You may not have heard of Bolanle Austen Peters. The Lawyer turned art connoisseur, turned producer, is the force of nature behind Nigeria’s foremost arts and cultural centre Terra Kulture- a cultural hub for artists and art lovers, which is also now home to Terra Kulture Arena; a 400 seater state of the art theatre- the first to be privately owned by a woman in Nigeria.
After making history with the successful debut of Wakaa (a musical she produced) at the Shaw Theatre last year, Bolanle Austen Peters is back with her latest creation Saro The Musical. Our Editor Fadekemi A. Sulaiman, caught up with her to find out more about the woman breaking boundaries in the Nigerian art scene.
NL: If someone had told you 10 years ago that you would launch the first Nigerian musical to premiere in the west end, what would you have said?
BAP: Truth is I take each day at a time and never anticipate the next day. Our steps were tentative but focused and with the passion and vision we applied, we have been fortunate to be the first Nigerian musical in the West End. I probably wouldn’t have doubted that person because I entered into the theatre space with tenacity, vision and a positive drive.
NL: Wakaa Was a sold out show in the west end, what do you think contributed to its popularity outside of the shores of Nigeria?
BAP: The success of Wakaa in Lagos birthed its popularity outside of the Country. It is a relatable story produced with elegant costumes, precision in choreography, popular music, a stellar cast, lights, sound and everything that is obtainable in theatres all over the world. Excellence is our watch word at Terra Kulture. People already know that. I believe that was why it was a soft sell.
NL: What was the inspiration behind the creation of Saro The Musical and why should people go see it?
BAP: Saro was inspired by the rich and colourful culture of Nigeria and the modern face of Lagos. Saro tells a story of four young men who left the frustration of their homes and journeyed to Lagos in search of better opportunities. It is a relatable story about hopes and aspirations. People should come see Saro; when they come, they will not only relate with the characters in the story, they will also experience music, dance and spectacle like they have never experienced before.
NL: There is a notion that Nigerians historically do not have an appetite for visual and performing arts, hence why the industry is yet to see the boom enjoyed by Nollywood. What’s your take on this?
BAP: That is not true. We have always had an appetite for arts. The problem is in the creation. The environment we are in is not enabling enough for arts to be created profitably. Art is in our DNA, don’t forget that. Our forefathers painted and carved. We always had our own dramatization in the form of folklore. Egungun (Masquerades) is performance arts. The travelling theatre that was big in the 60s to the 70s was influenced by the Alaarinjo tradition. Arts in Nigeria witnessed a radical revolution in the late 50s and early 60s. And it was vibrant up to the 80s. True the practise deteriorated but that was due to the lack of an enabling environment for arts to thrive, and of course the negative reception of artists by the society and the rise of television. When there is no product there will be no consumption. But, the conversation is changing. Art is once again significant, there is a revival. Art is once again being created with a vibrancy that is contagious. We have an appetite for arts. It will be consumed if it is created and created well.
NL: The Arts sector has recently started to enjoy a boost, both locally and internationally. What do you think is driving this interest?
BAP: Like I said there is a revival. There is an awakening. Artists again started to create against all odds. This move was necessary because people were beginning to forget the immeasurable impact of arts in the society. They once again see that arts can be used to correct societal ills, express activism and boost our economy by creating jobs and attracting tourists. In Nigeria, the revenue from the creative sector is now recognized as a factor that adds value to the country’s GDP. As more works are created, the need for an intervention becomes all the more obvious. Investors are beginning to embrace arts as a worthy business course. There is a sudden realisation that change and advancement is not only dependent on technology and Oil but also on arts.
NL: You once said that creating Terra Kulture over 10 years ago has been a ‘lonely, hard slug’. How did you stay focused before the rest of the world bought into your vision?
BAP: Persistence! There should be a definiteness of purpose in everything you do, so I knew what I wanted to do and I knew if I worked hard at it I’d be where I want to be so I persisted. It was hard, really hard, but all the hard work is paying off now so I will say persistence was the key. I never gave up even when it was hard to stay focused.
NL: What was it like being a pioneering arts and culture centre in the Nigerian arts scene in 2003?
BAP: Initially people did not understand the essence of what I planned to do, but over time my vision became clear. Terra Kulture is a place for visual artists to exhibit, a place for performing artists to perform, a place for literary artists to showcase their work. Terra Kulture is a place where African Arts and Culture is promoted with excellence. That vision that started out in 2003 has become a hub for creative minds; not only for practitioners but also for consumers. It was hard initially but we are glad to be in a better place now.
NL: Looking back, what would you say have been the most significant achievements?
Ans: Well, I want to think all our achievements are significant no matter how small it might seem. From winning multiple awards and gaining international recognition for our movie 93, to the building of The Terra Arena, the construction of Eko theatres, public art installation around Lagos, our highly successful annual TKMG Art Auctions to the international recognition and success of our Musicals Wakaa! and Saro. We will like to say all our achievements have been equally significant.
NL: With the launch of the new theatre at the centre, will this herald a new era of shared arts and performances across African countries or even wider?
BAP: Yes it will herald new projects especially international collaborations and tours, we are presently in discussions with international partners as we are working on global projects.
NL: Does the Nigerian government still have a role to play in developing the arts or is it high time the private sector took the lead?
BAP: The private sector cannot do it all without government support. The growth of the industry will be accelerated if the Government and the private sector work hand in hand to provide an enabling environment for the industry to thrive on. The Nigerian government has a huge role to play by setting up infrastructures and policies that supports the creative industry and encourages creative development. The private sector can provide innovation platforms and schemes like arts networking, mentoring and tutoring programmes. We hope to see a creative industry in Nigeria fuelled by public and private partnership.
NL: If there was one thing you could change about the Nigerian art sector, what would it be?
BAP: I would establish policies that encourage, promote and develop creativity. I will help create more platforms for artists to showcase and monetise their artistic and creative abilities. I will strive to make Nigeria the Most creative Nation in Africa.
NL: Apart from challenges with funding and infrastructure, isn’t another issue the lack of nurturing of new talents? Do we have the right institutions for talent to grow and is artistic talent encouraged?
BAP: Art is taught in almost all private and public schools across Nigeria, but that is not enough. We are yet to have the right institutions for talent to grow. We need specialised institutions where talents can be nurtured. We have specialised schools for technology, Science and Engineering. We should have these for the arts as well. The lack of specialised institutions negatively impacts the development of talent. It requires education and practise to hone one’s craft. A good percentage of artists learn on their own or under a mentor. We should have institutions that teach just dance or the business of dance. There is not enough encouragement for artistic talent. The journey is never easy when artists decide to pursue their dreams full-time. The business of arts is relatively new in this part of the world. The industry lacks a solid platform for promotion, management and monetization. We are filling the gap at Terra kulture and through practice; we have become the nurturing ground for talents.
NL: Finally, (and on a more light-hearted note), can you tell us your 5 favourite things/places to see or do in Lagos?
First will be to visit Terra Kulture either to see a play or to enjoy our African cuisines or even to get a souvenir. You can also visit the beach. Like New York, Lagos never sleeps. Feel free to enjoy the night life by visiting the malls, clubs or even exploring our monuments around Lagos. There are art galleries and cinemas also to visit. What I love most is the private parties thrown by Lagosians… there is no party like a Lagos party.
Saro The Musical will open at the Shaw Theatre on August 24th 2017.