April 9, 2020

Terra Kulture… Those dream-full days

By Jahman Anikulapo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I MAY not be sure why it had to happen that night, but I am certain it was the banker, Fola Adeola, who first introduced her to me. And this was in Abuja, close to 20 years ago.

It was at a cocktail to mark the meeting of the Culture arm of the Tony Blair Commission to which Adeola was Chair. The house was filled with the creative types as well those involved in diverse aspects of the cultural economies of Nigeria. I recall that I had been standing in a corner with two old acquaintances – the fine artist, Ndidi Dike and the advertising executive Julia Oku, when Fola literally pulled her over, and declared: “let me introduce Bolanle to you, a lawyer… she has some great visions for the arts”. The young-looking, lithe lady in fact just left her international job with the UN to devote time to the arts, continued Fola in almost same breath.

It probably did not sink first… I mean if you have been an arts reporter for nearly two decades and used to hearing of “big dreams” for the arts – especially by ‘outsiders’ — that often ended as mere wishful thinking, you would be excused for being skeptical and cautious in swallowing such flowery projections. But there was something strikingly different about the woman standing before me. It wasn’t her sure, remarkable beauty that impressed better with her focused gaze as we exchanged pleasantries. It was not her bright coloured dress that stood out that night in the mix of top grade guests, but her sheer determination to continue the conversation.

I recall Bolanle launching straight into the narrative of what she thought she could, or desired to do. She wanted to run an arts centre, she had informed. I think my mind quickly framed her as, okay, a wannabe owner of an “artshop – the type that abound in Lagos, some of who often claimed they were art promoters when what they do in reality is run a shop that merely sells crafts, a few paintings and sculptures; and such sundry art materials.

Bolanle Austen-Peters (above)

“Her vision began to crystallise into what would be regarded as perhaps the first true all encompassing and purpose-built art centre in Nigeria.”

But the deeper the conversation proceeded, the more it became clear that Bolanle had indeed honed her vision with the project outline in focus. In fact the building that would house the centre was already in a very advanced stage. I darted a few journalistic questions to her about her plan, mischievously to tweak her into discomfort, but she answered quite succinctly. Yet the curiosity persisted: why would she leave an obviously illustrious career with the United Nations to return home and run an Art Centre — of all ventures?  The skeptic reporter again… perhaps she is yet another bored person who just wanted something to occupy her time with art retailing. After all, the city is filled with all sorts of fashion and pseudo-flea shops run by always-absent Madams  — the one my friend referred to as ‘’bored housewives for whom harangued husbands had opened a shop just so to maintain sanity at home!!!

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WE were still exchanging notes when Fola Adeola called the house to order. After briefing on his conviction that the arts would be an investment destination in the decades to come in Africa, he referenced his illustrations by spotlighting Bolanle’s daring but bold initiative to launch an art centre… and this was when the name first sank… Terra Kulture! I thought what I had heard from Bolanle herself was Terra Cotta, which was probably why I thought of the venture as a mere art shop.

Fola eventually introduced a certain gentleman, named Austen-Peters, who had done some tremendous work on the Pension Reforms bill then newly initiated by the Obasanjo government. He was the odd man out, I mean not in the creative circuits, but he was Bolanle’s ‘sideman’.

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Terra Kulture Arena; the crowning achievement of 17 years of work

THE formal presentation ended with a few goodwill messages, and the Cocktail sort of reconvened. I walked my feet back to the corner where Bolanle and her husband were now engaged with some other guests. I waited the time out, and eventually secured her attention to continue the exchange. Still flaunting that brightness in her eyeballs, she told me more about the plan…

She appeared to be more excited about the idea of a language school that would “teach our children our languages”. I sensed she was worried that a lot of children and youths were not being sufficiently exposed to their native language, and were becoming citizens of other worlds. She spoke about the emerging media-vaunted fashion-sense through which many young people preferred to dress half-nude. What were we doing with our traditional textile materials and dress designs? she queried. She thought the intervention of her vision could help to address these and many more.

