Akinosho Oluwatoyin: The Renaissance Man
They conceived the Art Stampede as an open parliament reminiscent of the classical public sphere of African tradition and ancient Greece. For those who had him on their radar, It was not surprising that he along with Yomi Layinka, Jossy Ogbuanor, Tunde Lanipekun, Chika Okeke, and later joined by Anikulapo co-founded the CORA. He is Akinosho Alfred Oluwatoyin, popularly known in some circles as Toyin.
He was born on May 17,1960 in Apapa, Lagos. He attended Baptist school, Apapa, Lagos from 1966-1971, Baptist Academy, Obanikoro, Lagos,1972-1976; Federal School of Arts and Science, Ogoja, 1978-1979; and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife,Ife,1979-1983.
He moved to Lagos from Ibadan after his Master’s programme, and was lucky to have been instantly hired by The Guardian newspaper as a Staff Writer for the Sunday title. TA, as Toyin was fondly called by friends, was not just a columnist for the newspaper, anchoring the popular Artsville column on Sunday, he was a close ally to his colleagues on the Arts Desk. He was connected to the Arts Editor then, Ben Tomoloju, and his dependable deputy, Jahman Anikulapo. He was receiving an initiation into the Lagos cultural scene, and succumbing to a restless spirit that saw me running through multiple newsrooms that Reuben Abati would later playfully describe me in newspaper article as “ex-this, ex-that, man about town..”
Akinosho’s unmatched ability to reach any corner of Lagos to connect with any artistic friend or event ensured that he would occasionally drop by at his friends’ residence then on Haruna Street in the Ogba suburb of Lagos, and will excavate the artistic innards of the city or “arts checkpoints,” to appropriate the title of a column that Jahman was writing for The Guardian Express, an evening newspaper subsidiary of the flagship, The Guardian. Toyin’s remained committed to the arts as he used his earned income to employ editors and reporters to publish Festac News out of his abode then in FESTAC Town, Lagos. He sponsored the publication of poet Uche Nduka’s second collection of poems titled Second Act.
Toyin has proven to be a Renaissance man—melding an intimidating knowledge of the arts and a reputation as cultural icon with his specialist profile as one of the respected voices in the oil and gas sector in the continent. Besides being the Secretary General of CORA, he served as the Secretary of the National Association of Petroleum Explorationists (NAPE). What an enviable combination! In that capacity, he organised and facilitated events on the state of the industry in different parts of the world and has been publishing the African Oil & Gas Report, a bi-monthly magazine under the umbrella of Journoblues Company, publishers of his unusual FESTAC News medium. Restless by nature, somewhat curious about marital commitment, Akinosho’s interests and forays read like a list from a man under the influence of creative steroids. This is evident in the tasks that he as an individual and CORA as a corporate entity have tackled in the past 30 years.
He is also the proprietor of FESTAC Books, which has published books ranging from fiction, to non-fiction works on the oil and gas industry as well as works of children literature. Mars House, his private residence has been home to some of the most revolutionary ideas that have gone ahead to transform the Art scene in Nigeria in the last one and a half decade, CORA, with its secretariat located on that premises, being just one of these. Since then, however, CORA’s secretariat moved to a commodious location in Surulere, Lagos, and Akinosho moved home to Lekki, an affluent community in Lagos Island.
In June 1991, Toyin founded the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) in the company of four of his friends. Some of scoffed at the effort only to bite the dust when Toyin led CORA to win the coveted 25,000-Euro Prince Claus Award in 2006. The stampedes and interventions of CORA on the arts circuit in Nigeria have been phenomenal.
He once published the fattest magazine, the FESTAC Magazine. At the launch of the magazine in Chike Nwagbogu’s Nimbus Art Gallery in Ikoyi, Babafemi Ojudu, before he became Senator, warned Toyin not to let the magazine die as a one-off venture as was always Toyin’s way. Yet, the magazine did not get past that one edition! Toyin has surprised many by showing that he can equally go the long distance as the publisher of African Oil+Gas Report. Under the auspices of CORA, he has sustained the esteemed Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), with the irrepressible support of his dogged buddy Jahman Anikulapo. Toyin won the 2007 CNN African Journalist of the Year Award in the Economics and Business category.
Toyin survived an assassination attempt in the wee hours of March 20, 2015 when some hired killers stormed his car but found only his driver inside the vehicle. The goons queried the driver: “Where is Toyin Akinosho?” The brave driver told them he had never heard of that name since he was born! The red-eyed killers rammed into the car and seized the driver’s phones, and then checked the saved numbers. They could not see “Toyin Akinosho” among the saved names. They only saw a suspicious name saved as “MAE” and asked who that could be. It was because the driver could not spell the name of “Alfred Toyin Akinosho” that he saved it as “MAE”! That’s how Toyin’s life was saved from dastardly assassins! The importance of being Alfred ought to be as important to the self-styled Toyin as the Importance of Being Earnest was to Oscar Wilde! Toyin combs night clubs with classy beauty queens, but the greatest wonder of the modern age is why Alfred, sorry, Toyin, has not found one of these beauties as a wife to lock him down for keeps!
