An Unofficial Mayor of the Arts – Sanya Osha

sOne of the central ideas behind the establishment of the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) was a simple and effective one. It sought to provide a platform whereby all categories of artists; actors, writers, filmmakers, painters and printmakers, you name it, could come together under an informal umbrella that was deadly serious about accomplishing its goals, that is, ensuring that the dignity and relevance of the Nigerian artist is preserved.

Toyin Akinosho was crucial in this effort together with Yomi Layinka, Tunde Olanipekun, Jossy Ogbuanor, Chika Agulu Okeke and of course, the incomparable Jahman Anikulapo, who had been thoroughly mentored by the equally exceptional Ben Tomoloju during his many years at The Guardian newspapers in Lagos. Apart from these key initiators, a few other enthusiasts also joined in the effort. It was quite remarkable to watch Layinka compere the CORA sessions; he was tall, lean and broad-shouldered like a matinee idol but also had the bearing and composure of a professor of English literature.

On those inimitable Saturday or Sunday afternoons, artists from all over Lagos, often conveyed by rickety, deathtrap commercial vehicles especially from the outlying conurbations of the frenetic city, would converge at a section of the rooftops of the National Theatre, Iganmu, to reflect upon, and debate, an urgent cultural topic.

The scene was usually very colourful, all manner of adire, ankara and tie and dye fabrics reminding us of the glory days of Ife, Osogbo, Zaria, Kaduna, Enugu, Nsukka, Onitsha, Abeokuta and Ibadan and the artist as a perambulating work of highly accomplished art, a dainty palm wine filled calabash in hand, in unfettered fellowship with many of his/her kind for a few brief precious moments, to be able to forget his/her numerous diurnal worries and inadequacies, while s/he lackadaisically rides the wondrous, meandering social crests provided by his/her highly distinctive tribe.

A casual soulfulness always seemed to permeate the atmosphere.

Our artists fitted out in those seemingly simple but gorgeous attires brought into our midst, variegated stories and histories that enriched the collective fount of our community. Each artist was treated as a being of living history, momentous yet unstated, preserved with meticulous care to be a vital part of our ever-unfolding cultural narrative.

CORA created this unique and powerful ambience for artists to find succour, community and strength that was (were) very difficult to find elsewhere. Yet it was not an ambience mediated by excess and irresponsibility as was to be expected in many artistic gatherings. As we laughed, embraced each other and plotted artistic futures together, Akinosho’s understated aura constantly reminded us that there was serious work to be done. The communal laughter and free flowing palm wine were only momentary distractions on a long and difficult journey to creative fulfillment.

It didnt matter if you arrived at CORA events without a coin in your pocket. You would always find a brother or a sister who was willing to grant you a ride. It didnt matter if you hadnt made plans about where to crash for the night because there was always a vacant bed somewhere, somehow. You were never, in those rare moments, allowed to be weighed down by a sense of deprivation. Again, this was due to the environment Akinosho and Jahman fostered.

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CORA was particularly brilliant and effective in identifying cultural issues of national significance and formulating a collective response to them. In addition, it was quite resourceful in providing succour encouragement and assistance to many impecunious artists in their moments of dire need.

On those seemingly lazy Lagos afternoons, Toyin Akinosho, as he was marshalling the parameters of a given topic with passionate and well-reasoned arguments, would be busy plying the numerous guests of CORA with lovely high-grade fresh palm wine- which he had most probably provided with his own money – and which like Achebean natural fuel, nourished multiple branches of rich conversation.

Akinosho was also a gifted conversationalist as well as an indefatigable doer who established a community newspaper, FESTAC Festac News, as a notable vehicle for the arts.

After Akin Adesokans manuscript, Roots in the Sky, won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) prize for prose in 1996, no Nigerian publisher would formally release it; so after a few years of gathering dust, Akinosho published it so that another product of the national cultural mind would not be lost yet again to the mists of time or collective complacency. It was the doer aspect of Akinosho’s personality that was manifesting itself in that typically selfless act.

His abode at the Festac Town area of Lagos became a famous haven for writers and journalists who needed a place to spend perhaps a few nights or a forum for robust discussions on Nigerian affairs. Alongside Festac News, Akinosho also founded a magazine, Africa Oil & Gas Report, a newsletter on oil and gas matters being originally a geologist who had worked at Chevron (called Gulf Oil when he joined in 1988) for 20 years until he opted to devote himself exclusively to cultural matters.

Akinosho, in particular, never really seemed to fit in with the oil and gas crowd where wanton ostentation is regarded as a mark of identity. He was typically casual in manner and appearance perhaps so as not to alienate his numerous artist friends, who were usually low on cash. Of course, his steady financial generosity to those friends is also the stuff of legend. He had worked in the oil industry mostly to funnel much-needed funds to his various cultural projects and activities.

Before he took up a job in the oil and gas industry, Akinosho had worked in the media, starting with The Guardian, and later with the likes of the irrepressible Uzor Maxim Uzoatu at Thisweek , a pioneering news magazine established in the mid 1980s by Nduka Obaigbena . Akinosho, was for a spell, inthe middle of what was for a while the most engaging collective of youthful Nigerian intellectuals who sought to make an impact on the political, cultural and intellectual landscapes.

