Is the Nigerian Artist Losing Societal Relevance?

NGF Crisis, the Artist and Nigerian Mythos
By Africa Ukoh (@pensage4)

Every society has its mythos; the intricate threads of beliefs and opinions which hem its daily living, stitching opinions and oppositions. Mythos plays nursing mother to society’s collective consciousness; cuddled in the lock of its arms, we feed the same source which we suck dry. All societies are carried by pillars of mythos – the United States, ancient Greece, western Africa, Ajegunle, Maitama etcetera. Very importantly, ALL LEVELS OF SOCIETY – family, academia, vocational life etc – are rife with perspective-shaping mythos. Is it not normal then that when these pillars are budged, society quakes?

The Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) election crisis – more crisis for the Guv’nahs than for the regular folk, really – has for weeks now been the issue of debate and mediocre Machiavellian machinations. Many in the nation have watched with cynicism, criticism and glee-of-the-oppressed as ‘their excellencies them’ have strapped on political bikinis for this mud-fight.

It all started when the gubernatorial royals (note to self: possible title for cheesy British sitcom) got together to vote a new president for their ‘Governors only’ club. However things went kaput! when the 35 adults – ADULTS, I say! – were, to put it in delicate ebonics, unable to get they shit together (togethurr?). The behind-closed-doors event was videoed (weirdest derivative ever, I know), presumably, by the Governor of Osun state, and the videoed video went viral once the public got a hold of it – thanks Sahara Reporters!

As always, expected vituperations followed. We laughed, cried, decried, were angered, and arm wrestled over our woeful estate of governance! Yet at the heart of this dramedy lies a hidden-in-plain-sight statement about the relevance of Nigerian artists to their society and the status quo of Nigerian mythology. Mythology? No, no, I don’t mean Shango and Amadioha digging it out in a two-way deirific battle atop the precipitous heights of Olumo Rock. I speaketh, rather, of modern mythology.

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Politicians play a dominant role in the modern mythology of Nigeria. As both leaders and celebrities, how they and their offices are perceived is crucial to the sustenance of corruption… erm, I mean, to the sustenance of governance. Our mythos, you see, is a complex network of contradictory yet symbiotic socio-sympathetic nerves which connect the everyday Nigerian with the objects/subjects of his ‘real fantasies’ (phew!).

A PROBLEM arises, however, when the persons mythologized are alive and kicking. Being alive in the time of your myth creates the MOTHERSHIP of dilemmas: you have to live up to your mythos, or at least live a semblance of it. Hercules may have actually been a whimp who frequently got his butt kicked by the mulieres of Greece, but he wouldn’t have to had deal with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube exposing this epic chagrin. He probably would only have had to grapple with gossip by word of mouth – which is like 0.0000000000001G in internet speed time. But every time Lionel Messi walks out of the tunnel, he has to prove he is the best footballer in the world. And everytime a Nigerian politician steps into the public eye he has to protect the delicate fabric of mythos which beautifies the ignominy surrounding him.

The ineptitude of individuals in positions of authority in Nigeria could win the Oscar for biggest open secret ever. (It must be noted of course that not all in positions of authority are inept, the shoddy guys are just more fun to play with.) Despite this general awareness we accept these… erm, “special needs” authority figures, regardless – often offering little beyond passive resistance. What we are taught to revere, what our mythology tells us to respect, is the position not the person. (A factor found in other modern societies, not just Nigeria, really.) Therefore, all the person, be he the king of olodos or jester-olodo to the king, needs to do is reach that position of reverence, those seats of power, those thrones of mythos! (Insert thunder and lightning sound effects here!) Think of it like a safe-zone in childrens’ catch me if you can games. The rules are, “you can’t touch us if we’re standing in here“.

What things like the NGF election video do then, is sharpen Sabretooth claws, get pumped up on adrenaline and, with mutant ferocity, tear at threads which fasten our accepted/imposed myths.Tthey peel the veils from our eyes; take Freudian sawed-off shotguns, loaded with 16 inch Jung bullets, and shoot down psychological barriers placed between us and the obvious truth. They force us to see. They compel us to walk into dark alleys which we often pretend not to know of, simply because we are too damn stressed out dealing with the daily-bread-battles of life.

This is where the Nigerian artist – the modern Nigerian artist – comes into query. The question I find myself unable to ignore is: when it comes to the necessary destruction of mythos, isn’t the internet doing what Nigerian artists are supposed to be? Is the artist (Nigerian or other) not meant to be the one who exposes the flaws and negativities in our societies? Is it not the duty of the creatively blessed to serve as watchtowers for mankind? Is this not why artists see, hear, taste, smell and feel differently? Is this not why artists have uniquely warped perceptions, so as to delve into the dimensions of our existence, unreachable by ‘normal’ minds, and extract wonder – pertinent wonder – out from the mundane?

Now, no one can or should impose responsibilities upon artists or art, and in no way do I mean to do so. Let expression be what it will be! However, in examining humanity’s long history in the arts, do we not find a common thread in relevance to one’s society where the best of artists have always existed and golden ages of art prevailed? Has the Nigerian artist then refused or failed to assert his/her relevance beyond being the bossom of Bacchus-esque frivolities? A common argument is that the Nigerian public does not like to confront important issues through art, preferring ONLY jollification and escapism. However doesn’t the repeated virality of videos like the NGF elections tell a different story?

Perhaps I could/should narrow “Nigerian artists” to those in music and film? Writers exempted as the nature of their art prohibits frequent engagements with trivialities. (I dare you to write a novel about nothing but your flossing steez!) But, on the other hand, aren’t the various arts forms one holistic community, thus obligated to look out for each other? There should not arise a misconception that artists are only relevant when they deal with political issues. Nein! Art should NOT be considered ONLY a weapon to use AGAINST government. This erroneous assumption is, in my opinion, partly responsible for the stifled range of topics found in some art forms.

A plethora of issues are available for artists to woo. Society is PREGNANT with mythos from other levels apart from the political: religious, social, cultural, psychological, philosophical, esoteric, etc. And of course art is NOT restricted to the destruction of mythos alone. Neither should it be taken that art must always be dead serious. The issue is range, or lack thereof, and relevance.

Is it not the case, then, that in the absence of creative explorations of matters close to our cultural heart, and near to our national cake, society has turned to the internet for pertinence and to the Nigerian artist for flippancy? Have we not CEASED to look to upcoming movies and songs with hopes for BOTH enjoyment and poignance? Do we not instead rely on the next REAL LIFE CALAMITY courtesy of YouTube, an accidental film maker and a well charged phone? Yet if this is so, can one really, really blame the Nigerian artist? Really? Because if you think about it, the roundness of a woman’s buttocks and the trauma of being used like a roll-on are not going to sing about themselves, are they?

Ps: it is important to note that there are lots of talented artists out there who stray from the worn out norms to give birth to art pieces as rich as they are diverse. To these, one can only say, thank you so much.

Note: the opinions expressed in this article are entirely those of the author. Posting such articles on A.R.T’s site does not infer endorsements.

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