In 30 years, the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) has contributed massively to Nigeria’s art and culture landscape. Toyin Akinosho, the body’s Secretary-General, in this interview unveils its plans for the future while assessing the journey of the last three decades.
How are you commemorating CORA’s 30th anniversary?
Over the years, we have five documentaries that we are doing. We have completed Taiwo Ajai-Lycett’s. We are completing the one on Odia Ofeimun, and we are doing one on Benson Idonije. Work is also ongoing on two others. The idea is to correct things we had let go of in the past, which is not complete documentation of our activities. But then, the point is that there are many significant participants in Nigeria’s cultural evolution that we need to have in the can. We started with Tunde Kelani, but it was a private project. But these other ones, once you are in the age 70, 80 bracket, and you have done something wholly phenomenal, we have to have you documented so that we can use it to balance some of the things we have in the kitty.
As we turn 30, what are the things that have happened in these 30 years?
That these are people that have shaped that period in their way. That’s why that’s happening. In June, we had a conversation about Benson Idonije’s book on Fela and himself. We have the bi-monthly Book Trek from July, which we stopped last year when the pandemic struck. In 2019, we had four Book Treks every month. We had one at Goethe Institut every second Saturday of the month, at Page Bookstore every last Friday of the month, at Freedom Park every third Sunday of the month and Patabah every second Tuesday of the month. The idea was that for any book that was out, the author must have the opportunity of audience engagement. Not for us to wait until the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) when we have the Book Trek and gather authors. That would only be a second thing. But let us get the sense that once you have something out, we can engage you publicly; let there be an opportunity for you. We started doing it in 2019, and we are returning to it in 2021. We start in July, and that will lead to LABAF. Also, for this 30th anniversary year, we are coming with an online publication that Bookartville will carry to start with.
We call it the City Culture Calendar. You can have what you call a guide to what’s happening in Nigerian culture, but that tends to come out once in a blue moon. We want people to have a sense of knowing what will happen in July so that if you’re planning your event, you will avoid a clash. There’s a platform called Bookartville, but it does not equate to CORA, but it will evolve and have its own life. It will ultimately have its own life because we used to do it. It’s part of the thing that would be for our 30th anniversary, and it’s going to be launched during LABAF.
The LABAF theme itself is ‘A Fork in the Road’. You are going on a journey and suddenly come to Oritameta, T-junction. You are wondering which path to take. That’s where Nigeria has found itself, that’s where the world is, and it is books that are responding to these kinds of challenges that we’re interrogating. We’ve assembled about 15 such books, and we will publish that list in the first week of this month, July.
Funding is always difficult for us, but if the pandemic allows, we probably might get one or two writers to show up from wherever they are. For our conversations, the focus is on the book. People read the book and discuss it, but we found out that people are more excited when the author is there. This business of Zoom allows us to be talking to that writer in the Netherlands who has done a book that ties to the theme.
In November, we have everything come together. There might be a small commemoration of our 30th years, but that’s still in conversation. Essentially, we are doing a series of documentaries of people who have been fairly significant producers of the culture we always want to promote. When we say we are ‘Landscapists’, the idea then was we would have robust conversations on things that were lacking in the culture space. We are now shaping to become as much as possible, documenting the trend to determine the gaps. That’s the area we want to focus on, and we are working to see whether we can get a partnership regarding that.
The other thing that I haven’t talked about at all is our youth… What is our role when we call ourselves landscapists, which is opening the eye of people? We are interrogating among ourselves what that learning process would be. Ordinarily, we would have about, say, 400 kids, a thousand kids at the five-day LABAF, and we would mentor them. But mentoring in 2021 has to begin to evolve beyond the mentorship that happened in 1999. We have to be getting to a point where we’re giving people skills to run. If it’s a question of having a relationship with people who are coding, why not? The challenge of Nigeria now is intense poverty. People being educated but not necessarily being able to do things that would deliver for them in the society that we’re evolving into.
