Nigerian Film as an Art

The largest film industry in Africa is the Nigerian cinema, better known as Nollywood. Having grossed revenue of NGN1.72 trillion (US$10 billion) in 2013, it is rated the third most valuable film industry in the world, behind India and the United States. In terms of the number of annual film productions, it also ranks second, behind India. However, South Africa is arguably more recognized internationally for the quality of its production, with films like District 9, which holds the record for the most successful African blockbuster, grossing over $210 million at the international box office. In addition, South African movie Tsotsi won an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2005.

Several scholars and leading artists alike have written extensively and produced work centering on the Nollywood phenomenon including Pieter Hugo, Andrew Esiebo and Zina Saro-Wiwa. This fact, together with the prevalent themes of magic, fetishism and violence conveyed through new media, informs arguments by art historians like Nomusa Makhubu to describe Nollywood as an interventionist artistic practice and visual language that subverts the division between art and popular culture in shifting general opinion about what constitutes art and creative practice in Africa. This position gains weight when one considers that African art was originally intended to encompass various genres of artistic expression as evidenced in the masquerade, which enjoys a reputation as the greatest traditional art from the continent.

Indeed, the masquerade has long been associated with Africa. Long admired by many, it is often perceived as a ‘total’ art form, owing to its embrace of a diversity of art forms; sculpture in the geometric shapes and forms of the masks and headrests; costume, colourful and intricate, and often interlaced with raffia; painting, repurposed on the masks; assemblage in the found objects and recycled materials including pins and metal cut outs in the masks; movement; miming; personification; poetry; dialogue; dance; and music, an accompaniment provided by drummers, singers and horn blowers. Scholar Augustine-Neto Emiemokumo has described masquerades as a visual art form in motion and as a theatrical phenomenon.

“When a masquerade performs on stage, the audience thinks mainly of the figure they
see, which is the visual art form. This figure is the focus of attention. But oftentimes, when people think of the works of the visual arts that have to do with theatre performance, what readily comes to their mind are the usual stage or scenic designs. In the usual theatre event, we think of the human actors and actresses. But that of the masquerade is peculiar for it is a work of visual art, in performance, before a human audience”.  He also reminds us that, the masquerade form has “an age-old tradition as a performance art”.

Drama has been defined as “an artistic recreation of life in the form of action and a systematic design to convey human experiences in a graphic, yet effective way.” Just as in drama, the human form is insignificant in the masquerade pantheon; they both personify another being. Indeed, African masquerades and masks were not intended by their makers to be exhibited as inert, aesthetic objects as in the museums of the West; they only made appearances as spirit representatives of ancestors.

Given their link to the spiritual, masquerades, which appear often in Nigerian cinema, contribute to its negative perception as fantastic. The fantastical as a central theme in Nollywood has led to several interpretations, largely negative by critics, scholars and the general public that expose the dichotomy between reality and imagined states, a situation that inextricably links the desire for wealth to the magical, witchcraft and the occult. Indeed, Makhubu asserts that wealth not gained from visible labour is attributable to government corruption and ‘419’ scams, and may have contributed to Nigeria’s negative international reputation. This situation may be further heightened by the high degree of hybridity that characterizes Nigerian society as depicted in Nollywood. It is commonplace to find for example, a well-placed and educated Christian lawyer seeking protection from perceived enemies, through the occult or traditional gods.

Today, Nigerian cinema boasts of names like; directors Tunde Kelani, Mildred Okwo, Remi Vaughan-Richards, Kunle Afolayan, Femi Odugbemi, Andrew Dosunmu and Greg Odutayo; costumiers Objie Oru and Adebimpe Adebambo; sound designers Michael ‘TRUTH’ Ogunlade and Kulanen Ikyo; makeup artist Lola Maja-Okojevoh; film
editor Mike-Steve Adeleye; screenwriter Kehinde Joseph; lighting designer Stanlee Ohikhuare, production designer Pat Nebo; and photographers Akintunde Akinleye and Debbin Robin. These artists like the bearers of the masks are content to remain in the background, their thoughts, ideas and creativity, becoming the foundation upon which the more celebrated actors project themselves. Just like the African masquerade, total in its embrace of diverse art forms, they come together as symbiotic elements of a whole production, from the; directors who oversee the production; the costumiers who dress the characters; the sound designers likened to the drummers, horn blowers and singers, who all provide the rhythm; the makeup artist tasked with imbuing each face with a unique personality and identity; the film editor, largely responsible for the seamless transition between scenes; the screen writer who adapts the script for production; and to the lighting designer, production designer and photographer–their roles defined by the provision of the mood and setting. Significantly, they all offer a counterpoint to challenge various negative stereotypes cast on Nollywood. Many of these award-winning names are behind the surge in the technical quality and improved content in Nollywood today. Produced with higher budgets, films like Fifty, October1, Invasion 1897, Confusion Na Wa, Dazzling Mirage, and Flower Girl have gained much global success, premiering on the international film circuit while still being available to audiences all over the world on movie-streaming platforms like Netflix.

Nollywood greats like actress, Taiwo Ajai- Lycett lend their weight to these recent developments and call for measured control over visual projections by practitioners themselves, to help reinvent a new worldview of Nigeria. In a recent interview, she asserts that the negativity is due to poor research by practitioners on several aspects of indigenous culture. She cites, for example, the casting of babalawos as dubious interventionists rather than in their age-old roles as protectors of our communities and traditional doctors. This call must be seen as one to exhortation, to reflect in a deeper way, the critical role Nigerian cinema plays as art that is not only aesthetically pleasing in blurring the boundaries between painting, photography and various other genres of artistic creation, but also as a social reformative medium–a function of only the highest and purest forms of art..

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