Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My mission in the culture ministry, by Minister, Duke


Promises rehabilitation of National Theatre

To seek collaboration between Culture and Tourism practitioners

Seeks recommendations on how to ginger the Abuja Carnival

THE National Theatre, Lagos, in the last decade, has been in the news not because of its unique features, but for its distressed state and government’s controversial plan to sell it, then later, concession it to private entrepreneurs. However, since July 17, 2007 protests by artistes and stakeholders in the culture and tourism industry led by the late elder artsman, Steve Rhodes, there has been a kind of reprieve, with only ‘wrangling’ among the occupiers of the edifice, as the only news that filtered out of the place.

POLICY inconsistencies, lack of focus, vision and political will have been cited as some of the reasons the culture sector has failed to make the desirable impact in the country, 12 years after the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, later, Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation was created.

Good examples?

Twenty-three years after it was introduced, the National Culture Policy is yet to be implemented; the National Endowment for the Arts’ bill is still waiting for fine-tuning from the ministry so that the National Assembly can consider its passage into law; National Creativity Prize is still awarded at the wish and mercy of the minister. The list is endless.

But the new minister, Edem Duke, has promised to make amends.

Last Friday, July 29, when Duke visited the National Theatre and other culture parastatals in Lagos — Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) and National Troupe of Nigeria — he rekindled hope on the sector; he went a step further to promise a total rehabilitation of the theatre edifice so that it could play its role as a true national monument.

Over the years, the scale and relentless appetite of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) to sell off the facility to private investors have made many to believe that the deprivation of fund, maladministration and lack of attention that the culture house has suffered, which led to the facility’s deplorable state, was deliberate.

Many wondered why any private concern would be ready to cough out as much as N1 billion a year to government as ‘rentage’ for a facility as this.

But the reason was not far-fetched. Acknowledged as an architectural masterpiece and a cultural landmark, the complex covers an area of about 23,000 square metres and standing well over 31metres tall.

The design for the monument was taken from the Palace of Culture and Sports in Varma, Bulgaria. The contract for its construction was signed on April 24, 1973, with the Bulgarian company called Technoexportsroy, the main contractors for the building of the complex.

Standing next to none in the country, the National Theatre is made up of a main hall, a conference/banquet hall, exhibition halls, two cinema halls and a VIP lounge. There is also a roof garden.

The main hall is capable of seating 5,000 people, and from its inception, consists of a collapsible stage and an auditorium. When in proscenium, the hall has a capacity for 3,500 seats.

The cinema screen in the hall is fixed at the ceiling and can be lowered by remote control. The stage has three rows of curtains, a backdrop and a double cyclorama for creating silhouette effects; and easily amenable to any directional concepts.

The Conference/Banquet hall is specially designed and equipped for conferences and banquets of international standard. It has a capacity for 1,500 seats. It also has a proscenium stage, and a facility, which is capable of interpreting eight languages simultaneously.

It is glaring that that the place was culture’s untapped ‘black gold’.

Stakeholders and culture workers believe that even in the face of global cultural renaissance, Nigeria is yet to fully comprehend the imperative of harnessing cultural potentials for overall national development. They always canvass the need for Nigeria to take a cue from nations that preserve their monuments.

The Kennedy Centre for the Arts and the Smithsonian Institute are part of the national heritage of the United States of America. The Tate Gallery in the United Kingdom is also a government-owned institution. It was not ceded to private hands during the privatisation gale that swept through the UK in the days of Margaret Thatcher. Such structures represent the national will, serving as symbols of national unity.

The museums, parks and gardens, archives, stadia, and some other institutions are examples of national monuments.

For the widely travelled Duke, whose pedigree as a ‘tour consultant and expert’ is not in doubt, this is the time to restore the pride of the facility. After all, National Theatre signifies more than a complex. It is Africa’s culture home.

Duke told the media that despite the challenges and cost involved in revamping the National Theatre, it is still the best investment on a national heritage.

“It has been a rewarding experience to spend time at the National Theatre and to see the state of affairs in that establishment. I wish to state that as a matter of urgency, the National Theatre must be adopted as a national monument of Nigeria. And it must be a monument that is alive,” Duke said.

The minister added, “It is an icon for Nigeria in totality. The images of National Theatre and Idia Mask have come to be the most easily recognised icons of Nigeria in the arts. I believe that it is a major challenge for Nigeria, as the biggest black nation in the world, and which also has a big edifice as this, to ensure that the facility is revived.”

