Toyin Akinosho @ 60: Uncle Toyin: Patron Saint of Awon Lagos Art Crew – Jumoke Verissimo
There is this lightsome passion which sits at the back of his eyes when he talks, which will fascinate any writer. Although I am not sure which one stuck to my memory first, his voice or his face, I can say for certain that there is something about Poblisha’s voice that reminds you of a ricocheting car zooming off. How does one forget that?
It is impossible to meet Toyin Akinosho and forget him.
The aura of Lagos defines his personality. He is enigmatic and widely known as Poblisha or Uncle T by those of us who are younger than him. He is the atypical Lagos boy, the mummy’s boy who bears the burden of good hometraining. He is the efiko who is never tired of learning, the art connoisseur who knows everyone that matters in the art industry, the artist who hides under the name “critic”, an all-round jolly good fellow who follows the money but sometimes misses his route, and a very kind man who though carefree in his outlook, is deeply sensitive. Whatever one chooses to think of him, one thing that is certain is that if one were stuck in a maze with Poblisha and the secret to finding the way out was tucked in a book, be sure you will get out of the maze.
Poblisha was first a geologist who became a journalist and then he turned his narrative around to become the journalist who became a geologist. Today, he is everything he chooses to be, geologist, journalist, and publisher. When you meet Poblisha, aside from his matter-of-fact voice which drags you into discussions around critical issues in the arts or oil and gas industry, you are likely to find him with a book tucked under his armpit or clutched in his hands. If he stood beside him without knowing him during an art event, and you struck you as interesting enough for a conversation, you will forever remember the fellow who asked questions that bordered on the personal, sensitive and the intellectual. He asks questions with a smirk on his face while his twinkling eyes pick out your brain as he talks in a drawl.
At the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) events that he actively co-founded, participates in and organises, he will insist on reading an excerpt from a book before starting any conversation. My memory of Poblisha is, therefore, woven around his passion for the arts and his deep commitment to that one thing that has become his second identity.
I must have met Poblisha at an art event and I must have been 19 or 20. I am not sure now. I remember my first meeting with him hazily. In any case, my inability to recall our meeting as I would have loved to, has nothing to do with him, rather this is on account of my poor memory. In any case, I got to know Poblisha up close and personal when Ropo Ewenla asked if I could transcribe some tapes of recordings from CORA events for a small fee. The work never came to full realization for some reasons, but I found myself “inducted” into the CORA committee, as Poblisha and Jahman said, “there was no woman involved”. It was at one of those meetings that I recall Poblisha telling me that non-fiction mattered greatly, while the fiction and poetry—which I told him I loved to write—was denying Nigeria writers an opportunity to write about the real issues, or something of that nature. From attending the meeting at CORA that first day, I learnt about Poblisha’s preference for non-fiction over fiction. I also became more certain of why I would gladly use him as a character in a story someday. There is this lightsome passion which sits at the back of his eyes when he talks, which would fascinate any writer. Although I am not sure which one stuck to my memory first, his voice or his face, I can say for certain that there is something about Poblisha’s voice that reminds you of a ricocheting car zooming off. How does one forget that? I must also mention that beside his voice, his roomy shirt and baggy trousers were a striking sight as he leaned forward and exclaimed, “Iwo!” to an old face he was glad to see. I remember Wole Oguntokun teasing him about this once, while asking him to rebrand himself. Poblisha did not take Oguntokun’s words serious, he laughed it off and remained his usual self—the one person with a spring in his steps even though he drags his feet when he walks, while his loose trouser flails in acknowledgement of his chosen style.
Returning to Poblisha’s love for books, I will say you can tell when he has read a book he likes or is deeply reflecting on the new works of an author whose writing he has followed closely. I had the good fortune of being around him once as he discussed Susan Sontag. I first heard him talk about her and her well-crafted sentences and insightful opinion on photography.
Which is why I would say that in an argument with Poblisha, do not make the mistake of throwing a question at him to destabilize him, because just like Sontag once wrote, he would make you understand that, “the only interesting answers are those which destroy the questions.” In fact, those who knew Poblisha up close, know how he loves to initiate discussions that sometimes lead to chaotic arguments. It was common to see jibes thrown from one end of the room to another, or in open spaces, like Abe Igi or Freedom Park, where the CORA events held. In the middle of conversations, he would recall stories of people and events and reference them to buttress his points or arguments. During the many CORA meetings that held in his home office at Festac, or the office at Surulere, his conversation moved between his growing up days at Ebute Meta to the current Lagos scene which he also wrote about in an eclectic column in The Guardian where he gave reviews which stirred interests and disagreements. His reviews and analysis of issues, or any form of cultural production was both humorous and honest, such that his opinion was difficult to ignore. You could describe him as a man who loved his childhood in Lagos, his books, and some say, women. But as I do not know about this love for women because it is a “they-say”, and as this is not a gossip column, I will stick with his love for Lagos and books!
