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Awodiya: We must make culture central focus of our national planning

Prof. Muyiwa Peter Awodiya

In this interview, Muyiwa Awodiya, a professor of Theatre Arts, interrogates the culture sector, how the comatose National Theatre can be revamped and his new job at Osun State University among others. He spoke to Oji Onoko in Ibadan.

You recently retired from the Department of Theatre Arts & Mass Communication, University of Benin, Benin City, after 37 years. Looking back now, how would you describe the experience?

Fulfilling and satisfactory! I touched many lives and many lives touched mine.

My lowest point was the period I was stagnated and denied promotion for 12 years from 2001 to 2013 as Associate Professor.

While my highest point was when Professor Osayuki Godwin Oshodin, the former Vice Chancellor, braved all oppositions and promoted me to the rank of a full Professor in 2013.

I was extremely grateful to him for putting new songs in my mouth.

I must remark that the period I served the University of Benin for almost 37 years has been the most productive period of my life, publishing eight books and writing well over 65 journal articles.

What are your major take-away from the University of Benin?

Hard work and honesty of purpose; resilience and doggedness.

Now you are back to your own state, Osun precisely at the College of Humanity and Culture, Osun State University, Ikirun campus. Do you see this as coming back to roost or a higher calling?

Both as coming back home to roost as well as higher calling to duty: to develop the young ones not to forget our ways of life, our culture and our tradition.
What are the immediate challenges in the college?

Lack of adequate infrastructure like physical theatre even though the new Vice Chancellor, Prof. Labode Popoola, is trying his best.

How can this be addressed?

I sincerely hope that TETFUND can come to the aid of the university in terms of infrastructural development.

You have been consistent in research and teaching in your specialty – theatre management. What are the current trends to look out for?

Theatre or Arts Management has gone digital. The third industrial revolution has changed lives and businesses from how learning is done to how business transactions are done and how the speed of change can overwhelm, distract and excite the consumers or audiences.

The challenge therefore for arts organisations is to shift the focus from content delivery system to understanding their consumers or audiences through primary data such as when, how and the duration content is consumed at all times.

Above all, all arts institutions should employ management and marketing communications strategy to become truly audience-driven, employee-friendly and devise aggressive marketing techniques.

I have two noteworthy books in this regard: Managing Arts Institutions in Nigeria (2006) and Theatre Management, Arts Administration and Entrepreneurship in Nigeria (2017).

In the last one year, the National Theatre has had three chief executives in quick succession. Is the edifice jinxed?

No. The National Arts Theatre is not jinxed. It’s just that the rightful person, a trained Arts or Theatre Manager has not been put in place in that theatre.

In 2006, I sent a proposal on how to run the theatre as an enterprise that would pay its bills and make profit for the government to President Olusegun Obasanjo.

He approved the proposal and sent it to the then Minister of Culture and Tourism and that was the end of the proposal. We have over 500 different cultural nationalities in Nigeria.

That is where Nigeria has a cultural comparative advantage over the rest of the world. No country in the world supersedes Nigeria in terms of cultural diversity.

Even if the theatre were showcasing different cultural dances every day, there would be mammoth audiences queuing up to see these dances. Then you have different halls and spaces for rental or concessionairing, different shops for rent, lease or let.

Then you have corporate organisations to come and brand the productions and underwrite their production expenses as part of their corporate social responsibilities.

Then you have government organs like Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAS) for their compulsory use of the halls for all their official and social functions.

Then you have all the security operatives owned by the Federal Government of Nigeria like the Army, Airforce, Navy, Customs, Immigrations, Civil Defence, etc. Then you have all the Churches, the social clubs like YMCA or YWCA and so on and so forth.

If you contact these groups for patronage, the National Arts Theatre will never lack audience or hall usage at any time.

Remember that I successfully managed MUSON Centre for five years.

At the time it was an elitist establishment catering only to the classical music audience. I broke that barrier by initiating programmes from different genres of the performing arts.

The result was increased patronage on a day-to-day basis. And the bottom line rose astronomically… So yes, the National Theatre can be well managed and profitably, too, if the right person with the requisite skill sets is appointed. I am afraid this has not been the case so far.

The Federal Government keeps saying that culture and tourism sector is key to the diversification of the economy? Are they walking the talk?

Not at all! They are just paying lip service to arts, culture and tourism promotion and management.

How can government tap the full potentials from the Culture & Tourism sector?

