Free Writing: Arts, (Religious) Politics and my Research

A free writing exercise to get back into writing mode after a bit more than a week spent at conferences in London and talking to friends, fellow students and my supervisor ... still constructive criticism and commentaries very much welcome ...

This morning, over my first of many cups of tea, I read Carmen's new blog entry about censorship in Kano, in particular recent moves to ban eleven Hausa songs - and here I quote Abdulaziz Ahmad Abdulazi's blog (an article that was originally published in Leadership newspaper) - from 'listening, sale and circulation' on the grounds that they were 'obscene, confrontational and amoral.' To be honest my research is neither particularly concerned with Kannywood, i.e. the Kano based Hausa (video) film industry nor Hausa music. In fact, I am under the strong impression that the visual art forms I am interested in only constitute a minor afterthought to religious scholars, politicians and the law in Kano. However, it really got me thinking about the relationship between religion, politics, the arts and my own research. – Not that the below does already represent any properly thought through reaction to these events or indeed paragraph/chapter of my PhD. Rather, I just thought I bother you with my raw and random thoughts some of which might or might not end up in the actual thesis, albeit after some further and serious consideration of their actual descriptive and analytical value.

I wouldn’t want to engage in any debate about the alleged/actual subversive or ‘amoral’ character of these songs or even whether censorship actually constitutes an effective means of controlling public/popular debates. I simply don’t know enough about the songs and even during my time in Nigeria have not been engaged with the local film industry or had any particular interest in the activities of the censorship board. Furthermore, as an art historian with a particular interests in contemporary arts, particularly in the region I originally chose to describe as ‘northern Nigeria’ (cf. above disclaimer) my understanding of legal arguments, let alone in Nigeria or a Muslim context, is extremely limited. My engagement with Islam in particular has largely been restricted to literature on Islamic art and the interviews (about the status of art in Islam) with Nigerian sheikhs I conducted in the course of my fieldwork. These things aside, maybe I should in all fairness (as regards your own assessment of my ramblings below) admit to an ingrained suspicion towards truth or rather what politicians of all kinds like to proclaim as all encompassing truths – I’m a child of the 1989 Fall of the Wall in Germany, i.e. eleven years of my life I had been taught (and consequently believed) a communist truth about human relationships that 1989, practically from one day to another, was exposed as nothing more than a misguided phantasm (or ideology if you prefer) and (officially) replaced by another, opposing truth something that - all of you who do not (fully) subscribe to the (over here) currently hegemonic (neo-) liberal/capitalist truth should agree - raises serious questions about the validity of any ideological/political claim to truth. Anyway, now that you should have a rough idea from where I’m coming from (ideologically if you want to call it this way) I’m now going ahead bothering you with some of the thoughts and ideas going through my mind when I read Carmen’s blog.

One of the things it made me think of was the relevance of religion to artistic practices in Kano but also Maiduguri and Zaira, the other two towns where I conducted fieldwork. Carmen is explicitly referring to discourses that consider aspects of contemporary culture - and I am here using the term culture in its broadest sense – in Kano and the wider region in terms of Islam/Islamisation (Dr. Bala Abdullahi Muhammad on ‘Islamization of the Mass Media’ and Idris Zakariya on ‘Journalism in Islam’ both published in the Bayero Beacon that I don’t have access to at the moment) and raises the question of their relevance for recent developments concerning censorship of film and music production in Kano. But as regards my research: Yes, my interest in ‘northern Nigerian’ arts was originally inspired by two comments in the literature on modern Nigerian arts attributing the alleged absence of ‘meaningful’ arts in the north to the supposedly destructive impact of Islam on historical and contemporary art and crafts. In their simplified and generalist nature these comments are of course contradicted by the century long and rich history of Islamic arts elsewhere. And, of course, I repeatedly encountered references to Islam during fieldwork – take for example the absence of sculpture from the curriculum of the Department of Creative Arts at Unimaid which has been explained to me in terms of a religious injunction against (figurative) three-dimensional arts. And, yes, I have been talking to sheikhs based in Kano and Maiduguri (for practical reasons to do with the robbery I have not spoken to any religious scholar in Zaria). And, of course, I do consider some explicitly religious art forms in the course of my thesis writing. But … See, I have two issues here: On the one hand, yes, northern Nigeria and in particular the towns in which I conducted my fieldwork are predominantly Muslim but not exclusively so. Hence, I doubt that a discussion of contemporary artistic practices in Kano, Maiduguri and Zaria exclusively in terms of Islamic arts can adequately account for the variety of art traditions in the region, a significant number of which are based in other or indeed no religious tradition. Here, only think of the significant number of staff and students at the art departments in particular of Unimaid and ABU that are Christians originally hailing from the Middle Belt and even further south. Or, for a moment consider such recent traditions as commercial sign painting, which although occasionally advertising religious organisations and in such cases drawing upon religious imagery, primarily serve profane business needs. Hence, while religious discourses as well as religious arts need to be considered the relationship between different art forms and Islam cannot provide the sole framework for any discussion of contemporary arts in the region.

