Sobayo Abolore is the brains behind the recently erected statue of Afro beat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The graduate of Fine Arts (Painting) and owner, Cowries Studios, in this interview with Rotimi Ige, explains the reasons behind the unique idea, among other issues.
How you have been able to tell the story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti through your statue design?
I am visual artiste. During last year’s Felabration, I did ‘echoes’ where I created over a hundred masks of Fela, his mother and wife. I also did about ten paintings and installations which was about 20 by 10 feet. Also, I created a tale series where I was able to X-ray his family history all through his lifetime. Thereafter, I discovered that there were a lot of people that needed to be educated about Fela, especially the youth. I have been to some countries where people still couldn’t get who Fela was. They move about with the mindset that Fela was a dancer and some even say he was a freedom fighter while others say he was a musician. After that, I decided to make the exhibition a traveling exhibituon. I took it to the Lagos state Book and Arts Festival (LABAF) and Freedom Park. After that, I took it to a gallery in Brooklyn, New York. After the Brooklyn show, I was in Finland to showcase the artworks at the Nigerian Culture Week. And the essence of this was to talk to the newer audience about it, and I would like to tell people that we need to tell our stories. We don’t need to wait for people to tell our stories The Fela statue I created happens to be the first of its kind in the whole of Africa.
What do you think Fela contributed to the Nigerian state that warrants him being immortalised?
For me, I believe Fela was able to emancipate the people. I believe Fela stood up when standing up was not easy. I believe Fela used his music to fight the oppressors and challenged the government not representing the people properly. He also used his music to challenge government officials in the corridors of power. He contributed beyond his imagination because 20 years after his demise, his music still lives on, his music still echoes in our minds and the realities of some of the things he has said still happens within our society.
What inspired your decision in projecting this type of statue which is headless and with no palms for Fela?
What I have been able to do over the years, was to research about Fela and learn some things from what he stood for. I wanted to create something that would represent Fela, not trying to create another Fela because it is impossible to have another Fela. What I created was something that could represent his essence, his struggle for freedom, emancipation of people. I created this because I want people to look at it with an open mind. I learnt from Fela that music is a weapon and when he was saying it people thought it was a joke. For me, I went beyond aesthetics. I had to create something that could generate discourse. I had to create something that could provoke thought. For me, I have been able to create Fela’s garment, his costume which is unique. I have been able to deploy symbolism which was the usage of costume to symbolise Fela. I used a bit of naturalism because you can feel and realise that this is Fela but still abstract and what you have done is in line with contemporary art and I have been able to do this so that we could learn from this artwork. It is not just an artwork, but an artwork that would stir questions and make some of us read.
Prior to the creation of that statue, I did a lot of research. I had to go to the Kalakuta museum to study Fela’s wardrobe. Gratefully, Yeni Kuti gave me the access. She granted me access to the room which they normally don’t do. So I was there for about five hours, flipping through his clothing from the era of some of the things we knew him to wear clothes to the era of some of the things we had never imagined Fela had worn. And there was a lot of encounter. The first encounter was with the tour guard who expressed that Fela could be anywhere around his room and hence called him a spirit. For me on that very day, I saw a lot of treasures after seeing his costumes. This is one of the things that inspired me to do the Fela costume. It is a beauty that I found and felt and people can attest to that.
Many youths of today did not really encounter Fela considering the fact that he died 20 years ago, what form of person will you describe him to be in presenting him to Nigerians, youths especially?
Well, I would say Fela was an advocate of truth. He was someone who stood up for justice. He denied himself best things of the world. Today, we have fewer people doing extraordinary things and now we have fewer legends. First, I would like the youths to learn the intellectuality in Fela and see the social fighter in him.I would like them to get educated. Education is beyond the four walls of the institution. There’s what is called self enlightenment. It is a known fact that most of us don’t read books as much as we are supposed to and if this continues, there will be generation of half baked graduates and soon they will be fathers. So, the kind of values expected to pass down to their children will leave much to be desired.
Fela sang about so many societal ills which still form national discussion till date, restructuring, corruption in government, and others, why do you think these issues seem unsolvable?
I think the issues seem unsolvable because we as a people are not ready for change. We always ask God for help and I think God will not change your position if you are not ready to move in his direction. I think that we as a people believe we are spiritually inclined. We need to change our attitudes. I think the best way to change the world is to change one’s attitude. At one point, I was very naive, thinking I could change the world. Later I realised that from changing myself, I would affect my household and then my community and gradually the entire society. I think we all need to go to the basis to changing ourselves. Corruption is now beyond corruption in government. Corruption has now become the bane of our life. We need to change ourselves first and from there we could change the world. It is not that it is so big that we can’t solve but the question is, “are we ready to solve this problem?”.
Many people, especially parents criticised Fela’s controversial lifestyle, most especially smoking of cannabis, which they believe influenced youths negatively, what do you say to this?
For me, I believe you should look at the message not the mesenger. I believe we can learn from anybody. You have to sieve the information you get. When I am being given advice, I sieve it. Whatever advice I am given, I would pick mine and leave the rest. I also believe that we should look beyond his personality and the other way and dwell more on his positive values. So, we should choose what we want. For instance, I don’t believe so much in peer pressure. I believe in what you want amongst your peers. Like the Yoruba adage says, “Eni ti a ko ni ka, o ni ka ninu te le ni”(whoever is being taught wickedness has it within himself prior to the tutorial). If you have some of these things, you will exhibit it.
Are you impressed with the level of recognition which the government, especially at the centre has given Fela?
Well, at the centre, I would say no. I think he deserves more and every other person that has contributed to the development of our country too deserves more. Beyond even Fela, I would want to tilt towards his mother (Madam Funmilayo Kuti). I think she deserves to be recognised more because she was the first woman to drive a car. Beyond that, she was a strong feminist. She was an advocate of justice. She created the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT). She fought for the rights of the females in Abeokuta to the point that she ousted the king, the Alake of Egbaland. She has contributed immensely to the society and the fact that she was killed by the military government, I believe an apology will be good.
In recognising Fela by the Federal Government, a street in Abuja could be named after him. A clue from the Lagos State government could be taken. A museum in his name would not be a bad idea. We need to try as much as possible to immortalise our heroes.