From the Pangs of Pandemic, African Creatives Are Closing the Division Gap

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CULTURE
Steve Ayorinde

Luxor, the beautiful Egyptian resort city, was probably the last place Africa converged for the arts, before the pandemic forced the world to stand physically apart. It was the 9th edition of Luxor African Film Festival, one of the most engaging platforms where African films North and South of the Sahara and from the Diaspora, with the professionals behind them, interface with unrestrained sense of camaraderie.

It had opened well on March 6 with a fabulous open-air ceremony, bringing Africa together in spite of the new virus, which was then ravaging China and a few cities cities in Europe.
As at that time, it was all news to most part of Africa as only a couple of major cities had recorded index cases of infection, from Europeans who flew in into the (African) continent. But, barely mid-way into the festival, about a dozen cases had been discovered on a cruise boat in Egypt. More suspected cases were being recorded in other African cities.

Worries were palpable!
Then a directive came to suspend all schooling and public activities in Egypt to guard against community spread of the virus.

The Jury, on which I had the privilege to serve alongside great African names like film ditector Gaston Kabore and actress Mainouna N’diaye, both from Burkina Faso; Egyptian actor, Mustafa Shaven and Tunisian director Saad Chraibi, had to view the rest of the films in the hotel in order to select winners, when public screenings were suspended.

The festival eventually ended almost abruptly, two days to the official closing ceremony, due to safety reasons.
Winners were still announced and guests, every shade of filmmakers making Africa proud, might have departed with a heavy heart, not sure of what the future held, but were all united in chorusing the fact that African creatives must come out of the pandemic as a united entity, closer than ever before.

Three months after, the world has been hit very hard by COVID-19 and Africa, as predicted, has not been spared. Creatives and stakeholders in the arts and culture sphere, like their travel and tourism counterparts, had been most hard hit. Cinemas, theatres, concerts, festivals and every form of shows were cancelled. Even as lockdown protocols are being relaxed in most African states, arts spaces remain shut.
Nigeria has just given the approvals for places of worship to reopen. But the shows still can’t go on for the artists.

No work, no direct palliative, no relief package to cushion the effect of these unusual times on millions of artistes and culture workers for whom the curtain had been temporarily drawn since March.
But the spirit of the artists and creatives in Nigeria, like all across Africa, has remained unbroken.
Two important lessons have emerged from the debilitating effects of the pandemic in African creative sector: the wheel of the arts must never grind to a complete halt and the need to close the gap of separation and disunity has never been more imperative. Technology, therefore, has become the thread connecting the two positive news arising from the pandemic.

First, artistes showed empathy and invested their time, resources and support in bringing awareness on the corona virus to the general populace and how to avoid it.
In Nigeria, #staysafe #stayhome hashtags were largely driven by artistes who recorded beautiful promotional clips from home, while observing physical distancing.

And in contrast to the images of excruciating pain and trauma that flooded the television screens from the US and Europe, artistes (musical) were creatively engaged in Lagos to provide a soothing balm to hundreds of persons being treated at the various isolation centres in Nigeria’s sprawling commercial centre of Lagos.

From London, the award-winning Nigerian filmmaker, Obi Emelonye, shot his latest project, Heart2Heart, a nine-minute short film on mobile phones and directed via Zoom application and then premiered it on YouTube. All done while London and Lagos were on lockdown in April, it became an instant inspiration for other filmmakers especially the younger generation.

About the same time, the Nigerian filmmaking couple, Daniel Ademinokan and Stella Damasus, from their US base, decided to release their last film, Between, on YouTube during the lockdown, after they failed to get it signed on by Netflix. In a couple of weeks, it had crossed a million views, a record for a 2018 film now released at a period when the human spirits were low and the atmosphere was distressing.

Yet, theatre too found its way into the positive narrative space. Two good examples suffice. Bolanle Austen-Peters drew almost a 100,000 audiences to YouTube one Sunday evening in April, during lockdown, to see the beauty of culture and tradition in her successful Moremi, the Musical play.

