On the National Gallery Bill and Conceptualisations of 'Modern' and Contemporary
Apologies for a largely derivative post. But sometimes you open your inbox and stumble across a link to an interesting or important article that you just want to share. That’s what happened today. Twice. So, here you go:
(1) Update on the Bill For An Act To Repeal and Re-Enact The National Gallery of Art Act.
I’ve recently linked to Chika Okeke’s blog where he had posted (and skeptically commented upon) sections of the new law on the National Gallery of Arts currently under consideration in Nigeria. The full bill is not yet available online anywhere. It is listed in the online repository of the National Assembly for 2003. Assumingly because it has not yet been passed, it is not available in pdf format like other bills in the repository. I can’t find any mention of it in the 4 November documented published in the Votings and Proceedings either, so maybe transcripts of public hearings are not published there. Anyway, Chukka Nnabuife of Compass Newspaper published the following report on the public hearing of the proposed bill.
Tuesday, 16 November 2010 00:00 Chuka Nnabuife
IF only the crave for territories and rave over authority in the visual arts community will calm down, wisdom and sense of collective mission will make the sector get the new law on the National Gallery of Art (NGA), now on advanced stage in the National Assembly. The House of Representative has shown willingnes to pass the Bill on the condition that within two weeks the community will propose a common goal. But time is ticking fast and the weeks given to the sector to harmonise her position remains just some days with no sign of a common position acceptable to all interest groups on the proposed law. And the loss will be substantial to government and practitioners if they fail to get the policy.
On Thursday, November 4, the joint committee on Culture and Tourism and Justice of the House of Representative held a Public Hearing and Call for Memoranda session on the Hon. Tunde Akogun proposed policy titled, A Bill For An Act To Repeal and Re-Enact The National Gallery of Art Act, Cap. N41 Laws Of The Federation Of Nigeria 2004 And For Other Related Matters, 2009.
The Bill seeks “to repeal and re-proclaim the laws” establishing the NGA. Among other provisions, it proposes: The “ Establishment of the National Gallery of Art” edifice and organisation in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; Endowment Fund for the Visual Arts; a law to institute an Embellishment Committee under the headship of the director-general of NGA with the responsibility of embellishing public buildings and structures with Nigerian visual art works; and the payment of five per cent royalties to original artists for every art work sold by a third party, and many crucial issues.
The public hearing chaired by the Chairman of House Committee on Culture and Tourism, Chief K.G.B. Oguakwa (PDP Enugu) began at about 12.40pm in Hall 028, House of Representatives New Building in the National Assembly Complex, Abuja with such legislators as Mrs. Elizabeth Ogbaga, Mr. Samaila Ahmad, Dr. Sokonte Davies, Mr. Kolawole Akanmu among others in attendance. The session marked by robust discourse on the state of visual arts practice in Nigeria was attended by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Alhaji Sadiq Mohammed, art connoisseurs, several generation of artists, collectors of art, art gallery owners, officials as well as current and former helmsmen of NGA, legal practitioners from the Nigerian Law Review Commission, representative of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), legal practitioners in the employment of such organisations in the culture ministry as the National Troupe of Nigeria, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, National Council for Arts and Culture, senior art journalists and a former minister of National Planning. Beyond the artists’ body, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) which had official delegations from such zones as south west, north central, north west, south east and south south there were representatives of such interest groups as the Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN) and the Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON).
Addressing the gathering which he described as and “impressive” large turn-out of people who know how important the arts is to Nigeria’s economy to mark the opening of the session.
Chief Oguakwa noted that the essence of the public hearing was more to feel the pulse of stakeholders in the art community on the proposed law and appraise its necessity than to dot on the technicalities, which he said the legal officers of the legislative house should bother about.
Two memoranda by NGA and the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) were presented to the joint committee. While the memo by NGA which was presented to the committee by the culture minister was a edited version of the original bill it had earlier filed to the House under its now-embattled director-general, Chief Joe Musa, who is on suspension pending determination of an Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) charge in an Abuja high court, the one by SNA was served the legislators by the body’s President, Mr. Uwa Usen who also addressed the Assembly on artists’ stance after the Culture Minister had made his address.
From the comments of all the practitioners, administrators and enthusiasts of the sector present, there was a general zeal for the fruition of the Bill. Like the NGA, SNA wanted the existence of a national endowment fund for the visual arts. They both wanted royalties to be paid to artists when their works are resold. Similarly, there was a general enthusiasm for all contracts for public buildings and structures by the federal government to set aside five per cent for authentic and standard art commissions. Also, the artists wanted the establishment of an institution that will serve as the Nigerian artists’ registry, just as the NGA wanted.
But the area of difference was largely, control.