When we ask people to come and mentor kids, should we not be ensuring that the things they go with are something they can open businesses with? Not about giving anybody a motorbike or teaching anybody sewing. I listened to EbunFeludu, who runs a vast factory in Badagry that produces coconut butter and a whole range of products. We need that kind of mentorship in a room full of 300 young females who would leave that place not necessarily doing coconut but doing something interesting. So, we are talking to partners, and we will start evolving those kinds of things, first in the book festival and then regularly.
Later this month [July]and August, when we unveil the programmes, we would have got some of the partners we are talking to, especially for this upskilling thing. CORA is for culture, and culture is large. You can do a lot of things with that. That’s the centrepiece of the CORA of the next 30 years.
I was going to say that CORA has recorded several achievements in the last 30 years; what’s next?
That next has to be something big. In 1992 when CORA was primarily just a debate thing, we talked about the kinds of galleries. However, I’ve always said what your space should be like is leaving the upstream and coming farther downstream and ensuring that people are taking stuff from you and developing themselves. We are going to be publishing the City Art Guide because people can see what others are doing. It’s a question of we being the overview of everybody. But that’s one segment. That thing we are doing is opening people up for the skills required of the 21st century, and it’s not just about you being a good dancer alone, a good writer. It might be about how you connect those things and be a producer of knowledge. Those are the kinds of things we are talking to sponsors about. And it’s not me saying this; it’s the Board. Aunty Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Kayode Aderinokun, the Trustees. They hinted at this, and we’ve taken it on board.
30 years of activism, advocacy, illuminating. Has it been worth it?
If it were not for those thoughts formed in the air, if we were not having a conversation in Nigeria of 1991 and talking about galleries that we should have, are those not thoughts that resulted in advocacy that has led to people being somewhere, whether in Canada having the idea that they must do Art-X? I don’t know. The whole idea of talking is essential. You needed to have had those conversations and advocacy for things that are happening today to have occurred. But our focus now will be on youth, and it’s what we are looking for sponsors for. We are talking to a range of people and international institutions.
What’s your assessment of our creative industry?
Right now, we can say that the market is larger than it was 15 years ago, and it’s a work in progress. A whole lot is going on, but when you ask publishers how they are doing when you ask people how they are doing, you are still not seeing that guarantee that the man writing novels is going to bed with a lot of money in his pocket. That is important. You still see many manuscripts that are questionable when you say you want to do a competition. Even when that competition is the Nigeria Prize for Literature or Caine. So, there’s a lot of work to do. The point is that we’ve done quite a bit, but we still have far to go.
For film, there’s still a lot of work to do at the level of production quality, cinema space, investment in the sector, and the same everywhere, including visual art. As I said, the market is growing. I mean, Nigerian galleries now attend elite events abroad, but for a country of 200 million people, it’s like a drop in the ocean. I mean in terms of range, intensity and what you can see in the city. The arts should be transforming the cityscape. Ex-Governor Ambode commissioned a lot of artworks on the street, and a lot of people praised him. A lot of people were worried about the quality or the way they contracted out those things. But I used to think that the fish at Abraham Adesanya was one of the more exciting works. Do you know where it is now? Lying on the floor at the General Hospital. So, it’s difficult to say we have progressed when you still have these characters running the place. It’s not displayed anywhere; it’s just abandoned. So, there’s always work to do and always reporting to do. Reporting allows knowledge to happen, and it’s the basis of opinion.
I know you are interested in publishing too. Vanity publishing has become popular, and established publishers are focusing too on school texts…
There’s nothing wrong with doing school texts. I’m interested in the range of material we are all collectively doing, and I don’t see a wide range. When you get into a bookshop, they should have a situation where they can’t even show you some books. When you say a lot is happening, a Kenyan will come in for two weeks and would then be asking you, is that all? It’s not a lot that Paressia [Publishers], Cassava [Republic Press] are doing. You need 20, 30 more of such publishers and the market is too small. And the market is not just about writers; it’s about literary agents. The chain is too limited; there’s a lot some of us should be doing that we are not doing. We are too limiting; there’s nothing wrong in bringing up a literary agent or marketer. Just the same way people are art dealers. It’s a tiny space.
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