by admin | March 30, 2016 12:00 pm
She used to go to the National Theatre on Friday afternoons to share a beer with sculptor Bisi ‘Baba’ Fakeye under the mango tree in front of his studio. When Femke van Zeijl recently returned to Iganmu, she found other artists’ workshops in much bleaker circumstances.
When I had just moved to Surulere four years ago, my Friday afternoons with Baba Fakeye were sacred. Whatever I was doing during the week, I would make sure that every Friday at 4 p.m. I’d drive out to the National Theatre to have a cold Star with Baba under the mango tree in front of the Universal Studios of Art. We would watch the egrets poking their beaks in the grass of the meadows surrounding the theatre, see swarms of dragonflies flitting over the marshland further down, and discuss the ripeness of the mangos. We would eat roasted yam with palm oil and he’d buy smoked fish from the baskets that the vendors carried on their heads.
I met Bisi Fakeye, a nephew of the famed sculptor Lamidi Fakeye and a sixth-generation artist of that family, at the Universal Studios of Art while I was still looking for an apartment in Surulere. I was smitten both with his work and with our afternoon chats. Baba would tell me ‘Hurry slowly, Funke,’ when I was doing a million things at once, and he would ask after my mother in the Netherlands as if he’d already met her – which he eventually would.
When his health no longer allowed him to travel all the way from Ikorodu to the studios in Surulere, I also stopped coming. But I cherish the memories of those afternoons with Baba Fakeye at the National Theatre. I remember the art students doing internships coming to greet him before going home for the weekend, and how he had a little joke for every one of them; or his morale-boosting talk with a female aspiring artist: ‘We have plenty male artists around, but you are a woman, you are born to create’; or the little dance of the septuagenarian every time his mobile phone rang, shaking his belly in enjoyment of his Azonto ringtone.
In my view, communities lacking creativity are doomed to implode and life without art is drab, so the artistic environment around the theatre completed Surulere for me.
You can imagine my shock when, at the end of January, I came across the news headlines that artists’ workshops at the National Theatre had been demolished. In my mind’s eye, I saw Baba’s studio and our mango tree crushed by a Caterpillar’s steel claws and all the wood and metal sculptures of the many artists working there razed to the ground. So I went over to find out what happened.
To my relief, it was not Universal Studios of Art that was knocked down. But when I arrived at the Artists’ Village on the other side of the Lagos Light Rail terminal under construction, my relief turned to indignation.
The workshops, dance studios and ateliers occupying the terrain behind the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), were all bulldozed. Some artists were searching for their artworks in the debris of shattered cement blocks, splintered wooden boards, mutilated moulds, wrecked bronzes and fractured carvings. Artist Monday Guobadia had tried to save as much as he could from his workshop, he said, but the Caterpillar did not wait. He showed a wooden rhinoceros that was missing all four legs and its horn, just one of the many dismembered artworks he hadn’t managed to salvage. The workshop, for which he’d sand-filled the foundation himself, had been levelled to the ground. ‘This was my space to work and train young artists,’ he lamented, ‘where am I expected to go now?’
According to coordinator Aremo Babayemi of the Artists’ Village, on Saturday January 23 around six in the morning, a bulldozer accompanied by two truckloads of policemen and General Manager Kabiru Yusuf of the National Theatre entered the NCAC premises. Claiming they were there to remove illegal structures, the demolition started right away. But the workshops and studious of the Artists’ Village, Mr Babayemi said, were built with the knowledge and permission of the federal parastatal NCAC and therefore not unlawful.
You can imagine my shock when, at
the end of January, I came
across the news headlines that
artists’ workshops at the National
Theatre had been demolished
So what had happened?
On a recent end-of-year visit to the National Theatre, Minister for Arts and Culture Lai Mohammed had expressed his displeasure about the illegal shacks along the drainage canal running behind the NCAC terrain. The GM of the National Theatre took this as his cue to clean up the area, but got overzealous and ended up knocking down the Artists’ Village, the very reason tourists and art lovers visit the area in the first place.
Understandably, the artists were livid. The same afternoon of the demolition however, Minister Mohammed returned to the site to assess the damage and promised to assist those affected. About a week later he returned, assuring the artists that out of the ruins would rise ‘a more befitting Artists’ Village’, and also saying the government would do more to develop and promote it. The Minister’s intervention calmed the spirits a bit and some artists now believe something good might come out of all of this.
But the darker side of the drama that happened on that Saturday at the National Theatre still remains to be addressed.
A round bullet hole in the boot lid of the dust-coated black car parked close to the entrance of the NCAC compound serves as a silent witness of the violence that occurred that day. When things got heated, so say the artists who were present, one police officer in mufti reached for his gun. Sculptor Smart Owie, who had rushed to the site to see his two-storey workshop torn down, was shot in the leg as others scrambled for cover behind parked vehicles. To add insult to injury, Mr Owie says he was denied treatment in hospital because he could not show a police report explaining how the bullet ended up in his leg.
Now, in a functioning democracy, when a policeman shoots a civilian, that officer is identified and suspended pending the investigation. In this case, however, nothing of the sort has been done. The only thing Minister Mohammed assured the injured artist of is that he would get ‘the necessary police report to facilitate his treatment’. And that is the saddest part of the already tragic events of Saturday January 23, 2016.
It is almost 39 years ago that a military regime burned down Fela’s Kalakuta Republic and brutalised its occupants, these acts contributing to the death of Fela’s elderly mother. If today authorities in the same Surulere can still shoot at unarmed artists and get away with it, this makes me wonder how much has really changed.
Femke van Zeijl is a Dutch journalist and author living in Surulere. You can find her on Twitter @femkevanzeijl
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