Based on that thrust and on the level of their involvement in the affairs of an agency they deem their lone handle in state government, the artists’ ire was raised by several issues. Among such was whether the NGA should have the authority to register and give numbers of identification to professionals did not go down well with artists, some of who deemed it a form of government control of the creative industry and a reawakening of art under the defunct communist Soviet Union. Their argument was that an artists’ registry, if what obtains in such fields as the health, legal, architectural, accounting engineering and other professions, should be used as benchmarks it should be the joint responsibility of the government and the professional body to establish such registry which only outstanding members of the profession should run. So, even if NGA establishes the registry, it should be operated by artists to oversee standard and due membership in the field of practice. The debate prompted a member of the House of Representative’s Culture and Tourism Committee, Hon. Davies (PDP Rivers) to suggest that the artists’ body proposes a bill for the establishment of an art institute so as to avert future disregard of the professional status of their field.
The artists also expressed the worry that almost all the committees proposed in the bill, including those for embellishment and visual arts fund will be ‘populated’ by non-artists and members of staff of the NGA with Gallery’s director-general as chairman with the power to hire and fire. While telling the house that the proposed bodies should duly have more artists or people with well known art backgrounds in dominant number, “since we are talking about artists’ affairs and things that concern their profession” noted Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, the practitioners also wondered why the government which touts democracy and equitable representation of all interest groups should bare the core stakeholders from having real voice, if not control, and remarkable representation in their own industry. Frowning that in even the governing board of NGA as in all other groups in the Gallery only a slot is set aside for the artists – same number of membership as the gallery owners, architects among others. According to the artists, there are fears that the Gallery is more comfortable in encouraging, promoting and sponsoring the causes of bodies such as those of art businessmen against prompting the core practitioners – artists whose SNA the NGA has stopped its subventions. The development prompted members of the legislature and a representative of NBA to ask if such organisations as the Art Gallery Owners’ Association of Nigeria which is mentioned as member in most of the committees is recognised by law. As Chief Oguakwa warned against recognising non-legal entities and not doing things that will give local and international advantage to the Nigerian artist.
The artists also wanted the bill to state that the director-general of NGA should be an artist while the President of the Nigeria, whom it is his prerogative to appoint the chairman of the governing board of NGA, should be urged to appoint a person who “has a known pedigree and background in the arts” to the political position. But the legislators told the SNA that they have no power to tell the President what to do and whom to give appointments.
There was also the explanation by NGA that the planned legal instrument which requires clarification and written permit from it for any piece of modern art being taken out of Nigeria is as a result of an existing law which the National Museum has been relying on to check the cross-border movement of antiquities. But veteran artist, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, told the House that the law has been abused by culture workers and security agents at the ports to squeeze artists and their duely authorised patrons whenever they head abroad with art works. “They ask for permit for everything, not minding whether it is antiquity or modern art work. And if you don’t have it you are in trouble... in fact, Mister Chairman, we are suufering, the Nigerian artists are suffering, a lot, in many ways,” Onobrakpeya told the legislators.
The worry of NGA is the unpredictability of SNA, especially, the artists body’s leadership. On the eve of the House of Representatives’ hearing, NGA had, at its headquarters in at Codestral Zone, Utako District, Abuja hosted an overnight meeting attended by the Federal Director of Culture, Mr George Ufot; President of SNA, Uwa Usen; Prof. Tonie Okpe; the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria’s associate professor of fine arts (painting) Sani Mu’azu, Chairman of the Board of NGA, Mr. Peter Eze, first D-G of NGA, Dr. Paul Chike Dike; photographer, Mr. Tam Fiofori; president of Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN), Chief Frank Okonta; Chuka Nnabuife; Mr. Ajeene Isegbe; Mr. Tajudeen Sowole; Mr. Cornel Agim; Mr. Gofor of the Federal College of Education, Pankshin, Plateau state and such departmental heads in the staff of NGA as, Mr. Titus Akusu; Mr. Simon Ikpakronyi; Mr. A.T. Ibrahim and the head of its legal unit where the document was gone through. Such invited artists as the septuagenarian, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya (who was in Abuja) and Ms. Ndidi Dike did not attend the NGA’s night meeting. Though the President of SNA did not stay up to 30 minutes in the over four-hour meeting (taking permission to go and attend another meeting which the artists held all-through same night in Beverly Hills Hotel, Wuse 2, Abuja), the meeting at NGA dotted through the proposed bill. And those in attendance suggested corrections which were contained in the document NGA sent to the House the next day.
