” and then “red men dancing impressionist.” It’s amazing what google can do.) The painting and the music melded, and I remember lying on my bed, eyes closed, floating on the sinuous threads of the ballet, as the shiny black record undulated under the needle. The music starts out softly with a single flute and snare drum and then a clarinet, so softly (pianissimo I whisper) you can hardly hear it, and as each instrument takes up the Bolero theme, the orchestra grows louder and more rowdy until it finally ends with a tumbling crash.  

I would play it as I daydreamed and as I read and as I wrote little stories that I never finished. It is sensual music that pulls at your body so that you have to follow its rhythms, follow Matisse’s red dancers even if you are lying down.

I think this is the same record. Photo courtesy of Positive Feedback Online, Issue 14.

 

Sensual. It is a word that comes to me every time I hear Ravel, as does my old Jos room, with its fluttering blue curtains, and yellow record player on the floor, the shimmer of the large flat disc as it spun. A dizzying array of senses: circling vinyl, circling red nudes, circling bolero theme, whirl of instruments.

I have recently discovered Spotify (unfortunately not available in Nigeria), with its endless fields of free music. I write best when I am listening to rhythmic, wordless music, so Ravel’s Bolero is at the top of my “writing music” playlist, followed by a whole lot of Bach. I sway. I type. The orchestra circles and crescendos, trumpets blasting and drums marching.  I still get chills.

Outside the windows tonight, there is a mist that shines red in the security lights. The polar vortex with its arctic temperatures has given way to the more gentle Atlanta winter, and the rain comes and goes, tapping against the wood walls. The mist and the rain make me feel safe, provide a companionable solitude. I try to write but I think more of process than content, of memories rather than analysis, round and round with the clarinet.

I am alone tonight, but for two little writing companions, insects that look like knight’s shields, with a delicate inlay of filigreed gold, painted with tiny spots of red and brown. They explore my charge cords and my wallet and patter along the top of my screen with stalk legs, extending their patterned wings out from under their shields to whir away when I startle them. I wonder where they come from, these little beings, in all this cold. I think–I should write about these creatures, but I keep pushing the urge away–attempting to work on a chapter about censorship–until the music and the rain and the living things overcome me and I run through the cold corridors of the house to find my camera and wish as I hold my kit lens close, “Oh, if only I had a macro.”

(c) CM

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Escape (c) CM

The Caine Prize, the “Tragic Continent”, and the Politics of the “Happy African Story”

Behind as usual in posting on this blog, I’m going to jump back in (with minimal apologies about my absence and the usual promises to catch up) with my most recent article, published today, “The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story.” Here, I engage with British novelist, and the 2012 chair of judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing, Bernadine Evaristo’s  ideas expressed, in an essay on the Caine Prize blog, on what a new African literature should look like. (If you don’t want to read my long, half memoir, half academic preface to the article, just skip down to the photo to read my article and other responses to Evaristo’s article by other Nigerian writers.)

A Preface:

Some of the issues I brought up in the piece have been haunting me for years, as I have struggled with my identity as a white American who moved as a child to Nigeria with my parents and have since occupied the privileged position of the global wanderer. As an undergraduate, I wrote a creative senior thesis of collected  poems,  which I introduced with an essay, “Writing Home.” I wrote that  I had  become “a member of a certain community of writers,” perhaps best expressed  by expatriate Indian writer Salman Rushdie in his essay“Imaginary Homelands”:

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge–which gives rise to profound uncertainties–that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. . . . (Imaginary Homelands 10)

At age 21, on the cusp of my adult life, I was relieved by the idea of not having to choose a place to be rooted. I found home in the metaphoric space of the trans-Atlantic flight, writing,

Perhaps more than any other place, I have felt at home on airplanes.  There, I do not have to claim one piece of soil but rather every place we fly over. Sometimes, at night, I wake up and crave being on an airplane, any airplane, but specifically a transatlantic one: the familiar feel of take off, being pressed into the cushions, my suddenly sleepy eyes seeing through an oval pane of plastic the land stretched out beneath me. The rain forest of Lagos, the desert of Kano, the lights of New York or Atlanta, the misty clouds of London or Amsterdam slowly drop away and look like maps, or aerial photographs. I love to fly through the clouds, which make odd airy sculptures, or at night to press my cheek against the cold window and with a blanket over my head gaze up at the stars: constellations which can be seen from three different continents. Orion, I can see in America, England, and Nigeria. But somehow from a plane, the patterns are even more brilliant, closer, larger, and almost tangible through the frosty pane.

As I grow older and as I pour much of my focus into the study of Hausa literature and film, which is often neglected in studies of Nigerian literature (often focused on English-language literature), I have become more troubled about issues of privilege and my own problematic position, as one who, by virtue of my American passport, has access to world travel and research grants and privileged treatment in Nigeria that most Nigerians do not have. My lifestyle, in a way, is made possible by the immobility of others. I now deconstruct my earlier romantic notions of being able to claim “every place we fly over.” Now, when I read Simon Kuper’s essay “Take the plunge and emigrate,” which argues from a similar unrooted position, my reaction is less celebratory.  I ask–as the youth of the West roam free, what does this mean for the places and the people where they decide to settle?

As I work on my PhD dissertation, I mull over Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s often misunderstood essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” and the various ways she has revisited the topic since her first presentation of it in 1983.  In a 2010 response to other scholars’ engagement with the question, she clarified that her “point was not to say that they couldn’t speak, but that, when someone did try to do something different, it could not be acknowledged because there was no institutional validation” (2010: 228).   In thinking about the field of postcolonial studies, in which I locate my own research, I have become increasingly concerned by the full-scale celebration of cosmopolitanism, hybridity, migration, and diaspora so prevalent in the field, the happily ambivalent identity of “in between” that I reveled in as I wrote my senior thesis.

It’s not that I don’t think the concepts are useful. They are–on many levels. And, of course, postcolonial scholars theorize them in much more sophisticated ways than I did as an undergraduate attempting to claim a hybrid identity. But I have become more concerned about the ways that these theories of hybridity, et al. sometimes gloss over class issues and privilege the experience of the “diaspora” intellectual over the experience of the so-called “subaltern” left at home. The problem is one of framing, that the voices most often heard by a global media and global academia are those situated in the cosmopolitan centres of the West.

Spivak is useful in helping think through these issues. On the one hand, as a postcolonial intellectual situated in a powerful American ivy league university and often counted as one of the Big Three postcolonial theorists (Spivak, Said, and Bhaba), she is also complicit in this privileging of expatriate voices. Indian intellectuals, Rahsmi Bhatnager, Lola Chatterjee, and Rajeshwari Sunder Rajen based at Jawaharlal Nehru University, point out, in a 1987 interview,  “Perhaps the relationship of distance and proximity between you and us is that what we write and teach has political and other actual consequences for us that are in a sense different from the consequences or lack of consequences for you.” I would also argue that the abstruse language which Spivak chooses to make her arguments, which could otherwise be quite politically powerful, limit their discussion mainly to other academics.

On the other hand, she constantly questions her own positions and ideas, in a way that any scholar or writer who has privileged access to travel and funding, must do. While bemoaning the institutions which are often deaf to the voice of the subaltern, she has also become personally involved in learning from those she defines as “subaltern” and thinking through ways in which they can be empowered through education. 

Much theory, I’m beginning to understand, is dependent on positioning and audience.While living in the U.S. and teaching introductory African studies to American students, I was (and still am) quite sensitive about negative portrayals of Africa–the barrage of images of flies and dirt and poverty and ads from charities that always featured tears trembling in the eyes or the snot running out of the nose of some ragged African child. I would open my classes by having students read Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa,” then juxtaposing that with a few Naija music videos. If I find myself teaching in America again, I may pair Wainaina’s essay with Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex.”

When, last month, I reviewed Abidemi Sanusi’s gut-wrenching novel Eyo, that was nominated for a Commonwealth Prize in 2010, I felt the tension between being a postcolonial critic whose institution is located in the United States and being a resident of Nigeria, where I become ever conscious of the many abuses that Nigerians constantly talk about. On the one hand as I read Eyo, I thought, hey, Nigerians look really bad in this book. On the other hand, I thought–Sanusi is exposing the horrific underworld of human trafficking and manages to humanize every character in it–a striking accomplishment. (Read my review here.)

