He limps on one leg supported by a white walking stick as he hops into the full hall. His countenance defiant. He finally finds a seat on the far right of the hall. A couple of days ago, a few hours before the ill-fated bullet hits his right leg, he was a whole man with an aspiration to return to his studio at the National Council of Arts and Culture (NCAC) building located on the premises of the National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, Nigeria to continue working on sculptures yet unfinished.
Early that chilly Sunday morning, armed policemen followed by the general manager of the National Theatre, Kabiru Yusuf Yar Adua reduced to a rubble the place artists like Smart Owvie hitherto called home.
Owvie had been fatally shot in the leg when the artists at the NCAC building raised their voices against what they consider an illegal destruction of buildings that houses their priced paintings and sculptures including newly constructed stage, props and costumes used for rehearsals by performing artistes among them. Many of their works strewn in the debris.
Owvie tells me tens of his works have been submerged in the rubble. He has not been able to pick a single one out of the debris. Most of his works are highly prized at art auctions and galleries across the country. He is a long standing artiste whose work fetches an average of $3, 650 at one of the Arthouse Contemporary annual auctions.
Also Monday Gobadia sits under a tree at the Artistes’ Village on a sunny Monday morning in February staring at a pile of his works that have been reduced to ruins. The figure of a Rhino lays on its side with two broken limbs. A sculpture shaped in a woman form is broken, an iron is used to support the tattered pieces.
““Some of my fibre glass works were destroyed. All of them buried in the wreckage. I worked here all day to finish these pieces. I am the most affected by this demolition. Nike Art Gallery bought many of my works. The money I made from there is what I used to construct this space.”
Gobadia says he was asleep in his studio when his apprentice ran to him to say the caterpillars were coming. Before he could salvage his works, the caterpillars bulldozed his works. He says he has lost works valued at N30 million.
“I have invested so much money on this space. It was given to me by National Council for Arts and Culture. I sand filled it to make it habitable. For the management of the theatre to have done this is cruel.”
The trade of the artist seems to be in trouble in Nigeria. The arts are again on trial in the country. A trend some believed ended in 1990s. Late last year, writer Benangi was incarcerated without proper charge by the King of his village. Early January 2016, Atiku Jelili, an artist, was sent to prison on the charge of using his art to incite the public against the king of Ejigbo. A bail was later secured for him. His case is still on trial. Just a week after, the NCAC building at the National Theatre was pulled down without prior notice to the artists whose works were housed there. The arts community has been psychologically, emotionally and financially wounded by the demolition.
Wole Soyinka who himself was incarcerated in 1970s for speaking against the government of the day knows the impact of what has just happened to the only center in Nigeria where you have a convergence of practitioners of all the arts genres.
With the demolition, the creative process of most of the artists have been disrupted. They have been displaced from their natural habitat as many of them who cannot afford expensive office spaces have sought refuge on the NCAC premises for many years.
“I am not doing anything since the incident happed,” says an angry Owvie. “I can’t even think straight. I have three children and I am expecting another one.” As at the time of filing this report, he hasn’t been able to obtain a police report to enable his doctor do an x-ray on his damaged leg. No doctor is willing to treat his bullet wound without the report.”
Mufu Onifade, an artiste and studio owner at the village says the instruction given by the minister of information and culture is that illegal structures and slums should be destroyed. According to him, the premises of the Artistes’ Village belongs to the NCAC.
“They took on the building one by one,” he says of the demolition process. “The carpentry workshop of NCAC was pulled down Osioma Williams has a lot of sculptural pieces there. The bulldozing lasted for about two and a half hours.”
Wole Soyinka also condemns in strongest terms the demolition of the village. He says democracy means being humane with policy making and the execution of those policies.
“The idea is to relate to other people like human beings not like debris to be discarded. I think we must begin by discarding that mentality. At the moment I am not apportioning blames. But we should know who is responsible, who authorised the police. At no time did I receive any slightest hint about the action. In the process, we have to discuss the issue of compensation. And if that is not done, the artistes must be prepared to go to court to seek for redress of the destruction of their works.”
Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture visited the scene of destruction on Monday for a personal assessment of the damage done.
The minister who had earlier sent his team to do an assessment of the damage says he would make sure the story of the Artistes’ Village is like that of the proverbial King’s palace raised my fire but rebuilt with an uncommon beauty (Ile Oba To jo, Ewa Lo Bu Si).
“It will be an Artistes’ Village that will boast of art studio, decent market and we will have an auction house. Arts and Culture has placed the country on the world map. Now that we have dwindling fortune in sports, there is nowhere in the world where the works of Nigerian artistes are not celebrated. It’s our responsibility our responsibility as a government to provide the enabling environment. Let us eschew bitterness and politics. We are all partners in the quest to put arts and culture on the world map,” says Mohammed.
Aremo Tope Babayemi who spoke on behalf of artistes who were affected by the demolition took the minister on a tour of the village showing him some of the damaged works. He told the minister the artistes’ Village houses about 58 arts companies use the village for their theatrical products while some others own arts studios.
“We are happy to have you here in our midst to see where we work. There are many art studios here. This village has produced many artistes who have travelled abroad for residency programmes in the arts. Many of the productions here have been staged before presidents, governors, ministers and they have been taken abroad. It is for this reason this Artistes’ Village is important to us,” he says.
The artistes hope government will make good his promise to help restore and rebuilt their natural habitat. The place all the productions that have been staged before Presidents, governors in Nigeria and around the world have been put together.