This came just few weeks after Qudus Onikeku’s Dance Gathering festival in March was forced to go online with a series of visual bazaar, dance classes and streaming of their past performances.

Not to be left out, award-winning filmmaker and director of October 1, Kunle Afolayan, who had to endure a two-month break on the construction of his million-dollar, multi-purpose corporate headquarters, KAP-hub, in the heart of Lagos capital, had to join the online bazaar with his weekly masterclasses on filmmaking.

The curtain might have been temporarily drawn, but the beat never actually stopped for once in the Nigerian creative space. Series of unbroken, resilient spirits emerged daily, unbowed to the unseen virus ravaging the earth.

The drive-in concept soon folllowed in May, in Lagos and Abuja, the federal capital territory.
Lagos had its first drive-in cinema experience on Saturday May 30 at the Lekki Coliseum.
Abuja, with a new private company, PlayDriveIn, leading the pack, had the car park of Hilton hotel temporarily coverted for series of drive-in shows. There was the staging of “Grip Am”, Prof. Ola Rotimi’s hilarious play; a concert by StylePlus and the screening of talk-of-the-town Living in Bondage sequel. Drive-in concept has come to stay in Nigeria!

Constructively too, the pandemic has helped in closing the gap among Nigerian and African creatives and has encouraged perhaps an unprecedented level of interactions and discourses, thanks to Zoom webinars and all forms of virtual meetings.

The African Film Consortium (AFC), one of the truly pan-African WhatsApp groups for African filmmakers and creatives, takes the lead in this regards with at least five Zoom meetings so far.
Many other WhatsApp-based film, tourism, arts and culture groups have also taken to Zoom webinars, with the sole purpose of unchaining Africa from the pangs of the pandemic.

Rather than be down and weary, Nigerian creatives have found a voice on the social media, so much so that both Instagram and Facebook reportedly updated their financial rewards template for popular viewing posts.
Instagram live chats particularly grew exponentially while the country obeyed lockdown and social distancing rules.

Other than news reports, live television programming was meant to be dead during the lockdown. But continental giant, DStv, would have nothing of that. It is proceeding with the audition for this year’s edition of Big Brother 9ja reality TV show. And on Monday June 1, to whet viewers appetite, started screening the reunion episodes of last year’s housemates in a special live programme where social distancing and face mask protocols were observed.

It is, perhaps, a way of reading the audience’s mind saying in the Nigerian street lingo “I cannot come and die,” an expression that encapsulates the undying spirit of an average Nigerian always choosing to keep on enjoying life when challenges are most harsh.

To document useful experiences from women perspectives, the Ladima Foundation in conjunction with DW Akademie at the end of May called for submissions of two-minute entries from women filmmakers across Africa showing positive stories of how womenfolk surmounted the odds during the COVID-19 pandemic.Ten entries will win cash prices and streaming deals.

Validation came too by nationals and multi-national institutions.
For Nigeria, direct cash paliatives might not have come to creative professionals and art institutions unlike the South African and Kenyan propositions. However, avenues have been provided by Nigeria’s federal government with a 20-member creative and tourism industry committee to collate reports on how the pandemic has affected the sector and recommend interventions that government can consider.

Lagos State Government similarly followed suit with its own six-member committee, led by popular thespian, Joke Silva, who had been a member of the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture Board for the past four years.
With the two committees and the expected roadmap document, Nigerian creatives expect that the need for stakeholders to speak with one voice and revisit the call for an Endowment for the Arts are some of the opportunities that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.

But nothing has been more instructive than the manner in which the African Union Commission celebrated the Africa Day on Monday May 25 with a collage of several virtual performances by various African artists, in collaboration with Mtv Base Africa, Trace Tv Africa and All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA), among others.

AU’s message was unmistakable: with Africa Day 2020, closing every gap of separation and provide bridges of bonding have become more imperative on the continent, and no virus should be allowed to stand against such resolve. That was the message that resonated at Luxor in March. It’s the same message that AU has validated across all of Africa’s 54 member-states.

• Ayorinde, a Lagos-based journalist and art aficionado, is the publisher of The Culture Newspaper (TCN)