Original Lagos Boy (Omo Eko Gangan)
Akinosho’s love for Lagos is traceable to his childhood days in Ebute-Meta area of Lagos which he recalls nostalgically. One of his most memorable reminiscences was living close to the Cool Cats Inn, notable for being the venue where highlife great, Victor Olaiya played regularly, and also for being the venue for the hosting of Liberian President William Tubman when he visited Nigeria.
The performance sounds from the Cool Cats Inn and a natural flair for the arts competed with his realisation that to afford the “good life,” he needed the kind of fat income that an oil and gas career could guaranty. And so, Akinosho studied geology at the University of Ife and arts and culture on the streets of Lagos. Not surprisingly, however, he took an early retirement at age 48 to rededicate himself more to his first love—arts and culture—after working at Chevron for 20 years.
The Arts Journalist
The occasion of his 50th birthday provided an opportunity for friends and associates in the arts community to celebrate the contributions of the cultural landscapist and maestro to the development of the arts in Nigeria. A terse email by lawyer and journalist Deji Toye on behalf of “Friends of Toyin” summarily invited me to participate in an Arthouse discussion on the theme “Art Journalism & Art Advocacy in the Last Two Decades in Nigeria.” The email further clarified that “The Arthouse Forum is being organized as part of the programme of events to mark the 50th birthday anniversary of Mr. Toyin Akinosho on Wednesday 12 May, 2010 at 4.00 p.m. prompt at Terra Kulture, Tiamiyu Savage Street, Victoria Island, Lagos.” The subject of the forum was “Art Advocacy and Art Journalism – Developments in the last two decades,” and I had been nominated as a facilitator because the organizers believed that I “had straddled those two elements — journalism and advocacy in the decades under consideration.”
Akinosho was shortlisted for, and won the Business category of the CNN Journalist of the Year, and has earned a reputation as perhaps, the longest-running arts columnist in Nigeria. Understandably, then, the key recurring questions in Akinosho’s quest for cultural renaissance in Nigeria include: “What have been the success and failure of Art Journalism and Advocacy? How can the energy generated by these be harnessed for national development in the next two?”
Perhaps, no one else is better positioned to answer the questions than Akinosho himself. Thrust in a rather awkward position today of being at the receiving end of the cultural menu he is better at serving others as chief host; he has become a guest at the kind of show, an endless list of those he (and Jahman) have organised include “Nduka Otiono at 40” at O’Jez restaurant, Surulere, Lagos, in 2004. Between well-nurtured self effacement and an uncanny capacity for friendship and selfless service, Akinosho is a cultural colossus, an enigma of sorts who combines popular culture with high tastes and high life — not the musical genre. He switches effortlessly from the high-profile privileges of an oil and gas exec familiar with the scents of “oil money” or petrodollar to the Bolekaja street life of the chattering masses.
Akinosho cultural initiatives
The Art Stampedes is a quarterly parliamentary event in which artists, art critics, art journalists and art connoisseurs gather to discuss hot burner issues in the arts and its 57th edition was part of the Cape Town Book Fair in South Africa in June, 2006. The Annual Lagos Book & Art Festival: Dubbed “The biggest Culture Picnic on the Continent”, LABAF is an art festival with a heavy book content and is a testament to the commitment of CORA that the only way to translate the ‘teeming’ population of Nigeria into a true human resource is to develop their mind. It is an international event with participants drawn from scholars, writers, artists and journalists from all over the world.
The City Arts Guide (LCAG)– is a quarterly publication on the cultural life of the city of Lagos, arguably Nigeria’s culture capital and the entry port into the nation’s business and commercial industries. In its short time of existence, LCAG was already beginning to force itself on the consciousness of the practitioners in the culture setting of the city, the culture of disciplined schedule and calendar which is the hallmark of all advanced tourist countries of the world.
The Great Highlife Party: Held in conjunction with the management of O’Jez Nightclub, Surulere, Lagos, this monthly programme set out as a Highlife music revival forum and has additionally emerged as a forum for the celebration of landmark achievements of the best in the Nigerian cultural scene.
The Art house Forum is a monthly session of exploration into fast-breaking development in the arts and culture sector of Nigeria. It is set up as an agenda-setting forum for those who administer culture in Nigeria. From the Forum they could test the pulse of the arts and culture community. It is usually arranged around landmark events in the life and career of personalities in the culture sector. It is organised on the platform of the Friends of the Arts, Lagos (FOAL), a CORA initiative.
Lagos Circle of Critics (LCC) is a periodic meeting of journalists, art critics, art commentators, and practitioners with bias for criticisms and historical developments around the arts. Culture WorkingCommittee: passes developmental ideas regularly to civil servants in charge of culture administration in the country.
