Monday, August 14, 2006


The following is culled from an interview granted by CORA to a national newspaper in January, 2006. The questions are nonetheless the kinds of questions that CORA functionaries have had to answer again and again, whether in private discussions or in public fora.

How long has CORA been in existence and what would you say have been your achievements till date?
The Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) came to life on June 2, 1991.

What exactly is CORA committed to?
It's a culture activist organisation with the agenda to do all its powers to help create an enabling environment for the flourish of the contemporary arts of Nigeria, in the forms of Literature, Theatre, Fine Art, Movie Making, TV Programme Design and Production as well as Music

Who are the people behind CORA?
It's a club of culture enthusiasts, really. The membership includes a working petroleum geologist, a newspaper editor, a finance lawyer, an architect, a literature scholar, a digital designer, two practising theatre artists, a painter/art curator and others whose interests are such they can't be pigeonholed. Even those whose vocations seem so clear also work in a multifaceted way that you can't say, well, they are strictly this or that. For example the newspaper editor is also a theatre artist and culture communicator, who is involved in the Tony Blair Commission for Africa. The architect writes a weekly column in a top quality magazine and has been selected for an intensive British Council sponsored writers internship. The geologist publishes a bi-monthly magazine and writes a weekly arts column; the finance lawyer writes for an oil and gas magazine and has written better literature reviews than some of the most noted literary critics in the land. The digital designer started life as a graduate of mathematics and has won a prestigious British Council facilitated international design award. One theatre artist runs his own theatre production outfit and works in the daytime for a human rights organisation. The other works for a Government Culture parastatal and writes full weekly movie articles for a leading newspaper. The artist/curator runs a design shop from his house. And there's a poet who is so fixated on his poetry that he runs a poetry association. This eclectic bunch makes up what we call the CORA Collective or Core Team. The age ranges from 45 to 21. But the average age is roughly 28. It is a 15 year old organisation. But it is a young body with a promising future.

How has CORA benefited the Nigeria Art World?
CORA is, at best, a facilitator of the sharing of ideas. We create the sort of interactions that lead to birth of ideas or sharpening of existing ideas. Some of the most forward looking initiatives in the Nigerian culture environment came out of CORA- organized talk shops. Among our programmes and activities are the following:

The Quarterly Art Stampede: This parliamentary event in which artists, art critics, art journalists and art connoisseurs gather to discuss hot burner issues in the arts and its 57th edition will hold in June;
The Annual Lagos Book & Art Festival: Dubbed "The biggest Culture Picnic on the Continent", LABAF is an art festival with a heavy book content and is a testament to the commitment of CORA that the only way to convert the ‘teeming’ population of Nigeria into a true human resource is to develop their minds. The 8th LABAF will hold in September, 2006.
Lagos – The City Arts Guide: This is a quarterly publication on the cultural life of the city of Lagos, arguably Nigeria’s culture capital and the entreport into the nation’s business and commercial industries. In its short time of existence, Lacag was already beginning to force on the consciousness of the practitioners in the culture setting of the city, the culture of disciplined schedule and calendar which is the hallmark of all advanced tourist countries of the world.
The Great Highlife Party: Held in conjunction with the management of O’Jez Nightclub, Surulere, Lagos, this monthly programme set out as a Highlife music revival forum and has additionally emerged as a forum for the celebration of landmark achievements of the best in the Nigerian cultural scene. Its 57th edition will hold in June.

We have also been collaborators on a number of other projects including - the BobTV annual Film and TV Festival, Abuja of which, starting from the 2006 edition, we are now the collaborators and resource facilitators for the colloquium; The Lagos Comic Carnival- the first edition of which we incubated in our Festival in 2004- an idea birthed by three CORA members in collaboration with the other group of young men and women creating a silent revolution in the newly developing area of comic publications and animation (they are so enthused they’ve started referring to it as an industry) in Nigeria.

What exactly is the Art Stampede all about?

There has been 59 Art Stampedes since we started. The Art Stampede is the best way to see what we mean by facilitating the sharing of ideas. The Stampede is a discursive platform, at which the burning issues of cultural production in the country are discussed by the artisitic community, or what you might call the cultural holoi poloi, every quarter.

Our very first stampede, held in Festac Town on June 2, 1991, had as its theme: What Literature? It problematised the issue of the quality of prose and poetry coming out of Nigeria. Writers tore one another’s works into shreds. Since then, the idea that Nigerian literature started and ended with Soyinka and Achebe started looking passé. We knew that people were writing and our discussants took a look at what they were writing. Nigeria may have won all the literary awards on the planet and that's almost true. But if you took a random sampling of the works of Nigerian writers; do you get a sense that ours is world class literature? That was what the stampede was about. One of the most recent stampedes was on the evolution of the Nigerian movie. CORA took the position that our home videos evolved from our TV soap operas (including the formats) and that the soap operas were coming from a tradition that started with The Village Headmaster, our first televised drama series. But we ended up discussing more about the distribution and piracy. We do take off on tangents at these discourses, but they help enrich whatever is in the air.

