Chatting up with pal,. Norbert

'You Can't Do Genuine Criticism In A Philistine Environment'

Being the text of an interview the actor/broadcaster Norbert Young granted Jahman Anikulapo, former Arts Editor and now Editor The Guardian on Sunday on the television programme, Star Time Out.


NORBERT: Today, we have the Sunday Editor of The Guardian Newspapers; a medium that is widely read in Nigeria, in Africa and probably the world. I'm talking about a soul mate, a very good friend and a very, very truthful friend that most people would like to have. I'm talking about Mr Jahman Oladejo Anikulapo.
Jahman, welcome to Stars Time-Out.
We are very happy to have you here today, and we have chosen a topic to discuss. We are going to discuss Criticism.
I know that since your graduation from the University of Ibadan in 1986 and national youth service in 1987, you have worked with The Guardian. You have come up the ranks. Now by God's grace you are Editor, The Guardian On Sunday. It is our pleasure having you here today.
JAHMAN: Thank you so much, Norbert. This to me is like a family talk because we have both come a long way, since 1983, or so when we entered UI. I have always interviewed you as one of our brightest actors and theatre personalities; but now you have turned the table against me. God deh o!
NORBERT: Thanks Jahman. We will like you to give us an overview of the entertainment Industry in Nigeria; especially the claim that there is not much criticism of our creative arts going on right now.
JAHMAN: When people talk about the absence of Criticism in the culture sector, you tend to ask yourself: what are they expecting?
Criticism can only thrive in an environment where there is enough room for creativity; quality creativity. But when you live in an environment that stifles creativity, you cannot expect criticism to thrive.
You want to look at a work of art; you want to talk about somebody's performance -- a dancer or a visual artist -- you must look at the environment of performance.
What has the state or the society provided for Norbert Young not just to produce his film but to produce effectively; or to produce a quality work?
What has the environment provided for Olu Ajayi who is a quality painter to produce a qualitative work of art?
What has the environment given to Lagbaja to strive to produce his songs to the best of his ability...
When you put all these things together you'll see that the environment is not even prepared for the artist to perform effectively, or optimally.
Why are you expecting the artist to live above that environment?
Then you say you are a critic, you sit down and, you are observing the trend of performances and making comments on them, and pointing a way for the future! What future are you pointing to, when the people that consume the art works are not even prepared for qualitative ones.
That is why you find out that most critics... let me use myself as an example... I took a decision; I said the era of just sitting down in my newsroom and writing critiques about somebody's work has to be postponed for sometime!
I resolved that I wanted to be more involved in creating the necessary environment for the artists to be able to, at least, produce qualitative works. If I succeeded in that conscientious activism, then I can sit down and write comments; objective and conscientious assessment of the work of art.
I don't want to go through the exasperating experience of writing comments on works that are by all the parameters for critical discourse are substandard; especially works I know that given the right environment, the artist could have accomplished better.
Perhaps, if I am myself not one who engage in creative enterprises all the time, it wouldn't have mattered; but I am an artiste first; the critical vocation is only a gift of talent and a bonus acquired through my training in Dramatic Theories and Literary Criticisms; and years of practice as a writer on the arts and cultural productions.
I am not just an observer of the trends in culture production; I am an active participant; just as any producer could be. I cannot afford the luxury of a mere journalistic interrogation of artistic experiences. The journalist can do that, I have no qualms. I am informed in my practice by something deeper than journalistic inclination and expertise.
By my training and antecedents, I cannot continue to be saying: "That theatre performance is not good enough'. 'That painting is not good.' etc. Do I know how much of Norbert's wife's money, Norbert has stolen to be able to produce that film? Do I know how much of his properties he had to sell; or the dirty thing that people had to go into to raise money to produce a play. I have once been a witness to a lady theatre producer having to befriend a banker just so to be able to pay the balance of his cast and crew fees, when the supposed sponsors ditched her at the last minute. She got a loan through that means but the cast needed not know where the money came from. There are uglier stories that I heard from artistes themselves... many of them are big stars today... on what they did to get their first album off the demo stage...
Then, I sat down and reviewed my intervention in the institution of critical discourses and I resolved that I'd better off, conscience-wise, if I diverted my critical sensibility to culture activism. We try to create the right environment for quality creativity to flower, then nobody will have an excuse for underperformance or perfunctory production. And this is why I am very compassionate when it comes to matters concerning the arts. I insist that if you are a Minister for Culture or Minister in charge of entertainment, Minister in charge of Tourism, you must do what the Minister of Aviation is doing in terms of envisioning for the wholesome uplifting of the sector; you must initiate good policies and carry out necessary reforms with a view to making the vocations and the practitioners have hope and perform optimally. You must do what the Minister of Transport is ready to do in terms of providing the necessary infrastructure for that vital sector of the national economy...