My reaction to Evaristo’s statements, then, came out of all of this mulling about ideas of privilege, positioning and audience, as well as from some mind-stretching conversations with writer friends who live here in Nigeria.  [UPDATE 13 May 2012: Let me just further clarify, that I think that writers in Africa or anywhere else in the world should write whatever they like in whatever style and whatever language that they like. My main point in the essay below is basically combating what seems to me to be a certain amount of prescriptiveness in telling African writers (especially those living on the continent) “how to write about Africa.” Telling writers not to write about suffering just follows up on older instruction to writers to write about the nation or to write about politics.  South African writer Njabulo Ndebele, in Rediscovery of the Ordinary, similarly protests the imperative of the “spectacular” in South African writing, arguing for more representation of the daily struggles of ordinary people to try to make their lives as normal as possible–which he calls an “active social consciousness.” I am not trying to defend those writers who cynically exploit suffering in order to become popular with non-African readers–it does happen–I’ve read it–and I’m not a fan. I dislike sensationalism and pandering to a Western audience as much as the next critic, and I agree with Ndebele (and with Evaristo if this is what she was saying) that there should be more focus on ordinary life. My main point is that I think we must be careful about saying that writing that depicts suffering is necessarily “pandering.” Ndebele points out that the spectacular writing that grew up in South Africa was in response to the almost surreal conditions people found themselves in. To say that writing that reacts to one’s environment is meant for Western audiences falls into the same trap that Graham Huggan falls into in his book The Post-colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins.  Huggan  implicates the field of postcolonial literary production and publishing as well as the academic field of postcolonial studies in capitalist structures of selling exoticism. Yet, in his rush to denounce the Western reader of “exotic” postcolonial literature, he only briefly acknowledges in a few caveats that that the readers “by no means form a homogenous or readily identifiable consumer group” (30), almost completely glossing over the reader of postcolonial literature in formerly colonized locations. Stating that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart “implicitly address[es] a Western model reader who is constructed as an outsider to the text and to the cultural environment(s) it represents” (2000, 46), he seems to have completely missed Achebe’s defense that “African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecs, with an eye on the main chance outside their countries” but are indeed writing for heterogenous peoples of different languages and cultures that make up “the new nation-states of Africa” (1965, 344). In this article, then, I try to point out that to focus so obsessively on the reaction of a Western audience, when many writers are writing out of their own experiences that include love and laughter and tenderness in addition to moments of suffering and are usually thinking of readers closer to home, is to put almost impossible strictures on the writer. Let the writer write what she wants.  If that happens to be science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, crime fiction (and I’m a HUGE fan of Nazir Adam Salih’s fantasy and crime fiction written in Hausa, in addition to the more scathing and sensational social critique of writers like Balaraba Ramat Yakubu ),  great. If that happens to be more straightforward realistic narrative based out of the writer’s own experiences, this too is important writing.

To read my original article as it was published, click on the photo below to be taken to a readable version. Otherwise, scroll below the photo, to read the article with references hyperlinked. Following the article, I have copied a few of the responses I got on facebook from writer/artist friends when I asked for reactions to Evaristo’s essay. (Responses reproduced by permission of authors)

[UPDATE 3 July 2012: I'm honoured that this blog post was mentioned in Stephen Derwent Partington's East African article "More Responsibilities than bonuses for the African Writer," in which he summarizes what I was trying to say much better than I did, myself. A former professor of mine, Peter Kerry Powers also engaged with my article on his own blog. ]

The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story

Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 12 May 2012 05:00

 On 23 April 2012, the chair of judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing, British-Nigerian writer Bernadine Evaristo wrote a blog post about selecting the soon to be released short-list: “I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent. [… W]hile we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on?” Her critique of “stereotypical” African stories is similar to those made by other African writers, such as Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in “How To Write About Africa” and Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole in “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” Her opinion piece also invokes previous critiques of the Caine prize. Last year columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa wrote, “Aided by some needy ‘African’ writers, Africa is being portrayed as an issues-laden continent that is best viewed on a fly-infested canvas.”

I share these concerns about dehumanizing images of Africa. When living and teaching in the U.S., I tried to “enlarge” my American students “concept of the continent” by emphasizing exciting current trends in African fashion, music, and movies, as well as the daily lives of ordinary people. My aim was much like that of Samantha Pinto, one of the other Caine Prize judges who blogged this week: “I hope as a teacher that my students learn to carry some of these beautifully crafted stories into a much larger conversation about Africa than the one that exists in mainstream American media.” My own scholarly interest in Hausa popular literature and film began precisely because I was enchanted by the love stories and tales of everyday life consumed by popular audiences but largely ignored by African literary scholarship preoccupied with grand narratives of the nation.

However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.

Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John, in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), wrote that writers should be more concerned with the quality of the writing than in dictating to other writers the correct topics to write about.  “When I am told to tell a happy African story,” He said, “I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”

While not every place in Nigeria is bomb-torn and certainly not every story from as big and complex a continent as Africa must reflect such tragedies, a predicament remains that Kano-based writer Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz identified in a Facebook conversation with me. While agreeing with Evaristo on the need to move past stereotypes, he wrote, “There is a dilemma here; what do Africans have to export again. For me, African contemporary artists have no better theme than corruption and bad governance as the main issues dominant in our everyday life[…]”

Elnathan John continued, “A lot of the Happy Africa story activists live outside the continent. Not that I begrudge them anything, but it is easier to dictate to people living a reality when you don’t know or live that reality. […] Every Sunday morning (in many Northern States), we expect a bomb or a shooting spree. People who live in Maiduguri even have it worse. Their entire lives are ruled by violence and chaos. Nigerians, like Zimbabweans (and many other African countries suffering decay and violence) do not have the luxury of Always writing about beach house romances. Our problems are too real, too present, too big to be wiped out from our stories.”

Thus, while we can all identify with Evaristo’s frustrations in how Africa is misread by the West, her first flawed assumption seems to be that African writers who write tragic settings are not writing of their own experiences but rather pandering to a Western audience that expects to hear about tragedy. To say we must “move on” past stories of hardship suggests to those who are suffering that their stories don’t matter—that such stories are no longer fashionable. Writers who live amidst suffering are in the unfortunate position of inhabiting an inconvenient stereotype. They are silenced by threats of terrorists inside the country and by the disapproval of cosmopolitan sophisticates outside.

Such literary prescription begins to feel like Dora Akunyili’s erstwhile rebranding campaign—a luxury of those who do not want to be embarrassed while abroad, which does little to solve the problems on the ground. Although Evaristo asks, “are too many African writers writing for the approval of non-African readerships”?, her admonition to avoid stories of suffering seems to be just as implicated in seeking the approval of  those “big, international markets in Europe and America”. Directly after she asks “to what extent does published African fiction pander to received notions about the continent, and at what cost?” , she argues, “For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage, it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit?”

Now, I love science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction et al, and know of African writers, including Evaristo, who are doing exciting things with these genres, especially in African languages, but Evaristo’s focus on the “world stage” reveals her second problematic assumption—that the most important readers of African literature reside outside of Africa. It is a reminder that though the Caine prize is awarded to “African writing”, it is still based in London.

Last week, overwhelmed by the attacks on Bayero University, I printed reader responses to  an earlier article on film rather than writing about the tragedy. Afterwards, one of my readers chastised me for writing about film rather than about what the “army are doing to our people.” While, like Evaristo, I defend my right to talk about a diversity of subjects, the comment reminded me that there is a large reading public here in Nigeria looking for writing that is relevant to their lives. It also made me think of my dear friend, Hausa novelist, Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad’s refrain that for her “literature is a mirror to society.” That every conversation these days seems to return to bombs and shootings does not mean that people do not laugh or joke or gossip or dream or love.  Indeed, I believe that the best writing captures the humour, the humanity, and the gossip alongside the backdrop of suffering.

So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as  diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.

Fin

While writing the article, I asked my friends on Facebook what they thought of Evaristo’s article. Some of them responded after I had already turned in the article, so I asked their permission to republish their comments here. See them copied below. [Update 13 May 2012: The quotes in the above article from Elnathan John, who writes a popular satirical column for Daily Times and short stories on a wide variety of themes, including facebook and middle class love in Nigeria as well as darker issues based on current events, came from comments on another writer's page. They were part of a larger discussion in which he was expressing frustration at writers telling other writers what to write. He was insisting, like other writers I've seen in conversation, that he should have the freedom to write about whatever he likes, and that themes and topics in writing will change over time in response to what is relevant.  Following his statement that "Our problems are too real, too present, too big to be wiped out from our stories," he says, "In the end, like you say: 'Just tell me whether my work is good or bad. That conversation, I am very happy to have.'"]

Kano-based writer Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz reacted positively to Evaristo’s essay, but still noted the tension between writing stereotypes and writing about ongoing problems:

I agree with Evaristo. It is indeed time to move on. For example, isnt it shameful that in 2012, a story about second World War is making the list? I think African writers have rendered so many themes to cliches. Why, for example, should we still be reading novels about Biafra or the mau mau guerilla war in Kenya? On another pedestal, it is indeed ironic that Africans complain about stereotypical depiction of a grotesque Africa by non-African writers, the same African writers are not doing any better. It is just like feminists lambasting gory representation of women yet they go about writing about naive women and prostitutes! Even the classical Achebe, according to some acidic critics, did no better than Conrad regarding the image of Africa. However, there is a dilemma here; what do Africans have to export again? For me African contemporary artist has no better theme than corruption and bad governance, as the main issues dorminant on our everyday life especially since we all fed from Achebe, Armah, Ngugi and Ousmane who instructed us to responsive to the society.