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WE were still chatting when dinner was served. Bolanle disclosed her plan to have a space in the proposed centre that would serve authentic Nigerian dishes. She thought that the fast food shops that were then opening up in torrents in Lagos and other key cities of the country might be launching us into an unhealthy Macdonald’s terrain, in which… again… the youths would be groomed with “all manner of junks” that could lead to unhealthy lifestyles.

It was obvious that much of Bolanle’s concerns were the effect of the cultural choices we have collectively made concerning both our youths and others not so youthful but vulnerable.

She provided during that chatter, at terribly short notice, some memoir of her upbringing. Though of the ajebutter type, considering her familial pedigree and personal carriage, she said her father (I did not even know who the father was then, and didn’t know until nearly a year after this encounter) and mother insisted that the children must be steeped in the norms of their cultural roots. Even while attending ivy leagues abroad, the children were made to learn and speak their language properly and to appreciate values associated with their culture. She was happy she went through such a mill and wished that every young person were thus so properly exposed.

Where she had lived and worked in her previous career, she encountered quite a lot of young Africans who had gone lost into other peoples’ ways of life, and were thus conflicted in identity. 

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WE talked a lot more about the state of the arts enterprise in the country… She was convinced that the arts could indeed be profitable. She obviously had it all worked out. Her vision for the various aspects of the arts was crystal clear. And she had the confidence to express her opinion, even sounding acerbic in some way.

As the night wore on, we drifted off separately into other conversations with other guests. But we arranged to meet at other times in Lagos. She handed me an assignment. She wanted me to come up with some ideas on what the art centre could do in its envisioned programming.

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BACK to Lagos, the thought of this encounter with this remarkable lady continued to haunt me. Aside reflecting on her words and plan as part of the prospects that the Tony Blair Commission offered for Nigerian art, I had made a mental note to work on the assignment. Thus in consultation with an old accomplice and dream sharer, Ropo Ewenla – actor, singer and art activist — we had come up with a one-page proposal on what the arts centre could consider in its programme design. Among these was a weekly theatrical event that would operate as a repertory. Fortunately, a year or so earlier, in 2003, I had handled a research for an international organization on state of live theatre in Lagos, and one had identified at least about 10 young/new production companies that were actively engaged in live theatre productions.

With Ewenla we listed these companies but recommended that a pilot scheme for a year could start with two companies – Crown Troupe of Africa led by the dance artiste and then theatre arts undergraduate of the University of Lagos, Segun Adefila and, Jason Vision – the precursor to Renegade Theatre, led by the lawyer, playwright Wole Oguntokun. The plan was that each of these companies would run their show at every alternative weekend. We also proposed a midweek Poetry and Jazz session… Spoken Word performance was just becoming a big deal then, especially after Goethe Institut had in collaboration with the Culture Advocates Caucus produced two editions of the big-stage-live-poetry session called WordSlam. The poet Sage Has.son, whose recorded work and personage was assuming celebrity status at the time was proposed as one who could hold/host a monthly performance poetry session. Also proposed was a monthly showcase of highlife music ostensibly influenced by the then Benson Idonije-hosted monthly Great Highlife Party (Elders’ Forum), which had started three years earlier at the Ojez Restaurant in Iwaya, Lagos, and to which our organization the Committee for Relevant Art, CORA, had been a collaborator with management of the restaurant.

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” ‘Fela and the Kalakuta Queens’ on Stage: I thought perhaps she was yet another bored person who just wanted something to occupy her time with art retailing.”

THE presentation of the programme proposal to Bolanle was the first time I visited the facility, and I recall my marvel at how integrative the entire concept was: there was the restaurant bounded by the bookshop cum library… I recall that the ramp that leads to the upper gallery had just been freshly painted and the smell of naked paint was so powering. The shelves in the library were in place but no books yet. My eyes caught the exotic seats, which I thought at the time were made of all sorts of junks and found objects. In the rooms upstairs were a few paintings, which looked like they had been yanked off the owner’s living room, and propped up against the walls of the would-be gallery to signify the purpose for which the rooms had been created.