You talk about the Culture sector; the culture sector is the fundament of our nation building. You talk of technology transfer, how can you transfer technology, when you don't even know the basic farm implements that we have; you don't even know them, so, you can't improve on them. Then you want to talk about technology transfer! You can only transfer ignorance and incompetence at handling such transferred knowledge. It is all laughable.
So, instead of jumping on the bandwagon, and jumping the gun, I decided to stay on one spot and use my talent and a little link that God has helped me to gather these years in the course of the job, in ensuring that the right environment; the appropriate visions; functional policies and beneficial actions are taken by whoever the political process throws into the leadership of the culture sector of the economy.
That is more important to me than writing reviews and critiques that don't even get read by the public but the artists themselves and their colleagues. Even at that, how many of those can afford to buy the papers to read up what you have written about them. Most times, you -- the writer -- still has to take the paper to the artists and say, 'look what I have written about your work'... Haba, the burden that the so-called arts writer carries is enormous; painful at times.
So, I reviewed my career and I said since, God has been kind to me, I have a voice, when I write and when I talk people listen, I should use that to make the right noise, the right statement, so that we can challenge the polity to give recognition to the labour of the artists and culture workers; so that we can begin to create room for quality intellect that would produce qualitative art.
That is why I have been so engrossed in what has come to be termed 'Culture Activism'... I am sure the sobriquet is in the context of a civil activist, human rightist or social activist. But really, it does not really matter what it is called. I only know I have a missionary zeal to the cause of the art and culture.
That is why I am deeply involved in cultural activism structures such as the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), which also incorporates such other bodies as Culture Enthusiasts Club; Lagos Circle of Critics; Friends of the Arts; Culture Working Committee etc. Of course, the more fundamental of such structures is the Coalition of Nigeria Artists, CONA, a fraternity of all the artists professional associations, which primary aim is to protect the interest of all artists whatever their callings; and especially to give some kind of assistance to the artists when they are distressed. Unfortunately, the coalition has been crippled by unnecessary politics by a certain section of the artiste community. But I assure you, the vision can never be eclipsed.
I believe that it is when I have succeeded in helping get the right environment, that is the point at which the critic in me will come out. And I don't have to still be a practising journalist when that time will manifest.
That is my position and I have no apology about it; not even to myself. Even a critic has a choice to criticise or remain silent!
What I have done is to do an overview of our entertainment sector in the context of my own experience in a time capsule of my years on the job as an arts writer.
But I insist that, though we may complain about quality of what we produce and the attitude of the artists, we have to bear one point in mind: that the artist cannot live outside of his own environment. He must operate within his environment. To expect him to live in a pure world, the world that is not corrupt, is to construct a Utopia; an unreal world, totally antithetical to his environment that is corrupt.
Even if the artist doesn't want to be corrupt, remember that in an environment like this, he's coming from a family, and this family members are going to ask him: "We are not interested in how many times you appeared on the television, we are interested in what you have made for yourself; what are you going to give to your brothers and sisters; what have you made for your parents; what have you made for the community that nurtures your being.
In the West, some of these questions may not apply because of their socialisation process and the way the society is constructed, which is why an artist will make a single hit, and he becomes an international star, money wise, influence wise, and so on; he could go and buy the most expensive house in the costliest area of town and spend so much money on it. That is the way he wants to spend his fortune. No extended or expanded family to ask him to take in his cousin and his cousin's cousin or to offer scholarship to other youths in the community as a matter of compulsion, since the community had contributed to his schooling or whatever.
But an artist here... I have one actor on my street, you imagine the pressure that the man goes through to be able to live to a standard that is expected of him by people in the neighbourhood. I have seen him done one or two things on the street, and I just know that this was not what he wanted to do, but he has to do it, because of the expectation of his neighbours.
So we cannot expect the art, the entertainment produced by artists living and functioning in this stifling environment to be well rounded in all creative departments as that produced in other societies where there are, at least, the basic infrastructures that enable creativity to flower; that encourages clean, clear thought, and make provision for facilities, including social respect and understanding; and thus assist the artist to concentrate on the business of thinking and creating.
We have to first create the right, functional environment; and that is what I have dedicated my intervention through the media, especially after 13 solid years as arts reporter and so-called critic.
