A Quiet Revolution

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Dipo Salimonu

On Sunday evening the lights went out on Art X, West Africa’s first international contemporary art fair, which lasted the weekend. The extraordinary event was held in Nigeria’s Lagos, usually referred to as the country’s “commercial” capital. The lights went out literally, and deliberately, as almost an hour past when the exhibition was to end, enthusiasts and the curious still swarmed through the corridors taking in and taking pictures of the displayed pieces of art. On this weekend, as is increasingly the case, Lagos was a beehive of artistic and cultural rather than commercial activity.

Art X was a remarkable affair, the scope and audacity of its conception duly served by the deftness and care with which it was executed. As bewitching as the artwork on display, were the sparkling panel discussions, which illumined and informed, as well as entertained. Serving as bookends to these, were interviews, on separate days, of the masters Bruce Onobrakpeya, and El Anatsui. The former held court on Saturday afternoon in a magisterial manner at once self-assured and self-effacing, and the latter on Sunday with a winning charm for being at turns professorial and whimsical.

The distinction of the pieces of art was very high, with quite a few of astonishing virtuosity. Presented by artists and galleries from across the world, including from Mali, Ghana, South Africa they were painstakingly displayed in a way that achieved harmony despite representing diverse mediums. And from the United Kingdom came representatives of Sotheby’s and the Tate Modern, while critically acclaimed artists such as Victor Ehikamenor and Uthman Wahaab, and Ade Adekola were present throughout, mingling and explaining their work to all who inquired.

With this inaugural episode, Art X completes a triumvirate of pioneering platforms, which are inexorably re-defining the identity and ethos of Lagos, and that of Nigeria: The Lagos Fashion and Design Week had its sixth edition a week previous, while the Ake Arts and Book Festival will stage its fourth in a week, from 15-19 November, 2016.

These events have served to induct Lagos (Ake takes place in not far away Abeokuta) into a select club of international cities, such as London, New York, Johannesburg and Nairobi, modern day versions of Timbuktu and Venice, where thought leadership is driven, and where new ways of looking at old mores thrive. Further, the three platforms bring poise and coherence to the considerable but inarticulate soft power accruing to Nigeria from Nollywood, the local film industry and its ubiquitous movies.

Another inspiring aspect of these platforms is that they extend their ambit beyond their specific themes and have become leading crucibles for critical conversations addressing the most pressing societal issues of our time, more so than anything emanating from Abuja or the Lagos Marina, Nigeria’s political and business centres respectively.

Thirty years ago, government leaders, whether military or civilian, were the dominant actors on Nigeria’s socio-economic land-scape- they were the winners. The advent of democracy in 1999 eroded the power of government leaders only slightly- they now picked the winners rather than being them. Business leaders were able to compete in influence and power with government leaders but continued to depend on them for patronage or protection.

It is in the past ten years or so that a class of businessmen and women have emerged who do not depend at all on government, and prominent amongst these are the creative and cultural entrepreneurs, including in sectors such as Technology, Music, Publishing, and Arts and Culture. And for certain the future belongs to them, not to the old men of business and politics whose stock-in-trade is to seek consistently to control, curtail and categorise.

However, none of all of these subtle but seismic and inexorable changes constitute the revolution described in the title. Art X was the brainchild of Tokini Peterside, and Bisi Silva, its artistic director (Ms Silva is herself founder and director of the pivotal Centre for Contemporary Art). Omoyemi Akerele is the force behind the Lagos Fashion and Design Week while Lola Shoneyin founded and bestrides the Ake Festival like a colossus. Ergo the revolution: all are women.

Still, it is important to contrast this with another event I had the pleasure of attending recently- the launch of a report entitled “Women Matter Africa”, prepared by McKinsey & Company, the global consultancy, at an event in collaboration with Wimbiz, a Nigerian NGO “promoting entrepreneurship and development of women”. The report made for disturbing reading. It found that in Africa, women make up 22% of cabinet members; 29% of senior managers in business and that only 36% of promotions go to women. Worse yet, only 5% of CEOs are women. If humanity consisted of three or four different sexes between which roles were apportioned, these numbers would be disheartening. Because there are only two sexes, with women being the majority, what these numbers reflect is morally reprehensible and must be deemed intolerable.

