The National Art Gallery: A Festering Eyesore

The National Theatre in Lagos is one of the most recognisable edifices in the city’s skyline. Built in 1976 for the Festival of Arts and Culture, the bowl-shaped structure was a symbol of national pride and Nigeria’s creative prowess.

Today, the National Theatre is a throwback to past glories and unfulfilled dreams, an emblem of the things Nigeria once strove for before losing interest in the game of innovation and excellence. Like the fate of most government buildings—pretty until neglected, the theatre is no different. Its faded, rain-stained walls and patchy, tired lawns are desperately in need of some tender, loving care. Even the road leading to the theatre’s main gate is marred by potholes, a harbinger perhaps of what one was to expect on arrival.

My first ever trip to the National Theatre had been tangential. Specifically, I was there to cover the #IStandWithNigeria anti-government demonstration, which was ending on the theatre’s grounds, but missed the protest as the crowd had already dispersed before I arrived. With time to kill, and prompted by Teju Cole’s depressing account of the theatre’s art gallery in his novel Every Day is For the Thief published ten years ago, I headed to the art gallery curious to see if things had improved.

Just outside the gallery’s reception hung a dust-encrusted pay phone. Whether it had been left there to elicit nostalgia or as a mark of the government’s aversion to renovation, it was hard to tell but I suspected the latter. Inside, four young women chatted animatedly at the long table. They stopped when I said hello, announcing my intentions.

“The entrance fee is twenty naira,” one of the ladies said then opened the visitor’s notebook for me to sign in. It was 1 p.m. and I was their first visitor for the day. I wasn’t sure what shocked me more: the paltry admission fee equivalent to 0.04 dollars or the fact the previous day had registered less than ten names. Either way, I knew not to set my hopes high.

As I turned to leave, one of the women informed me photos were prohibited and that I should leave my bag in the reception.

“Here?” I said in disbelief, pointing to the plastic shelf unshielded from potential prying eyes and sticky fingers. The security measure was unnecessary, especially since my bag could hardly fit a wallet and a pair of sunglasses. Besides, if the gallery held anything of value, the entrance fee would be worth more than twenty bucks.

“No one will touch it,” the women said in a chorus. Unconvinced and not wanting to take any chances, I removed my phone, money and house keys.

The gallery’s five rooms featured paintings mostly from the seventies interspersed by a few metal and wooden sculptures from yesteryears. The most recent exhibits, which dated from 2010, were few and far between. Dust and negligence had dealt destructive blows to some of the artworks, like the unlabelled bust of a man whose otherwise brown surface speckled with white spots. Some of the less sturdy paintings had succumbed to the same mottled fate. There was something to be said about the way Nigeria preserved and presented its artworks. Clearly, a shabby image was not something the country lost any sleep over.

I was in the second room viewing the picture of a mosaicked bird decked out in colourful beads, when I noticed something was awry. A quick glance around the room confirmed my suspicion. There was no air-conditioner in sight, and my pores were reacting to the heat. Thankfully, the scant offerings ensured I would be done in no time.

Another room contained the painted portraits of Nigeria’s military and civilian rulers—excluding President Buhari, and unlike the handwritten, dog-eared, insect-devoured labels some of the artworks sported, their severely condensed biographies were protected by thin plastic. It was in this room I realised Nigerian female nationalists and leaders were visibly missing. In fact, the gallery had few art pieces in the likeness of women and, with the exception of Amina of Zaria, the 16th century warrior queen, and those of two other queens, most depicted them as mothers or homemakers, a problematic reinforcement of the colonial mentality that sort to eject women from politics and consign them to domestic affairs.  

That portrayal of women bearing calabashes/pots on their heads or carrying babies or as gossips isn’t just peculiar to Nigerian art, it seems to afflict African art in general. Perhaps, the incomplete rendering of history as taught in Nigerian schools, where women who resisted colonialism and fought for independence are generally treated as side notes or appendages to male characters, is to blame for these images, is the reason heroines like Janet Mokelu and Gambo Sawaba are missing from national discourses, the legal tender and spaces like the National Theatre’s art gallery.

I would exit the gallery feeling as uninspired as the narrator in Every Day is For the Thief. How does a government expect to keep its gallery operational if entrance fees are ridiculously low and artefacts (if they can be called that) are abandoned to weather elements? Surely, the Nigerian government has the means to commission capable art curators to spruce up the facility. I was thinking these thoughts and more when it hit me: the Nigerian government doesn’t give a damn about the country’s image. If it did, the president would be receiving medical treatment in Nigerian instead of wasting taxpayers’ money, treating an ear infection and whatnot in the UK. 

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