May 8 at 12:57pm ·

I responded to Abdulaziz:

Hi Abdulaziz, just to jump in here a bit (before hitting the road to a conference and then hopefully checking again later tonight). I liked Evaristo’s call for new themes and genres–I’d love to see more African science fiction etc–, but I was troubled by what felt like a prescription to “move on” past depictions of suffering, when as you note that there is corruption, bad governance, and currently bombs etc going off around us. If one writes what one knows than it seems to me that it would be difficult and even escapist NOT to write about some of these things. (That said, one can metaphorically write about things in non-cliched ways in new genres etc) It felt to me that in her appeal to move past “stereotypes” about Africa, she was still appealing to African writers to please or “teach” a Western audience rather than responding to the preoccupations of one’s own society. As for writing about Biafra or WWII etc, I don’t really have a problem with that because I think these topics actually have not been explored enough. I’ve never actually read African fiction about the experience of African WWII soldiers, so I actually thought that story was refreshing and new.

Ukamaka Olisakwe, whose novel On the Eyes of a goddess was recently released, responded passionately:
Have we moved on, or have we only moved onto a new level of ignorance and stupidity?Should I write about a beautiful Africa? Should I distort the truth just so to satisfy some school of thought that frown at the continuous dent on the ‘inglorious’ African image.Last time I listened in on the conversation of intellectuals. They were thoroughly fed up with stories of suffering Africa; of child soldiers, abused women and children, of wars and corruption. African writers should move on, should tell flurry stories: chicklit, thrillers, comedy, commercial fiction, etc etc, they said. I agree, some stories have been told over and over again, like a clothe washed for too long, until it began splitting at the seams. Yes, I do not want to read anymore of Biafra stories- that have been well documented. Instead I wish to learn new details about that war from the Nigerian side. I want to read a biography of Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu. I want to know how he felt years after he made that declaration. Did he feel regret or fulfillment? I want to learn new details, information, that hadn’t been brought under the sun.But should we, writers, move on and desist from telling it as it is. A new war is on in Nigeria, a kind that could gradually wipe the fragments that we are. Should writers ignore this salient moment, or begin to please those who think they know better?I refuse to be conned into that, because at the end of the day, you end up just satisfying those sect, and also, definitely, writing another single story of Africa. I say, write about Africa the way she is, the way you see her: beautiful, sad, hungry, raped, beaten, classy, sexy, girlie, scholastic! Be eclectic dammit! But do not tell lies and do not leave out important details that matter. I can’t wrap my suffering and malnourished mother in colourful wrappers, adorn her neck with heavy, priceless gems, so that outsiders would marvel at her supposed beauty, but only to strip her at home and let her to more suffering and wretchedness. That would be a sham, a badly written fiction. Each day we are slapped with our gory reality. We – or rather – I, will not write what I don’t see. Writers are torch-bearers, those who would document each moment in history for posterity. We need change, and to attain that position, we must keep screaming until our cries pierce the deafest of ears. We have the worst leaders in the third worlds – those that are so blind and misguided we are bereft of words, adjectives, to qualify the alarming shame. We just weep. They roam about their sand castles, kings that they are, ruining the lives of many, and I’m supposed to turn a blind eye? Funny.I refuse to lie about her(Africa) state. I will write about her the way I see her. If you see her differently, then write her that way.

Abdulaziz responded:
Way to go Uka. What a spirited response. I concur. No to a Potemskin village: a beautiful facade to an ugly house.

And finally, after I posted the article copied above, writer and visual artist Temidayo Odutokun responded:
I shared the link and posted that ” We cannot write or make art of what we do not experience, but when we choose subject matter, let us have them reflect the unpleasant things as well as the joys of our society buried in layers of the rubble that we see piling on everyday.” [...] For even when we make imaginative art or fiction, materials are gotten from experiences we have had or heard of or seen happen to other people or a combination of all these. However while we tell of the general hardship that is the dominant issue in our society we could put in same weave, the little joys and pleasantness that punctuate our struggling through, daily; The things that help us catch our breath; The things that cushion the heartache that comes from reading of these things or seeing them in other forms of art like visual or performing, for those too are part of the reality.

Champions of Our Time, The Figurine, and Nigeria’s Rebranding Project at FESPACO

The past two weeks in my column “My Thoughts Exactly” in the Weekly Trust, I have briefly analyzed and compared the two Nigerian films, The Figurine and Champions of Our Time, that were in competition in the FESPACO Video Feature category. (The week before that I had talked about the politics of what FESPACO considers a film, in “FESPACO: Politics of Video and Afolayan’s The Figurine”). Champions of Our Time, directed by Mak Kusare, won the jury prize (second prize) in the category, as well as a special ECOWAS jury prize. I will copy the articles below (and will add the hard copy of this week’s article when I am able to find one. To read the hard copy, just click on the photo and it should take you to a version big enough to read.) To read on the Weekly Trust site, click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

Champions of Our Time, The Figurine and Nigeria’s rebranding project at FESPACO

Saturday, 12 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

As Africa’s longest running and most famous “pan-African” film festival, FESPACO, kicked off last week, the absence of Nigeria’s sprawling film industry, cited as the second largest in the world by UNESCO, was glaring.

Out of the one hundred and eighty-seven films listed in the official festival catalogue index, only five films from Nigeria were scheduled. Restless City, made by expatriate Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu Waheed, was the only Nigerian film in the main feature-length film competition but was withdrawn before it could be screened. Didi Cheeka’s gut-wrenching Bloodstones and Julius Morno’s whimsical The Camera (and apparently Mak Kusare’s Duty [Please note this is a correction from my earlier mistake of identifying the film as Ninety Degrees, a feature length film directed in 2006 by Mak Kusare-CM 9/4/11], though it was not listed in the catalogue) were shown as part of a short film special screening but were not in competition. Only two feature Nigerian films Champions of Our Time directed by Mak Kusare and The Figurine directed by Kunle Afolayan even made it into the condescending TV/Video Fiction Category, reserved for feature films submitted on digital formats rather than 35 millimeter film.

Considering the noticeable omission of Nigeria from the festival, I imagine that by the time the jury for the “Best work in TV/Video” category met, they were feeling a certain amount of political pressure to award a Nigerian film with a prize. They awarded South African film Hopeville directed by Trengoue John with the best video prize, and chose Nigeria’s Champions of Our Time directed by Mak Kusare, which was also awarded an ECOWAS special prize, for the special jury (second) prize.

Since I often argue that Nollywood films should be taken seriously, I should be ecstatic that the film Champions of Our Time, a heartwarming, nicely shot tale of a child in a wheelchair and her struggle to participate in a secondary school television quiz competition, did Nigeria proud by winning two prizes at FESPACO. Unfortunately, although I am happy that a Nigerian film received such recognition, I find the selection of Champions of Our Time for the video prize problematic, perhaps because it seemed such an obvious snub of the only other feature-length Nigerian film in the competition, The Figurine, a film I have mentioned in this column as being “the best Nigerian film I have ever seen.”

I had expected The Figurine to win the category. It pushes genre elements developed by Nollywood in a new direction with beautiful cinematography, a moving soundtrack placed at all the right moments, excellent acting and set design, and sophisticated story rooted in certain cultural obsessions as developed in both in Nigerian “high” literature and more popular art forms. I did not see Hopeville so have no point of comparison, but I saw Champions of Our Time, or at least enough of it, to conclude that, at least to me, The Figurine, is by far the superior film, in terms of literary and artistic merit, if not in terms of promotion of a certain social agenda.

Champions of Our Time deals with an important topic I’ve never seen featured in any other Nigerian film, Mak Kusare is a clearly talented director, and the film has a very real emotional power, featuring several touching performances between Segun Arinze and Treasure Obasi, and an electrifying one by Ejike Asiegbu, whose character observes on national television that people throw small change at him, assuming him to be a beggar simply because he is in a wheelchair. However, compared to The Figurine, Champions is formulaic and sentimental, the sort of “disadvantaged character comes out triumphant and teaches everyone else a lesson” that has been done hundreds of times in Hollywood and Bollywood. A formula is fine if it is done in an exciting way. After all, oral tradition is built of formulas, individual performances judged better or worse by the skill with which they are executed. But when it comes to a written screenplay, there’s only so much so much even the best director and actors can do with a stiff and didactic script that quickly reveals its government funding in long memorized textbook passages on Nigerian history parroted by the contestants in the quiz show.

