Dike Chukwumerije Reviews Abuja’s New Creative Spirit That Is Lifting The City’s Soul.

ABUJA ON THE MOVE - A Review of the Creative Sector in Abuja.
Dike Chukwumerije and Promise Ebichi 

From its days of cultural soullessness – caricatured as the stereotypical artificial city, made only of glass, concrete and migrant workers – Abuja has come a long way. For proof of this, look to the increasingly choked calendar of its cultural enthusiast. In recent months, this calendar has been crammed with poetry shows, musicals, theatre productions and cultural festivals, all healthy signs of a creative sector experiencing a boom. 

Perhaps it is the city’s increasing population of the aspirational. Or the coming of age of a generation of Abuja born and bred, more inclined to see the city as home. Perhaps it is the re-location of artistes from more culturally vibrant cities, and the resultant pressure on local artistes to do more. Who knows? But the resultant boom has been loud, louder and more broad based than anything before, involving more diverse art forms, more efficient use of resources, and a manifestation of creative entrepreneurship on every scale, from the cozy ‘Poetry and Puff-Puff’ in Nyanya to the spectacular Tamerri Festival in Maitama. 

But what has by far been the most distinctive feature of this period of expansion in the Abuja creative sector has been the willingness of its leading lights to experiment more readily with form. So, for instance, we see traditional plays – like Eagleview Theatre’s ‘Bros “J” Born in Warri’ – borrowing from Musical Theatre, while a Musical Theatre Production – like Krump Dance Studio’s ‘Abuja The Musical’ – relying as much on dialogue as it does on song and dance. Or is it Simply Poetry’s ‘Made In Nigeria’ with its conflation of poetry, theatre, drama and dance? These experimentations in form have helped in no small way to win new audiences to what would otherwise be niche genres.

As is the experimentation with space. Lacking still in modern theatre facilities like the Muson Centres or the Terra Kultures of Lagos, Abuja can be tough to navigate for the creative entrepreneur. Government’s lack of interest in actively promoting culture has seen the momentum shift away from ideal but poorly maintained facilities like the Cyprian Ekwensi Cultural Centre in Garki and the Main Auditorium of the Women Development Centre in Central Area. New hubs are springing up instead, mostly in the Wuse 2 – Maitama area, where hotels like the Transcorp Hilton and Sandralia (Jabi), and cafes like Salamander and Classic Rock, with their favourable dispositions towards the arts, are filling the gap. 

Merit House in Maitama, recently discovered by the creative community, with its reasonably priced and relatively well maintained theatre space, became the toast of creatives in 2017, hosting several productions like Simply Poetry’s ‘Made In Nigeria’, Dabbs Media and Event’s ‘Bending and Bonding’, Krump Dance Studio’s ‘Abuja the Musical’, and Eagleview Theatre’s ‘Her Majesty’s Visit’. Down the road from Merit House, the British Council, courtesy of a partnership with Abuja-based artist, Ifesinachi Nwanyanwu, opened up its grounds to creatives, an opportunity that was properly utilized in 2017 by the 2 Mask and a Griot’s Theatre Company to stage multiple plays – ‘Finding Adaora’, ‘Future Ex-Mrs Apena’, ‘Overnight Trial’, and ‘The King and the Harmattan Baby’.

Other spaces that have been creatively manipulated include the NTA Arena in Garki (that played host to Colour Africa’s ‘Journey to One’) and the Ladi Kwali Hall of the Sheraton Hotels (that played host to The Art and Civic Table’s Nigerian Satire Festival). However, one of the most remarkable uses of unconventional spaces in Abuja in recent times was achieved by Root n Raw’s Tamerri Festival, when it transformed the Sarius Palmetum Garden in Maitama for the second year running into the scenic setting for its eclectic 3-day music and cultural festival. The success of this innovation can be readily judged by the quick sprouting of yet another music festival - the SmyleAfrica Music Festival – in the same venue, demonstrating the capacity of a well-crafted creative event to increase the visibility of its hosting venue. 

But space continues to pose a challenge and, therefore, a business opportunity. As does the quality of technical support for creative events. With lighting and sound companies in Abuja more used to supporting music concerts or weddings or seminar type events, it takes a bit of explaining to re-kit them for creative events. This may explain the typically poor technical aspects of Abuja’s creative productions, when compared with their Lagos counter-parts. Also relatively under-developed in Abuja are support areas like script writing, directing, stage management, costume design, cast management, props and stage design where the average producer, understandably looking to save costs, under-values these skills by taking them on himself, or outsourcing them to friends and family. These factors have conspired to mar many of the city’s productions. But the Abuja audience, currently grateful for any sort of alternative entertainment, is still largely forgiving of short-comings like these. 

But not for long. Not with the increasing incursion of Lagos-based creative entrepreneurs. This year saw at least three such powerhouses turn their gaze towards Abuja. Bolanle Austin Peters of Terra Kulture fame brought ‘Wakaa the Musical’ to Abuja, with multiple day showings at the Regent School and at the Transcorp Hilton. Lydia Idakula of Taruwa brought her play ‘Shift Lemme Faint’ for a 2-day showing at Merit House. And Efe Paul Azino’s Lagos International Poetry Festival hosted a 2-day workshop at the Hilton, in partnership with the legendary Abuja Literary Society, as well as a night of poetry and music themed ‘Jollof Verses and Palmwine Music’ at the Classic Rock Café in Wuse 2. This is not a bad thing. As competition is not only certain to put pressure on Abuja-based creatives to fight for their turf, thereby increasing the number of creative events show-cased in the city, and putting downward pressure on average ticket prices. It will also force productions that insist on being high-end to justify every kobo of that premium, and so enhance overall quality. All music to the ears of the Abuja audience!

So kudos to the brave creative entrepreneurs of Abuja who, in the face of a terrible recession, demonstrated the recession-proof nature of creativity by going on to lead a remarkable growth in the sector. It is in this indomitable and unflagging spirit that we look forward to an even more productive and eventful year of creative events in 2018. As we like to say in these parts, ‘May God bless our hustle!’