Of course, Shari’a and other religiously inspired policies do not only affect Muslims living in Kano, Maiduguri and Zaria but local Christians as well – or at least that is what I have made to believe from (private) discussions in the course of my fieldwork. However, from all I understand the visual art forms I am concerned with have only been an afterthought in contemporary socio- and religio-political discourses in the region. Though, if pressed the religious scholars I spoke to as well as some Muslim academics themselves not involved in the arts expressed pronounced and at times strong views about arts. This raises the question to which extent, if at all, I should consider recent religio-political developments in my PhD.

Well, the extent to which Hausa films (and music) have attracted the attention of Kano’s moral and legal authorities might be taken to indicate how particular visual art forms may be drawn into socio- and religio-politial arguments. Nevertheless, Hausa films (music I suspect is a slightly different issue, for unlike material arts the criticism of which appears to be primarily inspired by their association with the alleged hedonism and the resulting negligence of their duties by the pre-jihad Hausa rulers, music has been extensively discussed in Usman d’an Fodio’s writings, cf. Veit Erlman 1986: Music and Islamic Reform in the Early Sokoto Empire. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner) are distinguished from the art forms I primarily engage with in my PhD in several regards. While I don’t think I know enough about Hausa videos and the pattern of their consumption, I suspect that most importantly they have a broader customer base, particularly among the young and women. A painting on canvas for example, whatever its subject might be, appears to be too expensive to purchase for many a potential customer – or at least one conversation I had with my recharge card man (one of the kind and patient people of Kano who patiently listened to my attempts at speaking Hausa) in Kano appears to suggest such: I had bought a painting from the sellers opposite Central Hotel in order to convince one of the traders to assist me with contacts to the artists producing such works and as he expressed his curiosity I showed it to him. He really seemed to like it but when I had told him the price (3500 Naira) I could almost see the calculation running in his head of how many bags of rice and semolina, maybe even servings of suya (for we both loved it) he could have bought with that money. Already this, I suspect should make paintings less of a concern to any worldly or moral authority fearing an art work’s subversive potential. Also, many of the more popular art forms, patronised by larger sections of the community, I am interested in such as lorry or sign painting are – unlike Hausa videos – explicitly aimed at and consumed openly in the public. As such, I assume, that more pronounced mechanisms of self-regulation (or self-censorship if you prefer, though I’m in no position to judge to which extent artists’ and patron’s own beliefs rather than fear of political or moral authorities might be at work here) in accordance with popular or authoritative norms at any given time are operating here. Think for a moment of the use of the Saudi Coat of Arms in lorry painting: Is it not (at one level) communicating that the vehicle’s owner is a professing Muslim and such, by implication, trustworthy business men and partner? The concerns of those involved in the Hausa video industry may then be less concerned with publicly positioning themselves among the community’s righteous in order to promote concerns outside the artistic realm – i.e. arts only as a means to a (communicative, eventually professional) end. – Actually, just a remark on the side and without any intention of drawing direct comparisons to Hausa video arts, I just had to think of public and municipal reactions to different kinds of graffiti over here. For the sake of argument leaving aside important distinctions between, say, simple tagging on the one end of the spectrum and elaborate designs (some of which might actually have been commissioned) on the other end, I am just wondering to which extent the general disregard for this visual art form (if its status as an art form rather than mere scribbling/daubing is acknowledged at all) might be informed by the secrecy in which they are often executed under the cover of night and its original association with youthful rebellion and socially marginalised groups, hence its protest and subversive potential (here, for a moment consider from a predominantly Christian or agnostic/atheist/secular point of view the works of the below mentioned Aerosol Arabic in the UK) – something that stands in stark contrast to the public and, for lack of a better term, domesticated character of many of the northern Nigerian visual art forms I am considering in my thesis. Just thinking about it, maybe a comparison with popular painting and reactions to it in, say, Congo would have been more appropriate here …