I admit my viewing experience of both Nigerian films was not balanced and my comparison is perhaps not quite fair. First, Champions of Our Time and The Figurine are wildly different in genre, and ideally we should appreciate each on its own merits, the social motivation/advocacy film for what it is, the spiritual thriller for what it is. I would not normally discuss the two films in the same essay. In a different context, I would probably be more positive about the intentions of Champions of Our Time, which is geared towards children—the sort of film we need more of in Nigeria—and the laudable highlighting of difficulties faced by physically challenged people in Nigeria. Second, my viewing experience of the two films was not at all equal. I’ve seen The Figurine twice, once with a stunned audience at Zuma Film Festival in Abuja, and second at FESPACO. On the other hand, I have only seen a preview copy, not even the final cut, of Champions of Our Time at FESPACO after the official copy did not work in the projector. Not only did the picture have “preview” floating over it for a third of the screening, but I did not see the end of the film because the DVD stopped at the emotional climax of the film when Sophia, a young girl in the wheelchair, decides to speak out at the quiz show award ceremony.

In obsessing over what could have made both FESPACO and ECOWAS judges choose Champions of Our Time for their prizes, I have begun to think that the decision was rooted in privileging a simplistic interpretation of “third cinema” (even if funded by problematic sources) over the crowd-pleasing “popular art” of Nollywood. Perhaps Champions won because of its good intentions and because it dealt with a topic that has not been dealt with before in Nollywood—not because it was a particularly exceptional film

At first glance, Champions of Our Time is the film that more self-consciously deals with social issues in Nigerian society. It tells the story of a competition between a privileged girl, Sharon (Feyisola Owuyemi), who wants to win the St. Flair’s NGO sponsored secondary school quiz competition so her father will give her permission to stay in Lagos, and a physically challenged girl, Sophia (Treasure Obasi), who wants to win so that she will have the money to have surgery abroad. Over the course of the competition, Sophia becomes “the voice” of those living with physical challenges in Nigeria. One scene in the film provides insight into the politics of award-giving. As the two girls reveal their equally competitive skills at memorization for the quiz, Sharon’s wealthy mother (Ayo Adesanya) tries to undermine Sophia’s credibility to an already wildly prejudiced committee member (Joke Silva). The mother argues that the committee should think about the international reputation of Nigeria, especially with the new rebranding exercise: if Sophia went on to represent Nigeria in France, people outside would say that the best Nigeria could offer is a “crippled girl.” This statement reveals the character’s prejudice and serves as a critique, on the part of the filmmakers, of such shallow ideas of “rebranding.” Of course, the film implies, the “more enlightened” St. Flair’s organization of France, which was so wildly misinterpreted by its Nigerian committee members, would see nothing amiss or embarrassing about a contestant in a wheelchair.

Ostensibly speaking out in defense of those with physical differences, the film appeals to film festival judges with its political correct ideology. We are the opposite of the prejudiced mother, the film, and its government backers, seems to say. We dare to present a film to represent our nation that features a girl in a wheelchair as the main character and reveals the prejudice of our citizens. This is Nigeria rebranded as UN-charter compliant.

The problem is that it is all too obvious. The film glosses over the complexity of actual experience. The committee member villains are just a bit too flat and stupid and willfully hateful, and the physically challenged people are portrayed as helpless victims until bright young Sophia “becomes their voice.” Even the man with the most powerful voice in the film (Ejike Asiegbu), a PhD holder in agricultural engineering who crawls up three flights of stairs to interrupt the quiz show in defense of Sophia, sighs that he has not been able to get a job. Of course, there are terrible prejudices in Nigeria, as well as a lack of public policy to address the needs of the physically challenged. An exposé of such discrimination in film is a necessary corrective, but it would have been even more empowering and ultimately more respectful to those many professionals with physical challenges living in Nigeria to at least allow the PhD in the wheelchair a job.

(To be concluded)

Part 2 (click on link to go to Weekly Trust site version)

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Last week, I questioned the motivations behind FESPACO and ECOWAS juries awarding Champions of Our Time, a film dramatizing a quiz competition between two secondary school students, the wealthy Sharon (Feyisola Owuyemi) and the underprivileged and physically-challenged Sophia (Treasure Obasi). I argue that the more deserving Nigerian film in the FESPACO “video feature” competition was the The Figurine, which depicts the changed lives of several Youth Corpers after they find a figurine of the goddess Araromire.

The politics of prize-giving in Champions of Our Time, and the competition between the privileged Sharon and the marginalized Sophia, becomes a prescient introduction to the politics of prize-giving at FESPACO and other award ceremonies. On the face of it, it seems that Sophia has symbolically triumphed. A film highlighting a social problem in Nigeria, featuring a young girl living with a disability, was up against an unapologetically commercial film that had won five AMAA awards and had played to sold out theatres in London. In competition, it might seem that Champions of Our Time was a David against the Goliath of The Figurine. But is this really a fair comparison? Not to me.

While Kunle Afolayan worked independent of established funding structures, funding his film with product placement and a bank loan (which he paid off after screenings at sold out theatres, apparently accomplished by innovative word-of-mouth marketing on facebook), Champions of Our Time was apparently funded by the Lagos State government. Although, The Figurine won 5 AMAA awards, official structures in Nigeria seem to favour their own Champions of Our Time, which rebrands Nigeria as actually being concerned about social issues rather than just embarrassing “ritual films,” a theme The Figurine uses and questions rather than avoiding. At the Zuma Film festival in Abuja, I was shocked when The Figurine, which blew away the audience, received only an honorable mention. Champions of Our Time (which I had not yet seen) won best film category.

If, as I suggested last week, award juries are rewarding Champions for its compliance with the ideals of Third Cinema—outlined by theorist Teshome Gabriel as a “public service institution” which presents the “lives and struggles of Third World peoples” and works as “an ideological tool,” by performers “speaking indigenous language”—how well does the film measure up? On the surface, the exposé of how people living with disabilities are ostracized, seems to well fit the goals of such a political cinema. When one digs deeper, less so.

First, the dialogue was scripted in an over-formal English nobody, other than perhaps the Queen, actually speaks, and which the best of Nollywood has moved past. Second, the entire story revolves around a rather boring quiz show contest, to which the secret of winning seems to be how well one can memorize information in a study manual. If the producers were going after Slumdog Millionaires style success by dramatizing a quiz show, their intentions fell flat.

Even more problematic, while Champions of Our Time follows self-consciously in a “third cinema” tradition of national development, it also reveals a dependency on the affirmation of a Western audience, just as FESPACO and Nigeria’s rebranding program do. Despite all its Nigerian government sponsorship and reciting of Nigerian history, the characters in Champions of Our Time seem to look outward for help. St. Flairs, the organization that sponsors the competition, is based in France, and when the doctor (Segun Arinze) challenges the prejudiced interpretations of the Nigerian St. Flair’s members, he appeals to the more enlightened sensibilities of the European main branch. He goes into such a long description of St. Flairs that I had to google it afterwards to see if the protracted speech was part of a product placement. (It was not, though such valorization of a French NGO could be seen as a plug for French film funding.) The French founders are obviously more enlightened about “physically challenged” people than the Nigerian members. So is the UN, which, the doctor repeatedly claims, has “expunged” the term “disabled” from its language, though such a vocabulary distinction would only matter to an English-speaking audience, and I could find no evidence for this claim on the UN website for the “Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities.” The superiority of NGO work in Nigeria or the appeal to the outside as the arbiter of “more enlightened” views and source of aid is not questioned.

As a teacher, I was particularly disturbed by the kinds of vague questions, expected to be answered in a few minutes, asked in the quiz show (one being “Explain Islam and its Origins”). At one point when Sophia gets stuck on a question, even though she is portrayed as an intelligent girl who reads Time Magazine and is interested in international politics, she doesn’t venture any response from her own general knowledge but rather complains that the answer was missing from the manual she was given to memorize. Instruction which encourages memorization of government textbooks rather than critical thinking is exactly the sort of neocolonial education that Burkinabé filmmaker Dani Kouyaté critiqued in his film Keita: the heritage of the Griot. But, this pedagogy, apparently endorsed by St. Flair’s of France, is not questioned here. Finally, while certainly understandable, the intention of Sophia to use prize money to travel abroad for surgery further reinforces a dependency on outside structures. Ultimately, though the film nobly attempts to “give voice” to the those living with disabilities in Nigeria, thus self-consciously following in a political “third cinema” tradition, Champions seems more an appeal to an elite to be more politically correct in their language than an actual challenge to the deep power structures of society. That said, if the film motivates the elite to use their power to to lobby for more inclusive policy changes, it will have done its job.

