Marc-Andre Schmachtel on the Goethe-Institut and its commitment to intercultural exchange and local artistic discourse
2012 saw the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Goethe-Institut in Lagos, Nigeria. Originally established in 1962–two years after Nigeria gained independence–the institute has played a pivotal role to advocate for intercultural dialogue between Germany and Nigeria, and to promote arts and culture locally.
This intermediary role is arguably best represented by the 2013 exhibition ‘Voyage/Retour’ : a collaborative project organised with the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany. Remarking it as the museum’s first showing “south of the Sahara”–the Lagos exhibition presented images of African and European photographers drawn from the museum’s collection. With works by renown Nigerian photographer J.D ‘Okhai Ojeikere alongside German counterparts such as Rolf Gillhausen, the exhibition aimed to illuminate the sociopolitical conditions of the milieu, those that shaped the artistic expression.
‘Crossing Archives’ panel discussion with curator Storm Janse van Rensburg and photographer Santu Mofokeng
at the Voyage/Retour exhibition (Lagos, December 1, 2013.) Image courtesy the Goethe Institut.
Consequently, the exhibition presented different cultures, with unique modes of artistic production and intertwined them through participation, exhibition location and content. This process provided each country with an opportunity to gain insight into the others, both socially and artistically. And, it served to demonstrate why the Goethe-Institut is such a critical-albeit complex institution.
Over the years, the institute has and still continues to negotiate the duality of being a foreign initiative with specific goals and objectives situated within Nigeria, whilst simultaneously bearing a commitment to local cultural production. This dilemma and its ongoing resolution is especially pertinent when one considers the characteristic lack of state funding and the subsequent reliance on foreign investment that seems to epitomise local art scenes across countries in Africa. It is a situation, which brings with it, an inexorable complexity of tensions and discrepancies, that often tend to overshadow and sometimes diminish the artistic production itself.
In spite of a complex duality, the organisation has navigated its way to become a recognised institution in the local Nigerian art scene. Thanks to its long history and tradition in Nigeria, coupled with its critical presence as a platform for exhibitions, theatre productions and residencies–many in support of young Nigerian practitioners–the institute has managed to stay relevant. Furthermore, when considering the immense educational task facing a country where the population currently sits close to 180 million, its place remains arguably not only important but vital.
Nigeria has reputable tertiary art programs such as at the University of Nigeria, known for the Nsukka group which includes El Anatsui and Olu Oguibe. Nevertheless it would be foolish to think that those instituations alone would be able to cater to the country’s requirements. What the Goethe-Institut’s presence has provided, is an additional, critical pedagogical avenue. In turn, its accessibility and success have demonstrated the importance of employing varying institutional approaches to solving the art scene’s infrastructural challenges.
Subsequently, the institute now finds itself operating alongside other pivotal spaces such as the Center for Contemporary Art, Omenka Gallery and festivals such as LagosPhoto. Furthermore, its multiplex position–reflected in its duality–means that the institute can also be viewed as a critical reference point in the debates surrounding the impact of globalisation and an ever-expanding art world.
Left to Right | Director of the Goethe Institute, Marc-André Schmachtel (moderator), the High Commissioner of the British Council, the famous historian Edward Nigerian Emeka Keazor, the Consul General of France François Sastourné, the Consul General of Germany Michael Derus, Benin writer Marcus Boni Teiga, Dr. Jörg Theis and the French writer Pierre Cheruuau (moderator) during the debate about the WWI at Terra Kulture, Lagos.
So, with Marc-Andre Schmachtel having doubled up as both director and programme assistant following the retirement–in 2011–of long serving, Sunday Umweni and recognising his commitment to, “display the life of Lagos through art,” we caught up with him to find out more about the Goethe-Institut’s relationship to Nigeria and their role in supporting young Nigerian artists today.
Houghton Kinsman | Considering that the Goethe-Institut has been in Nigeria since the 1960s, how has the institution developed since then and why is it still relevant today?
Marc-Andre Schmachtel | Goethe-Institut Nigeria was founded in 1962, just two years after Nigeria gained independence. While at the beginning the main mission was to present German culture and teach German language in Nigeria, these aims changed in the 1970s to become more oriented towards an intercultural dialogue. This practice has and still does manifest itself through the strong focus of the institute on promoting both German arts and artists, and also offering platforms for Nigerian artists to present themselves. This has been a core part of the activities right up until now. And, this is also probably a reason why the Goethe-Institut is still relevant today. Not only were there exhibitions of young and upcoming artists (and also of more respected ones), but there have also been many exchange programs, workshops and trainings that took place, cultural co-productions that were initiated and many more. The language department has also played its role. German language has constantly been in demand in Nigeria. A large number of Nigerians are living in Germany and recently this number has increased. This has meant that the language courses have always been a very important part of the attractiveness of Goethe-Institut. Much like the language department, the library and information department has also been important, as it is one of the very few resource centers on Germany in Nigeria.
Exhibition for youth on life in a divided Germany, and the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 during the
16th Lagos Book and Art Festival, Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos Island, Nov 14 – 16, 2014. Photo | Jeremiah Ikongio.