And when I say creating the environment; it does not just stop at creating Endowment Fund or launching the Cultural Policy or establishing an Art Academy - all vital institutions to culture management that other societies take for granted but which we don't even have after 40 years of Independence and clamour for same instruments - the saner environment also includes re-orientating the society and the people consuming the artwork to begin to see the artist as a professional who deserves to eat from his toil; his talent and his skill just as the medical doctor, the lawyer or the engineer. In fact, the appropriate social respect for the vocation of the artist or culture worker is the first essential infrastructure to be created.
Would you for instance, recognising that the actor is the most poorly paid professional in this country, say that because this actor -- a brilliant, skilful performer who has brought joy to you and your family -- and this day you see him standing by the bus stop, would you put him in your air conditioned car so that his shirt does not end up with dust, so that your children to whom he is a sort of hero or role model, would not snigger at his dirty look?
Bear in mind please that most of the times, the people in the public do not discriminate between the illusion of affluence they see the actor live on screen or stage from his reality as a human being functioning in the real life; with his own set of economic and social realities, hopes and despairs. They only want to appreciate him the way they see him act. Here is the guy unable to live a comfortable, dignifying life; after those lavish life on screen he crashes into this real life of wants and disappointment; he could not even afford a taxi if he has no car of his own, and this guy knows how many people that he is bringing happiness to, he knows the sweat that goes into his acts! And yet you want him to be pure, you want him to be qualitative, you want him to live above everybody...
NORBERT: Jahman, you see, that is why Stars Time-out is happy to have you here, you have just criticised everybody...
JAHMAN: Including myself (laughs)
NORBERT: I quite appreciate it when you said you do not want to criticise substandard works, but these are the works we have now, the works society has to look at! And in those substandard works, we still have to know how substandard in the category of substandard hierarchy, some of them are. So even if we do not have an enabling environment, we still need the critic, we still need to be informed so that when things begin to take shape, when government now start to live up to its responsibilities, and the society begins to accord due respect to the artiste, and the people begin to figure out how they can contribute to the development of the entertainment industry, we would have overcome the shortcomings of the artistes..
JAHMAN: When we talk about substandard works, we are not saying that Nigerian works are substandard, but that is the general impression. That is part of the attitude of the society to what the artist does. When they say that an artwork is substandard, they actually based such judgement on the mindset of comparison they harbour in their mind. They look at what the American Pop artistes are doing and they expect the artist here to do similar thing. So they come up with the attitude of saying: "It's a Nigerian product, it is substandard'.
It is the same way you can relate to the cloth sold at Orile market. There is the foreign consumption craze. People don't want to consume what is produced locally because of a deep-seated perception that if it is made at home it must be inferior. It is the crisis of identity; lack of self-esteem; lack of self-worth. The Nigerian consumer would rather spend fortune to buy that foreign product so far it carries the label of a foreign country or producer. So, the local producers grew smart too; when they make shirts here, they will put the label that says made in Britain, Taiwan, America etc... It is an intractable crisis of taste.
We do need the critics at all time in our creative enterprise. I'm not saying that we don't need the critic! If I said that, it will be a subversion of sensibility; a subversion of my personal conviction that the critic drives the creative energy and resourcefulness of the society. I still operate basically as a critic in the sense that, when I am confronted with materials, I weigh the material, I say 'okay this material deserves maximum attention'; this material deserves the best that I have got; then I look at another material and I say, 'this material deserves lesser attention'... this assessment will reflect in the way I present the subject, the way I write about it or I comment on it! It is a result of the way I weighed the material; product of my evaluation but it is still essentially subjective albeit informed by my personal cognitive structures.
This is why I have insistently argued that criticism is no more than a personal opinion of the critic; a product of his cognitive structures - the sum total of his past experiences, cultural tendencies, taste, training, skill, exposures, and the school of criticism to which he subscribes among others.
But it is curious that the general public has been conditioned to see the critic as some kind of god. And it has to do with the self-institutionalising antics of the ancestors of the critics. Over time and through the various literary milleux, the critics have successfully entrenched themselves as monstrous institutions in the creative industry.
As a matter of fact, the critic has become something like an over-institutionalised person. We have created tin-gods out of the vocation of the critic. But he is no more than an ordinary professional but with a specialised consciousness for the vocation of evaluating or assessing a piece of art and offering informed opinion on same. In other words, the critic is only an informed commentator or evaluator or assessor of a creative product.
We have to bear in mind that there is a critic in every person. The television viewer is a critic, just as the man who reads a book; even as a hobby. This is because when the fellow is watching this interview session on the television programme, he is forming his own opinion; he could say for instance: "Now Jahman is talking rubbish, I'm not interested;" and; he picks his cigarette and lights it and puts his mind on more productive or self-satisfying venture... he has shut me off from his senses! That's a critical enterprise at work.
