ktravula – a travelogue!

art. language. travel

With Odafe Atógun and Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

On Sunday, May 14, 2017, I hosted a book chat with two debut authors Odafe Atógun and Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. It was organised by Ouida Books, the Nigerian publisher of their two novels Taduno’s Song and Stay With Me respectively. They also share a publisher in the UK and in the US.

Atogún is a full-time writer who was born in Lokoja and studied Journalism in Lagos while Adébáyọ̀, though born in Lagos, has lived in Ilé-Ifẹ̀ and Iléṣà where her novel was set. I have enjoyed reading the two books, which deal with love against the background of a social upheaval.  They have a number of other similarities and many differences. For a start, Atógun’s book mixes elements of fantasy and magical realism with into the plot while Adébáyọ̀’s book goes the route of traditional plot, though with a twist on the narrative style and direction in time.

This is not a review of the novels. That will come later. But I enjoyed talking to both authors who are also smart and lovable human beings. I look forward to sharing more thoughts on the books in coming days. The event was held at Patabah Bookstore on Adéníran Ògúnsànyà street, Súrùlérè, with a full house of attendees.

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184 Poets Vie for the Nigerian Literature Prize

Today in Ikeja, the entries for this year’s NLNG Nigerian Literature Prize were delivered to the judges at an open ceremony. They contained entries by one hundred and eighty-four (184) Nigerian poets vying for the Literature Prize and five (5) literary critics vying for the Prize for Literary Criticism. The two categories are worth $100,000 and N1 million respectively.

“The hand-over of the entries to the Advisory Board, chaired by Professor Emeritus Ayọ̀ Bánjọ, signifies the beginning of the judging process which culminates in the announcement of the winner in October 2017,” reads the press release put out after the event.

Handing over the entries, Dr. Kudo Eresia-Eke and Professor Ayọ̀ Bánjọ. Photo: SabiNews

Handing over the entries, NLNG’s General Manager, External Relations, Dr. Kudo Eresia-Eke, said the prize has inspired some 1,630 books of which 533, representing 32%, were submitted in the Poetry category since the inception of the prize in 2004.

It continues:

The number of entries for the 2017 edition exceeded the 2016 numbers, showing a six percent rise in the number of entries received…. The entries… will be examined on their merits of excellence in language, creativity and book quality.”

The panel of judges for this year’s awards is led by Professor Ernest Emenyonu who is a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint. He was Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Calabar between 1988 and 1990, and Provost (Chief Executive) Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri, between 1992 and 1996. He has taught in several Nigerian and American universities.

Other judges are Dr. Razinat Mohammed and Tádé Ìpàdéọlá. Dr. Mohammed is an Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Maiduguri. She teaches African Literature with specialization in Feminist Literary Criticism and Theoretical Approaches. She is an accomplished writer as well. Tádé Ìpàdéọlá won the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2013 in the Poetry category with his third volume of poetry, The Sahara Testament. A poet and a lawyer, Ìpàdéọlá has won several awards and is a resource person for the Rockefeller Foundation around Africa on building resilience.

Members of the Advisory Board for the Literature Prize, besides Professor Bánjọ, two-time Vice-Chancellor of Nigeria’s premier university, University of Ibadan, are Prof. Jerry Agada, former Minister of State for Education, former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, and Professor Emeritus Ben Elugbe, former President of the Nigerian Academy of Letters and president of the West-African Linguistic Society (2004-2013).

“The Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2005 rewarded eminent writers such as Gabriel Okara (co-winner, 2005, poetry), Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto (co-winner, 2005, poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2006, drama) for his classic, Hard Ground;  Mabel Sẹ́gun (co-winner, 2007, children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner, 2007, children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Kaine Agary (2008, prose); Esiaba Irobi (2010, drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Adélékè Adéyẹmí (2011, children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock; Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sister’s Street; Tádé Ìpàdéọlá (2013; Poetry) with his collection of poems, Sahara Testaments and Sam Ukala (2014; Drama) with Iredi War,” the press release concluded.

The Nigerian for Literature is Africa’s biggest prize with a cash reward of $100,000, which rotates yearly amongst four literary categories of prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature.