As evident in the public hearing eve’s forum, some influential voices in the government agency also feel there is a dart of artists with requisite administrative experience hence the move to ensure that people with good grounding in gallery administration get into or head vital organs in the sector. There is also the notion that, globally, the running of institutions in the arts sector has grown beyond the bohemian tendencies and the characteristic informality of practitioners in the creativity industry. This notion is used to reinforce the argument for government-controlled registry of artists and more non artists in committees and boards.
But artists get irked the more such arguments are thrown up. For example at the public hearing, one of the legal practitioners, representing MBA, advanced the need for “at least two” legal practitioners in the committee for embellishment and an art critic, in an emphatic persuasive manner asked the legislators: “When we listen to our friend the legal practitioner argue for more lawyers in an art committee we can understand because he is making a strong case, passionately, for members of his profession. He wants them to have more jobs to do and more food for their families. Which is right. But lets ponder this, when it comes to legal matters, we want legal professionals to take charge. On health matters, we want health professionals. On engineering issues, we want engineers... and so it goes for every other field. But why is it different for artists? Are we implying that artists cannot manage their affairs or that there are no Nigerians in the field who have enough knowledge or track records to offer direction in the field? How can that be true?”
The hall went silent for a while then Oguakwa, a professional legal practitioner though with a pedigree in the arts before going into politics, spoke. “That is why we are here. When we talk about dividends of democracy, this is what we mean. We want everybody, in every sector to feel the impact of democracy in his sector and in his or her life... So we want artists to go home and harmonise the areas we have freckles in this bill and come back here with a consensus on what we can do to lift this sector. Our desire here is not just to have good laws but to ensure that there is a system that empowers and encourages the Nigerian artist to excell and have regular ways to make money from his work,” Oguakwa said.
He therefore urged NGA to convene a committee involving stakeholders in the industry as well as art critics and representatives of the legal review group and MBA. He gave the body two weeks to arrive at a common ground and “bring it to the House” for the final lap of the clearing procedure. “I will like to attend the committee’s meetings if you invite me... and I want you to do the work quickly because time is not on our side, this is election period, very soon we may not have enough people here. So we have to wrap up this thing and get it done with, quickly. We really want to pass this bill. But it is up to you to make it happen in this legislative season. And I will repeat, the time we have is short, you have to take this as an urgent national assignment so that we can also help you,” said Oguakwa.
Other contributors on the state of the visual arts scene, during the hearing including Nnabuife, Okpe, Ajeene, Frofori, Mr Oliver Enwonwu, Prof. Jerry Buhari, Mr. Abiodun Olaku, Rev. Bunmi Babatunde, and Dike, Musa among others. Through the offerings came more issues. Matters of definition such as the when the Nigerian modern began and what qualifies one to be called a professional artist also came to fore. Hence the chairman of the joint session re-stressed the need for thorough work and wisdom by the committee, which as at press time, is yet to be convened, to offer solutions to all that, within the fortnight period.
(2) A Nigerian Perspective on Conceptualisations of ‘Modern’ and ‘Contemporary’ in Art Historical Writing.
On a different but not completely unrelated note, let me also point you to Frank Ugiomoh’s discussion in today’s Compass Newspaper about the terminology ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ in Nigerian art historical writing. When I was in Nigeria I realized that there are a variety of academic terms that carry different significances and connotations in British and Nigerian academic, let alone popular use. I was severely told off for using the term ‘local’ to discuss artistic practices in relation to their particular ‘locations’ as the term appears to imply a sense of ‘backwardness’ in the Nigerian context I had not intended at all. Equally, I was left with the impression that me and my Nigerian counterparts meant different things when we used the terms ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary,’ that in particular ‘modern’ carried a more particular connotation in the writing of Nigerian art histories. Unfortunately I cannot recall the exact context in which I got this impression but I am pretty grateful to have one more Nigerian voice to refer to in my reflections of my own use of the terminology – even more so as Frank Ugiomoh critically reflects on the very same academic discourses that inform some of my academic vocabulary, John Picton having been the original reason I came to SOAS.
Tuesday, 16 November 2010 00:00 Nigerian Compass
Artist and scholar, FRANK UGIOMOH offers a thought-line on the vexed issue of when Nigerian modern art began:
A contention exists currently regarding the status of the words “modern” and “contemporary” in reference to Nigerian art history. This contention is layered by conventions of appropriations and or adoptions that are historical in nature. In this brief write up I aim to review these terms, the history they betray and offer advice on their relevance in defining historical time.
The applications of these terms in art history have largely been context dependent. My interest in engaging this topic arises from the debate at the presentation of the amended National Gallery of Art (NGA) bill on modern art and artists now before the National Assembly. From information I have gathered the proposal put forward at a recent presentation of the bill regarding the determination of a modern period for Nigerian art was inchoate. While the exact date of the modern and the contemporary are in conflict regarding their time value, there are also problems that inflect their meaning and status.
