Music artistes in Nigeria have often been mobilized by government programs for souless ‘Unity Song’ projects that simply highlight the need to ‘Come Together’ without answering the questions of Why? Even Timi Dakolo’s brilliant composition of the song ‘One Nigeria’ has escaped the astronomical clicks often gained by other less nationalistic endeavors.
But Visual artists in Nigeria have began to pursue more radical forms of social expression, and painters exhibiting their works at Transcorp Hilton, in the heart of Nigeria’s capital city touch at these issues the most with fresh canvass works, on popular politicians, on coming elections and Chibok girls.
For some, these exhibitions are a form of constructive opposition, a way of recovering moments of communal experience in the wake of shared problems. For others, mystifying and staged pretend moments of togetherness that obscures the very real divisions which split the country with little more than an excuse to generate theme parties for VIPs.
The question that hangs over today’s social practice art is glaring. Is this strand of artistic expression a starting point for addressing social problems, or a distraction that keeps us from seeing the real picture?
Perhaps the very fact that art in academic discussions and beyond fails to focus on tangible issues means that Nigeria’s history has downplayed and theorized the aesthetic value of this genre, making it so vague and disconnected from other forms of progressive expressions by pushing questions as disturbing as Why Is It Art?
But logically, if Danish cartoons connecting the Prophet of Islam with global terrorism can generate controversies strong enough to spring a riot in Kano, why isn’t art being used as an economic driver to shape the views of Nigerians with regard to contemporary issues? It is as if its claims to be art have become so tenuous that focusing too much on politics would cause it to vanish. Yet this only serves to obscure the political stakes.
In some ways, the category of “social practice” attempts to forestall the problem of incorporating art value into the system by deliberately removing itself from avowed political solidarity which is fundamentally part of its defining trait. Consequently, art, or what has now become referred to as art in Nigeria can be said to have become so vulnerable to all the weaknesses of non-profit expressions: Having to lower one’s rhetoric in order to please donors, mopping up the symptoms of social problems instead of going after the disease itself, and, ultimately, reducing the vital work of political organizing to a symbolic gesture—the very pitfall of political art that political artists have always tried to escape.
But these arguments aside, to some, art is art, no matter what it expresses and this view is necessary because it is a reminder that if we lived in a society were all artists were required to address social issues art would cease to be art, and would risk being reduced to propaganda.
Yet coming up with a constructive way to respond to contemporary social issues will be crucial to figuring out how activists should interact and help redefine the boundaries between art and activism. The previous attempts to eschew from ‘Social Practice’ because it raises questions that it cannot by itself answer is prudent. But it would doom political artists into missing an opportunity to join in on the national debate, even if the goal is to take it in a completely different direction.
We should seek to explore further how visual artists have increasingly come to identify with their roles inclusion to social responsibility, to social issues and to the improvement of the community. This knowledge can be positively applied.