He lamented the situation where the edifice, which was put up barely 33 to 35 years ago, is now in a deplorable state.

While appealing to the media to help make the facility a focus of national agenda, Duke said the complex represents so much for the country both spiritually and fundamentally.

“I think that every Nigerian must raise a voice of support today for the restoration of the facility,” the minister said. “There are countries in Africa and the world that you go where you see a National Theatre that has been standing for a 100 years and above. For us to have a complex that is in a state of disrepair in less than half a century of construction is a challenge to the nation and us. I will passionately approach the president and to plead for a major support for the rescuing of the Theatre.”

The multipurpose National Theatre was established for the preservation, presentation and promotion of arts and culture in Nigeria.

Its vision and mission have gone beyond its role as a venue for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77), which Nigeria hosted from January 15 to February 12, 1977.

SINCE it was established in the mid-70s, the complex has been the hub of theatre activities, art exhibitions, symposia and film shows. It has played host to various national and international theatre and musical events.

It has been a rallying point for artistes in Nigeria and for international artistes wishing to share their experience with their Nigerian counterparts.

However, like many national structures, the National Theatre has had its share of neglect and mismanagement, which accounted for its steady decline and dip in fortunes.

From the late 1980s through the 90s, the rot became so prominent that the National Theatre was the symbol of infrastructural decay in Nigeria.

Efforts by stakeholders in the arts and culture sector to get the military government at the time to rehabilitate the monument yielded no results as successive heads of the place appeared not to be interested in giving it new life.

However, the series of advocacies and protests for a befitting National Theatre paid off with the Federal Government’s decision to start the rehabilitation process.

A new lease of life came for the embattled edifice with the appointment of Prof. Ahmed Yerima as the General Manager.

Yerima immediately began work on the rehabilitation of the monument. Within a year, all the halls, except the main hall, which the current management had just rehabilitated, adorned a new look, with the air conditioning systems working again.

The stinking and nauseating toilet became as clean and usable as the lobbies. Theatre activities, which had since disappeared, returned to the place. Corporate bodies and agencies suddenly found the facility a worthy venue for business. Under the almond trees popularly known as Abe Igi, which provides shade and meetings for artistes, came alive again, and Nigerian Breweries Plc soon branded it while the fast food giant, Mr Biggs, opened a branch in the complex.

It was not surprising also that Coca-Cola Nigeria began business there too, with their giant Coca-Cola Christmas tree, which is one of the tallest in the world.

The minister said, “The National Theatre must be a rallying point for the arts and entertainment not only for Lagos, but for Nigeria as a whole. I will like to appeal passionately to corporate organisations in Nigeria and all the big firms exploring our hydrocarbon and every responsible partaker in the commonwealth of Nigeria to show some concern about the National Theatre.”

According to the minister, “it should not be unusual for us to find abroad that big corporate organisations adopt, support, mentor such iconic properties and ensure that they continue to be a repository of the very best for those countries.”

For him, the big corporate organisations are in Nigeria, “and we call upon them to come to our aid. I will especially call on the media to sensitise these corporate organisations to know what is happening in other developing economy and to rise and support the restructuring of the National Theatre. Today, we have corporate organisations that use part of the National Theatre to promote their business yearly and seasonally. It is not sufficient to benefit from that mileage without looking at the fabric of the theatre. I believe that our writers would think this and advocate this passionately, so that the theatre will be in good shape when Nigeria will be celebrating its centenary of nationhood in 2014.”

He also commended the management of National Theatre for being proactive in the restoration of the facility to a level where it now attracts visitors to functions holding there.

National Troupe of Nigeria

THOUGH there have been low moments for the country’s ‘prima donna’ troupe, the opportunities utilised by the management to turn the fortune of National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN) around also received commendation of the minister, Edem Duke.

While praising the management for the continued sustenance of the country’s performance tradition, he urged it to continue to promote the nation’s heritage through dance, songs and various performances. This was after he saw them give a brief performance to welcome him to the nation’s cultural capital.

The minister said, “Nigerians should learn how to celebrate our artistes even as we celebrate our scientists, engineers and other professionals because they fly the flag that is so high and worthy of commendation.”

Since the late Doyen of Nigerian Theatre, Chief Hubert Ogunde, assembled it in 1986, and establishment in 1991, via Decree 47, NTN has exhibited competence in packaging and presenting high artistic productions specifically designed for national and international consumption. It has provided visible mileage to the country in terms of theatrical performances.