The only political claim Kunle Afolayan makes for The Figurine, on the other hand, is that it is an “all-Nigerian” production made by Nigerians in Nigeria. I would venture to argue that its success as a “national Nigerian film” comes from its independence of international, NGO, or government funding, as well as its story rooted in structures of Yoruba storytelling. The Figurine has much more in common with the concerns developed in Nigerian theatre and literature than Champions, asking deeper questions about the psyche of people who often shrug away from personal responsibility with spiritual explanations. It resonates with popular Yoruba plays from the traveling theatre, and intellectual plays by Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan; with Nollywood films, and novels by writers like Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, and Helon Habila, which question how one navigates the complex interaction between one’s destiny as foretold by the gods and personal responsibility. The film makes self-conscious, though subtle references, to such influences as can be seen in the tributes to Soyinka scattered through the text and the casting of artist Chief Muraina Oyelami, one of the founding members of the Duro Lapido Theatre Company, as the Professor who explains the myth of Araromire (as well as using Oyelami’s gallery as a location and paintings as props).

In The Figurine the dialogue effortlessly transitions between Yoruba, English, and pidgin in the way Lagosians actually talk and adds to social characterization in the same way that codeswitching between French and Wolof does in Ousmane Sembene’s celebrated films. The pidgen banter between youth corpers and their trainer provides a crowd-pleasing humour I imagine got lost in translation to the FESPACO jury.

Of course The Figurine has its share of imperfections. When I first watched the film at Zuma Film Festival, I was looking for them. I wasn’t sure I believed all the characters were as young as they were supposed to be at the beginning. Tosin Sido, who plays Femi’s (Ramsey Noah) sister, sometimes has that Nollywood whine. I was initially annoyed by the dramatic excesses of Femi’s girlfriend played by Fulola Awofiyebi-Raimi, who is desperate to land a man in her life. I thought she embodied an unfair stereotype of the aging single woman, but, by the end of the film, she won me over as her character deepens and we see her giddiness harden into steel. On a technical level, there are a few moments where it looks like the camera operator was having trouble pulling focus, and the lighting in the storm scene seemed off.

But those moments are less important to me than the brilliance of the overall effect: the story, the soundtrack, the cinematography, the acting. It may be that The Figurine’s defiant independence, unapologetic Naija-ness, and unrepentant commercial appeal is what turned off the FESPACO judges. Yet, it is these same aspects that have made Nollywood Africa’s largest cinema and the second largest film industry in the world. And it is the snobbery against popular audience appeal and an uncritical promotion of tired interpretations of “third cinema” that make FESPACO increasingly more irrelevant.

Concluded.


UPDATE 9 April 2011

Here are the trailers for both films [NOTE that these trailers are embedded in this blog under Fair Use laws, for review purposes]:

Champions of Our Time

The Figurine


As I noted in my review, it was probably not fair of me to be so hard on the multiple award-winning Champions of Our Time without seeing the entire film, while comparing it to The Figurine, which I have now seen twice and am judging on overall effect. The reason I did so was because I didn’t know how I could see the entire film, which is not yet released on video, before the relevance of my article on FESPACO passed and I felt what I had seen was enough to make the specific critiques I made. As I also noted, the two films really shouldn’t be compared, as they are doing two very different things–my problem was in the politics of the award-giving. To read more positive articles about the film, see these links:

“Creatively packaged films that empower the Voiceless submitted to Nairobi’s 5th Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival” in Art Matters, 12 May 2010

“Nollywood Goes Abuzz as ‘Champions of Our Time’ Premiers in Lagos” in Modern Ghana News, 26 November 2010.

‘Champions of Our Time': Another Big Nollywood Movie Already Winning Awards” in Leadership, 5 December 2010.

Champions of Our Time is a Must See Nollywood Movie” in 24/7 Nigeria, 10 December 2010.

Champions of Our Time Wins Multiple Awards” in Supple Magazine, 10 December 2010.

“Mak Kusare: Nollywood’s Finest” in NEXT,” 11 January 2011

“Nigerian Film Wins Award at FESPACO 2011″ in The Compass, 19 March 2011

FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s The Figurine

I have just arrived back home after a nearly three week trip, as follows: Kano -> (public taxi) -> Abuja -> (flight) -> Lagos -> (public taxi) -> Cotonue -> (bus) -> Ouagadougou -> (private car) -> Niamey -> (bus, motorcycle, and private car) -> Sokoto -> (public taxi) -> Birnin Kebbi -> (public taxi) -> Kano. It’s very good to be back in my own space, to my internet modem, and to my battery and inverter which allows me to charge my laptop and phones even when there is no electricity (as is the case right now).

Hommage to bygone days at the Siege du FESPACO, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

I thoroughly enjoyed my first FESPACO film festival, although I felt the politics of it were problematic. It seems that FESPACO is torn between being an international film festival (that seems to privilege a European [particularly French] aesthetic and audience), a national Burkina Faso tourist attraction promoted by a head of state who has been in power for over twenty years, and a Pan African cultural event that celebrates progressive politics and “third cinema” while showing evidence of being more concerned with a “second cinema” and equally problematic conservative ideas about what make good films. There are many breaks and fissures between these identities, and the absence, in particular, of the largest African film culture of Nollywood, Ghollywood, et al. is quite noticeable.

The Filmmaker.... part of a sculpture display at the Siege du FESPACO, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

The event was, however, attended by several Nigerian filmmakers: Tunde Kelani of Mainframe Movies (who attended the CODESRIA workshop on African film and video but did not have a film screened at FESPACO this year), Kunle Afolayan (whose film The Figurine was competing in the rather condescending Video Feature award, for those films not submitted on 35 mm film) , Mak Kusare (whose film Champions of Our Time ended up winning second prize in the [as noted condescending] FESPACO video feature award, and who also apparently had an impressive short film 90 Degrees there as well, although I did not see it) from the southern industry. Dr. Ahmad Sarari, Nasiru B. Mohammad, and Mikail Isah Bin Hassan (Gidigo) from the northern Hausa film industry of Kannywood also attended the event. There may have been a couple of other Nigerian/Ghanaian filmmakers I missed meeting.

Hausa filmmakers Mikail Isah bin Hassan (Gidigo), Dr. Ahmad Sarari, and Nasiru B. Mohammad at Cinema Burkina, the main cinema for FESPACO. (c) Carmen McCain

Although the main events, such as the opening and closing ceremony, were conducted simultaneously in English and French and while the CODESRIA research workshop I attended was dominated by English, the film screenings themselves were not particularly friendly to non-French speakers. Most of the films I saw (whether in Arabic, or other African language) were only subtitled in French (even when the audio was also in French). Since I speak a little, very poor French, I was able to, with the often stunning visual language of the films, get the basic gist of much of what was going on, but a few of my colleagues who spoke no French had a hard time enjoying many of the films.

The list (in French) of the final winners of the FESPACO awards can be found at Fasozine:

The Golden Yennenga Stallion prize was won by «Pegase» directed by Mohamed Mouftakir  of Morocco, (Maroc), with a value of ten million CFA francs

The Silver Yennenga Stallion  was won by «Un homme qui crie» directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Tchad), at a value of five million CFA francs

And the Bronze Yennenga Stallion was won by «Le mec idéal» directed by Owell Brown (Côte d’Ivoire), with a value of  2.5 millions CFA francs.

Notable for Nollywood were the prizes awarded in the TV/Video Feature category:

-The Prize for best  TV/Vidéo Fiction went to «Hopeville» directed by Trengoue John (South Africa), with a value of two million CFA francs.

-And the special jury prize for for TV/Video fiction went to  «Champions of our time» directed by Mak Kusare (Nigeria),  with a value of one million CFA francs. «Champions of our time» also did Nigeria proud by winning a special ECOWAS prize.

