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Books & arts

When artists die...

Okachikwu Dibia

2013-04-18, Issue 626

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/books/87043

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Upon the death of an artist society loses sorely. But their works provide a continuing reflection on how to refine ourselves

First and foremost, who is an artist?

So many people have different answers to this simple question. To me, artists are those who have the capacity to transform their imaginations, thoughts and reflections into beautiful realities, at times at the risk of their lives, for the good of society. Ideally they include dancers, dramatists, singers, writers, painters, comedians, philosophers, politicians, scientists, technologists, industrialists, designers, creative radicals, social advocates and crusaders for a better society.

Artists are the ones that transit every society from one generation to another. They are the bridge across the old, present and future ages. What could man have achieved in terms of societal development if the ideas and activities of the past were not recorded, criticized, taught, explained and interpreted? Would the world have progressed better in governance without books and activities on the ideas of government, democracy, human rights, science, technology, history and sociology? How would man have been able to transfer knowledge without the services of artists in those professions? For example, in the medical profession it is not every medical doctor that can write medical books; neither is it every engineer that can write engineering books. It is the artists in every profession that can do the writing. So can you imagine a world without literary artists?

My concerns in this article are: how could the living handle the devastating news of the death of an artist, how would they maintain information exchange with the late artist, and what would have been the late artist’s response to posthumous events if they were alive? What do we think on hearing of the death of legendary artists? Artists are restless spirits who confront anti-human tendencies manifesting in the forms of denials, injustice, man’s inhumanity towards man, corruption, abuse of human and material existence and all sorts of indecent human behaviors against the common good. They criticize such tendencies at the highest levels of political, social and professional engagements. They reflect on what has happened and what is happening, and compare these events with the big picture of common good they have created in their spirit-man. When the result is in dissonance, they speak up against the cause of the dissonance.

This is why, for example, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a political artist, spoke against imperial tendencies of the evolving Nigerian state of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This is why Christopher Okigbo and Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro, both military artists, died in their prime campaigning against the killings and marginalization of the Igbo and Ijaw respectively in the mid-1960s. This is why Prof. Wole Soyinka, a literary artist, was incarcerated by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) under General Yakubu Gowon for speaking against the atrocities committed against the Igbo by the FGN before and during the civil war. This is why late Fela ‘Kuti, a musical artist, was tortured by the FGN under General Olusegun Obasanjo in the 1970s. This is why the late Dele Giwa, a literary artist, was killed on 19 October 1986 via a letter bomb which Gani Fawehimi, a SAM, SAN and legal/social artist, accused General Ibrahim Babangida of enabling. This is why the late Kenule Saro-Wiwa, a social, literary and environmental artist, was hanged and killed by the FGN under General Sani Abacha. This is why our dearly beloved late Prof. Chinua Achebe, literary giant, legend, and icon, refused to accept any honour from the FGN, as he held the FGN responsible for the million deaths of the Igbo from 1966 to 1970.

Indeed it was the death of Prof. Chinua Achebe on 21 March 2013 that made me go searching for this article, which I actually wrote in May 2003 when James Avunonu Wizor, alias Jimmy Conter, Eze Agala 1 of Ikwerre, died. Jimmy Conter was the Ikwerre musical icon, legend and artist who spoke against the rotten human behaviors as well as poor leadership of Ikwerre and indeed Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s. For example, in 1973, he sang Ahia Port, in which he criticized women for not wearing pants to public places. Women ignored this important social advice, and today, what do we have: ubiquitous, indecent, seductive dressing among young girls that has harassed men on a daily basis and probably culminated in the numerous cases of rape across the world. Some people would demand that men exercise self-control, but they forget that the Bible curses those that tempt others. As a social crusader for Ikwerre development, Jimmy demanded responsibility and accountability from all Ikwerre sons who were appointed commissioners in Rivers State. He was particularly unhappy with the rate of inflation in Nigeria under Shehu Shagari’s government and this was detailed in his song titled Austerity Measure.

