What is the role of European culture institutions in Africa today? – Nadine Siegert, Director Goethe Institut Lagos.

Nadine Siegert is a bubbly character with a ready smile. She has just arrived Lagos as the new Director of the Goethe Institut, the German cultural establishment. In this interview with Toni Kan, Ms. Siegert who holds a PhD from the university of Bayreuth talks about her life before the Institut, how she found herself in Lagos, what her plans are as Director and a piece of advice she received in Anambra state.

Toni Kan: You have a PhD in Art Studies? What was your first degree?

Nadie Siegert: Anthropology and my masters too was in Anthropology and then PhD is called Art Studies Africa. It’s not artistry, it’s more like Arts. I studied in Mainz , it’s next to Frankfurt. I studied Anthropology there focusing on popular African music and dance. I was working in a music archive for a while

TK: What year was this? Your Bachelors or your Masters?

NS: That was between 96 and 2003. Just my masters. Yeah. And then I went to Bayreuth during my PhD which was on Angola, contemporary art in Angola. So I spent a lot of time in Rwanda which would have been my second choice. It was Lagos or Rwanda.

TK: So what did you do after your PhD? What were you doing before Goethe?

NS: I was at IwalewaHaus for ten years. I was first an assistant doing my PhD and then I was the Deputy Director for six years

TK: So you did research and stuff, yeah?

NS: Yes. And before that I was in Mainz. So the longest time I have spent outside was in Bayreuth, imagine that.

TK: IwalewaHaus is popular in the arts and culture circles. Tell us a little about it.

NS: IwalewaHaus founded by Ulli Beier at the university of Bayreuth when he came back to Germany after living in Nigeria for a long time. He actually left when he was a boy of just nine in the 1930s because his family had to emigrate due to their Jewish background and he came to Germany once in a while but he never lived there before he came back. And then they were looking for a name for this place Roland Abiodun said it should be called IwalewaHaus and since then it was called that. And when Katarina and I met at the university of Bayreuth and began talking about setting up a publishing business our initial idea was that we wanted to do it as a university press. So we approached our university president and he said since you both work at IwalewaHaus, you can imagine that there will be a huge interest from artists and writers and curators to publish with IwalewaHaus, which is actually the case or was the case. And then we thought it’s quite smart to give it the same name so that people who know the haus and its history, especially Nigerian artists, can connect to it. But then I left the place and Katarina is also like…I’m sure she’s not staying for much longer because things are not clear at the moment in terms of leadership and all of that at IwalewaHaus. This is where I say this is my story, my interpretation.

TK: IwalewaHaus or Iwalewa Publishing?


NS: IwalewaHaus. I think it has a certain… maybe destiny is too much… It has a reason why it’s there and at the moment I fear it’s not fully realised. It has to do with the university system and how things are done and…

TK: I understand, too much bureaucracy

NS: Yes and also not enough courage and not enough commitment, maybe that’s the right word.

TK: How long have you been with Goethe Institut?

NS: Two years only

TK: All your time with Goethe is just two years?

NS: Yeah. I was in Johannesburg for one and a half and I was in Kigali, Rwanda for four months relieving a colleague who was on maternity leave.

TK: So how did you come to Lagos? Did you apply or they appointed you?

NS: At the Goethe-Institut, we have, as you know, a rotation concept. So every five years you are supposed to go to another position. So I had been in Johannesburg for only two years when the rotation came up and I saw Lagos was on it and I saw, like, no you can’t apply yet because you have been here for only two years. Then two months later, the call went out again for Lagos because nobody, not a single person, applied for Lagos. Nobody wanted to go.

TK: Really? I’m heartbroken

NS: I mean they all want to go to Washington, to London, to Brussels.

TK: Really? Lagos is where you have fun.

NS: I don’t understand that to be honest but hmm…

TK: Are you serious? No one applied to come to Lagos

NS: Yeah. Nobody applied. Nobody. And then the call went out again and I asked my boss, I said like, Klaus do you think that I should apply for Lagos, because you know my background, IwalewaHaus, all of that and Nigerian art. And he said, actually you haven’t stayed long enough but just try it. I mean. And for this second call, there were two applications, myself and another person, and then they saw my CV and of course.

TK: They gave it to you. Congrats

NS: Thank you.

Man: So how well do you know Lagos? You’ve been to Nigeria before now?

NS: I had been in Nigeria for three times before now. The first was in Nsukka in 2012 or 14. There was a conference on the legacy of El Anatsui, Uche Okeke So that was my first time being here in Nigeria. I was here maybe four years ago for a workshop at the CCA and then again in 2019, I think, when we travelled with Ijeoma and Salma to Nimo to visit Isele. And this was so funny because I was kind of introduced a bit in this place to the culture and there was the festival, Uli Day. Anambra State TV was there and suddenly I was in the first row in front of the dancers and they had given me like this fan and I didn’t know what to do. It was really embarrassing because I was laughing so hard. I was laughing so hard that I was crying… They were thinking I was crying for real and they were like, what’s wrong and I said nothing. And then Kaego Uche Okeke said something very important to me which made me go like wow. She said, you know what, “just walk majestically” and I was like wow. Now, whenever I’m like insecure I remember that advice and I say to myself – just walk majestically.