I want to refer us back to a paper that was presented by Dr Ola Oloidi of the University of Nigeria Nsukka. He is a specialist in Visual Art criticism, and he said that the first set of critics were actually those simple folk who were appreciating the works of the community sculptor or carver. When in a village, a Yoruba man stands up and says: "This work is the work of gbegigbegi (the one who hews or chops the wood); and this one is gbenagbena, which means the one who is creating beauty out of a given object. Once a man or even a little kid stands up and says, "this man is gbegigbegi, that one is a gbenagbena, he has already made a critical assessment; a fundamental critical statement. He has described you as producing beauty or merely chopping the wood...
So, the critic is human after-all and he is only a shade higher in his evaluation than the ordinary viewer or audience, by the circumstance of his acquired skill; the fact of his vocation. But we have turned them into semi-god by our own exaggeration of their enterprise.
Those were some of the facts I see and I am amused at the lie of it all, when some people sing deceptively: 'I am a critic, I hold the power to make or mar you the artist'.
I participate in some internet discussion, the way people sound on this critic thing, is like they are living above everybody else.. Yet, somebody had already said in the past that a critic is actually a failed artist; that because he cannot create, he now runs commentary in other people.
But intriguingly, Chinua Achebe was one of the very first people to even dismantle this myth around the critic, by saying: "look, the moment you can read my book and form an opinion, you are a critic".
This is a very fundamental statement about criticism; that it is essentially the opinion of the person; by the viewer of painting, the audience of a theatre piece, and the listener to that music.
You seem to be saying that the critic is not an opinion shaper, who then project it into the public. Do you see the critic as somebody who makes negative marks about works of art. Is the work of a critic just to appreciate and write an opinion, or just to condemn?
A critic is not to write a negative opinion. Unfortunately, that's what the critic vocation has become, especially in a creative environment like Nigeria where there is perennial struggle for power between perceptibly contending forces and envy and avarice reign in the mind of most men... - all products of poverty of purse and the intellect you know there is a way wants and unfulfilled dreams affect the reasoning and actions of men...
If you evaluate my explanation again, you'll see that the critic is not definitely somebody who makes negative remarks. A critic is one who forms a technically informed opinion about a work, and who then projects it. And presenting it, it could either be negative or positive; depending on the way he perceives the work. But as I said his evaluation of the work, his judgment will be informed by his own cognitive structures; itself a summation of diverse factors.
NORBERT: I ask this question because in 1996, when as part of the Africa Project cast, we went to present the play Amona and Oedipus in Germany... you, in particular, made a statement that because you are familiar with the works of a particular critic in Germany, called Christopher Funke; you said the man was coming to see our preview, and if he said something positive about our work, then our work would sold out in Germany. In which case Funke is an opinion leader.
Compare that to the situation in Nigeria... what would you say is the work of a critic; is it to appreciate, following certain criteria, or to condemn.
In a place like Germany, the artistes can afford to wait for Funke and the ilk to do the job of selling the play to the public, but in Nigeria, do you think the critics here have do that kind of thing? Because here there is always so-called press preview and the critic will be there to write about that play, and then the people will say, "oh, Jahman Anikulapo has said this is it', so it must be so with the play. Where a Jahman Anikulapo cannot make up his mind about that play, it even makes it more appetising for the viewer; that since Jahman cannot give a specific opinion about a thing, that thing is worth seeing.
Do you see the critic in that situation in Nigeria?
JAHMAN: The example of Funke is what Ben Tomoloju, who is my mentor in arts and in journalism -- he was the Deputy Editor at The Guardian -- made a statement at the time when Nigerian journalism was becoming obsessively arrogant with its perceived power; over-estimating its influence on the public's decision-making process, Tomoloju said that what we were practising was "Media Terrorism"! That because you thought we had the power of the pen, you had the medium, you think that you are a law, thus you wield tremendous influence on somebody's work; to soil that person, or somebody's family, and write some funny stories about that person and therefore shape the public's opinion about that person or work.
Christian Funke was doing 'Media Terrorism' (laugh)... let me quickly re-capture what happened in Germany. We were leaving Nigeria with a production in the series Africa Project, a Nigeria-Germany cultural dialogue, which is the dialogue between Africa and Europe. And we were going to Germany carrying the burden of misperception of the African person by the West that we are no more than apes... that the image of Africa, in the perception of an average European is backwardness, war, hunger, impoverishment... as a matter of fact we still live on the trees; so, when you say you are bringing something about Africa, it must be 'exotic'; since the African is generally incapable of intelligent discourse, he is not developed enough to attend to anything that is contemporary.