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Book Signing for Sefi Atta’s “Selected Plays”

Save the date! On on Sunday, May 7, 2017, Nigerian writer Sefi Atta will be signing her new book of Selected Plays at the Art Gallery, Freedom Park, Lagos.

Those familiar with her work will know that the author has been known mostly as a novelist. Her third book Everything Good Will Come won the 2006 Wọlé Sóyínká Prize for Literature. Yet, her work credit includes a number of stage plays most of which have been produced and staged in Nigeria and overseas.

Credits for her work in drama include both for the stage and for radio. The Cost of Living (2011) and The Last Stand (2014) were produced at Terra Kulture in Lagos while An Ordinary Legacy (2012) and The Engagement (2005) were staged at MUSON Centre. The Naming Ceremony (2012) and Hagel auf Zamfara (2011) were both staged at the Theatre Royal Stratford East London and Theatre Krefeld Germany, respectively.

She has also done a lot for radio, including The Wake (2013) for Smooth FM radio, A Free Day (2007), Mákinwá’s Miracle (2004) and The Engagement (2002) all for BBC Radio.

The public book signing will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

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A Walk to the Zayed Mosque

The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi was completed in 2007 after about 11 years of construction efforts, and about $545million to become the 21st largest mosque in the world by crowd capacity. On a typical Friday, it can host about 41,000 worshippers.

From my room at the Ritz Carlton where I was spending about a week, the view of the mosque dominated the evening, with specialized lighting constructed to reflect the phases of the moon. Luminescent from afar, inviting through the otherwise irregularly lit night, the Zayed Grand Mosque sat resplendent in the distance, refusing to be ignored.

So on one evening, on the day when dignitaries like the former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright were feted in an open ceremony on the lawn of the Ritz Carlton, with the outside temperature dropping significantly to a level familiar with an African’s skin, an opportunity presents itself for an evening walk.

From that hotel, where the security official at the gate merely saluted the stranger as he headed out by himself into an unknown town, the path to the main road was barely lit, but it lacked any overwhelming feeling of fright as guests returning from town drove back into the hotel and taxis headed out into town, occasionally taking a look at the walking traveller as if to offer a better option than walking in what seemed like evening heat. Lagos weather is typically more humid, so this was a more tolerable atmosphere.

On either side of the road were sprinklers that kept the grasses fresh and green, something that must cost a fortune to maintain all through the year, not just in water supply but also in electricity. In an off-site parking lot on the left side were a few cars that I wondered contained plain-clothed policeman awaiting orders about any skirmish in town, or lovers too shy or too broke to book a space in the hotel just a few feet away. To the right of the junction where the road from the Ritz met the highway was the Memorial Park, built to commemorate the death of soldiers who died defending the country in the March 2015 war with Yemen. On the Park is an imposing steel and concrete monument by Idris Khan, a British-Pakistani artist.

At the road, cars flew by towards various destinations. A few feet away to the left is a pedestrian bridge, lit on all sides to solidify the ambiance of security. At the foot of the bridge, built into its base, was an elevator, for elders, children, and the infirm. It looked like it hadn’t seen too much action.

Once on the other side of the road, the mosque emerged within reach. But it was only on getting to its southern steps that one realizes that visitors are not allowed entry through there, even though there are no gates. The security officers there, Indian by their looks and accents, were firm but polite. “Walk all the way”, they said, “by the wide ornamented fence of the premises as if navigating the whole circumference of the mosque grounds. You’ll get to the visitor’s gate, also called ‘the northern parking entrance'”.

To get into the mosque itself, I had to pass through a metal detector. Not knowing better, I tried to take off my shoes as well, and the security man laughed at me. “This isn’t America, my friend.” I found it funny and asked where he was from. “Morocco”, he said.

“What about you?”

“Nigeria. Know about us?”

“Yes. Football.”

***

My feelings on entering the mosque itself have not found easy expression within words. But I concede now that an unfair collision of a perfect weather, full moon, and a highly anticipated contact with this building may have added too much to the most perfect first experience. resulted in so perfect an evening.

