Are we the bastard offspring of Necessity? How is it, then, that the others who claim her as their mother consistently demonstrate the fruits of such lineage while my people are content to declaim mediocrity as the content of their character, if not the color of their skin? Tragic Hammitism of this nature requires recourse to analysis. Some palm wine is in order.
I was raised in the theatre tradition from a very young age. Indeed, my series of tomes since I was handed that glittering pen have spoken of legends in my world—spirits such as Emmanuel Ogga, Ndubuisi Nwafor, Tunji Sotimirin. Of these men, Emmanuel Ogga and Tunji Sotimirin touched my soul the most. Emma because I had never seen a man “cry” after drinking a Gulder. He wasn’t really crying, you understand, but he was the sort who could emote so easily, pull an audience into his domain, convince them that what he was feeling—despite a bout with Gulder—was the truth. And then Tunji Sotimirin because I saw a one-man show he did at U.I., and then had the honor of collaborating with him upon occasion, and I realized that he had an ingenious appreciation for our context, limitations, aspirations and resources.
I have searched for Ogga’s name in the list of Nollywood credits rolling hot off the presses every week. To my great delight, I have not found it. The rumor did persist, however, that Tunji had performed in a number of Nollywood movies. And just before I began mourning, I discovered that he was still true to his theatre roots, playing a role in Kongi’s Babuling. Do I have a problem with Nollywood? You might say I do. You might say I do.
I have since determined that even the so-called “first world” societies, despite their claims to the contrary, may not be equipped with the discernment required to take art seriously enough. With the triumph of the postmodernist mantra of subjectivity in all things except physics—and even there it is creeping in—it becomes harder and harder with each passing day to sift the artistic wheat from the chaff. But even the revolutionary Andy Warhol, resting fitfully in a constellation near Heaven, will not deny me this one truth—that artistic expression is rooted in cultural identity.
What art says is driven at the behest of, as the abstract expressionist Jim Pappas would say, “…something deep within.” It mystifies scientists and those who seek to codify the essence of existence with the formulaic fervour of the analytically righteous. This notwithstanding, artistes are venerated by the masses, and at the most fundamental level, due to sheer talent. The commanding ability to wield the sword of the spirit is the mark of the gifted, and the lucidity with which spirits articulate their prose is what has come to distinguish artistes, one from the other.
Pragmatically speaking, it is clear that art seeks to motivate what Adam Smith might call human “enjoyments.” In much the same way that sugar is deemed morally good, art may be thought to belong to that pantheon of constitutions enriched with spiritual utility. Art, after all, is the logical extension of language. Indeed, art is language. Radicals in the field may consider it beyond that, even. They may say that art is sacred. They may say that, because art is the voice from within—the voice of the spirit—art is that which demonstrates the nobility in the human, that gives premise to the distinction between man and beast. Such radicalism is not without reason.
The mystery of aesthetics is currently beyond the scope of codification. But this cannot be said of the knowledge of its utility. Growing up in Ibadan, I was raised on a steady diet of malnourished drama that I came to determine emphasized the reasons why, despite Africa’s vast and impressive cultural heritage, African aspirations have been upsettingly dismal. I had a metric for determining that what pitiful gratuitousness laced our U.H.F. TV station was mediocre, and that metric was the University of Ibadan Theater Arts Department. There, at the Arts Theater, I watched magnificent giants of theatre display the effective voice of African heritage with a relish that signified to me the hope of things to come. We were on our way to Zion.
But then, the populist nature of mass media began to hold sway. While I saw, on the one hand, men like Emmanuel Ogga tease my spirit to restlessness with clever intimations on the nuance that is the sophisticated Africa I knew as an ancient spirit, the mass has began to embrace a cheapened form of entertainment that began to identify Nigerian and African art in a manner not dissimilar to the unfortunate caricature of beauty that is the harlot. In time, theater died and mass entertainment blossomed. The seeds of Nollywood were sown.
At this juncture, let me quickly say that “…this uprising will bring out the beast in us.” How else might I hope to calm down the rabid mob of patriots who seek the demise of the story told by this pen, many whom I have come to consider as close as family? Yes, it is true, I have friends in the business. I have friends who have funded movies, who have written brilliant scores for these, who enlisted me in the army of marketers for certain products, beautiful daughters of the Delta with whom I have even acquiesced to script-writing collaborations, giant intellects who have journeyed to the ends of the earth to ensure that Nollywood is respected and that Nigerian artists get their due materially and otherwise. But respect is earned and respect is in the art, and African art, my dear friend, is the African spirit.
Since I can hear my friends say “You are missing the point!” then let me be clear about what point I am making. Cultural criticism is not done because an old man with glasses wants to feel important. Cultural criticism is not subsidized by the big-manism which clouds the logic of the elders of a society in which wisdom is no longer the root of currency. Cultural criticism is the outpouring of a soul concerned about the path down which an identifiable constituency seems destined by virtue of its collective nature. The cultural critic, I have come to learn, is a prophet. The cultural critic guides the spirit of the people and maintains the level of aspirations which, owing to energy loss, the people are often bound to prevaricate. And so, for me, Nollywood is a reflection of the power of cultural criticism in Nigeria. It is the quality of the mind of the critic and the demonstration of the power of criticism in a civilization. And, for those who have not heard, “…criticism begins at home.”
The day I decided that I had the authority to spew forth in this way was the day I finally found myself privileged enough to ascertain an idea that was given to me. The idea was simply to use a theater with adequate lighting and with nothing more than basic video technology to tell a story of the African spirit. The theater I used, if one can call it that, was of much inferior constitution to the University of Ibadan Arts Theater. The camera that was used was so-so. The lighting was creative and colorful. It was not a play, but a concert. And when I finally watched the video feed I realized that my people did not perish from lack of knowledge, they perished because they did not care to understand that it doesn’t not cost too much extra to tell the story of Africa with aesthetic sophistication. So, home videos flourished with the excuse that equipment was expensive, but I myself, millions of miles from home, discovered the sad truth—Nigerians are yet to demonstrate that they respect the African story enough to tell it like it should be told.
If I am wrong, then I have done nothing but alienated a bunch of folks and precluded myself from the goodies that come with inroads into Nollywood. After all, the exact thing I will not win with an article such as this is a popularity contest. And, the exact thing that I do not care about winning is a popularity contest. But if I am right, then history will stand by me. And in that day, when you see me in the stars, and you avert your eyes because I told the truth but you denied it, and the consequences have proven devastating, I will not have time to say “I told you so.” I will, instead, be doing a google search for Tunji Sotimirin. Sadly, google will ask me the same question it asked me today, “Did you mean Hollywood?”