In any case think about the excitement about the Danish cartoons a few years back that in fact led to riots, saw the destruction of Churches and a greater loss of lives in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. (cf. for some background on the crisis – sorry for lack of another not too specific or overtly biased source Wikipedia which reproduces the cartoons for the purpose of the illustration of the argument, here for some Western responses and an art critic’s reaction) Hence, visual art forms other than video art that violate moral and religious norms (a friend of mine in Kano framed it in terms of stark disrespect, insult and blasphemy) have the potential not only to attract the attention of legal, political and religious authorities but the (violently expressed) resentment of (sections of) the general public, have the potential to divide communities (here along religious lines). – Of course, any serious analysis of the events needs to consider more carefully than I have done here the socio-political context in which they occurred such as, among others, through which media, by whom and accompanied by which commentary their existence and insulting content was popularised in Nigeria, which sections of the population were actually involved in the protests and the violent excesses in particular, in fact the particular historical situation (locally, regionally, nationally as well as globally) in which they occurred. (sorry, as of yet I haven’t come across a good online analysis focusing on reactions in Nigeria) And, that of course, brings us straight back to the question of politicised religion in Nigeria, of which the reinstatement of Shari’a penal code and associated discourses (in northern as well as southern Nigeria, among Muslims as well as Christians) form an important aspect, and their impact upon artistic practices in the northern Nigerian towns I am concerned with: To which extent do I need to analyse the destruction of sculptural works at the campus of the Federal College of Education consider in these terms? Or asked the other way around: To which extent has the enclosed space that is the campus allowed artistic expressions scorned upon or self-censored in the more public spaces in which sign and lorry painters operate and has the fact that they were located in such a rather exclusive space contributed to the impression that they were in some sense illegitimate and, eventually their destruction? Similar questions could be asked with regard to the destruction of figurative roundabout sculptures in Maiduguri: Most importantly, to which extent did they constitute more than violations of an Islamic injunction against naturalistic depictions of living beings but also of previous suppression of discontent or probably control over public spaces by military governors?

I really wonder where that all leaves the more academia based practices such as painting or sculpture on a more general level. Obviously, there is the religious injunction against the ‘re-creation’ (isn’t this rather than ‘mere’ depiction the issue at heart of the religious argument? pls. correct me if I’m wrong) of ensouled (does such a term exist?) beings by artistic means that variously interpreted prohibits naturalistic representations of living beings in two- or/and three-dimensional arts. Then there is their exclusivity by which I mean that they are largely produced by artists trained at academic art departments which only admit certain sections of the population (as a completed primary and secondary school education is required) in itself operate within the confines of the enclosed spaces that are Nigerian university and college campuses, the enclosed and exclusive spaces such as the campuses, the History and Culture Bureau, the British Council or more recently the Goethe Institute (the latter three in Kano) as well as the (in relation to the average Nigerian’s income) high asking prices. At the same time discourses that in Europe link certain art forms with education and intellectual sophistication do not appear to be particularly influential in the Nigerian context, as such predominantly academic art forms such as painting on canvas or (abstract) sculpture cannot serve the important function as status symbols. With all these different factors at play, which role does the socio-religious context, to which extent do I need to consider the possible role played by recent religious politics in the towns I am concerned with?

For the moment these are all just questions I am asking, questions about if and how to consider the religious or religio-political dimension in my analysis of contemporary arts. This is me, somebody who I explained early is naturally suspicious of all-encompassing explanations of any kind, wondering to which here strictly speaking non-religious issues are being voiced using religious/Islamic terminology and how to account for this in my PhD. See, part of the problem is that I’m ‘just’ an art historian and that mine is a doctorate in art history not politics or even anthropology. Another big part is that my knowledge and grasp of contemporary Nigerian (religious) politics is naturally limited. When I write naturally I mean that not in terms of facts and opinion that I can read up about but the fact … well, simply speaking I am an outsider. One year in Nigeria, even more a year immersed in my own research-related and private battles, does not qualify me for any comprehensive political analysis, even less so of issues related to religious issues, Shari’a among others. But then, can I really ignore them? Carmen’s blog just reminded me that probably not. But can I make them the pre-dominant framework of my analysis. I don’t think so either. But then … How do I get around, or is there any way to get around, allegations of being biased? – And I have already have that in the past …

Do I yet have any solution? No. Otherwise I would be writing my chapter instead of bothering you with my ramblings, the results of what's more of a free writing exercise, a means of clarifying my thoughts than academic writing ... though hopefully that's what it will lead to, eventually.


