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What makes Nigeria Africa’s cultural powerhouse?

Arts & Culture

What makes Nigeria Africa’s cultural powerhouse?

Nigeria is without doubt Africa’s culture powerhouse. But what gives this nation its incredible creative dynamism? Onyekechi Wambu argues that the roots of this creative energy have a 2,000-year pedigree.

Over the last 60 years Nigeria has been found wanting in many areas, but it has quietly succeeded in the area of culture and its projection abroad.

As a cultural powerhouse, it has produced a fertile literary landscape teeming with a never- ending supply of writers, including Chinua Achebe, the father of modern African literature; Wole Soyinka, the first Black Literature Nobel winner; Ben Okri, the first Black winner of the Booker Prize;  Bernadine Evaristo, the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize; and globally celebrated female novelists Buchi Emecheta and Chimamanda Adichie, amongst many others.

In storytelling and narratives beyond the page, there is Nollywood, a movie industry now producing the fourth-largest number of films in the world.

Diaspora actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, Cynthia Erivo and John Boyega have been plying their trade in the most lucrative and influential global movie industries, winning and being shortlisted for the top awards. They have continued a longstanding creative interplay between diaspora and home.

Musically, Fela Kuti and Burna Boy are icons who have produced unique beats that are sound tracks for the entire planet.

In art, Ben Ewonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili are amongst artists old and new who command huge prices and exhibit in world- leading galleries.

The recently deceased pair of Okwui Enwezor and Pius Adesanmi, alongside Teju Cole, are critics who have curated international biennials and contributed as public intellectuals to aesthetic-shaping forums.

Finally, in the religious sphere, the country has, surprisingly, produced leaders with pan-African and global ministries, shaping internal realities and belief systems – for better or for worse.

Drawing on a golden past

What lies at the heart of this massive cultural dynamism and projection? Is it purely a factor of Nigeria’s huge population, or the creative clash of its 250 different ethnic groups and languages?

This article goes beyond these two reasons, making the case instead that the country draws on the strength of a silent golden past, which nevertheless overwhelms the present.

It explains the confidence, some say arrogance, with which Nigerians confront the world and other dominant cultures, whether seen in the insistence on wearing their own recognisably Nigerian clothes or eating their own food in the local international hotel chains.

Despite this hardwired cultural confidence based on its golden eras, Nigerians themselves have not always fully processed, harnessed or explicitly integrated this incredible past into their current thinking. Were they to do so, as a national liberation project, the country would surely be even more of an unrivalled centre of global cultural excellence.

As the iconic freedom fighter and theorist Amilcar Cabral noted in his famous speech on the role of indigenous culture and national liberation: ‘The value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture… is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history…Ignorance of this fact may explain the failure of several attempts at foreign domination – as well as the failure of some national liberation movements’.

A tiger does not declare its tigritude, it pounces, as Soyinka famously said.

Cultural epicentre for two thousand years

The Nigerian cultural space has been for over two thousand years one of the epicentres of cultural production and technological innovation on the African continent. 

Its location in the southern part of West Africa straddles the savannah grasslands zone, the dense forest belt and the Atlantic coastal area, into whose mouth the mighty Niger and Benue rivers, spill their seeding waters at the end of long journeys. 

The physical borders encase many civilisations, languages, religions, cultures and peoples. Individually these societies have shaped the modern world, challenging for influence those other great historic African epicentres such as Pharaonic Egypt in the north, Kush/Ethiopia in the East, Mali/Songhai in the West and Great Zimbabwe in the South.

It has been an incredible 2,000-year journey, with four amazing and critical periods of cultural expression constituting the initial foundations, or the ‘fruits of the history’, as Cabral might remark.

Four historical creative centres

Chinua Achebe, in his frustration at the Nigerian paradox of potential and disappointment, commentated that one thought that kept him going, even at the moment of his greatest despondency, was that a country that had produced the Nok terracottas, as well as the Igbo Ukwu, Ife and Benin bronzes, which all involved artistic output of the highest standard, such a country, could do anything it wanted to. Its ongoing failings were entirely of its own making.

It is interesting to ponder a while on the impact that those four major creative centres in Nigeria have had on Black and African civilisation.

The aesthetic beauty and detailed craftsmanship of the treasures from all four centres is unparalleled, representing a span of over two millennia, encompassing the 900 BCE era of Nok; the 9th century of Igbo Ukwu; Ife from the beginning of the 12th century; and finally, the Benin treasures from the 15th century onwards.

The numerous Nok headpieces appear to represent every man, but are probably titled individuals; while the Igbo Ukwu treasures include the vases, amulets, snail shells and other stylised objects that belonged to a high-ranking titled Igbo king, who was buried Egyptian-style alongside his artefacts for the next life. 