PePoblisha himself might admit that he is not a serious person. Yet, he is also a serious person. He is serious enough to be the Secretary of the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), which he runs with Jahman Anikulapo and a host of others. The organization birthed several art events like the Lagos Books & Arts Festival (LABAF), Great Highlife Party and several others. This was as it was for me, as it was for many others, an introduction into the intellectual life of arts and artists in Lagos. The opportunity that these events gave to me are entangled with good memories of the jolly fellow whose Festac residence held many Christmas parties, and who challenged a younger me with his feedback. Poblisha is still watching my adventures as I have come to realize. I can almost hear his gruff voice when I called him after I moved to Canada for my graduate studies, sounding as familiar as ever. I called him for a story I was writing. I needed a geologist’s perspective and who else to ask than Poblisha. He, typically as he would, ventured into more details than required, moving from politics to books to oil and gas before returning to my question.
Poblisha’s house at Festac did not just hold meetings, it was also where he ran the Festac News and African Oil+ Gas Report, whwre brought heavy weights in the culture industry to become everyday people, and offered employment to more than a few. From that first meeting where I did not know what to make of him, I have since come to appreciate Poblisha’s sense of awareness for everything that arouses his curiosity. He is willing to learn and know as much as he is willing to criticize inadequate knowledge. This for me was an informal mentorship on being on the side of knowledge. I noticed how he listened deeply to others even when he disagreed with them, whenever the team met to deliberate on CORA activities. Poblisha would listen and then organise his thoughts around your points and wittingly point out the errors in your perspective, while his deep guttural laughter danced around the fallacy in your argument. The many times I have seen people resist his point of view, it is usually not for the lack of fact, it is of knowing a man who when he knows what he is talking about so well, he can laugh it into your face. I met with his jocular criticism a few times. The early days was when I got a chance to work freelance for The Guardian, through Jahman Anikulapo’s invitation to write reviews and a column for writers, “Words’ World”, Poblisha would refer to the things I wrote and give me practical feedbacks. He also followed my creative writing, and anytime I remember publishing a work online once, he read it and sent it to Akin Adesokan, for feedback. Eventually, when my novel, A Small Silence, was published recently, he brought my attention to a review in BookArtVille, his latest project, an online magazine. At this time, I was swamped and travailing under my graduate studies, yet I remained thankful that this man, Poblisha, remembers to follow the dreams of those he once knew, even if they are no longer around him.
At the CORA meetings, either at his then Festac residence or later at Bode Thomas Street in Surulere where he shared an office with CORA, Poblisha regaled us with stories of old Lagos, comparing the freedom of his youth with the abundance of cultural spaces that provided alternatives to the people. He spoke of the Cinemas like Roxy, Metro and Jebako where he and his friends used to hang out. He talked of seeing the rise of now legendary musicians. One could say that Poblisha carries the transformation of Lagos in his heart. He also pitted this knowledge of his city with his impressive years of working in the oil and gas sector, where he, I will suppose, would be the guy who would not let oil and gas guys be cool, as they were wont to. His African Oil+ Gas Reportwas a useful and quick reference I suggested for researching the sector when I worked as a public relations analyst. I was certain that if there was a judgement and critical analysis I could trust; it would be Poblisha’s. Yet, one thing that never ceases to amaze me is how he balances his love for culture and interest in the oil and gas sector so well. He shifted shapes between his two passion, so much that you could understand a man who has come to terms with the fact that he was given the responsibility to share his gift—his love for the arts, and a responsibility to maintain a livelihood to fund his gift. By the time he eventually left the oil and gas, and I met him, I saw only a man with a self-awareness of his dreams to expand the arts and say his mind without having to hide in the shadows.
This move to be in the lights came with consequences. His humorous but hard-hitting reviews, the critical examination of affairs in the oil and gas sector did not appear to go on well with everyone. There was an assassination attempt on his life. I was returning to Lagos after moving to Ibadan for some time and was reconnecting with the Lagos crowd. My meetings at CORA were infrequent as I resettled, so I saw less of Poblisha unless I called him out of the blues, or when he did. So, when the news came out in the papers on March 2015, I read the report of an attempt 8on Poblisha’s life with trepidation. Who wants to kill our Poblisha? I made a few phone calls to ask about it. Emmanuel Iduma, a fellow writer was in conversation with me at the time and we immediately drafted a letter and sent it out to those in the art community to rally around and ask for government protection for him. Poblisha knew what his job—and this did not mean one he woke up to each morning—entailed. He knows the job of gatekeeping, which is the journalism he chose to stick with meant. He carried the burden of his “calling”, as a destined job and talent which was bestowed him and required the telling of the truth which shook people who served others injustice and corruption. He wrote about misappropriation of funds in the oil and gas, ridiculed those who were double-faced, pointed out the projects that were half-done and praised efforts of those who made much doing little. I do not know if this changed him, or influenced him in any way, but I became more aware of the invaluable asset he was and how even from sitting with him and discussing I became renewed.
There is a likelihood that the new Poblisha at 60 is in his carefree nature reflective, thinking over his youthful party days and the many places in Lagos that he painted in bright colours. He is thinking of what happened to his dreams for the arts, but he is still going about with his swift legs to those events, where his friends in the culture industry, still do not know what to do with his carefree and jocular always-reading, always-seeking to know, self.
Jumoke Verissimo, poet, copywriter is on a doctoral programme at Carleton University in Canada.
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”