Champions of Our Time, the Nigerian jury prize winner for the FESPACO Video Feature category

Of the films mentioned here, I only saw the Chadian «Un homme qui crie» and Champions of Our Time, and both of those only partially. (One of my frustrations at the festival was that I didn’t see nearly as many of the films as I had hoped to see.) I love Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s films and I imagine he deserved the Silver Stallion, but I must admit I fell asleep during the entire middle section, which is crucial for understanding the story. It was me, not the film. It was a 10pm showing, the final screening of the film. I was exhausted from late nights, and I had gone all day without eating anything. What I saw of the film, a reflection on an old man and his relationship with his son who has taken over his position at a hotel swimming pool, was pensive and beautiful, the sort of film that wins festival prizes (and indeed won a jury prize at Cannes), but which a non-art-house audience would not go to see. Nigerian film Champions of Our Time was geared towards a more popular audience, using the old formulas of “disadvantaged character competes against privileged characters and teaches everyone a lesson along the way,” in the story of a young girl confined to a wheelchair whose dearest wish is to compete in a televised secondary school quiz show sponsored by the St. Flair’s organization of France. Unfortunately, I went to see it on its third screening, and the official festival dvd that had worked in the two other theatres did not work at this cinema. Director Mak Kusare had not been given a personal copy of the final cut by the producers, so he ended up slotting in a preview copy that was not a final cut and had “preview” floating in big white letters over half the film. The DVD shut off at the emotional climax of the film and refused to go further, so I  did not see the rest of the film.  The problems with the screening here were also experienced with the showing of the other Nigerian film in the competition, Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine, which on its first screening at the small venue of the Institute Francaise took about four tries to get the thing started with sound. Similar problems were experienced in the screening of Zimbabwean film I Want A Wedding Dress directed by Tsitsi Dangarembga, also the author of one of my favourite novels Nervous Conditions (Though her novel is one of my favourites, I was less impressed with this film, an “HIV film” which seems dominated by NGO aesthetics.) The European technician ended up cutting short the Q&A after The Figurine screening, saying the schedule was running late (due to the technical problems on the previous films at the venue.) This seemed yet another instance of perhaps unintentional marginalizing of Anglophone films at FESPACO. And although shuttling many of the films out to empty open-air cinemas on the outskirts of Ouagadougou was done in an attempt to draw a local audience into the film festival, I wonder if the extremely low turnout I observed at a screening of Kunle Afololayan’s The Figurine had to do with people assuming the films were just “FESPACO films” and of little popular interest. In several of the screenings I went to, the audiences were 70% European….

I intend to write more reviews of the films I saw at the festival for my column in Weekly Trust and will post them as they are published. But for a sneak preview of what I think about Champions of Our Time winning out over The Figurine in the video competition…..  Let’s just say for now that I am very unimpressed with the jury on this decision…. Stay tuned for why….

And now for the column I published on 5 March 2011 in the middle of the festival, published,  in the Weekly Trust: “FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s the Figurine”

Nigerian filmmaker Kunle Afolayan, sporting a Kenya cap, promotes his The Figurine, a naija-centric film with Pan-African appeal, at FESPACO. (c) Carmen McCain

Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

I write from a backless bench in a dark open air theatre on the outskirts of Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, where I’m waiting with director, producer, and actor Kunle Afolayan for the second screening of his film The Figurine. It is far from the city centre where it seems Ouagadougou, with its roundabout monument shaped like a ciné camera, and film fliers at every hotel, has been entirely modified to accommodate the FESPACO.(Festival Panafricaine du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou) film festival. This is my first time in Burkina Faso’s capitol city, which is perhaps best known outside the region for this biennial festival, now in it’s 22nd incarnation. During the festival, one wanders from cinema to cinema, from film to film, from lunch to party, with people who talk about aesthetics and history and cuisine and the politics of film in Africa. In the city centre, this morning, women cycled past on their bicycles and motorbikes. European tourists wandered in gaggles. Street musicians with loudspeakers provided a distant soundtrack. I jumped with startled delight when suddenly the familiar sound of P-Square’s “Do Me, I Do you” filled the air.

Cine Patte Doie, on the outskirts of Ougadougou, where Kunle Afolayan's film The Figurine was screened. (c) Carmen McCain

Here at Cine Patte Doie, the electricity goes off and comes back on two minutes later. The stars are bright overhead. “This reminds me of growing up, in the cinemas,” Kunle says, remembering his father Adeyemi Afolayan, one of the early Yoruba filmmakers who translated travelling theatre to the screen. Dead Weight, the Ethiopian film scheduled before The Figurine plays in jumps and starts. I tell the Burkinabe man beside me in French that the electricity is worse in Nigeria but that everyone has backup generators. “We are a poor country,” he tells me. “We can’t afford generators. We get our electricity from Cote D’ivoire, but with the war, it has gotten worse….”

The first two days of the festival, I attended the Pan-African social research organization CODESRIA’s workshop, “African Film, Video, and the Social Impact of the New Technologies” attended by scholars of African cinema, video, and filmmakers. Much of the symposium was spent in discussions of the relationship of African cinema to the growth of Nollywood, which is challenging old assumptions about how and why African films should be made. While Nollywood scholars like Onookome Okome celebrate how Nollywood reflects the imaginary of ordinary people, telling the stories of the streets, other scholars, particularly Ethiopian scholar Professor Salem Mekuria, currently at Wellesley College, MA, in the United States, were dismissive of the phenomenon. Though she had only seen a few “bad examples” of Nollywood, Professor Mekuria thought the symposium spent too much time talking about Nigerian films. Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge mentioned to me that though she was very interested in Nollywood, especially in its relation to the Kenyan video film industry Riverwood, she thought that too much clichéd rhetoric about Nollywood dominated the discussion. The discussions seemed to revolve around the same old arguments about Nollywood: the rituals in films are giving Nigeria a bad name, the sex in Ghanaian films is getting out of control, the quality isn’t high, people shouldn’t just wake up one day and decide they can be a filmmaker. Even renowned playwright Professor Femi Osofisan didn’t add anything new to the discussion as he repeated his regularly stated concern about the potential harmfulness of Nollywood, although I did enjoy his witty conclusion that the name “Nollywood” was apt because Nigerians traditionally sent bad things to the evil forest—here the “wood” of Nolly. There was little discussion of the internal variances in Nollywood films, and almost no mention of films made in Nigerian languages: Hausa, Yoruba, and smaller languages, such as Nupe and Itsekeri. Though most of the perspectives at the symposium were scholarly, it was refreshing to hear the perspectives of actual filmmakers, particularly Nigerian director and producer Tunde Kelani, who spoke of his frustration at being identified as a video maker when Francophone directors also working in a digital medium were listed as filmmakers.

Nigerian heavyweights, Filmmaker Tunde Kelani, Film scholar Onokome Okome, and Playwright Femi Osofisan at the CODESRIA workshop on film and video. (c) Carmen McCain

This problematic discourse referring to Nigerian popular video vs.Francophone art cinema ran throughout much of the festival, with the snickers from a largely European audience at a Nollywood-style Senegalese short film involving a mammy water spirit, to the listing of Kunle Afolayan’s stunning thriller, The Figurine, shot on a digital camera with cinema lenses, under the television and video competition rather than the main film competition, because it was not submitted on a 35 millimeter print. Ironically, all the films I saw in the main competition were projected from dvd, rather than from the film prints that were supposed to have been submitted. The director of the Toronto International Film Festival told me that other than FESPACO very few film festivals around the world differentiate between films shot on digital and film anymore. Apparently, the transportation of fragile 35 millimeter film prints are usually the most expensive parts of film festivals, and more and more festivals are moving to digital film projection, just as more and more filmmakers are going digital.

Although many Nigerian films reflect the “lives and struggles of Third World peoples,” and although the Nollywood industry began as a grassroots initiative, “managed, operated and run for and by the people,” both aspects of the “combative phase of third world cinema” formulated by theorist Teshome Gabriel, the Nigerian video films have long been dismissed by many Francophone African filmmakers and their critics, as “subpar” productions “concerned only with making money.” However, there are ironies in this critique considering most Francophone African films are seen mostly at festivals attended by a mostly Western and Western-trained elite, have very little accessibility to popular audiences in Africa, and make hardly any money. They are thus unsustainable and have seemingly little responsibility to the preferences of their audiences. African film scholars Manthia Diawara and Roy Armes have pointed out that Francophone African filmmakers often had the topics and style in which they made their films strongly directed from France, where they received their funding, and by the European crews which shot and edited the films. At the workshop it was also pointed out that many French technicians and film graduates who had little working experience in France were pointed to Africa as a place to improve their skills while working on African films. Ironically, with a few exceptions, many of the Francophone films that self consciously responded to imperialism or proudly presented “African culture” were mediated through the aesthetic and thematic preferences of their funders in France. While the filmmakers often subtly subverted outside expectations, it still strikes me as incongruous that despite all the lofty ideals of “cinema” filmmakers, their films often have more relevance to elite festival audience than to the mass viewing public of Africa.

Although Kunle Afolayan’s film The Figurine was shunted by FESPACO organizers to a premier on a small screen at the Institute Francaise and a later screening at the open air theatre with the epileptic electricity, rather than one of the larger theatres, I wanted to jump out of my seat and applaud when Afolayan introduced his film saying that “The film was shot, produced, edited, […] all the members of crew […]are all Nigerian. Everything was done in Nigeria by Nigerians.” I remembered the stunned feeling I had after first watching the film at the Zuma Film Festival, realizing, as I watched the closing credits that almost every name there was Nigerian. The Figurine takes the certain genre elements developed by Nollywood, the ritual horror, the family drama and love triangle, the glamour of wealth, and pushes it to the next level. It is seen at its best in the cinema, as most Hollywood and European films are, but it is a film that stands on its own. It inserts itself, an unapologetic commercial film made in Yoruba, English, and pidgin, defiantly into the artsy programme FESPACO. It doesn’t need validation from the West or European art critics to be a good movie. Though not perfect, The Figurine has an aesthetic integrity that provides the best role model I’ve yet seen for Nigerian filmmakers, and whether FESPACO film critics agree with me or not, I would say that Kunle Afolayan is not just one of the best upcoming Nigerian filmmakers but one of the best upcoming African filmmakers.