What WonderMondo described as the scope and ambition of the construction as “a structure that would unite the cultural diversity of the Islamic world with the historical and modern values of architecture and art” lived up to its expectation but much more in the way it carried the dignity of the faith it represented and the expectation of awe that its imposing nature adds to one’s contemplation of solitude while within its embrace. I still haven’t found the right words, but if the intention behind the construction included creating a serene space for contemplation of a version of paradise, then it is a successful experiment. I assume, thinking about it now, that most places of worship across cultures have aspired to that physical architectural effect

I have experienced this feeling before, at one time while observing the mosaics inside the ceilings at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis . The difference here is the scope of the ambition and the archetypal spread that Muslim prayer grounds have typically worn to maximize the smooth passage of breeze. Add to that, a reflecting pool, columns with Arabic calligraphy, marble carvings that go all around the face of the building, and a sense of serenity that surrounds the expectation of piety from worshippers and visitors. It was perfect.

But I was a visitor, and not a worshipper. My agnosticism stood me out, at least in my mind, as an outside gaze into a least familiar space. But like others, I took off my shoes where necessary, and took a tour of the inner chamber where prayers are done every Friday, where all and sundry gathered weekly to submit as the prophet instructed. At that innermost chamber was a rug, the world’s largest carpet, believed to measure 60,570 sq ft,  created by around 1,200-1,300 carpet knotters, and weighing 35 tonne. Without shoes, its soft soothing face massaged my feet as it did others. A security man stood around a rope line preventing visitors from going too far into the centre of the room where, perhaps, the lead Imam led the prayers from every Friday. I imagined too, that this must have been where Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the founding father and first president of the UAE, and in whose honour the mosque was built and named, prayed every week.

He died in 2004, leaving a progressive Islamic country with a culture of (or at least a genuine aspiration to) openness and multiculturalism. Many other structures in the country, and in the hearts of his subjects and children, bear his name. At the Culture Summit where I first encountered his name, an anecdote was told of him having to, some time ago at the founding of the country, park by the side of the road in order to correct someone who had climbed a date palm tree in a way that he, Sheikh Zayed, felt was harmful to the tree. A conservationist, then.

Outside of this mosque, in a small mausoleum constructed for the purpose, lay the rest of him, many feet under the ground. Into the air above where his body lay beneath the marble grounds, loudspeakers blared sequences of Arabic prayers in perpetuity, and a small camera stayed trained on a good view of the small enclosure.

You shouldn’t take pictures here, I was told, much too late.

The mausoleum of Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the founding president of the UAE.

***

The walk back to the hotel was filled with calm recollections of whatever else the night held in store. One of the other random thoughts that entered my head asked why only religious centres benefited from this kind of architecture that invited meditation and reverence. What if, it wondered, bookstores and libraries were also built with this kind of spacious and elaborate architecture in which one could spend many hours just longingly gazing into images of marble and the sentences of Shaw or Chaucer?

I had not taken a book along to the mosque, and suddenly I wished that I had.

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Art at the Guggenheim

Abu Dhabi, from distant (and ignorant) estimation, didn’t seem like the most natural place to find a Guggenheim Museum. It’s in an Arab country appearing, at least from preconception, to be necessarily hostile or at best reticent. True I’ve heard great things about Dubai and the progressive nature of that society. But like most things not encountered in the flesh, they remained in the realm of hearsay, hovering around the globally pervasive perceptions of all Arab countries as just one thing: conservative.

But all misconceptions eventually meet reality and knowledge happens. It must be what Mark Twain meant by travel being “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” And so, on my week-long visit to the country to participate in the inaugural Culture Summit, I found myself in the embrace of a Guggenheim Museum. This museum project, and the other involving the Louvre Abu Dhabi, is a collaboration with the government of the United Arab Emirates and prominent culture centres around the world to make Abu Dhabi a cultural centre in the Middle East.

I am not a visual artist. Not since primary school anyway. My contact with and appreciation of the visual arts have stayed consistently close to the familiar activity of gawking, collecting, and critiquing – the latter only in my head and among like-minded friends. I have found solace, many times, in the warm presence of a well-stocked museum or well-curated art exhibition. The environment for meditation that they provide and the visual stimulation guaranteed in a well-lit studio space while observing mounted artworks are unquantifiable pleasures of middle-class life, at least for those to whom that is a worthwhile activity.