With all these different spheres in operation at the Goethe-Institut, and being that it is so embedded in the country yet it is still essentially a foreign institution, how do you view its role in regards to emerging Nigerian art practice?
Goethe-Institut is an independent association created after the Second World War, and with the aim to promote knowledge of the German language and a new image of Germany, after the atrocities of the Nazi-Regime. It was able to reach an agreement with the German Foreign Office, making it the official German cultural center abroad. This special situation was of significant importance to the vision of Goethe-Institut and its practice. Hence, we see ourselves as cultural ambassadors for Germany. But, of a Germany with all its different faces, be they positive or negative. You have on the one hand, the extremely rich cultural heritage in music, painting, philosophy, architecture, literature, and so on. But on the other, there is racism, discrimination, economic crisis and unemployment. All of which are topics that we want to cover to be able to give a realistic and current image of Germany. Another important aspect of our work is the intercultural dialogue. We want to promote our own culture, but in doing so we have to understand the other as well. We have to be able to understand the host countries culture in order to explain our own culture. This is why our institutes are always open to local artists, for discussions, for debates with local intellectuals, so that we can engage our audience. We see ourselves as a platform for this debate, for cultural exchange that at its best benefits both sides. This briefly explains this duality of being, on one side a German cultural institution, but on the other hand, an important platform for the artistic and intellectual debate in Nigeria.
Therefore, in thinking about this duality and the Goethe-Institut’s contributions as an artistic platform in Nigeria, how well equipped is the country infra-structurally to aid in the development of young artists?
From my experience there is still a lot to be done from the public side. Especially in the visual art sector where there is no proper art funding like sponsorship for residencies, funding of studio spaces, support for art exhibitions, festivals, archives, museums, etc. Here, most of the successful initiatives are privately run. The same is valid for literature or theatre/performance arts. However, a sector that has seen some public engagements is the so-called entertainment industry, Nollywood and the music industry. But, here as well, most of the driving forces are private structures, studios that are producing mainstream products for Nigeria and abroad. These structures have gained robust experience on how to produce successful films, bands, etc. The public sector has begun to understand the importance of this industry and subsequently started supporting-for instance-the film industry with special grant schemes. But, what I think is lacking is more artistically motivated support for independent cinema and music artists.
Another important factor is arts education. Historically, Nigeria has some very important teaching centers, like Nsukka University, Zaria, etc, where many renowned artists originated from. But, nowadays the situation has changed and more and more artists are going abroad for their specialisation. However despite this, non-formal educational spaces have opened and summer school programs are being organised, all with the intention of training the growing number of artists from all genres. Goethe-Institut has played a little role in here as well, by organising training workshops, and initiated residencies in Germany.
Documentary Dissonances, photography masterclass exhibition facilitated by Akinbode Akinbiyi and Uche
Okpa-Iroha. Goethe-Institut Lagos, City Hall, Lagos (installation view), Nov, 2014. Photo| Jeremiah Ikongio.
And, especially considering that these initiatives are beginning to open up, how would you describe current emerging artistic practice in Nigeria?
I can only judge from the time that I have been in the country, but I believe that over the last 10 years the artistic discourse has opened up very much internationally, with more and more artists forming part of the world-wide networks of art exchanges, residencies, international workshops. This has meant that the discourse has reached a global level. Art centers like the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) and galleries like Omenka, Art21, Osh, festivals like LagosPhoto have contributed a lot to this awareness and put Lagos at the forefront of the African arts map. A growing number of art spaces have created awareness of art as being something important, that is worth following or practicing. However, at the same time the scene is still very small, in comparison to the number of inhabitants of Nigeria. There are still so many more young talented people who are yet to be discovered, who haven’t gotten the chance to find the proper artistic media.
Apart from access as an issue that needs addressing, what are some of the challenges you see facing young artists/cultural practitioners in Nigeria today and why do they exist?
From what I have gathered during my time in Nigeria, the most important challenges for artists and cultural practitioners here is the lack of adequate funding, be it for their own artistic work or for the structures that support the artistic debate. As I mentioned earlier, there is no proper public support scheme for artists, and the private donors/sponsors are difficult to convince and are often solicited by too many artists. This makes it difficult for a growing number of artists that want to work in a creative environment. Another main challenge is the lack of proper and affordable studio spaces, places where young artists can experiment and get advice. We are currently working on the creation of such a space, which would enable artists from different genres to have access to studio spaces, as well as access to documentation, something that is also another big challenge in Nigeria. This is because, there are very few accessible resource centers on art, not speaking here of archives or museums. This is problematic because these are the primary places for a country like Nigeria, where the discourse on its own culture has yet to broaden up. For example, if you take the film adaption of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and the huge debate it created around how history should be shown in the public you realise that there is still a lot to be done. And, in this discussion, artists have a major role to play, because they are able to stir debates that will propel the discourse further on.
This article forms part of the series Next Chapter: Inquiries into emerging artistic practice