So, when we were leaving here, there was always this feedback from Germany, from Goethe Institut that, "Look the German audience do not understand what you are coming to do; in fact, you have to translate some of your things into German language...! And we, the producers of the play, we were telling the Germans that 'we will effect some of the suggestions you are making, but we will not deviate from what we are doing, because we have a mission'.
When we got there, and we were ready to perform at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin, there was this big noise about a particular critic in one of the newspapers who is so powerful that once he writes negative about your work, that's the end, and once he writes positive, then the show is made.
And we were told that this guy is not necessarily wide- scoped to appreciate anything that is non-German; that anything that comes from outside, especially from Africa, he will not support it. And that was what informed my statement that night that we -- the actors and crew-- had to at least, take cognisance of the taste and preferences of the many Funkes that would be in the audience.
So, when I made that statement, I was looking at the environment we were going to... it was portrayed as a hostile environment. And I said the way to tackle this Christian Funke chap - who was being portrayed as some tin-god -- is to tell him that we were coming with our identity. And when we come, we were going to 'unleash' our cultural identity on him, let him 'unleash' his criticisms on us. But we must not underperform; we must not be seen to be playing down what we were supposed to do, just so to please the strange taste of Mr. Funke. That was why I made that statement. I spoke as the staege-manager of that show to imbue confidence in our actors, not to get conditioned to change their show because of someone's expectation... and that is what I always say: an artiste must essentially perform to his own expectation; not that of any other person; not even of his own wife or mistress.
There are many Christian Funkes in the Nigerian situation. There are many of us so-called critics or arts writers who just pick our pen and rubbish what other people do. I must have done it in the past, beginning of my career when I was still marvelling at the power I assume I have over the life and death of the work of an artist; which made me to come to the conclusion, that critics in Nigeria for instance, in the media, what we have been doing is either writing to project or writing to destroy.
But we have to be very careful because we are opinion shapers just like you said. People read you because they respect you, because they want to hang on to what you said about a particular work or artist...
But I tell you that the Nigerian audience, the Nigerian viewers, they are even very exceptional! They don't necessarily follow anybody's writing before they determine what they consume.
If you, the critic, say that one video production is substandard, has it ever stopped them from buying? How come that the video movie market that critics have always condemned gross up to N8 billion in two years as was reported? How come it was the only sector in Nigerian economy that is making profit while others are in distress.
The only industry that can compete with the video movie market which the Nigerian critics have described as a sham full of substandard products, is the GSM telephone market.


NORBERT: Yes Jahman, thank you so much for your explanation so far. But I do not agree with your assertion that if you don't see your critique of a work from the producer's or the director's point of view, you might be misjudging that person's work. Because, first of all, coming from the classical era, whether we like it or not, standards have been set for putting together works of art; standards set by people who knew. There was the classical standard and then there was the 17th Century French Academy that came out with parameters for achieving a complete work of art. So, if you are going to produce a work of art, you should know the standard, you should know the criteria, you should know the yardstick, you should know the fixed points from which you must work. So we do not need to see your personality in the work. We just see a work of art which the critic now looks at using those same parameters that the producer or director ought to have known, putting aside his own creative input right now. Even then you still have to judge with his creative in-put. So to that extent, what do you say?
JAHMAN: I think that we are even coming from the same point, just that I deviated a bit by really pressing on the influence of the environment on the works of the producer.
Remember what I said earlier on; that there are critics in the media who now look at the forms, the style, the techniques, the content of the works in the context of the message that you are trying to get across.
Every critic, for instance, is supposed to look at a particular work of art from these parameters, to say that these are standard paradigms. If you say that you are working as an impressionist in painting, and what I see is expressionism, I can say that he claims to be doing impressionism but I am seeing something else; perhaps realism. There you are talking of the form or the style.
Then when you are talking of style in the theatre, for instance, you say you are doing Agitprop, which is a usually a play set in caricature model; most times, a satire or political drama that sermonises, agitates and seeks to propagate a particular ideal or idea...a production that is based on propaganda. Because of the nature of the script, it could appear as snatches; it may not be a whole direct production. If you say you are doing this and I am seeing something else, then I could begin to raise questions about the confusion of form or technique because it is going to affect the entire design of the production; including the acting style. When you say that you are using symbolism in a production, and then there are no symbols to even represent all the things you are saying, I could engage critical theories to assess your contentions in the play and see how far you have been fair to the form adopted...
