Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Cult of Culture

(Nat and Zack are in the Junction chatting with a third man.)

Nat: So Chike, when are you going to see this exhibition? You sound so passionate about it.

Chike: I'm thinking of going down there this afternoon. I'm very impressed by Obadina's work - they say that he is one of the new wave of artists in Nigeria who is spearheading a new cultural renaissance in the nation. He blends a neo-classicist approach in the depiction of life forms with a realist use of imagery and vivid colour.

Zack (scratching his head): Erm... I'm sure that he must be very good if you say so. So... what are his pictures like?

Chike (in a slightly condescending tone): Zack, you can't just give a description of art like that. You have to experience it... to feel it... to be submerged in it. You have to take in the full visual drama as the various bold strokes and shades of colour engage and interact in a meaningful relationship...

(As Chike is talking, Max enters the Junction, smiling and whistling merrily to himself. As soon as he sees Chike, he stops whistling and rolls his eyes.)

Max (sighing): I see you have once again come to grace our humble abode, O Lord of High Culture. (in mock puzzlement) But what is this you are talking about? "Strokes of colour" being involved in extra-marital affairs with "shades of drama"? Is this a new soap opera or what?

(Chike turns to Max with a wry smile.)

Hello, Max. I can see that your mind remains impervious as ever to the subtle and refining influences of culture. I suppose that it's too much to expect from someone who worships Money as his god.

Max (shrugging): At least with money, I know where I stand. The rules are simple - the more you amass, the happier you are. But this culture that you're always going on and on about? It has no head or tail - we have to come to High Priests like you to educate us.

Nat: I don't think anyone needs Chike to tell them anything. He's enthusiastic about this new artist that he's just discovered, and he was sharing his passion with us, that's all.

Zack: And to be honest, the work he has shown us is quite good. Do you have that brochure, Chike? Show Max.

(Chike brings out a brochure with photos of some paintings and passes it to Max, who flips through the pages, pausing every now and then. He then hands the brochure back to Chike.)

Max: Very interesting... but rather dull, don't you think?

Zack (in astonishment): Dull? Can't you see that colourful picture of the woman cradling her child? Don't you think that's really artistic?

Nat: Or the painting of the sunset at the beach, as the fishermen pull in their catch for the day? Doesn't that take you back to a more carefree earlier age of innocence, when we didn't have all the problems of today?

Chike (gesturing): See, Max? Your friends get it - but as I keep on saying, you are too blinded by the pursuit of the pound and the dash for the dollar to see what I'm trying to tell you.

Max: Oh, I get it all right. I can see that these paintings are calculated - yes, that's the word - calculated to arouse feelings of patriotism and affection for our national culture. But (waves a dismissive hand across) they're all fake! Fake!!

Nat: What do you mean, fake? Explain yourself.

Max (scornfully): These kinds of paintings always dwell on these images of a time gone by, when our culture was relatively untouched by modern life and was supposedly much 'purer'. But who cares about those times? Why do we want to keep on living in the past? I'd like to see more contemporary images!

Nat (smiling): I think Max has a point. I like the paintings... but I think we've been conditioned to accept that there are certain kinds of paintings and sculpture that are culturally authentic in Nigeria. You know... the kind that show drummers, or dancers, or village life... that kind of thing.

Zack: And what is wrong with that? You don't disagree that all these things are part of our culture, do you?

Max (rolling his eyes): But are they the only aspects of our culture out there? I mean, our culture didn't stop in 1925, you know! What about paintings of an okada rider swerving on a potholed road in between two giant trailers? Or of a policeman receiving egunje? Or of people running helter-skelter in the middle of a torrential downpour? Or of goats looking for food in a rubbish dump? Now those I can relate to!

Chike (shaking his head): Those scenes you describe are too mundane. There is no great inspiration to be derived from gazing on a rubbish dump, or potholed roads. The artist seeks to celebrate that which lifts our spirit to the stars, not that which hurls it to the ground.

Max: And who are you to tell me where to get inspiration from? Some of my best ideas have come from looking at fowls and goats as they rummage around rubbish dumps. In fact, the scenes at the rubbish dump where people scavenge for recyclable material are a very suitable metaphor for the current state of Nigeria; wastage, poverty and resourcefulness in spite of it all.

Zack (scornfully): Huh! While most people are inspired by people like Nelson Mandela, monuments like the Statue of Liberty or ideals like Patriotism or Justice, you are inspired by rubbish dumps! Well at least that explains the worthlessness of the thoughts that you sometimes express here.

Nat: But don't dodge the question that Max has been asking since. Who is the final arbiter of culture? Why should I listen to you rather than Max?

Chike (drily): Well, I take more of an interest in these matters than Max. I follow the trends on which artists, cultural norms and styles of art are currently popular; I study exactly what medium these artists use to depict culture, and the motivation behind their work; I meet regularly with other people who follow these issues as well and we exchange information. So who would you trust more to give you an informed opinion on matters of art and culture?