Quite fascinating was the large room at the back of the main building and; I recall thinking that it was a multi-purpose hall that could be the commercial nerve of the facility. But my chaperon, Bolanle, enlightened that it was meant to be primarily for performances. She gave assurance that the equipment that would make it serve its desired purpose would be installed in no time. I had noted that there were no back stage… and that seemed to be where we both agreed that it was indeed meant to serve other purposes beyond mere theatre facility. But then my excitement-soaked tour-guide literally dragged me on to the back of the premises where she showed about four rooms that she said would serve as changing rooms and lounge for artistes in the night and classrooms for the language classes in day time, and especially when schools are on holiday.

She threw further light on her plan. I noted too that it wasn’t only me she gave such detailed explanation to. A group of other people, mostly ladies, came in; I suspect I saw former Multichoice spokesperson, Ms. Labade (later of Oando Petroleum), and Bolanle took the group on yet another tour of her dream… perhaps it is right to say she was the official tour-guide in those early dream-full days; and she performed the otherwise tiring role with this broad smile on her face and subtle elegant gait that one would mischievously call the BAP-swag or BAP-bounce… cool but sweeping… covering the entire ambience of her surrounding with that deep gaze from those generous eyes.

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ALL through this encounter, what was most engaging was the affective certainty with which Bolanle reeled out her vision and conviction about the project she was embarking on. And this at a time when there was a growing concern within the artistic circle about the looming pall of darkness foisted by the indecorous proposal of the Federal Government to sell the National Theatre of Nigeria, because in their philistine thinking a theatre structure of that size was anomalous to their jaundiced economic vision! The proposed sale had resulted in serial public protests by a vocal but critical section of the artistes community, plus countless representations to the Bureau of Public Enterprise in an attempt to let them detour from the regressive prospects of their planned action. The uncertainty that surrounded the fate of the prime cultural edifice in the country, of course, drove despair into the harangued soul of the creative community. Many artistes and culture workers who had been operating in the vicinity of the theatre complex began to flee into more comforting zones. There was a thriving visual art studio in the National Theatre complex, peopled by some of the country’s best painters and sculptors, that was literally haunted to its near-death. Live theatre performances that were the hallmark of the theatre complex in the 80s through mid-90s had dried out except for activities of National Troupe of Nigeria, which sustained a frequency from its repertoire; the local film industry that was experiencing a boom through the Nollywood hyper-active production culture but which had found a home at the Theatre with its weekend screenings had started to dwindle in enthusiasm. All these negatives were in spite of the energetic and resourceful management of the facility by Ahmed Yerima as Director General of National Theatre and National Troupe of Nigeria!

Many of these dislocated artistic resources had to find a new home, and Bolanle’s place opened its arms to embrace them. In particular, emergent Theatre producers found a home at the Terra Kulture, just as its gallery became the busiest – addressing a critical shortfall in number of galleries or exhibition centres where the multitude of visual artists could display their works.

Today, the gallery space offers an average of two exhibitions every month and it is over subscribed. There are countless other gallery spaces in the city of Lagos, but there must be a reason why the Terra space has become a top choice for many artists. I insist it has to do with the sort of treatment that the artists get in the place, and of course, the warmth with which the management embraces all the artists that patronize it. Besides, as a result of its inclusively integrative programme, the centre attracts an A-grade clientele that fits into to the artists’ desired patronage.

Within the first seven years of launching its weekly live theatre programme, Terra Kulture conservatively had hosted well over 200 plays that had featured over 1000 young theatre artistes who would have otherwise joined in the prevalent swirl of complaints about lack of space to discover their talents, hone their skills or express their creative productivity.

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IN all of this the emphasis of the Terra Kulture’s programme vision has been on the youths. Though shortly after it launched its theatre programme, the centre deviated from its original plan of making the facility available for a variety of theatrical production companies, the repertory tradition it sorts of accidentally established with the Jason Vision (later Renegade Theatre) has also helped to show the prospect of such a venture. The last time Lagos had a proper repertory facility was the 80’s days of PEC Repertory Theatre project promoted by the poet JP Clark, which helped to groom a particular class of theatre audience that ostensibly eventually fed into the Nollywood viewing demography.

