A Nigerian critic’s manifesto

by thepingofpong

Literary starter pack

Over on Facebook, an artist friend queried the paucity of reviews and reports on the art scene in Lagos. It led to the response below. As with most things social media, it isn’t the most edited piece existing in the world…I reproduce it here because someone on the thread asked that it be published somewhere. Here goes:

Part of the motivation for me to write reviews was the realisation that there was nothing of the sort when I was at the university. Yet each time I picked up Time, Richard Corliss was writing these forceful reviews of cinema, someone else was reviewing an album. Then Ikhide showed up propelled by Next. Good times.

And yet when this gets written I feel something akin to what you’ve written up there: that no one is paying attention. Actually, O, your post proves my point. In writing what you have I fear that you have dismissed some of the work a few of us have done. We write film and pop music reviews. Not your preferred form I know and maybe you have removed us from the people you address up there. But you know what they say about old women and brittle bones.

Suffice to say that it isn’t just the regular artists who are upping their game. While we labour in some kind of obscurity as your post perhaps hints at tangentially, critics, some at least, do want their work to receive the attention you mention. Not now but later. We, too, despair that it’ll never happen because we are where we are.

The true critic wants to write something that might even outlive the work itself. The best of us are trying to create art. It is why I don’t think highly of the newspaper column: too tied to the news and thus too disposable.

Now the problems: You have a legit complaint but I wonder if you’ll be as sanguine if you were on the receiving end of a harsh review. That aside, do you realise how hard it’ll be for a single person to do what you ask? I attended one or two programs at the festival and those were the free ones. You think any blasted critic has money to pay, to spare for these programs.

Fact is, to have any sort of authority to make pronouncements one has to put in the hours. Putting in the hours is expensive. The culture was just lucky that some of us put in the hours young and when we could afford to be idealists. We loved whatever art forms we loved, learned about it informally and came across elegant pieces writing on those forms and thought we could adapt the style and thought and rigour for our local scene. We are older now and see that to put in the hours is to take away those hours from paying endeavours. It is a privilege to have been foolish at that time but while we indulge the privilege still, the foolishness has had to go, forced out by the necessities of bills and adult living. The hours anyone spends to be an authority have to be rewarded. There is no hope otherwise–for the critic or the culture.

The hope is that younger persons today are still falling into that trap of foolishness and privilege. The heartbreak will come but just as we did, they, too, will have to find a way about it. The alternative is a culture scene in the future deprived of even the paltry reviewing system we have right now.

You also need institutional backing. No matter how bad publishing gets, the New York Times will always have a film critic, a theatre critic, a music critic, a book critic etc. Over here not one paper has a resident critic for any art form. They have reporters, badly paid ones. For those reporters to survive on a paltry wage they need to make friends and connect; they need those envelopes. Make no mistake, those envelopes are for coverage, PR that is. Most times the events already have what they need published and only have to send it. The work-swamped reporter can hardly breathe under all of his work–remember that she edits herself, attends all those events at her expense and has to file in a few hundred words under no-light and noise and a daily/weekly deadline. Where is the time for reflection for a reporter, before we get to discussing a critic?

As for this particular event, M has tried in getting a few of the programs mentioned. Ideally the papers and other online publications should have a team of reporters and critics to go out and cover these things. It is how festivals and publications work elsewhere. Anyone who writes the same piece M did would be paid pittance or nothing by any publication. M is different and lucky; he’s the editor of the platform he has written for.

But really the best way to review the Lagos Theatre Festival is to discuss the politics of the event itself. How helpful is the manner in which some of these organisations do the things they do? As D points out above there are things wrong with the BC’s approach. How many persons of the press did they contact? Are they online? Do they know if anyone writes reviews of any art form in Nigeria? If they do know will they get them to write about their program? Because they ought to know how freelancers work and slave here, will they want to pay? I say this because every one of the handful of people writing reviews really well are freelancers. I have my list and you probably have yours. Is BC aware of any of these people? Aren’t they still looking at This Day and Guardian and the rest, where it is reporters in charge, where one has to push and push to be ignored by editors too scared to run anything unpaid and of true value to the culture.

There’s a certain above-the-fray manner some organisations work and you wonder if they know anything at all about the culture space they purport to work in. And this is perhaps about the space itself–if our culture ministry is clueless as to these things, is it a foreign organisation that should know better?

I’ve gone beyond the brief I know. But I’m a working critic or I strive to be one. I work in the literal and metaphorical dark. And these things keep me up at night.