SmARTpower Project

Duration: Lagos-April 10- April 30, 2012, Ibadan-22 May – 12 June, 2012

The Wy Art Foundation in collaboration with the Bronx Museum, New York hosted the Hilary Clinton SmARTpower project in Nigeria. A Community based artist, Brett Cook from Berkeley, California conducted a series of multi-faceted workshops that included the making of artifacts, Sharing Culture SmARTpower Project in Nigeria. 

The SmARTpower program which made its debut in Nigeria in April 2012, in my view, achieved its aim in bringing people of various ages and backgrounds in the making of art and fostering better understanding between them. This high profile program, an initiative of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton birthed a platform for engaging ordinary people and spaces. April 10, 2012, American artist, Brett Cook, arrived at Muritala Mohammed Airport, Lagos on what was to be the beginning of a collaboration that was multilayered involving several artists and other professionals in both rural and urban communities in Nigeria. 

From the streets of Sabo, Yaba in Lagos, Agbofeiti village in Ibadan to the ivory towers of the Universities of Lagos and Ibadan, we had interactions with a broad range of people who lent their assistance in one way or the other to the success of the SmARTpower project. The interactions spread across the staff of the University guesthouses, US consulate staff, labourers, technicians, contractors, pressmen, caterers, retirees, teachers, research assistants, professors, students, cleaners, security guards, media personnel, ordinary people on the street, and workshop participants. smARTpower brought about the blurring of borders. It came as a programme which seemed too large in scope at first but gradually began to crystalize as the days went by. 

At the Women and Youth Art Foundation is popularly known in Nigeria as Wy Art Foundation, partners on this project, it was a new learning experience. Previously we had not handled a project of this scope. Most of what had been done in the past had been restricted to local collaboration. Even when we had international programs, both were usually separately conceived and executed.

The smARTpower project brought a better understanding of working across cultures, geographical spaces, and achieving greater milestones with collaborative efforts. It has challenged us to execute bigger projects involving other nationalities and not restricting our activities to local spaces alone. We have come to learn that in this global world, all human beings are the same irrespective of nationalities and race. We initially had fears at the Wy Art Foundation about executing the program with little paid staff, mostly volunteers, but then rode on our greatest strength which was the great network and connections we had established with people over the years. As the partner organization for this project, we were responsible for arranging venues of workshops, meetings, promoting the various programs, organizing press meetings, hiring personnel and assistants, providing transportation and housing, and literally making the sharing Culture project happen in Nigeria. The joint collaboration with the Bronx Museum of Fine Arts in my view was a good match. The US consulate staff particularly the Diplomacy Officer, Peter Piness, Bene Uche were at hand to give support to the project.

I had meetings and email exchanges with Peter Piness who provided several useful tips. Kathleen Stafford, wife of the US Consulate and an artist and personal friend provided great support by attending several of the events and also gave a dinner party at her home in honour of Cook.

Sharing Culture smARTpower project debut in Lagos

The first event was the presentation of the smARTpower program and the sharing culture project by Brett Cook at a private gallery, Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos on 12 April 2012. We had a hall packed full with about 150 people comprising artists, Lagos State government officials, women from skill acquisition centres from all the local government areas in Lagos, students, US consular staff, and several others from the art schools. Cook’s presentation was highly interactive and fresh in its approach to community engagement and the arts. 

Workshop sessions started on 13 April 2012 at the University of Lagos main Auditorium Parapet; Eighty participants applied for Cook’s photography and writing workshops. These included students of the University of Lagos and Yaba College of Technology, media experts, architects, performers, musicians, and the unemployed. Lagos worked out really well as the first venue of the workshop. Cook’s workshops were anchored in a manner that showed his expertise in working in various communities. 

 One would have thought he had lived in Nigeria before- yet this was his first visit! In the first few days of his interactions, his definition of his art ‘as a verb rather than a noun’ became apparent. The stream of exercises ranging from yoga to sharing, chewing, thinking, drawing, painting became a ritual in a collaboration that was completely engaging and a totally new experience for many of the participants. His admonition ‘I want you to be the change you want to see in the world’, continues to echo in our minds long after he had left. 

Sharing Culture SmARTpower Project in Ibadan 20-27 April 2012

The choice of Ibadan as another community was to extend the benefits of the smARTpower program to a less urban environment than Lagos with fewer opportunities for such collaborative art programs. Furthermore, Ibadan had been the main community where the partner Organisation Wy Art has operated for many years.

The first presentation held at Drapers’ hall, Institute of African Studies, the University of Ibadan on 20 April 2012 had in attendance a really mixed group of participants. Workshops held with students of between ages 9 and 17 years at All Saints College, Jericho, Ibadan. The approach was different from the Lagos experience working with younger people. The students appeared rather shy at first but gradually began to loosen up as Cook performed the magic of transformation.

The workshop in Lagos set the pace for the second half of the project scheduled to hold after the Ibadan set of workshops. 

One of the photographs derived from the group project in Lagos depicting ‘togetherness’ was selected as the image for the final outdoor installation. Cook departed Nigeria to the US on 30 May, 2012 to work on the selected image. Every day he kept us abreast of the progress as it evolved.