Max: Chike, I'll allow that you are the expert when it comes to 'art'. In fact, you are the Holy Priest of the Religion of Art, complete with all its mumbo-jumbo about adultery between Mr. Red Colour and Mrs. Green Shade. But please do not try to make yourself a priest of a Cult of Culture. When it comes to Nigerian culture, I am infinitely more knowledgeable than you!

Zack: I don't believe that - you don't usually talk much about the various traditions and cultures of Nigeria.

Max: See? This is exactly what I've said already. You seem to have this strange idea that Culture is something special that is kept locked in a box, only to be brought out on special occasions, like when foreign dignitaries come visiting. You seem to feel that we need special experts like Chike to tell us all about culture. Well, you're wrong! Culture is not about holy artefacts - it's what we live, eat and breathe everyday! It's not just about the stereotypical images that the West have of Africa... it's about the good, the bad and the neutral events that we experience in our lives on a day-to-day basis.

Nat: Hmm... So - you're saying that Nigerian culture could include activities like eating in a bukateria? Or boarding a danfo bus? Or being disturbed by an itinerant medicine seller in the bus?

Max: Exactly! or arriving late at a wedding... ...or watching mechanics working in an open air workshop... ...or listening to the choir of generators as the soprano tuke-tuke 950 W generator sings along with the baritone diesel generator...

Nat: ...Or getting frustrated at the slow connection in a cybercafe filled with 419 boys... or being 'wedded' by a bus conductor to another passenger because there's no change for both of you... ...or buying groundnuts from a roadside seller to effect a quick 'divorce'...

Max: ...Or having power supply disrupted just as you're about to iron your clothes for tomorrow... or having the same power supply restored just as you're lying in bed being tormented by mosquitoes...

Nat: ...Or having church service extended by thirty minutes because the pastor had a special message to deliver... or seeing small boys make rams fight each other before being slain on Id-el-Kabir.

Chike: Well, these events may be part of culture - but as I said before, they aren't really worth celebrating in art.

Nat:
This is what Max was accusing you of - trying to create a kind of separate High Culture from ordinary culture. Don't you know that by only celebrating the events that you consider special, you are cutting your art off from the masses? How is someone going to relate to an event which he rarely ever sees?

Zack: That's the whole point. There are many events that we rarely experience, but we still can relate to them. In fact, it is because we don't experience them frequently that we value them even more. And I think it's right that we should celebrate and value events that are special - just as we value clothes that we wear on special occasions too.

Max: Hmm... that gives me an idea... you say that the rarer the event, the more likely it is to be valued?

Zack: Er... what evil idea is about to enter your mind, now?

Max: Oh no, Brother Zachariah, this idea is not evil at all. In fact, I think you'll like it!

Nat: Oh go on, share.

Max: Chike, do you think it would be culturally authentic to produce a realistic painting of Ibrahim Babangida being chased by a pack of wild dogs who have succeeded in ripping the trousers of his babanriga outfit, but are still desperate for more? After all, this would be a very rare event, and I'm sure it would be very highly valued!

(Chike, Nat and Zack burst into laughter.)

Chike: I'm sure it would be highly valued, but I think that is too unserious to be regarded as worthy of an artistic subject.

Zack (vigorously): Nonsense! Since when did art have to be serious? Max, if you know anyone who has painted this picture, please let me know - I would definitely buy it.

Max: See? I knew you would like the idea. But why should I sell it to you when I can sell it to someone else for a much higher price?

Nat: Who do you have in mind?

Max: Babangida himself, of course! The alternative would be to have the picture displayed in a public gallery - not something I think he would be too happy about.

Zack: You know that this your idea has the whiff of blackmail about it.

Max (affronted): Blackmail? Moi? My friend, this is art! I am exploring several themes in this work; the raw expression of fear; the thrill of the chase; and the intense desire to sink teeth into a pair of juicy buttocks. In fact, I'm offended that you even think I'm capable of such a thing. All I would be doing would be giving Babangida the right of first refusal, since he is after all the subject of the work.

Chike (with a wry smile): You know you're not fooling anyone, Max. You really need to set aside this your obsession with money if you're going to learn to appreciate art and culture.

Nat: Speaking about cultural appreciation, you never did tell us when you were going to see this exhibition. Where is it holding again?

Chike: Oh, it's holding at the Excelsior Exhibition Centre.

Zack (suspiciously): Isn't that the centre where they usually charge a N5,000 for admission only? Where only really rich people usually go to for events?

Max (accusingly): And you were criticising me for being obsessed about money. I take it that your artist isn't planning to donate proceeds from his exhibition to the poor, is he? I think the words 'pot', 'kettle' and 'black pigment used in artwork' come to mind...

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