Filmmaker Kunle Afolayan waiting for The Figurine to begin at Cine Patte Doie on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. (c) Carmen McCain

In the end we leave the theatre early. There are only about twenty people there, sitting in the dark under the stars. But before we leave, a man stands up and introduces his wife, telling Kunle, “This is a very good film. I can tell from even just the beginning.” At the FESPACO premiere, Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge stood up at the end and said, “I’m from Kenya, but I’m as proud of this film as if I were Nigerian.” She didn’t know it but she was echoing an earlier statement of the great Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who told Kunle, “I stand tall as an African, when I see this film.”

Kunle Afolayan's film The Figurine plays under the stars in Cite Patte Doie, on the outskirts of Burkina Faso, during FESPACO. (c) Carmen McCain

Sharon Stone in Abuja, Nollywood in New York

I am very much behind in posting photos of my columns here. I’m hoping to catch up in the next few days. I had hoped to get this up before Zina Saro-Wiwa’s “Sharon Stone in Abuja” gallery show at Location 1 in New York ended on 22 January 2011, but I obviously didn’t…. Here is my column, “Sharon Stone in Abuja, Nollywood in New York,” published in the Weekly Trust on 11 December 2010.

To read the article in its original version, click on the photo below. It will take you to a large photo on Flickr that you should be able to read comfortably. Enjoy.

Nigeria’s educated elite have a fraught relationship with Nollywood. Nigeria’s film industry may be identified by UNESCO as the second largest film industry in the world but talk to many Nigerians abroad, and they find the films embarrassing in their departure from Hollywood aesthetic norms or the theory-driven ideology of much European and African cinema. Recently while I was back in New York on a quick visit, several Nigerian artists at a dinner party told me they “hated” the films, finding them “unrealistic and excessive.” I’ve received similar feedback in emails responding to this column, one reader remarking that Kannywood films “are poor in artistic quality and lack originality.”

Yet, for every Nollywood snob you come across, there are dozens of avid fans who may laugh a little at the melodrama and the low budget quality of the films, but who love them all the same. What is it in these films that draws an audience of millions? This is one of the questions asked in the art exhibition “Sharon Stone in Abuja,” named after the 2003 Nigerian movie of the same name, on display from November 5, 2010 to January 22, 2011, at the New York gallery, Location 1. Notes on the exhibit, which is co-curated by Nigerian filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa, point to the “power and energy in these films, […]  Through our visual narratives, we hope to reveal the psychodrama of Nigerian life beneath Nollywood’s breathless and voluble hyperbole, […] and to explore the power in the home grown amateur aesthetics that Nollywood presents.”  The gallery features the work of Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo, American portraitist Mickalene Thomas, South African photographer Pieter Hugo, Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, and three experimental film installations by Zina Saro-Wiwa.

During my brief New York trip, I walked into the gallery forty-five minutes before closing time, so what I write here will be more a first impression than a studied review. The exhibit invites a self-conscious reflection on the creation of Nollywood art, audience, and fame. One of my favourite pieces is a large strikingly intimate portrait, by James Esiebo, of Nollywood stars Aki and Pawpaw, displayed in the corridor across from a wall inscribed with the names of thousands of Nollywood films. At the end of a corridor, the gallery opens up into parlour space created to set off Mickalene Thomas’s portraits of Nigerian actresses. On pedestals are “video sculptures,” looping Saro-Wiwa’s twenty minute segments of Nigerian actresses staring into the camera while crying.

The parlour space was carefully arranged into a kind of anthropological display of how Nigerian audiences watch films, using couches and chairs that could be found in many Nigerian homes, end tables piled with stacks of vcds. The only bizaare note in the room were the zebra-striped and leopard print throw pillows, reminding the visitor that this was not a home in Nigeria but a gallery in New York, where animal print is often the easiest visual shorthand for Africa. Nollywood may be the creation of Nigerians, the set up of the parlour implies, but it is received and reinterpreted by audiences all over the world.

These ideas of representation, authenticity, and appropriation are particularly evident in several of South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s photographs, taken from his Nollywood series, that hang on the wall opposite the parlour. I dislike Hugo’s work. The photographs in this show, the most striking one of which shows a woman dressed in lace sitting beside a man in monster makeup, take elements of Nollywood horror films out of context and flatten them into the blank stares of a freak show. While technically quite beautifully composed and lit, his photographs remind me of early 19th century exhibitions of the “Hottentot Venus,” in which a naked Khoi woman with large buttocks was put on display for the “scientific examination” and titillation of European audiences. They also remind me of the portrayal of Nigerians as savage gangsters in Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9. As with the Congo in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Nollywood becomes the not-so-blank slate onto which these artists project their own psychological hang-ups. Nigeria through a South African lens reveals more South African stereotype of Nigeria than anything else. This is not Nollywood, or Nigeria, but perhaps it is what an outside audience wants to see.

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s short films Phyllis and The Deliverance of Comfort, which for me were the heart of the exhibition, had a similarity to Hugo’s work in their artistic appropriation of Nollywood. But there is an affection and intimacy to them, I also felt in Andrew Esiebo’s portraits of Nollywood stars, that was lacking in Hugo’s photographs. Saro-Wiwa’s art films, likely to be watched and appreciated by a much smaller audience than those who watch the Nollywood films to which she pays homage, make a profound intervention into intellectual discussions of Nigerian film. Of the two short films, I was most struck by Phyllis, a surreal portrayal of a day in the life of Phyllis, a woman who watches Nollywood films all day long in an apartment filled with Christian calenders and Nollywood posters, marking time by changing into multicoloured European wigs. Whenever she removes a wig to replace it with another, her eyes roll back into her head, indicating spiritual possession. The techno heartbeat soundtrack played in these moments reminded me of similar sounds indicating spiritual presence in Cameroonian filmmaker Jean Pierre Bekolo’s science fiction film Les Saignantes, which won the Silver Yennenga  Stallion award at the 2007 FESPACO film festival. In Les Saignantes, the director’s voiceover, asking self conscious questions about filmmaking in postcolonial Africa, structures into sections a bizaare tale of two Cameroonian prostitutes and their use of spiritual powers to appropriate the body of a powerful government official. Both Les Saignantes and Phyllis interact with the popular imagination of spiritual power, linking it to ideas on the communicative power of film.

In Saro-Wiwa’s film, Phyllis, who has seen herself appear on screen, goes out into the streets of Lagos, hawking her multicoloured wigs on a tray. She lures another woman into her possession cult when the woman strokes the hair of the wig and then tries it on. Phyllis grips the woman in a vise as the initiate’s eyes roll back into her head, and then releases her to wander off dreamy-eyed. At the end Phyllis returns to her apartment, changing her wig again, and sits under a clock of a white Jesus with outstretched arms. She laughs while crying tears of blood.

There’s too much to untangle here in a short review. But in the visual metaphors of wigs and reoccurring motifs of Christian paraphernalia, Saro-Wiwa seems to be making a critique similar to those who complain of cultural imperialism in Nollywood’s unthoughtful adoption of Western standards of beauty and who question the Christian solutions so often proffered in the films. What are we being possessed by? Saro-Wiwa asks. One reading of the film could be that both Christianity and movies are the “opiate of the masses.” Yet Saro-Wiwa’s critique is far more sophisticated than most, affectionately acknowledging its own creative inspiration as dependent on Nollywood. As with Bekolo’s film, for Saro-Wiwa, ritual becomes metaphoric for possibilities in film that, while at times quite harmful, seem to offer particular power to women.

It is just this sort of thoughtful engagement that is needed in intellectual discussions of the world’s second largest film industry. Nevertheless, the exhibition may be flawed by its over-reliance on a Western audience. I would be interested in seeing the same exhibition brought to Lagos and Abuja and hearing what a non-expatriate Nigerian audience would make of its tropes of alienation and self-representation.

UPDATE 15 March 2011:

I just came across another great review of Pieter Hugo’s photographs here at Isaac Anyaogu’s blog Nollyverse.