While Cook was away, negotiations for a wall on which to place the mural was underway. Permission for the initial wall proposed was not given. The artist had to scale down the image to fit into a smaller wall. A bit disappointed, I took solace in one of Cook’s soothing emails ‘Collaboration forces constant realignment, and happens best within a fixed, mandated agenda’. 

Final Installation

Cook arrived tired from the work on the mural in his studio at Berkeley. The less than three weeks ahead was such a short time to work out how best to install the mural. The sudden death of the president of the University made it almost impossible to get assistance for the university community.-it was a time of mourning. In addition to this colossal loss was a certain ill-timed announcement changing the name of the University by the President of Nigeria on May 29. This precipitated huge protests by the university students at the main gate and on the streets of Lagos.

There was tension in the air. The funeral obsequies for the late University president was underway, all work had stopped at the University, all offices closed-the University had to be shut down to forestall further problems. There was very little time for finishing off the mural- time was fast ticking away! 

The scaffold which we ordered was stuck outside of the closed gate of the University. In the midst of all this, Cook began priming the walls and making initial preparations for the mural. Given this unforeseen situation, we realized that the Nigerian/Unilag crisis had ignored one of the rules of collaboration-In every collaboration, everyone brings something to the plate! Every effort is appreciated and is a contribution-however little, it is worthy of attention. In Nigeria/Unilag saga the views of key players in this collaboration were totally ignored.

We had taken all these precautionary steps from the outset. In conceptualizing the smARTpower program it was difficult to know what the final outcome would be. Cook did not arrive with a template from the US. His workshop evolved from the community in which he worked. He was mindful of imposing his ideas.

The mural was a vehicle for extending the voices of the participants not only from the workshops but also at the Department of Creative Arts and the University as a whole where the work was to be mounted. Cook presented his project on the work thus far and had fruitful deliberations with members of faculty at the University. He also generated Photoshop images made available to the Dean of the Faculty of Arts for selection and approval. Gradually, on the suggestion of the Dean, the theme of the mural ‘togetherness’ evolved to assimilate the slogan for the 50th anniversary of the University, Nurturing Peace, People and Ideas.

Oyasaf Workshop/Roundtable

The smARTpower program overlapped beautifully with the 2012 annual workshop organized by the Department of Creative Arts . This workshop is sponsored by Omooba Yemisi Adedoyn Shyllon Art Foundation, Lagos. The venue of the event this year was moved to the mural site; subsequently, this would be the venue of other workshops. The art activities around the mural on the final day of the celebration added pep to the smARTpower closing celebration. Pupils from the staff school were engaged in working with plasticine. While participants produced pottery, wirework jewellery, bead stringing, and paintings. There was also music and dance performances. Plenty of food, drinks, and speeches all going on at the same time. 

 On June 11, there was a roundtable in which Cook provided a summary of his work in the last few weeks that he worked in Nigeria. The next day at the closing ceremony of the Art workshop at the department, Brett again spoke about how interconnected we all are in the world. This was indeed a good send-off for him as he rose to leave for the airport while the event continued. In attendance at the event were foreign scholars from the US and Switzerland, Nike Davies Okundaye, renowned Nigerian female artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Master printmaker and Yemisi Shyllon, the greatest art collector in Nigeria.

After smARTpower

The smaRTpower project in Nigeria has since ended yet one would think that it is still going on. The Mural painting continues to attract visitors, students, and members of the university community to the site. Home video producers have begun engaging this mural as a new landmark for identifying the University of Lagos. The keywords for this project Brett Cook, Bronx Museum, SmARTpower, Sharing Culture, US State Department, community engagement, collaboration, Wy Art Foundation, now form part of the vocabulary around the public installation and the university.

 The new Creative Arts building had a few paintings on the wall before the installation of the Sharing Culture project. The ‘Nurturing Peace, People, and Ideas’ mural has now become the centerpiece of the university. It attracts people passing along the streets to come to enjoy the splendour of this extensive painting that brings together the skills of an American artist and local people in their environment. The portion of the building where this art resides has now become a beehive of activities. 

The mural has transformed the lower part of the building into a stage where performances are held often. Social media provide a broad range of responses to the activities around the smARTpower projects as it unfolded. The mural painting has been posted and shared across various platforms, used as screen savers, etc. Commentaries focused on the work itself and on the value of the initiative- as diversely spread and received from across the globe. All the comments were very satisfying.

 The visit of the US Ambassador to the site of the mural and the Department on 5 of July shows the commitment and value attached to this collaboration. Previously on 8 June, the entire management team comprising the acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Rahman Bello, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Babajide Alo, Head of Academic Planning, Professor Olutoyin Ogundipe, the University registrar, Olurotimi Sodimu, and the Dean of Faculty of Arts, Professor Duro Oni had come on an official visit to see the mural. The acting Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Rahman Bello commended the collaboration between Nigeria and the United States of America and called for more of this kind of meaningful, far-reaching collaboration. 

 The smArtpower project ended in June 2012, one hopes that Cook would continue to speak the few words of Yoruba he learned. On our part, we are left with the mural, which has for many of us, become a site of memory with layers of experiences-really pleasant experiences to draw from.

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