  1. Hmmm... Katrin, there's a lot here I'll need to digest before I can respond in any sort of substantial way to the actual questions (which I know were mostly rhetorical brainstorm); however I wonder where you would fit the paintings on the covers of Hausa novels into this? I think you spoke with Gidan Dabino before you left. I just saw him yesterday with this exquisite little painting for the cover of his latest book--a play. I got the number of the artist if you are ever interested in talking to him. I don't know very much about the artists who paint covers for the novels, but I don't get the impression they are formally trained in institutions or that their art is considered particularly elite. (I could be wrong.) However, I wonder how much the popular consumption of the novels--ie which novels are popular--balances between the popularity of the authors (which I know contributes a great deal) and how much might be based on the attractiveness of the cover (maybe not a lot). I don't quite know where this would fit into the larger questions about morality and art in Northern Nigeria. On the one hand the paintings are quite functional--serving as book covers. On the other hand, they can sometimes be part of the controversy. Graham Furniss notes in his article “Video and the Hausa Novella in Nigeria.” Social Identities. 11:2
    (March 2005): 89-112 (I haven't looked it up so I could be confusing this article with one of Abdalla Adamu's works) that the public figure of the couple on the covers of the books were part of the controversy. There's also the concern pointed out by Brian Larkin and Abdalla Adamu that the paintings (or photographs) on the covers are of Indian or Arab women and therefore "not our culture." Many books have been burned in public ceremonies sponsored by the censorship board and A Daidai ta Sahu, alongside films, and I had always assumed it had more to do with the *assumed* content of the books than the covers. But I wonder if the covers might have something to do with it...?

    Anyway, just another brainstorm for you that might or might not be helpful. Allah ya ba da sa'a!

  2. Carmen, na gode …

    Hmmmm, Hausa novels or rather their illustrations (sometimes the texts themselves are illustrated as well, ko? Though I can assess how common that actually is) are a good point in fact. Well, I’ve certainly not thought of them when I mentioned rather academic/elite practices but you’re right, I should possibly consider them as an example … but rather under popular discourses/practices because I suspect that what they have in common with lorry art or sign painting would be that they serve a communicative/economic purpose, i.e. are functional. My belly feeling would be with you here, that the book burning was rather concerned with the allegedly amoral contents and that, if at all, the cover arts were drawn into ‘religious’ discourses through the novels rather than the other way around. In any case, the feared subversive potential of the novels would certainly be higher than of the illustrations or other (representative) art forms. I spoke to Ahmad Ado of Gidan Dabino before I left and mentioned that rather than the illustrations themselves (for they are two-dimensional and most people don’t seem to see a problem here) it was the depiction of women, or rather the way they were dressed etc. that had drawn criticism from legal and moral authorities … I guess the argument is somewhere along the lines of Prof. Abdalla’s for depiction of women in the videos that a women might be depicted in a private setting but through the context of the cover is drawn into the public realm and, hence, should be covered accordingly. That’s at least how I understood Ahmad Ado.

    Just one word on the background of the artists – the one I know personally is a (soon to be?) graduate of the Department of Art and Industrial Design at Kano State Polytechnic. (He’s been on the British Council Project as well) But yes, when I come back I’d like to talk to the other one as well. - Not sure how much space I will accord it in my thesis, after all its ‘only’ 100.000 words and I got quite a bit of material about lorry painting as a popular practice and – most importantly, I need my draft standing my September and hand in some time around the end of the year to fulfil the conditions of my grant … But I’ve been thinking that there is more than enough material for some articles.

    P.S. Thanks for the literature hint: just downloaded Graham Furniss’ article and maybe next time I’m in London I’ll try to talk to him about that. Like I need to talk to Murray Last about the religious posters …


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