By Tope Templer Olaiya, Assistant Lagos City Editor
The National Arts Theatre, Lagos, which is presently a subject of controversy, means different things to different people. While many visit the cultural edifice on weekends and public holidays to be entertained with movies and stage productions on offer, some find the lush green grass that beautify the theatre ground irresistible as a good spot to stand and stare, reflect or court for love.
Fun seekers returning from work on the island and who want to escape the maddening traffic gridlock of a regular weekday in Lagos, visit the theatre to spend idle time gulping bottles of soft or alcoholic drinks. To majority of visitors, it is difficult to be at the complex in Iganmu without attempting a stopover at the popular spot known as Abe-igi.
Named after a grove of sturdy shade trees, the spot is located directly opposite the sprawling complex. It consists of a row of kiosks, which originally served as ticketing booths during the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, hosted by Nigeria in 1977.
Lush and majestic, the trees stand tall with their massive branches giving shade to those underneath. Planted to give shade and beauty to the nation’s premier theater, it is hard to imagine how many movie stars the shades of these trees have produced in the country.
The regular convergence of artists and resulting activities attracted food sellers, hawkers of different items and itinerant musicians to Abe-igi. Eventually, the place rose from being a meeting point to a full-scale leisure spot, after its transformation in 2006 when the management of the National Theatre entered into a mutually beneficial partnership with the Nigeria Breweries Plc.
On the surface, it seems a very good deal for fun seekers, but there are growing complaints that the Abe-Igi should not be limited only to the sales of Nigerian Brewery products, as not everybody is a fan of firm’s brands. “There are those who prefer the competition. It is quiet different from what it was when they had the liberty to sell all brands of beer,” stated Abidemi George, one of the kiosk tenants.
While the Abe-igi congregation are immune to the transformation agenda that seeks to convert a chunk of the 37-year-old Lagos landmark into a five-star hotel, other government agencies are still in a battle of wits over eviction notice handed months ago by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke.
Mostly pained by the present unstable situation are artists who occupy the space designated as the Artiste Village, at the former head office of the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC). Dotun Alabi, chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) Lagos and co-ordinator of activities at the Artists Village is not happy at the crowd Abe-Igi is attracting to the nation’s foremost cultural monument.
“It is because the National Theatre lost focus in terms of programming and venue management that Abe Igi grew in significance; if you are talking in terms of enterprise, more business is done under the Abe Igi than in the National Theatre itself. What NB is projecting isn’t good for the image of arts; it is simply reinforcing negative stereotypes for the arts.
“At the moment, Abe Igi has become a full blown joint, which is not very good for artists because it brings wrong and undiscerning audiences. Its audience is just a beer drinking one and of guys who book appointments with their girlfriends. The only time there are activities at the National Theatre are during festive periods,” he said.
The culture enthusiast added that although unplanned, Lagos, like most cultural capital on the globe boasts of a creative hub where artists with specialized skills in all art forms can be patronized. Artist Village is a place where ideas in arts are muted, incubated, nurtured and developed to feed the theatre, driving a special kind of audience that are discerning from generation to generation.
“The Artist Village cannot be displaced to make room for hotels and shopping malls. If that happens, that will mean the gradual death of the national theatre as artists and practitioners will be scattered everywhere, therefore denying us of the synergy and creative energy that an Artist Village creates,” he added.