In the book which Uche Okeke published in 1982 entitled Art in Development: A Nigerian Perspective, he engaged the issue of periodization in Nigerian art. Okeke’s periodisation schema recognises the following; “the traditional,” “the colonial or the transitional” and “the independent or modern.” Osa Egonwa creates the distinction between the “contemporary” and “modern” also within the context of artistic production in the past millennium. These initiatives are at root hazy in the understanding they provide. What Okeke recognizes as “transitional” is what Egonwa tags “modern.” For John Picton a modern period for African art dates from 1500AD to present. His rationale is that the 16th century contacts between Africa and Europe impacted on the cultural institutions of Africa South of the Sahara begetting new identities. Picton’s schema reverses the claim by Europe that denies progression in African visual arts by insisting that two periods “traditional” and “contemporary” govern it. As he argues “a European-American narrowing of just what art is, or rather just what we can include within the idea of ‘art’” does not work “art-historically” as far as African art is concerned. Picton’s format for African visual arts, an essentially Eurocentric – ancient, medieval and modern, has a depth of time, which though contingent, speaks adequately to history’s own agenda as a narrative science that values distinct delineations of time. Its definition of a “modern consciousness” is hinged on the element of newness, as it is also a product of natural synthesis.
Are these scholars wrong? No, they are not. This is because in the study of how periods are constructed in art historiography (and general history) it is observed that there are no directives or rules for the correct proportion of the extent or length of periods as they stand against each other including their number. Periodistion is then generally regarded as aesthetic because laws do not govern its propositions. The historian is at liberty in his/her propositions and the justifications that follow. But periodisation forms the bed rock of history as practice and it is usually inspired by subject-matter.
The word “modern, according to Picton, addresses “the here and now.” This is why also every age is a “modern” that invariably recedes in history to be given another name depending on the subject-matter that becomes its known baggage. At the Enlightenment in Europe the western man canonized himself the modern man, with the rest of humanity still living in traditional and primitive states of being (not even culture). To have appropriated the term modern was tantamount to expropriating mankind’s collective property. Reading western literature one often finds reference to Africa as a modernising culture. Simple arrogance! The structures that allowed for that appropriation in Europe and which it has held unto embarrassingly, recently in the 1970s, led to an internal revolt in the Western humanities. As a result, noticed newness or novelty produced by its modernization process, different from what led to the claim to modernism, is responsible for the proclamation of a post-modern consciousness in Europe and America. For some others, especially in cultural history there is a return to the term “contemporary” because of the dislike for the term postmodern. Thus many contemporary terminologies of cultural history in current usage are dialectical as they are equally prompted by protest.
But how do these terms stand in the understanding of current art practices and the label we should give them in Nigeria? The word modern, without doubt, stands for the ‘new’ while the word contemporary stands for an “eternal now” that recognises diverse temporalities coexisting together. The Encarta Dictionary has three relevant entries for the word contemporary: i, dating from same period of time as something else; ii, in existence now; and iii, approximately the same age as somebody else. For the word modern it has these two relevant entries: i, belonging to the present period in history; and ii, of the latest kind. Theodor Ardono in the book Aesthetic Theory, for an art work to be declared modern it must be seen not only to address the signs of its time, also new technologies of the time should be part of the process of its making.
Properly understood, both words – modern and contemporary - are of transient relationship in art history. However, the word “modern” is more appropriate when defining what is new. On the other hand, the word contemporary does not concretely address particularities but complementariness of co-existing identities in time. In structuring the periods “traditional” and “contemporary” for the art history of Africa by western cultural institutions the idea remains to deny African art history definable historical identities. Both words traditional and contemporary are reductive and unhistorical. They are designed to over simplify the complexities the under gird the richness African art and its cultures have to show off. I have refused to patronize such words as an art historian.
I rather join with the likes of John Picton and Elizabeth Harney to proclaim a modern consciousness for Nigerian art. The point of take off for me tallies with Tam Fiofori’s recognition of the eminent professional photographer of Nigerian nativity Jonathan Adagogo Green (1874 – 1905) whose tool then and compositional skill remain overwhelming. As a consequence, the period begins with Mr. Green and terminates at the present time. Remember history is a contingent construction of meaning and it is revaluated as new facts emerge. I suggest that this should guide the Society of Nigerian Artists in fixing a time frame for modern Nigerian art in its submission. In periodology it is recognized that the modern is always loaded with many undigested and un-milled facts. When in a future time the true character of our era is properly understood by those coming behind they will lay claim to modernism and confer on our era their understanding of the subject-matter spun by us.
• Dr. Ugiomoh, a sculptor, philosopher and art critic teaches fine arts and art criticism in University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State.