So when he died in 2003, I began to ask myself: now that Jimmy is no more, who will speak truth about the immorality and poor leadership of Ikwerre and Nigeria? Who will sing for the preservation of the positive traditional values of Ikwerre? Who will sing songs that heal the wailing and gnashing souls of Ikwerre? Who will be bold enough to remind us of where we were came from so that we can learn and make necessary changes? This is why it is correct to say that artists constitute the rock of strength, integrity and character that propel and preserve society from one generation to another.

In other climes, artists have been busy serving their respective societies. In politics, there were the numerous kings in Europe who stood firm for the progress of their societies. Abraham Lincoln et al served American society, Mahatma Ghandi served Indian society, and Chairman Mao served the Chinese people. Garveyism redirected the thinking of African-Americans on Africa, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh insisted that Africa was a special race, Adam Smith gave capitalism to the world and Karl Marx gave socialism and communism to the world. Former American Secretary of State George Marshal gave the Marshal Plan that rescued Europe from total collapse after the Second World War. Greek philosophers enunciated political and social ideals that rule the world today. All these people were artists.

What does society suffer at the loss of an artist? How would late artists reflect on and respond to posthumous happenings in the societies they had struggled and labored to improve? Who will tell us the truths? Now that the artists are no more, how do we remember them? What do they have to say about important happenings of today that are tearing their loved societies apart? Don’t we need to hear from them? The way to hear from them is to go back to what they had told us while alive. That is why when they die people rush to buy their works. Is this answer sufficiently satisfactory?

At the death of artists, society is denied their presence, voice, views, activism, debate (they were the source of opposite views) and styles. We lose them as fathers and mothers, teachers, guardians and leaders. The most important thing lost is their intellectual spirit with which they act as the custodians of the seeds of ideology, the refrigerators of intellectuality, and the sources of debates and discussions which constitute the moving platforms for the refinement of crude ideas into civilized solutions. In their deaths, the world loses the protective mother hen of imagery and dreams that galvanizes ideologies into visions, policies and programs for the better management of society. Artists have the capacity to imagine better ways of doing things and this helps them acquire the boldness to challenge deviations. They are the moderators of the meeting of opposites. Indeed, when they die, the world appears to have lost its sense, integrity, value and direction.

When a musical artist dies, who else will sing in their authentic voice again? With the death of Whitney Houston the world has lost her golden voice, which was the best voice God gave to humanity in the 20th Century. Who can exactly replace her? Who has been able to exactly replace Fela? From Femi, Dede Mabiaku, Alariwo to Seun, who can replace the great Fela? Who has been able to sing in the original voices of Stephen Osita Osadebe and Oliver De Coque? After the death of Bob Marley in 1981, the world hoped for a replacement in Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, Rita Marley, Ziggy etc., yet none have been able to replace him in voice, style, dance and message. Who can replace the essential Gani Fawehinmi in his fearless crusade against governmental corruption? We must tell Gani of fuel subsidy stealing and how SURE-P has been designed to sustain it, and of the pensioners dying in queues while those who stole the pension billions were fined N1.00. We must tell him of the PIB prepared by Shell and NNPC whereby NNPC would reform itself, of amnesty for Boko Haram, of Alamieyeseigha’s pardon, of NGF and PDP-GF, and of the APC apolitical party. When can we hear from Gani? Who can replace Chinua Achebe, the Iroko of African literature?

In the spirit of Easter, when we were reminded of the sacrifice Jesus Christ, the heavenly artist, paid for humanity, we also need to ask: where are the Nigerians of his hue and tribe that are ready to die for speaking truth against corruption and the continued underdevelopment of Nigeria? If these Nigerians do exist, why is it that no revolution has taken place in Nigeria to clear the mess the country had been baptized with since at least 1999? May God avail us with leaders that will listen to and heed to the artists’ advice. May the spirit and death of Professor Chinua Achebe become the watershed whence a new tribe of Nigerians will arise to usher in the awaiting revolution Nigeria desperately needs! This will surely and easily provide answers and respite to the too-many questions that disturb the mind at the death of an artist.


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