Meanwhile, Ife and Benin provide insight into the court life and regalia of huge sophisticated kings and their kingdoms, within the walled city of the former. Imagine again the intrigues of the court, surrounded by poets, musicians, griot historians and seasoned orators that would have dominated these intellectual spaces.

Apart from the aesthetic quality of the pieces produced by this cultural milieu, what is also remarkable is that the four centres would have been centres of global technological and technical innovation and practice, given the expertise in metal-making, and moulding of the crude material to create such intricate and exquisite objects.

The fruit of history in the present

These four cultural centres, now spread across modern Nigeria in the Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and Edo cultural areas, with their own languages, have continued to play central dramatic roles in the unfolding development of the country, as well as globally.

Following the contact with the Europeans which kicked off the modern era, their peoples reinvented themselves, their materials and cultural outputs in the face of the slavery and colonisation projects that were unleashed against them.

These forces eventually impoverished the African world, destroying the power and cultural hegemony of the old civilisations. But they also globalised these African societies and people at the same time, by drawing on our primary raw material and labour to drive an emerging European dominated capitalist system.

What do you do as cultural creatives if you are no longer plugged into an internal economy or political structure that enables you to produce expensive bronze works or other state art outputs? You make do with what is available and turn inward.

The influence of Olaudah Equiano

A critical figure in understanding the emergence of this changed world is Olaudah Equiano, a young man from the language area influenced by Igbo Ukwu. Equiano wrote one of the first key texts capturing the internal realities of an African individual as he experienced this globalised world, following his kidnap, sale into slavery and his battle for his freedom. His book became a powerful weapon in the campaign against slavery.

Equiano’s influence was seen in other enslaved Nigerians in the diaspora, such as Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Bishop Crowther, a Yoruba man from the Ife language space, returned to the country after capture from Freetown, Sierra Leone and was pivotal in the Christianisation of the lower Niger area from the 1840s. 

He had a massive impact on shaping the new emerging culture – helping codify Yoruba and Igbo languages and writing not only the first Yoruba and Igbo grammars and religious primers, but also arguably the first written history of the Yoruba people. 

Meanwhile, other Yoruba diasporans would establish their Ifa religion in Cuba, Brazil, Trinidad and elsewhere. It extended African cosmologies to the Americas and became one of the few African religions, apart from voodoo, which are still practised in the New World.

Cultural giants: Achebe and Soyinka 

Nigerian literature was essential in shaping African internal and external realities in the modern world. On a popular level, the vernacular story telling would later inform the homegrown forms and narratives of Nollywood.

But on a classical level, it would be another person from the Igbo Ukwu language zone, who would produce a series of influential books that would book-end Equiano, at the end of the colonial period.

Chinua Achebe’s quartet, the masterpieces Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, as well as No Longer at Ease and Man of the People, have since become the modern psychological bridge for Africans and non-Africans to understand the recent past, the clash with Western civilisation, and also the crash into the post-independence period. 

Achebe probably played an even more influential role in terms of letters through his editorship of the African Writers Series, which published and promoted African fiction and non-fiction from across the continent to the modern world.

Chinua Achebe at the time of publication of his groundbreaking novel Things Fall Apart.

Where Achebe focused on rebuilding internal self-realisation, Wole Soyinka, the other key intellectual and literary figure from the Yoruba Ife language area, has engaged in a more outward adversarial posture.

He positions the ideas and philosophical insights of the Yoruba world to contrast with other great world civilisations such as Greece. He often projects this as a grand mission: “There’s joy in actually seeing the relatedness, the connectedness of different cultures or recognising, for instance, your own culture in another or another culture in your own culture and feeling an heir to all of them.”

Reflecting on the dual internal and external impact of these two cultural giants on storytelling and projecting African narratives, perhaps Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the new kid on the literary block, sums it up perfectly: “I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.”

A bridge to the past and a beacon for the future

In contemporary times, fusing together the cultures in this Niger area, the peoples have created vigorous new forms that have played hugely important roles across a number of cultural spheres, offering modern Africans an uninterrupted bridge to the past,

To look backwards, as the famous word ‘sankofa’ suggests, is also to provide the spur for conceptualising and imagining the potential of the future, whilst reflecting on the challenges of the present.

This is needed more than ever for the future.  By the end of the century Nigeria, with a population of 700m, will have the world’s second highest population. It is poised to project enormous cultural power as a result of these numbers. 

While it explicitly harnesses its resources to construct this future, it needs to remember another injunction from Cabral on the purposes of national culture: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefit, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”

Read more from our Nigeria at 60 special report

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