The success of the Theatre@Terra venture apparently buoyed the confidence of Bolanle to contemplate the staging of a series of hugely ambitious and expensive theatrical projects: Saro The Musical, Waka the Musical, Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, Moremi the Musical…

Significantly again, majority of the cast and crew, especially young actors, dancers and musicians, are alumni of the Terra Kulture theatre academy – if one could use that term advisedly.

Though the library space was set up as an adjunct to the main operations of the Terra Kulture, one has seen it take a life of its own, becoming first a comfy reading room with one of the fastest internet connections in those initial days. Now it has grown to become perhaps one of the best stocked and most patronized bookshops, almost snuffing out the reading tables. This was perhaps the reason the former craft shop in the fore-section of the premises – itself an extension compelled by the swelling activities of the Terra Kulture — was converted to a reading room.

Talking about the craft shop, one of the most touching testimonies one had heard was from a gentleman called Mojeed Akangbe, a batik and adire dressmaker, who was one of the 25 odd beneficiaries of the Terra Kulture one-off small scale loan to craft makers. In a 2010 interview, Mr Akangbe revealed how the sum of 100,000 he got as support for his start-up helped to change the prospect of his business. He now campaigns his wares at cultural and touristic festivals around the continent. Some of the beneficiary start-ups received 150,000 while others got 250,000. It was a partnership between Terra Kulture and Ford Foundation. This is a vivid example of how to grow the circle of entrepreneurship and create sustainable economic value chain.

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I reiterate that it is instructive Bolanle’s dream was born about the time the Federal Government under Obasanjo fleshed up its insincerity in the handling of affairs of the culture sector –- ironically at a time when the creative industry began its upswing as an investible option to the mono-economy of oil. This was in the thick of a boom in production and consumption of Nigeria’s cultural products – films, music and fashion, especially — which had been established as the outset of a revamp of the creative sector of the economy. Also significant is the fact that her vision began to crystallise into what would be regarded as perhaps the first true all encompassing and purpose-built art centre in Nigeria. Her intervention thus has to be evaluated from this perspective of a light that shone brightly on a cast of cloudy universe of the arts in the country.

Thus when the trajectory of what has been identified as a possible renaissance of the arts and the creative industry in Nigeria in the 21st century is being constructed, Bolanle deserves a meaty credit as one of the very few people, especially non-practising artists, who sketched the initial script.

Particularly for the performing arts, perhaps the other interventions that had preceded Bolanle’s scale in the past are the various theatrical projects undertaken by Wole Soyinka and company in the 60’s days of Mbari Club in Ibadan, to Orisun Theatre days in Ife and the ebullient 80s when performance troupes flourished and had their own centres of performances, for example Ayota Art Centre in Ajegunle. The most recent would be the applauded intervention by the lawyer (these lawyers sef), Fred Agbeyegbe through his Ajo Productions years of 1983 through 1986. Agbeyegbe’s intervention executed through a congregation of some of the renowned names in the theatre of the 80s was historically significant, coming after the euphoria of FESTAC 77 had died off and the performance spaces, especially the National Theatre, yawned for action. Ajo Productions went on to produce a play a year, which then had repeated presentations at the Theatre. And in 1986, he consolidated the accomplishment by financing a month-long festival of the four plays produced since inception in what was then called Ajo Festival of Plays, a phenomenon of its time, and which impact still ricochet today.

“She was convinced that the arts could indeed be profitable. She obviously had it all worked out”

Over the decades, there have been other progressive initiatives in the course of the performing arts, but Bolanle’s intervention stands tall in that hall of honour –going seven years long, strong and steady, and fattening out in ambition, scale and scope with the proposed Terra Kulture Theatre complex dream that is now in the work.

I recall the kind words of the late Elder Artsman Steve Rhodes, Africa’s preeminent art impresario, uttered in 2006 — sitting in the Terra Kulture restaurant as he teary-eyed sought to settle a seemingly insolvent misunderstanding between Adefila and Oguntokun over use of the space:

 “We (artistes) may quarrel among ourselves for whatever reasons but in all we must not do anything to frustrate the labour of love that Bolanle has for our collective gains and the betterment of the arts of our country”.

Editor’s Note: This essay is a six-year-old piece, written in 2014, as a contribution to a proposed book on the 10th Anniversary of Terra Kulture.

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