And so, when I got a chance to spend some time at the exhibition space holding the temporary collections of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi at Manarat Al Saadiyat, I needed no convincing. This location, on the famous cultural district of Saadiyat Island which hopes to also host other venues of cultural significance like the Louvre previously mentioned, is where much of the activities for the Culture Summit was taking place. One open door away and we were face-to-face with timeless pieces of art as Jacques Villegié’s Quai des Célestins (1965) or Tanaka Atsuko’s Painting (1960).

On the first wall to the entrance was Chiinsei Botaichui (Female Tiger Incarnated from Earthly Shady Star), oil on canvas, by Shiraga Kazuo, a work created with “bold swathes of sombre colours with tactile density”. The work, we were told, was created with the artist’s feet, seeking “to liberate his work from the constraints of academic-style painting” and “in order to re-conceive the process of painting as an experimental encounter with materiality and surface.” What appears on the board at times resembles a flying bat, and at others an angel of death. But an amateur art critic – me – projecting his impressionistic sentiments on a modern experimental work offers no new value to what the work already presents. The artist was born in 1924 and died in 2008.

Through the museum space, there are other exhibits, like work by Motonaga Sadamasa, another Japanese artist (1922-2011) whose work used poured paint, depending on gravity to “replace the paintbrush and foregoing the precise and deliberate meditation of the artist’s hand.” The third and final Japanese artist exhibited was Tanaka Atsuko (1932-2005) whose work of Vinyl paint on canvas “evokes the incandescence of the dress (and) intricate network of wires and bulbs reflect (an) interest in (the) technology of wiring systems and lights.”

At the centre of the opening space are two kinetic works by two German artists. Gunther Uecker’s New York Dancer evokes the African egúngún without acknowledgment. It is a work “consisting of a piece of cloth draped over steel rods and covered with long outwards-facing nails.” The other, by Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) is called Baluba, a dancing piece of scrap metal “meant to portray a certain craziness and rush in this technological civilization”. Both of them, though not activated at the time but shown through a small television in their kinetic elements, felt familiar in a visceral way that most of the others didn’t. A walk through the Polytechnic Ibadan, or the Yaba College of Technology, will bring the traveller in contact with many similar kinetic and scrap metal artworks of like impression.

New York Dancer

Other artists whose work were on display included Niki de Saint Phalle, Jacques Villeglé, Julio Le Parc and Rasheed Araeen. For a temporary exhibition space, it was an impressive introduction. Outside of the museum space, at the reception area where participants in the Summit gathered, there were other artists, from Adéjọkẹ́ Túgbiyèlé (Nigeria/New York) to Jalal Luqman (Dubai) and Cristina del Middel, among others. Here at the Guggenheim, however, very little (except the age of the displayed collection, and a small reception desk) tells the visitor that s/he has crossed over into a new art space.

The most surprising, and most breathtaking work in that museum, however, was Anish Kapoor’s My Red Homeland, an installation that filled a whole room. It was a wax “sculpture” simulating a mound of red garbage stirred continually by a centralized mechanical arm. The description situates the concept of the piece in both the image of blood as well as the colour of saffron, an iconic symbol in India, from where the artist hails. For art enthusiasts to whom Kapoor’s most famous work is The Bean in Chicago, My Red Homeland was a welcome reprise, more impressive at close range, and equally awe-inspiring to the breadth of the artist’s vision and ambition.

My Red Homeland by Anish Kapoor

I purchased a few fridge magnets on my way out. Something to impress friends and family with. Something not necessarily representative of the scope of the ambition and inspiration of the exhibition just witnessed. Merely representative. The New York Dancer on a fridge magnet is certainly less bewildering as a work unconsciously derivative of ancient African masquerade experiences. But like others, it will mark my refrigerator as a symbol of another place I’ve been, another mind-enlarging artistic experience, not less, not more, than previous others in other parts of the world. But having experienced it in Abu Dhabi, an emerging cultural capital of the world, adds a new dimension not experienced anywhere else.

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