Nigeria’s vast and rich cultural heritage should be strategically repositioned to partner tourism as its driver to lift the Nigerian economy.

Tourism cannot effectively flourish without the cultural components.

The desire to position culture and tourism as the lever of Nigeria’s economic growth and development rests with the Ministry of Information and Culture, as it must plan to mainstream both sectors into a monolithic entity to galvanize national economic development.

The effort is in line with the understanding that no nation can really excel without the inclusion of its cultural and tourism parameters in state affairs.

Fortunately for the ministry, cultural tourism had long been identified as Nigeria’s area of high comparative advantage.

Nigeria stands a great chance of surviving the current economic meltdown facing the entire globe if it could focus more on cultural tourism.

To this end, Nigeria can forge a solid partnership with symbiotic foreign countries for culture and tourism in developing and marketing their potential to boost patronage of local and foreign tourists.

If collaboration and partnership are cultivated between performing artists, museums and states that are blessed with natural and cultural endowments, the resultant cultural tourism synergy will be presented as exciting performances at vital tourist destinations across the country.

As a significant tourist destination, museums are the cultural central and memory bank of any nation, including Nigeria. If well-developed and well-equipped, museums serve as both a significant source of a nation’s ‘living history’ and a destination honeycomb, attracting tourists to whom we will sell our culture.

Thus, the symbolic relationship between culture and tourism, if well managed, could be channeled to broaden the country’s economic base as well as provide employment for the teeming population of Nigerian unemployed youths.

Museums provide vital information and entertainment to visitors as they embody the cultural heritage of a people, which foreign tourists are usually interested in exploring.

History, culture and museum studies should be introduced to our elementary and secondary schools syllabus. Both tourism and culture are foreign exchange earners for several countries of the world.

It is high time Nigeria joined those countries with the rich cultural tourism heritage at her disposal lying largely untapped.

Where does Nigeria go from here?

Nigeria’s civilization will continue to go round in circles until we make culture the dynamic centre of our national planning. Everything we do or plan must revolve round our culture because that’s what makes us unique as a people in the world.

Our arts, science and technology must stem from our culture to propel our civilization and for us to make any meaningful contribution to modern civilization without aping any western model of civilization.

People accuse you of an unusual interest in the works of Femi Osofisan to the detriment of other playwrights? How do you react to this?

I am indeed passionate about Femi Osofisan’s drama. His plays enervate the rich and energise the poor and the downtrodden. The plays serve as a weapon of social change.

The plays are imbued with the posture of revolt where myths of rebellion are enacted to confront the betrayal of aspirations, pervasive squandering of human and material resources and widespread political corruption that has accompanied Nigeria’s independence since 1960 up till now.

The language of his drama is the prose vernacular of everyday life as he writes in simple and accessible diction. But the beauty of his simplicity is the subtlety that permeates his style.

The individual hero or the central character disappears from Osofisan’s drama altogether, and collective heroism takes the stage. Besides, Femi Osofisan has branded the Nigerian culture in many of his plays.

With remarkable intensity, he has reinterpreted the Yoruba myth, history and folklore that he inherited to suit the contemporary realities in Nigeria.

In plays sparkling with witty dialogues, marked by clear-cut characterization, and full of brilliant and spectacular scenes, Osofisan fashions out a drama in which the peasants, the poor and the down-trodden are imbued with positive and revolutionary virtues.

I have written a full-length book and edited three others on the drama of Femi Osofisan.

But any plan to write on other notable playwrights in Nigeria?

Yes. I edited a book on the novels of Prof. May Ifeoma Nwoye in 2012. I have edited a book on the plays of Prof. Olu Obafemi, which will be out this year.

I wrote the biography of the great Bini music legend, Sir Victor Uwaifo and I am also editing a book on the drama of Prof. Ahmed Yerima, which will be out this year. There are more in the offing.

What drives you?

I am driven by the passionate desire to be the best in the field or area of my chosen career. I have benefited from the society by way of government scholarship. I therefore must work hard enough to be in a position to pay back to the society.

In the process of working hard to reach the peak of my career, there were several obstacles for me to surmount.

I fervently believe that being deprived is often a temporary condition; giving up is what makes it permanent. Coming from a humble family and as a farmer’s son, I need to work very hard to assist my family and the society in general.

• Onoko, a veteran journalist, is based in Abuja

Source: G Entertainment

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