The Thisweek collective also included the likes of Sonala Olumhense and Tunji Lardner Jr both of whom wrote some of the most illuminating prose of the time. All too suddenly, the blaze that Thisweek radiated fizzled out and Akinosho was left to find other platforms. He wrote a regular column on the arts, Artsville for The Guardian to ventilate his invariably bold and insightful views. He also wrote opinion articles mostly on the energy sector of the economy.

Incidentally, both Akinosho and Uzoatu attended the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and so share an academic pedigree that has always been quite distinct on the Nigerian intellectual scene. Once stationed in Lagos, they became permanent fixtures on the cultural calendar due to their infectious sense of camaraderie, innate brilliance and community values.

In addition, they exhibited an unmistakable generosity of spirit in their endeavours and efforts to better the lot of the perennially impoverished and marginalised artist. When combined together, their numerous small and large acts have had a considerable impact on the cultural sector. They taught us to honour and cherish our legends and not wait until they have departed.

In humanising our legends and thrusting them in their proper perspectives, they in turn, have become legends themselves, ceaselessly beating against the tides of ignorance, bigotry and complacency in order to broaden and sharpen the otherwise murky horizons of our consciousness.

In these rapidly postmodernising and posthumanist times, they have re-inscribed the values of the human across a continually cynical social template. And in accomplishing this almost superhuman feat, they have both maintained a steady poise of grace, equanimity and unfaltering humour.

Instructively, Akinosho grew up in a Lagos defined by both deep notions of culture and safety. In those glory days, you didnt have to be financially comfortable to enjoy the numerous cultural delights of the city. Before the civil war (1967-1970), Lagos was also relatively safe for the preternaturally adventurous to explore.

Akinosho evolved at the cultural hub of Lagos, that is, the urban nexus that contained the Island Club, the Yoruba Tennis Club, the Racecourse and the United States Information Service (USIS), all of which were along the eye-catching strip called the Marina. It was in this bustling sector that Akinosho discovered his particular truths about culture, that is, culture as a largely urbanised and cosmopolitan pursuit.

Understandably, Akinosho’s definition of culture would entail a strong element of preservation especially with respect to fading musical genres such as highlife. Maestros of the art such as Fatai Rolling Dollar, Maliki Showman, Tunde Osofisan and Alaba Pedro have all been honoured and acknowledged in various ways.

There is an important concept in Yoruba cultural life; ijuba. Ijuba means the bestowal of homage. We honour our deities, we honour our departed ancestors and we also honour our elders. This concept has always been important in the activities of CORA.

The long suffering Nigerian artist is usually ridiculed or ignored by the political establishment. Ironically, the cultural sector of Nigerian affairs is what normally brings in honour and real accomplishment to the nation while the political class is only known for myopia, criminality and unimaginable excess.

Yet, this very class views the cultural sector with more or less unremitting scorn. It is this skewed relationship that the like of Akinosho have sought to transform, as if to establish that, if we are able to get our cultural values right, we will also act honourably in the political realm.

In identifying the important concept of ijuba, we are also re-affirming the primacy of a related concept, omoluabi , which roughly translates to a fundamentally well-behaved human being, a personage in whom the community is well pleased. All over Africa, such ingrained cultural manifestations are prevalent as a means of fostering communal relations and values. This is because within the cultural matrix, we dont amount to much without community.

In spite of its overt political objectives, CORA was essentially about strengthening the bonds of community, assuring our numerous toiling artists and what have been termed culture workers, that they matter, that their endless perspiration is being acknowledged, that they are deserving of honour and respect and most importantly, that they are a vital and indispensable cog within the wheel of national affairs.

And so, for decades, CORA has honoured most of the key personalities that have made significant contributions to Nigerian cultural matters: Fred Agbeyegbe at 80, Sam Amuka at 80, Demas Nwoko at 80, Gbenga Sonuga at 70, Ben Tomoloju at 65 etc.

In this manner, CORA is reminding our artists and those who work to strengthen the cultural sector that we see you, we recognise your toil and selfless dedication, and we acknowledge your priceless sacrifices.

In cementing and nourishing those communal bonds, CORA is also affirming our common humanity even in the midst of the persistently dehumanising conditions of an impersonal metropolis such as Lagos where the pursuit of capital and daily bread has assumed ever more grotesque proportions.

Toyin Akinosho has spent well over three decades honouring and providing psychological nourishment for our various artists and culture bureaucrats. It is now time to repay him the same way he has always empowered our cultural legends with a profound and heartfelt tribute. Happy sixtieth birthday anniversary brother!

Sanya Osha is a writer and scholar based in Pretoria, South Africa.

NB: ***. (co-founders were Yomi Layinka, Tunde Olanipekun, Jossey Ogbuanor; Chika was brought in later to join them)

(Essay excerpted with the kind permission of the author from “Poblishaaa…The Man, His Arts, The Myth: Dissecting the interventions of Alfred Oluwatoyin Akinosho in the enterprise of Culture Production, Art Advocacy & Criticisms”
http://www.lagosbookartfestival.org/reports-resources/toyin-akinosho-60-commemorative-publicatione-book/)

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