TK: Let’s talk a bit more about Iwalewa books and how you will wear two hats basically as Director and Publisher. How does the business run and will there be conflict of interest?

NS: We’re completely independent. When we realised that we were actually not doing the University press anymore and were starting Iwalewa books, we thought should we give it another name and we talked a lot with people and then we decided that no we stay with it because Iwalewa, as you know much better than me, is a concept that lives by itself. It has nothing to do with the house in Bayreuth. It’s a concept. It’s an ideology. It’s an idea. It’s has meaning… And there are lots of people in the world who connect with that concept but they do not connect necessarily to this place in Germany. So we thought it’s actually okay to stay with this name, even if it’s not connected anymore directly to the place in Germany. But of course, we still do projects with them if they want.

TK: So how do you fund your business?

NS: You are asking very good questions. We are yet to learn how to become business women because we are both coming from the academic world, so we never learned really to run a business. So that’s something that we are learning right now; how to do proper book keeping and how to actually start thinking about revenues and everything. We are lucky that most of our books are still subsidized by foundations, universities. So most of the time we have enough funds to realise the books like we have with the Yoruba book, for example, where the money came from the Goethe-Institut. There are some book projects that we are so keen to do and we do not have enough funding so we cross finance it with other projects. Sometimes that works. In Ndidi Dike’s case, for example, she is super good in fund raising, so she went to her collectors and said like (snaps fingers) and it worked pretty well. There are very different ways to fund raise but at the moment I would say we are not really yet a business. We are more a subsidized publishing house that lives mostly from foundations and universities. But of course, in the future we see ourselves becoming more successful with the business part. But this is something where we still need a lot to learn about because… and on the other side we both have full time jobs. So I do that in the evenings and on the weekends. Maybe I should do an MBA or something to actually learn what it means to run a business.

TK: When did you start the book company? What year?

NS: Our founding year is 2018, so we are three years now. We are still babies in a way

TK: How large is your catalogue?

NS: How many books, you mean? We have, I think, 8 or 9 already. Not bad for three years.

TK: That’s not bad at all

NS: And the quality I think it’s getting better. We are very good in editing, we are very good in networking, connecting. So these are our assets, I would say. And the things that we lack include distribution, marketing, fundraising, like not saying fundraising but more like really the business side of it.

TK: So, now as Director of Goethe how will you avoid conflict with Iwalewa?

NS: The first thing I have to do is always to speak out, to be aware which role I’m actually playing. Like at the moment, I’m mixing but I’m speaking more from the publishing side.

TK: You have a life too apart from being director

NS: Yes. Yes. Sure. I mean I’ll always try to be very transparent when someone is approaching me like with a publication project. I have to be clear are they speaking to me as Goethe or as Iwalewa or if they don’t know then I have to clarify that. What I will not be able to do is making books out of the Goethe projects. If that’s the case I have to find another partner and say look this is.

TK: Another publishing partner?

 NS: Either that or like a second… my idea would be having a second publisher, like a co-production between the publisher and IwAlewa books. Then I can put Goethe money into it. But I cannot put Goethe money into it if it’s just Iwalewa books. That would be absolutely… that would be…

TK: Yeah, conflict of interest

NS: That would not be good, I mean

TK: What are your plans for Lagos? What are your interests in Nigeria? What do you want to do as Director?

NS: I want to, first of all, do some relevant work meaning supporting the culture scene but also trying to understand what the role of a culture institution from Europe is in our days when it’s all about restitution, repatriation, decolonisation. How can we still have cultural institutions from Europe in that space? What is our role? What is our relevance? This is what I want to understand and trying to support processes that have to do with decolonisation. I mean the Benin bronzes from Germany are coming next year, I hope. So what is the role of the Goethe-Institut there? I would love to support and by support I mean like for example with a discourse. Like, I’m not the one who is doing this diplomatic job. I would love to frame it, maybe, with some opinion pieces or something like that. The questions like, where should these bronzes go to; to the palace, to the museum, to Lagos or to Benin? You know tackle these questions to discuss that with people who have something to say about it. This is one thing and of course there is more. There is not only the Benin bronzes there’s much more in that regard and to connect with the things like what happens now with the great thinkers from the past and the future. Not like, I mean, the generation to come, what is happening now but also going back to the 50s and 60s when big things happened already and kind of connected to that. These are things I have in mind at the moment. Because this is what I actually learned in South Africa, that it’s not only about the arts, as such it’s also about building the infrastructure for that. Capacity building in terms of publishing, of writing, good journalism, what does that mean? Giving spaces to see what the role of the Goethe-Institut could be there, in supporting like also not only the artist but also the whole value chain around it. That’s something I would love to do.

TK: Welcome to Nigeria

NS: Thank you

TK: And I hope you enjoy it

NS: I will.

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