Together, Toyin and his cultural Siamese twin, Jahman Anikulapo, Programme Chair of CORA, and Editor of The Guardian on Sunday and The Guardian LIFE, have guided CORA in collaborating with other local and international organisations such as UNESCO, Commonwealth Foundation, British Council, The Goethe Institut, the Public Affairs Department of the American Embassy, The Netherlands Embassy, the Russian Embassy, the Japanese Embassy etc, on cultural projects including: The BOBTV annual Film and TV Festival, Abuja, of which, starting from the 2006 edition, CORA is reportedly a collaborator and resource facilitators for the colloquium; The Lagos Comic Carnival: the first edition was incubated by CORA in the Festival in 2004, and delivered by three CORA members in collaboration with the other group of young men and women creating the silent revolution in the newly developing area of comic publications and animation (they are so enthused they’ve started referring to it as an industry) in Nigeria; and National Festival of Arts and Culture – the annual celebration of the diverse artistic and cultural expression of the peoples of Nigeria, organised by the Federal Government.
As the profile of CORA states, “at the very least, CORA organizes over twenty events annually, some of them, such as the Lagos Book & Art Festival, are hosted over many days in different venues with participants drawn from both within and outside the country. Also, various publications, including journals, magazines, news releases and fliers go out to the public in fulfillment of some of our mandates.” There is also more recently, CORA’s promotion of Spoken Word poetry through the Lagos Word Slam, a passion that I share with Jahman.
But how does Toyin and company generate the funds for these events in a country where art sponsorship is not the priority of government, rich corporations and citizens? “For all these, sponsorship of our program and projects are drawn mainly from the resources of the core CORA team” states the group. “For the Festival for example, outside sponsorship is only enough to pay about a sixth of our total bill, although it is a cheap festival; no more than five of six million Nigerian naira. But all the payments, including advert payments, never reach one million naira in a year. The rest we have to come up with, as individuals.” A largely modest team player not given to self-promotion and self-advertisement, much of the money may have come from Toyin’s pocket.
His generosity as an art patron in a country where the basic necessities of life often command attention even for the richest citizen is astonishing. Besides throwing open his house to artists short of shelter in Lagos, he has sponsored many artists and arts projects. These include Uche Nduka, whose collection of poems, Second Act was published in 1994 under Akinoshos’s Journoblues, Lagos, imprint. As Akinosho recalls in a most revealing interview he granted Azuka Ogujiuba of Thisday in 2004, “That was even published almost without my consent. Uche Nduka was working for me as the editor of my community newspaper, FESTAC News. He was one of the important poets in the country then. He wanted to publish, and he did. It wasn’t like I saw the collections of poems and said hey! I wanted to do this. He got some money from Uzor Maxim (Uzoatu), which I’m not sure I’ve paid yet, to publish the book…”
Akinosho was later to support the publication of Akin Adesokan’s award-winning novel, Roots in the Sky, under Festac Books imprint, the successor to Journoblues, Lagos. With CORA, he has been able to extend his passion for the arts, and to support a long list of artist(e)s, and cultural projects. Aware that the future belongs to the youth, he has helped shape the focus of CORA to the younger generation, making them central to the group’s unfolding programs. The yet to be realised CORA Library Projects is a key part of this vision.
As CORA’s mission statement makes clear, CORA plans to establish a project under which libraries will be established in major cities of Nigeria, especially the under-served areas of the cities. The library is where we would articulate all our ideas about the imperatives of reading, book, and literature for national development. This is why we support Book Clubs as part of the extension service outposts in dissemination of the ideas in books. We however take the view that libraries and book clubs should go beyond the upper middle-class clientele.
Given his vast experience over the years, and a shared vote of no confidence in a philistine ruling class in Nigeria, Akinosho would rather not think of Nigerian government in relation to the development of the arts even if he tirelessly works to make the state accountable through his unparalleled advocacy. “I do not even think we should be talking about government. Let’s look at ourselves, what have we contributed?” he rhetorically told Ogujiuba in the press interview referred to above. “We are working on the first library in mainland Lagos, next year. The idea is to have the size and space of the British Council and have the kind of hype that British Council has. Let us build infrastructure ourselves, look at the guys who built MUSON Centre, they don’t have ten heads each. We should go and work and stop hoping on government to help us uplift our arts.”
Culture hero deserving of honour
In a country where optimism is in short supply, Akinosho’s big dreams and optimism about taking Nigeria to a cultural El-Dorado is not only contagious, it is worth celebration. As we celebrate him on this golden jubilee of his fortuitous birth as a Nigeria, I believe it is morning yet on his march to greater heights. It is time the Nigerian government recognized such unsung everyday heroes as Toyin Akinosho and awards them the highest honors of our land as a way of redirecting misguided, materialistic youths to the kind of role models urgently needed to build a respectable country that recognizes and rewards excellence.
Akinosho has shown an uncommon vision and commitment to Nigeria’s cultural development that in some other clime, he would have been awarded one of the highest honors of the land, say OFR in Nigeria’s context. Indeed, the British equivalent of this award, member of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, has been awarded to distinguished cultural icons such as the novelist Ben Okri and the dancer, Peter Badejo.
But in Nigeria national awards are sometimes given to rogue politicians and their business-class collaborators. Not surprisingly then, both the venerable Chinua Achebe and Gani Fawehinmi have had to dissociate themselves from the awards in the past by rejecting them.