In fact when I joined journalism mid-eighties after my graduation, writing on the arts, I had to go to my Professor, Dapo Adelugba... I told him that this was what I had decided to do in the media, the man warned me... mind you, this is the foremost critic in the performing arts... he told me to be careful the way I applied the critical canons and theories I had ingested in school, because the medium I shall be writing for is a popular medium. He said, if you are not careful, nobody will understand what you are saying! I had to recoil from my heated passion for theories; and check all I had been saying.
So, when I talked about hearing from the artist, I mean asking for clarifications, for instance, about the style that he is using... that if I watch a play, I will be able to ask that artist, "that thing that you did at that point, what were you trying to do." Then he says, "this is what I'm trying to do," and then I can apply my criticism based on that.
For example, when Felix Okolo -- one of the very good young directors that came out of University of Ibadan and operated in Lagos State-- many people do not really understand him; they were saying, "what is this man trying to do." The whole play looked like a piece of accident, impulsive, formless and unserious... In fact, at a time he claimed to have adapted Ben Okri's novel, The Famished Road in the play, Mekunu Melody, one critic said he only read the first two paragraphs and wrote a play; that maybe he never read the whole play, I laughed.
Then I had to go back to myself, I said 'who is Felix Okolo?' And I remembered that we were both students at the University of Ibadan -- I directed him, he directed me on a number of occasions -- and I have had cause to listen to him. I even remember that we gave him a name Aruku Shanka, which means this guy is very impatient with normal processes of production; he abhors unity of form or unity of style as the classical critical theory will advise. He is not somebody you sit down and say his production is from A, B, C, D progressing to Z, the denouement. He can take it from F and come back to A and go to G and so on...
NORBERT: Even that style has a definition, eclecticism
JAHMAN: That's what I'm saying, if you understand that, that's where the artist is coming from, then you will be able to better appreciate the work.
NORBERT: That brings me to this question: what is the level of awareness and qualification of most critics in Nigeria. Because I do not think after seeing a film, I will ask the director anything...
JAHMAN: No, you don't need to ask.
NORBERT: But if the critic does not understand the theories, or familiar with all the forms and techniques, what kind of critic is that?
JAHMAN: This is what I'm saying and soon, I will still come back to your point.
You can't say that you are doing a Nigerian historical play, and put the standard or the forms, the style and the techniques that the Roman historical theatre demands into operation! You cannot. The moment you do that, you have dislocated that production; you are even abusing the production, because we have different approaches to history.
History to the black man is a very passionate matter because buried in that history is the long history of his being; his very essence; the pride of his race, the meaning of the name he bears today. History to the African is like the skin he wears. So, he is subjective in his judgment of the materials that history throws up. But to the European, he can distance himself from history and be very objective in his treatment of the facts.
Today, Germany can talk big about everything, Hitler is just one distant thing in his mind, a distant burden, but I tell you that an African carries the burden of history perpetually on his conscience. We know of great families and dynasties that have been buried in the abyss of the forgotten just for a simple error of judgment that the forebears made while in office. For instance, a person like Abacha, his descendants will continue to bear the burden of his excessive dictatorial actions for generations to come. He wi8ll forever remain a constant reference in the Nigerian history, as long as Nigeria is existing. In that context how do you apply historical canons of the Roman or the Germans to the Africans or the Nigerians then? You will surely dislocate the dramaturgical experience.
When I talk about talking to the director of aplay or film before writing my critique, I'm not saying necessarily you must talk to the director, I am only saying you need have studied what the person is trying to do. If a man comes out and says I'm doing, or I want to do Agitprops, it has a thematic context, then you are looking at it from another point of view and saying why is he saying so much about government in his play, why is he lamenting how democracy is not working in Nigeria... but that is what he set out to do.
What many critics do is that, they don't even look at all those parameters, they just run away with their own subjective expectations; pass magisterial assessment on what the artist has done and foist their uninformed or ill-informed opinion on the creative work of another person. But I say, If you are not pregnant how do you determine how painful the experience of labour is.
And particularly, in African theatre and other art forms, you need to debrief the artist constantly... much of what the African artist inject into his work are informed by certain ritualistic or spiritual essentials to which he is a participant or had been a participant; sometimes, it is exclusive to him; and you, the critic, are just an outsider. How do you speak to such an experience then when you are a novice on its essences and beings?
Talking about the level of training of the critics in this country, you will know very well that we don't have that in the first place. The reason is that our art studies did not start from that point. The arts school started on the note of that word again... agitprops! They were struggling with the society just to even impress it on an indifferent social ethos that the theatre is something to study; that fine art is something to study; that being functionally educated does not end with being a doctor, lawyer, engineer etc.
