Art and the Codes of Life

 

With Odia & Eve

Before the sage, Odia Ofeimun, took the stage

Art and the Codes of Life. While humans make history through acts of valiance or of villainy, much of history is preserved through the arts. Official historians may couch history to please the despotic rulers and politicians and may even decree the elimination of history from the educational curriculum, but true history remains largely beyond their reach. Our memory and imagination are the vaults where history is stored and these deserve to be continually nurtured and propagated.

The fact that we have had a checkered history in Nigeria cannot be disputed, but so is the history of every nation. However, we may hold the record of vigorously working to push our history under the carpet so as to obscure the unpalatable stories of those who must remain in the political firmament of the land. We seem to have found a way to decorate villainy, marking such as valiancy or gallantry. Unfortunately, brightly lit or coloured vileness, roguery or even rascality can dazzle and confuse the simple-minded. And, sadly, an obscured past births an obscured future.

Our stories hold the code for rebuilding hope and for rebuilding Nigeria, even the world. We have to decipher the codes of life, recognize our commonalities, know our stories and tell them, defend our memory, build our imagination and march in the direction of solidarity as we fight for socio-ecological justice.

Happily, the arts, by and large, hold the torch to light the way to our past in a way that refuses to be suppressed or obliterated. Poetry, songs, paintings, sculpture, stories, films, architecture and the like, tell our history in a living way. Novels by writers such as Chinua Achebe, Festus Iyayi, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, Okey Ndibe, Wale Okediran and many others give us clear sketches of  the rough waters of our histories. The poetry of Christopher Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo, Harry Garuba, Nduka Otiono and several others, brilliantly capture our histories and fearlessly lay out the paths of our times of innocence, colonialism, neocolonialism, kleptocracy, authoritarianism, socio-ecological and financial corruption. They also give us the outlines of hope, as they inevitably sketch the way forward to a preferred future.

We also call to mind, notable sculptors, painters and writers such as Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onabrokpeya, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo and Uche Okeke who were immersed in the struggle for Nigeria’s political and artistic independence. The vibrancy of their artistic production, discourse and vision, held up brilliant signposts to what could have been. Along with the architectural production of those days, we saw that our built and unbuilt spaces spoke of our hopes and enclosed the innate desires to be authentic in our march into the future.

Writing on the works of Odia Ofeimun, but also focusing on the general fighting spirit of Nigerian writers, Dan Amor captured the roles played by our writers in the historic struggles in the nation: “The traumatic effects of the social upheavals in the mid-sixties, the civil war and its attendant horrors, increased writers’ political commitment. Nigerian creative writers were caught in ambivalence after the war – torn between anguish over the predatory tendencies in human nature, as displayed or exhibited in mutual destruction of lives and property, and the need to reconstruct the society after the catastrophe. But the most significant creative development from the civil war is not merely the exposition of the horrors nor the writers’ anguish from the traumatic results of the war, but their determination to make their work an organic function of the nation’s history.”

What can we say about our music? Musicians raised the flag of highlife and equally sounded the alarm as the nation wavered between hope and despair, between light and darkness and between goodness and near absolute meanness. No matter what anyone may write as the history of Nigeria, the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti will stand as a testimony of their truthfulness or willful perfidy. Anikulapo-Kuti’s songs, including Beasts of No Nation,  Zombie and Vagabonds in Power speak volumes of the days of infamy in Nigeria.

The long list of artistes that have captured history and placed it out of reach of official deniers or manipulators is long and cannot be covered in this piece. Why do artistes do what they do, even to their own peril?

Some art may be for art’s sake, but to some of us, art aims to achieve particular ends. Even so, we realize that no matter how targeted a work of art may be, it often throws up unexpected additional results. The complexities of the crafts and the richness of memory and imagination necessarily moderate our architecture, sculpture, paintings, poetry, fiction, music and films as they capture our histories in verse, colour, movement or in concrete.

I listened closely to Odia Ofeimun as he spoke on Art and the Environment on 11 June 2019. The key points I distilled from the broad, intricate and rich tapestry of his presentation were that our memory is fed by our senses and that our imagination is developed by what our senses pick up. Our common humanity presents us with codes that teach us how to live together with a sense of order and without hurting each other. Without a sense of order there can be no successful pursuit of social justice. If this is true, as we believe it is, it means that we have either lost the code, our sense of common humanity, imagination or memory.

Evelyn Osagie

Poetry flows from Evelyn Osagie

Stories told in verse or carved in stone hold out mirrors that help us see who we are and grasp the codes of life. They both preserve and promote our memory and our imagination. Who are we? Where have we come from from? Where are we headed? Can we continue in the trajectory of so much insecurity such that  that one cannot walk between his bedroom and kitchen without fear of being kidnapped? How far can a nation go when corruption rises, the more it is fought?

Our stories hold the code for rebuilding hope and for rebuilding Nigeria, even the world. We have to decipher the codes of life, recognize our commonalities, know our stories and tell them, defend our memory, build our imagination and march in the direction of solidarity as we fight for socio-ecological justice.

 

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