Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Don’t throw us out of National Theatre - chairman Artistes’ Village Network

Jude Udueni
*Why did you organise the silent protest at Artistes’ Village in National theatre?
We did a silent protest last Monday against the concession of the National Theatre environment and that affects the Artistes’ Village because National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) is one of the agencies the concession affected and they are planning to relocate the NCAC to a glass house around Tafawa Balewa Square. They have gone to check the place and discovered that it won’t be comfortable for us. It happened to be an abandoned building. They were given 10th and 11th floor of a building that is dilapidated and abandoned for a long time. The elevator is not even working so you can imagine where workers would be climbing staircases to 11th floor. The building even looks like it is going to collapse any moment from now.
Apart from that, it is not a place that can house artefacts and works of masters that are in the gallery here. It does not end there. They did not include the private sector that has been operating there in their plans. The private sector was set up with the article 16 of National Arts and Culture directory of art and culture of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. If they relocate to such a small place, what will happen to the private sector which the article 16 says that the government should take care of? That means they are going to cut us out due to their discussion. They planned to concession the environment of the National Theatre and build a three-storey car park, shopping mall, relaxation park, five star hotel and so on.
So, where does the artiste belong? They have not talked about the Artistes’ Village which includes the rehearsal studio. So far, we have existed on a private effort. We are the ones that make things happen. We are the real people who promote the image of this country. When you are talking about National troupe or the Art Council and National Art Festival, they come here to recruit people because this is where Nigeria has professional artistes. We have singers, drummers, dancers, and visual artists among others. This is a place for total art and I think it is the biggest centre in Africa. You cannot get this kind of concentration of artistes anywhere in Africa.
What they are trying to do now is to disintegrate us, scatter us and destroy the only effort we are making to move art and culture forward in the country. Government is not giving us any financial support and we are not complaining. Now, they are trying to take the only space we have from us. It is baffling that they don’t have any plans for the private sector. This is the problem. This is what we are kicking against.
*Do you pay for the space allocated to you?
Yes! We pay and we have our receipts.
*Who do you pay the rent to?
We pay to the NCAC.
*Do you pay monthly or quarterly basis?
It is monthly, but we normally pay yearly.
*As a private sector, how much do you pay for the space allocated to you?
They are different categories. Some people have offices, empty space and studios. So the rent depends on the space. To be fair to the NCAC, the rent is moderate. Some people pay the sum of a hundred thousand naira, some pay less, depending on the size.
*What do you people do in your section?
 As you can see, drums and costumes here (referring to where the interview took place), this space is for Squad-one Productions. They do all forms of dancing including hip hop, contemporary dance, drama, masquerades; African dance ensemble and they have a music group. Up there, another set of people do visual art as you can see some metal works there.
*In your section, what do you do?
I am an actor and a writer. I act and write for many media including television, radio, movie and stage. I acted in So Wrong So WRight, Spider, Tide of Faith and Genius, to mention a few.
*How long have you been here?
I have been here for about 17 years.  I have an office, so activities are on.
Have you gone through the NCAC to report for them to inform the government to make arrangement for the private sector?
We have done that.
*What did they say?
Let me bring you back to the system in Nigeria. The NCAC staff are civil servants so; they don’t want to lose their jobs. They cannot come out openly and say what the government is doing is wrong. But, they gave us the go ahead because they know it directly affects us, so we need to speak for ourselves. They was a time they came and asked them whether we have documents to stay and they have been able to make the document available.  The government agreed that they should give the private sector the space we are occupying. Now, they want to throw us out. We have the copy of the document, that is why we are appealing to the government to consider the future of art and culture in Nigeria and allow us to continue to operate here.
According to article 16 of the directory of Art and Culture, government gave NCAC freedom to operate.  The best support they can give to us is to give us a space to operate. They are supposed to even give us financial support which they give them in their allocation but we are not getting it. All we want from them is a space where our clients can meet us and discuss business with us. The placards we were carrying during the silent protest was to appeal to the federal government and appeal to the world that they should not throw us out, because throwing us out may lead to the demise of art and culture in Nigeria. It is not fair that the federal government is not putting interest in art and culture which happens to be the image of the country. They are more interested in financial figures.
We have heard that they want to concession it at 35 billion naira. Someone even told us that the money is about 250 billion naira which they expect from the concession for 30 years. Government should not put much interest in the money. Doing so means that their attention is drifting from the art and culture, which is the people that make things happen. This is going to be the loss of originality of art and culture in Nigeria. It is not fair that they normally showcase art and culture in form a caricature to the world. That is not what we are because they are trying to eject real people that do the original art.
*The day House of Representatives Committee on Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, led by Hon. Ben Nwankwo came here for an oversight function, and your members asked them why they did not inform you that they were coming, the Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, told the press that:  “If they are proper artistes, they would not be dwelling in that kind of squalour and projecting an outward façade that they are creative people when that place is literally being turned into a brothel of some sort. That must not be a benchmark for artistes for Nigerian community.” They said your approach was not okay. What is your view on that?
Respect begets respect. They did not present themselves well because they did not inform us that they were coming. We are supposed to be on ground to receive them. They came with the General Manager of National Theatre, Mr. Kabir Yusuf, who took them to our backyard to show them our dustbin, which is not what we are. If you want to show people a compound, the best people you should introduce your guests to are the people in that compound because they know the environment. He took them to our store, showed them our refrigerator filled with drinks. So they referred to this place as a club, but I told them that it’s not a club. It is an entertainment centre, so it’s not unusual to have a drink when you are watching a show.  I then took them to our studio and they were shocked because they did not know that that place existed. They thought we live here when they saw our rehearsal kits and sportswear.
That day, we presented ourselves well and even gave them documents and copies of what we have been doing here and who we are. So they promised to get back to us. Saying destructive things about us is not necessary because we should be more positive. In their plan to concession the National Theatre, what is their plan for the Nigerian artiste? They should not be thinking negative about us because we are responsible. We have done a lot of fight to chase touts way from here because of our clients. The government supposed to help but, instead of helping us, they are angry with us because they feel we are disturbing their intention towards concessioning this place. How much will they spend from the billions of money they want to make to improve art and culture?
* Can you suggest a solution that will favour you as a private sector and the government in this issue?
The solution is that, we should have a round table talk, so that they will slot us into the plan. It is very simple. They have the power but, we are appealing to them to know that we are part of the system. They should not cut us out. This is our country and we cannot go to any other country. We can’t fight the government. We are law abiding citizens of this country. We want them to look for a way to sort our problem out for the good of Nigeria and the world as a whole.
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