On the Lagos Book and Art Festival, what are the experiences like, since it started?
The Lagos Book and Art Festival is an advocacy idea; we are promoting the idea of people reading books; gaining knowledge, freeing themselves from ignorance. We have in it reading workshops for teenagers; panels discussions on contents of selected books; cross cultural exchange between Nigerian writers and writers from elsewhere in the world; book exhibitions and sales by publishers, book sellers, embassies etc; art and craft sales and art exhibition. Our audience keeps increasing year after year. 2006 will be our eighth edition.

Has it been good or disappointing?
It has been good in the sense that it is self-fulfilling for us.

Does CORA get sponsors for the festival?
Yes, enough to pay about a sixth of our total bill. It is a cheap festival; no more than Three or Four Million Naira. But all the income, including advert payments for our 24 paged brochure, never reaches One Million naira in a year. The rest we have to come up with, as individuals.

Over the years, has the conception of the Festival improved? If yes, in what ways for example?
Before 2004, we didn't think it'd be worthwhile to bring writers from other countries. But in 2005 we brought Antjie Krog, who is one of the top three South African writers, for a "literary duel" with Chris Anyanwu. We made sure that either of them read the other's major book. The "confrontation" was a blast. Krog, who is widely travelled, said she'd never experienced that sort of thing before. We also brought Chris Dunton, a British literature Scholar, from the University of Lesotho, to lead the discussion on Lagos in Nigerian Literature. The seminar was "Lagos in the Imagination". Also in 2005, we came up with the idea of a Book Trek which is a road show, sort of, of select books, both local and international, across almost all higher institutions in Lagos. It held in the two weeks leading to the Book & Art Festival.

What is CORA’s vision for the festival in 2006 and beyond?
This year we are hoping that we have a similar programme as last year. We’d love Akin Adesokan, author of Roots in the Sky to duel with Moses Isegawa, the Ugandan writer based in The Netherlands. Abbysinian Chronicles sort of rhymes with Roots In The Sky. Akin has read Abbysinian Chronicles, but we have only just mailed Roots In The Sky to Moses via his publishers in London. We hope he gets it. We hope he likes what we are doing. We hope he accepts our invitation. The other idea we are working on is having Karl Maier, author of This House Has Fallen; a damning book on the 1990s Nigeria, to come and dialogue with a panel of discussants. We are trying to evaluate, in full glare of the public, what foreign writers see when they pass through here. It’s not enough to dismiss these works as "Views from the Expressway". Let’s interrogate them.

How far has CORA gone with its library and reading promotions projects? Are there any functional libraries that CORA has set up as at this time?
No, and that's quite disappointing. We are looking to establish two libraries before this year comes to an end. The library is where we'd coalesce all our ideas about reading.

How important in your view are book clubs in the process of reading promotion in Nigeria?
Book Clubs are part of the extension service outposts in dissemination of the ideas in books. They are important. But they should go beyond the Victoria Island clientele, which they are now. How do you increase them and spread them out? By having libraries in all those big population centres: Oshodi , Ajegunle, Ipaja, etc. In those places you can't start book clubs without some place to gather. We are focusing on Lagos because it habours 10% of the Nigerian population. If Lagos is 15Million as they say it is, then having 15 well equipped, adequately staffed community libraries with community related activities along readership campaign in Lagos for a start is a much cheaper way to improve the ignorance of our people than building 15 schools.

Is CORA, as a body for the promotion of the arts in Nigeria ever going to introduce a writing competition in the near future, since they are in a better position to promote Nigeria writers?
We take it that ours is to facilitate improvement in the quality of writing; not test writing. To go to the first principle, we'd rather have reading activities in schools and in communities. But other organisations are doing that and we are keen on encouraging them.

You have carried on with this vision for quite some time now. Are there moments when you regret ever having begun? What kinds of things encourage you and what others cause you to be discouraged?
We are encouraged by the fact that people are doing things, around us that we'd said, 15 years ago, were possible and which in retrospect, we think we have willed to happen. 15 years ago, we worried about things like "Oh, the American Embassy is closing its auditorium against regular performing arts, or exhibitions". We worried that the places to go for the art show or an opera concert was the Italian embassy. For the most intellectual curatorship of art it was the Goethe Institut. But today, such places don't have foreign complexion anymore. You'd think of Nimbus and TerraKulture and Didi Museum if you want to engage Nigerian art. Those are owned by names like Chike Nwabogu, Bolanle Austen- Peters and Elizabeth Jibunoh. They have more programmes, individually or collectively, than the Goethe Institut. The opera venue, for those who want to see it, is Muson Centre, set up by a group of culture enthusiasts, some of whom come from Old Lagos money. These are things we have discussed at art stampedes. The ideas are taking flesh now.

Who is your ideal Culture and Tourism minister? What qualities should (s)he possess?
Someone who is ready to do the work, without being distracted by his own innate vanity. He doesn't need to be an artist.

Has the NLNG Prize made any difference in the Nigerian arts scene? What kind if any?
It is a good idea, no doubt. It is good for writers to compete to earn $20,000.00 as prize money. But it doesn't do more than just having a contest. So who were the winners of the 2004 award? Do you remember? What prizes do elsewhere is to link the writer with the market. This is why CORA chooses reading promotions and writers' workshops over writing competitions. In our view, the Nigerian Breweries Limited Reading Promotion campaign, which involved more than 200 secondary schools all over the country, is better as a capacity builder than an NLNG prize.

What should Nigerians expect in the 2006 Arts and Culture season?
It would improve, but not with any bang.

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