The schools at the start were (and largely even now) trying to challenge the position of the society that art is for everybody; that everybody can dance; can paint; can sing! So, why go to school to waste four-five years and huge money to study what every other dunce on the street can do?
You know that there was a time when you dare not tell your parents that you are studying theatre in the university; you risked being disowned or excommunicated from the family. In fact, my father never knew that I was studying theatre, until when I graduated. I had gone in for Sociology and Economics and my dad carried that impression. He never bothered to check; in any case I was not collecting a dime from him. Fortunately, I was doing some works in the theatre already and earning my own money, so I never had to go to him for money. He thought I was doing Economics.
Imagine, the University of Ibadan theatre school was 40 last year (2002), the celebration is still on; and even to date, Professor Adelugba says they are still trying to educate this society that theatre is a course of study! That your child can study Theatre or drama and become a worthy person in life. If you are still struggling with that, where do you have room for criticisms as a study? Those who go in for criticism, they do it as elective courses.
In fact, I remember that in my final year at Ibadan, we were 15 that registered for Dramatic Theory and Literary criticisms. By the time we were graduating, we were only three. And out of the three, one made First Class, two of us were queued at First Class but for a course outside of our department that we were supposed to take but which could not because of the way the exam time-table was arranged. It clashed with our practical exams in Voice and Speech. And you know, that is a compulsory course for a credible theatre graduate.. (laughs).
Indeed, how many theatre schools are training critics?
Now, Fine Artists are complaining that the quality of Fine Art discourse in the papers are not impressive. And I ask them: "how many art historians and critics have you produced from your school who are ready to work in the media". We have about 10 departments of Fine Art, how many of them have produced art historians writing frequently in the papers. In fact, how many of them have their own faculty or department's journal to propagate the ideals of its peculiar scholarship?
It is not easy, sir. It is not easy because no media house even want to employ you in the first place. If not that The Guardian with Ben Tomoloju, started a formal arts desk... (that was after that impressive collection of academics and scholars had flagged off the literary culture in the paper)... and he then trained a generation of arts journalists, writers so to say because many of them were just graduates of liberal arts and sometimes, sciences and related fields. Those are the chaps sustaining the seemingly robust arts and culture journalism in the Nigerian media today... I was trained on the arts desk of the paper, and since then, I have trained some other people who are themselves now arts editors in other newspapers in the country. Go to other media houses, the arts editors were all, or let's for modesty sake, say many of them were from The Guardian. If such a person never worked for The Guardian, he must have at one time or the other written for the paper.
And after it returned from its one-year proscription in 1995, The Guardian decided to go daily with its arts pages, everybody else hopped on the wagon. So we are just copying... we are learning things from each other and today you have a daily page of arts or showbiz in at least, six national dailies. Even the news magazines which were almost scandalously averse to the arts once they get enough of sensational political stories, have in the past few years retained at least, an arts reporter in their fold.
In the past, no one would employ you to write on the arts. It takes far deeper passion by the publisher or the editor to insist he was employing you to write on the arts.
No media house is even ready to open up pages for reports on the arts. They think it is not worthy of serious attention. It won't generate adverts anyway!
Reuben Abati, for instance, is a brilliant critic of the arts but he is operating in an environment that is different from his natural calling. Occasionally, he comes in and does something for us, but you know that he has so much other responsibilities in his own Editorial section. In fact, if you are a great critic and you need to satisfy your professional yearnings, you may have to end up on the campus.
And, how many schools are ready to train the critic? What are the facilities to train critics?... In fact, the Bible for classical dramatic theories and theatre criticism, for instance, is the book famously called Dukor; how many students have seen Dukor? When I was graduating, there were only three in the departmental library and; before we graduated two were stolen...! (laughs). Where are the books to even train the critics?
NORBERT: How do these producers of art work, how do they react to certain criticisms that you have done in the past. Do they see you as a bad person or do they see you as friend or enemy.
JAHMAN: As a matter of fact, I have collected about two dirty slaps (laughs). One at the Jazz 38, when a director just saw me and said "I feel like just killing you, but let me just give you thisas a warning o; the next time I will distort your face'...
NORBERT: And you retaliated?
JAHMAN: Ah, no o! Rather, I found a way to escape from the scene.
The fact is that, the critics and journalists have to be careful about what they write because, what you are writing is very, very long lasting than that work of art. Perhaps it is only Fine Art, Literature, recorded music which originals could be resurrected in the original forms. But not so for theatre, concert and other such performance art, which thrived in momentary-ness. If I'm presenting a play, people must have seen it and gone, but what I have written as a critic would be read hundred years after my departure; or even thousands of years later. And generation who never encountered you and who were never part of the conditions that dictated the creation of the work and as well the tone and shade of your critical opinion might have to issue queries on what you had written. In literary criticisms and theories, isn't that what we are doing today? Interrogating the paradigms that had been set by our forebears?