It is necessary to juxtapose the drive and success of these entrepreneurs (along with their peers such as Bolanle Austen Peters, producer of Wakaa, the first Nigerian musical to show at London’s West End, and co-producer of 93 Days, a film about Nigeria’s scare with the Ebola epidemic) with how women fare in the corporate world, one supposedly more meritocratic than politics for instance. The verdict is clear: there cannot exist a true meritocracy in activity dominated by men. Even at business they will in the main find ways to perpetuate their interests and prejudices within the greater objective for profits.

Innumerable women thrive as leaders and entrepreneurs in banking, engineering, manufacturing and other sectors, and organizations such as She Leads Africa, and its founders Afua Osei and Yasmin Belo-Osagie, will ensure many more do the same. But even if women are better served starting their own businesses than submitting themselves to the biased structures and strictures of the corporate world and of Government, much has to be addressed in the latter two to achieve a balance, rather than the abhorrent status quo. This cannot be looked at as a diversity issue, or the sole province of feminists- it is a human rights issue and a human issue.

Nigeria is in the lull of a recession and many commentators have urged that the economy be “diversified”, a view so obvious as to render it asinine to repeat. It is time the conversation evolved past the “to” and shift to the “how” and the “by whom”. And as a society we would do well to realise that it is better to diversify the producers, rather than focusing on some amorphous “economy” and restricting the consideration of “diversity” to a matter of sectors. In a sense, just as Margaret Thatcher famously saying that there is no such thing as “society”, there is no “economy”- just men and women (and sometimes children) managing the resources of a country to produce products or services. The “Invisible Hand” as Adam Smith, the seminal economist, referred to it.

Consequently, it is futile to focus on outputs such as how many senators are women or not, while giving short shrift to the feeder systems and processes by which senators and CEOs emerge. Equality is best assured in the access to institutions and thus the opportunities, and not in the outcomes. Regulate the inputs and the outputs will be more uniform. For instance, Obinna Ukwani, a social entrepreneur, is working on a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) high school in Nigeria, which would be first of its kind, and has resolved to take in an equal number of male and female high- achieving students yearly. At this point in the history of our species, women have more than proven that their mettle extends light years beyond merely tipping kettles, and that their abilities and ambitions should not be restricted or subordinated in any way shape or form relative to that of men.

Back to Art X, Sunday’s penultimate panel discussion was about cultural entrepreneurship and featured a fascinating discussion moderated by Tokini Peterside. The afore- mentioned Bolanle Austen-Peters, was joined by Mo Abudu, a talk show and movie producer, and Reni Folwaiyo, the patron of Lagos’s Alara, a sumptuous space for Afrophiles and African aesthetes.

As a man listening to learn, I found Tokini’s Peterside’s line of questioning insightful and thought provoking. Her questions sought to excavate the experiences of the panellists as women who are entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs who happen to be women, as well as their experiences as cultural entrepreneurs. Of particular resonance was an intriguing and compelling duality expressed: wanting to succeed “despite” that they were women (given societal attitudes on what women should aspire to) and at the same time, ‘because’ they were women (drawing a particular strength from the authority and potency of their gender).

It was clear that these women seek neither support from men, nor their imprimatur, and less still, their tokenism nor validation. And that this is exactly at it ought to be. What they ask is for people (be they men or women) to get out of their way, and stay there, without cause to apologize or be repudiated for this ask. And to let their efforts, energy and aspirations determine how they fare and where they end up. As said Reni Folawiyo, at a crucial point, “I don’t want to sell shoes, I want to rule the world.”
And why should anyone, other than herself, be able to stop her?