The troupe has performed in international events and won several laurels and accolades for the country.

The minister appealed to corporate Nigeria to see the National Troupe as a veritable platform to promote their products and businesses and also to re-orientate the psyche of Nigerians.

“It is my hope that the National Troupe will continue to re-engineer itself and develop the second tier National Troupe at Abuja, and indeed, that it does a lot of traveling tours in all parts of Nigeria to give performances in local communities so that those who have not been discovered in the mentorship programme by the troupe would be able to perform at the national level.”

But more than being a performing arm of the culture ministry, which is isolated from the other parastatals, Duke promised that he would seek collaboration among the parastatals in the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation “to work and support the National Troupe, because in these days of challenges, we must aggregate our efforts to ensure that we strengthen some of the weaker parastatal among us and to look forward in carrying our cultural diplomacy.”

One way that this would be projected, he noted, is the forthcoming Nigeria Week celebration in Brazil, in the first week of September.

“It would be a sensible thing to have the National Troupe supported by sister agencies to perform there,” he said.

Concerned about the pathetic state of the fire–razed artistes’ hostel of the Troupe, Duke called on real estate developers to collaborate with NTN, “to develop an edifice, which can accommodate these performers and give them an enabling environment to re-invigorate and so continue to provide us with the best that Nigeria can offer. The National Troupe of Nigeria should not be allowed to suffer in such a despicable condition.”

The minister, who also visited the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC), expressed happiness that the Centre has continued to remain focused on the dreams of the founding fathers.

He said, “I’m, indeed, delighted to see that this organisation has continued professionally and efficiently to sustain the relics of FESTAC 77 and beyond; that it has continued to promote civilisation among people of black and African extraction. Indeed, I’m extremely proud of its activity and its leadership. I’m tempted to say they must find the will, resource and commitment to replicate FASTAC 77 in various degrees from now to the future.”

On Abuja Carnival, Duke noted that in the last few months, there have been controversial statements about the Carnival; whether it is actually achieving the objective for which it was set out or whether the carnival is a replication of National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST).

He said the best way to solve the puzzle about the relevance of Abuja Carnival is to have inputs and contributions from Nigerians on how, “we could re-engineer that carnival or winding it down or begin to replicate a platform for FESTAC ‘77. I think it is critical for us to take advantage of bringing out a trend of all this intellectual property of artistes in Africa in the confines of CBAAC, and with the collaboration of the African Union, see the prospect and possibility of this dream. Therefore, you have to look inward again and see how we can re-engineer, reposition our sector and make it a lot more significant and appreciated in this country”.

He added, “When we talk about the economy of sub-Saharan Africa, we identify the fact that South Africa, which is the biggest economy, is propelled by culture and tourism. Nigeria, which is the biggest black nation on the face of the earth, the second biggest economy in Africa, indeed, the cultural capital of Africa, has yet to identify this sector, which has the greatest opportunity of creating jobs and promoting enterprise among rural communities and activities that could bring benefit to the country”.

He also talked about the National Endowment Fund for the Arts and the National Culture Policy, which culture workers have said are glaring examples of how government officials are paying lips service to the sector.

The only attempt at cultural administration was the launch of the National Policy on Culture in 1988; till date, there are no efforts at its proper implementation. Almost two decades and a-half years after, none of the successive ministers of culture has been able to midwife its complete review and eventual adoption into law. In fact, the government did not consider it necessary to create a separate Ministry of Culture and Tourism until 1999.

To rise to the challenges of transforming the Culture and Tourism ministry, which has over the years, been made to wear the status of ‘a baby ministry’ by the successive ministers that piloted its affairs since its creation nine years ago, Duke promised to look at the handover notes in details as they specifically mentioned those issues.

AS always, culture advocates and promoters alike are watching with a keen interest how Duke, would perform. Other ministers before him had made similar promises about changing the face of culture administration shortly after assuming office. However, they soon find the problems in the ministry overwhelming or get suck in into the shady bureaucracy that runs the ministry.

Clearly, the minister has spoken well and seems to have the right body language but the question are, ‘Would he translate this into concrete action to put a smile on the faces of culture workers, who are outside of government’s employ, the real culture workers for whom government has existed in abstraction these many years? Would Duke perform to lift the tag of under-performance from the ministry? Or would it just be another season of ‘motion without movement’?

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