In my career, I got to that point at which I said, If I make this comment about this man's work, what happens if I'm challenged later, and say "when you were writing this, did you even attempt to find out how he managed to put up the production'?
But then, that's for me. I'm not saying that it is the standard for every practising arts writer. It is a very, very personal choice. And it has to do with my kind of person. I like to work with my conscience, I work within myself, I listen to my own opinion. A friend said I could reason that way because aside being a critic in the newspaper I am also a practising actor, director and producer. That the benefit of the two sides which I am fully involved with informs my passion about how the work got done... Well, maybe; but I have never given that explanation a deep thought.
But to return to your poser on the readiness of the artist to accept critical comments on his work, I shall say that essentially, the society is not prepared. The people are not used to open criticisms and this is part of the fundamental dilemma of development that we face in Africa. Even in our socio-cultural lore, criticism of the ruling class or the affluent was often coded in symbolic languages, cultic signs or in proverbs, gestures, wits etc. This was part of the self-preservation ethos of the society; sometimes, measures to ensure that only few people are availed of the details of such criticisms. And Africans do not have to be apologetic about this. It is an integral part of our cultural being. And it serves so many functions including to ensure preservation of mutual respect and harmonious living in the community. But applied to modern time, the collusion of this African ideas of criticisms and the Western type of open speak, is responsible for the conflict characterised by intolerance that we often witnessed in the modern African state.
And for the artists, because he has produced his works within the ambience of lean resources available to him, he is expecting that whatever you are going to say about his work would be complimentary, so that people can buy it. To him, you, the critic, you are only an extension of the marketing department of his operation!
The best you, the critic, can do is to work according to your own conscience. You know what you are trying to do, and you say it the way you see it.
But the language of criticism is not condemnation. It is not to say that this work is bad. The language of criticism is, 'may be' or 'if he had', things like that. It is not a magisterial proclamation or postulation where you say that work is bad! There is no bad work of art because the creative process that produced that work is informed by certain inspiration, certain mote process that produced that work is informed by certain inspiration, certain motive,tain expectations, certain cognitive structure. Sweat has gone into it; thinking has gone into it, money has gone into it, somebody's being as a person has gone into it
NORBERT: Now, Jahman, can I still call you a critic?
JAHMAN: I have told people that by the virtue of my resolve which I have explained and by virtue of my operative environment, I'm not a critic, but you could say that I write informed opinion or critiques on the arts.
NORBERT: Okay, if you write criticism on art, if you do informed art appreciation... because this word 'criticism', it sounds so negative, and people don't understand. Criticism means appreciating a work of art. This appreciation of work of art, who is it supposed to pay?
You were talking about receiving slaps from two directors, yes because you wrote what will educate the public. Now, you don't want to offend the producer, thereby blocking information for your public. Now, who are you supposed to satisfy? Should there be what is called a balance in critique.
JAHMAN: Just like every journalist, first of all, you write from your conscience, you write for your conscience. Just be sure that what you are saying is according to how you have seen it, how you have perceived it; be true to your conscience; even if the person is your arch enemy or he has just dished you slaps for he last work you did on his work.
I am saying that criticism is not basically evil. It is opinion essentially. If I saw your blue dress and I say that what you are wearing is red, it is my opinion; that is what my mind tells me; that you wearing are red. It may be black to another person, it may be blue to the next person, but as for me, it is red. So, it is a matter of opinion. And the audience like I said had an option to either accept it or reject it.
So, first of all, as a critic, work from your conscience and work for your conscience. Then the target of a critical discourse should necessarily be for the two sides. You should write in a way that the man who has created the art work can learn two or three things about the way you see it as a member of the audience. And the audience too can learn one or two things that they could understand in the work of art from you.
In other words, the critic is more like a medium. A medium between these two extremes -- the audience and the producer of the work. So you should see yourself that way and the only way to see yourself as a balanced medium, a balanced refree, is to work for your conscience. You write the truth the way you have seen them, without being unfair to the artist, without being unfair to the public.
When I talk about the artist's point of view, you see that the question has gone back to you. You try to understand what the artist is trying to do, the environment he is operating in; the audience he is targeting? The last point is very important indeed. If I produce a play for children and you as an adult come there to appreciate my work from the point of view of an adult, have you not done injustice to me, my work and the audience? Yes, you are doing injustice to my work because I did not write or produced the play for you, an adult, I have written for the children.

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