Collected or Stolen? Sothebys set to auction a plundered Benin Mask on 17 February

Benin mask, likely of Queen Idia, set to be autioned at Sothebys (Photo Credit: Art Daily)

In a posting on facebook and his widely read Naijablog, Jeremy Weate brought my attention to the proposed auction at Sothebys of a 16th century ivory pendant Benin mask, looted during the “Punitive Expedition” by the British on Benin in 1897. The mask is thought to be a representation of Queen Idia of Benin. According to the Art Daily website, which describes the mask with a cool anthropological sort of detachment:

The mask and the five other Benin objects will be sold by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey [...]who was appointed deputy commissioner and vice-consul in the newly established Oil Rivers Protectorate (later the Niger Coast Protectorate) in 1891. He remained in Nigeria until 1902 and participated in the British Government’s “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 against Benin City.

The mask is expected to sell for £3.5-4.5* million.

British soldiers of the “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 proudly pose with looted art (Photo Credit: ModernGhana.com)

There has been, as one might expect, much outrage in Nigeria and among Nigerian communities in the diaspora about the intended sale of stolen Benin treasures. An online petition begun on December 22 to “stop the sale of stolen 16th century Benin mask” has so far (as of the time that I am writing, still on December 22) garnered over 370 signatures. To add your name to the list, click here. If art looted from families during the Nazi era in Europe is being returned to the descendants of those from whom it was stolen, then there is no excuse not to return these valuable cultural artifacts back to the palace in Benin. The renewed anger over these stolen artworks reminds me of Wole Soyinka’s revelation in his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn of how he tried to “liberate” the Benin Mask used in replica as the symbol of FESTAC.

The most useful way to stay up-to-date on the progress of the campaign to have the mask returned to Nigeria is to check out the facebook page “Stop the Sale of Stolen 16th Century Benin Mask.” This page was only created today but already has a series of updates about contact with the Sotheby’s African Art department and other links on comparable art recovery projects.

UPDATE 26 December 2010. In an almost unbelievable but very encouraging testimony to the power of social media, it seems that Sotheby’s has bowed to pressure and has removed the mask from intended auction. You can see the list of announcements on the Sotheby’s website here and download the very terse note that says:

24TH December 2010

STATEMENT REGARDING CANCELLATION OF BENIN SALE

“The Benin Ivory Pendant Mask and other items consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby’s had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors.”

Sahara Reporters notes that:

The auction had spurred a widespread protest by Nigerians and other sympathetic groups organized by the UK-based Nigeria Liberty Forum   (NLF). Hundreds of protesters had contacted Sotheby’s in writing, through phone calls or by street protests to demand the cancellation of the sale and to push for the return of the mask to Nigeria.

[...]

The protest organizers encouraged Nigerians across the globe to contact Sotheby’s auctioneers by phone or e-mail. These tactics as well as threats of legal action forced Sotheby’s in London to initially put the sale on hold while seeking further information from the NLF. By Christmas Eve, the sale had been canceled and the announcement removed from Sotheby’s auction calendar.

The campaign marks the second time the NLF would conduct a successful “telephone campaign” to stop high-profile acts of violations of public interests. The group’s first major campaign was to mobilize Nigerians to bombard a Heathrow Hotel with phone calls to drive away Nigeria’s former Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, who had sneaked into London to sabotage the trial of associates of former Governor James Ibori. Mr. Aondoakaa was forced to flee the hotel as Nigerians all over the world made more than 1,500 calls to his hotel in less than one hour.

Mr. Ogundamisi told SaharaReporters that the NLF was monitoring other artifacts purloined from Nigeria by British colonial officials and held in different parts of the world. “We will not rest until these cultural assets are returned to their original owners in Nigeria,” he said.

To read the full statement from Kayode Ogundamisi, convener of Nigeria Liberty Forum, see this note on the facebook group “Stop the Sale of Stolen 16th Century Benin Mask”

UPDATE: 23 December 2010:

When you google “Benin Mask Sotheby’s” you find half sites that are advertising the sale of the mask and half sites that are protesting the sale. The Antiques Trade Gazette is a good representative of the sort of patronizing tone taken when discussing African art in the final paragraph of its article about the sale of the piece:

It is unusual for material of this type to be sold by Sotheby’s in London (typically tribal art is sold in Paris), but, according to the auctioneers, the consignor specifically requested its sale in the UK.

Art historian S. Okwunodu Ogbechie points out the double standards applied by museums and institutions like Sothebys, who seem to apply different standards for ownership to African works than they do to artworks from other parts of the world:

Some commentators have suggested that Africans should try to buy back their stolen artworks when these come to public auction. I consider such suggestions preposterous since it allows the vandals who plundered Africa to benefit from their plunder twice over. When Britain and other colonial powers pay restitution to Africa for the rape of the continent,then I will entertain such suggestions. In the absence of any real compensation for centuries of plunder and genocide against Africans, raising this issue at all is clearly a racist form of responsibility avoidance.

All across the world today, many stolen artworks are being repatriated to their countries of origins. No one is asking the cultural owners of these artworks to pay for the privilege of retrieving their ancestors’ properties. Therefore, the relevant issue is whether Africans have any legal rights to their lives, natural and cultural resources. At what point does the brazen dispossession of Africa become a significant political, economic and moral issue? The Sotheby’s sale is part of a broad disregard for the very real impact of dispossession on the reality and fortunes of black Africans today. There is no justice here and it does not appear that black Africans or their descendants will be afforded any kind of legal justice in the prevailing context of white Western power. And yes, this is clearly a racial issue. Zahi Hawass has by and large stopped Western institutions from brazenly trafficking in Egyptian artifacts. He continues to negotiate the return of large numbers of looted Egyptian artworks back to Egypt. Most of these artworks were removed from Egypt more than 250 years ago. Italy has repatriated artworks to Libya. Western museums have repatriated artworks to South Africa. But so far, all requests for repatriation or reparation by black Africans have been dismissed without hearing. This is not surprising: African Americans have so far only received an apology for their centuries –long enslavement and, through their overwhelming imprisonment, they continue to fatten the coffers of modern-day slaveholders who run various prisons in the USA. There has never been any Western country held accountable for their actions in Africa, not even Belgium that oversaw the genocide of close to 10 million Congolese between 1880 and 1920. Sotheby’s multi-million dollar sale of stolen Benin artwork would seem insignificant within such a list of atrocities against Africa but make no mistake, it is part of the same current of morally and ethically dubious actions unfolding without any regard at all for African concerns.

It is therefore time for all Africans who have the resources to contribute to a massive effort to bring the global legal system to bear on these institutions who traffic in stolen African cultural patrimony. There are already precedents: the Holocaust reparation legal challenge is a clear precedence; so is the Native American Graves Repatriation and Protection Act. The issue of African cultural patrimony is an urgent human rights issue. Africans deserve equal access to and equal share of the economic value of artworks created by their ancestors. More importantly, they deserve to have a say in what happens to these artworks in the contemporary era. These artworks arrived in the West on a boat of plunder and bloodshed. Uncountable numbers of African lives were destroyed in the avaricious pursuit of colonization by Western powers. There needs to be an accounting for this history. Western institutions like Sotheby’s that broker the sale of these artworks should also cease and desist. They may not be legally liable for their actions today, but they will be legally liable at some time in the future.

Other excellent commentary is going on at the following blogs:

Jeremy Weate’s Naijablog: “Selling What was Stolen.” 22 December 2010

S. Okwunodu Ogbechie’s AACHRONYM: “Sotheby’s is Trafficking in Stolen Benin Artworks.” 23 December 2010.

MyWeku: “Help Stop the auction of Stolen 16th century Benin Mask.” 23 December 2010

Kwame Opoku’s essay “They are Selling Queen Mother Idia Mask and We are All Quiet” on the Facebook group Stop the Sale of Stolen 16th Century Benin Mask. 23 December 2010.

Katrin Schulze’s Contemporary Arts in Northern Nigeria: “A Quick Interim Report on the Upcoming Sale of Benin Artifacts at Sothebys” and “Update: A Quick Interim Report on the Upcoming Sale of Benin Artifacts at Sothebys” 23 December 2010.

Chika Okeke-Agulu’s Ofodunka: “Sale of stolen Benin ivory mask by Sotheby’s.” 23 December 2010

For more information about the Punitive Expedition and the looting of Benin art, see these articles:

2003 Guardian article “Spoils of War” by Jonathan Jones.

ModernGhana.com compilation of articles from 2008: the Vanguard’s “BNC gives FG 21-day ultimatum to render account on Benin artifacts” by Simon Ebegbulem, and the Guardian’s “Benin rulers renew campaign for artifact’s retrieval in US” by Tajudeen Sowole.

Website featuring Peju Layiwola’s 2010 traveling exhibition “Benin1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question.”

2010 Next article “Revisiting the 1897 destruction of Benin” by Akintayo Abodunrin.