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Bolanle Austen-Peters: For The Love Of The Art

With a history and culture that does little or nothing to promote the woman as a context, the International Women’s Month offers an avenue to celebrate women who have contributed phenomenally to the different sectors they find themselves, especially those that have shown that they are not bound by the limiting rules devised by the society.

Bolanle Austen-Peters is not only an exception, she is an enigma who has proved herself with a successful career in promoting and retaining the Nigerian culture.

When Austen-Peters returned to Nigeria after working with the United Nations as a lawyer, there was a yawning gap in the Nigerian arts space begging to filled. She says, “As an expatriate, you tend to visit a lot of touristic sites and destinations when you’re abroad. Typically, I used to take my children, we’d go to art centres, we’d go to galleries, we’d go to museums. And I recognised there was a lack of that in Nigeria.” Asides from that, she also saw the need to teach the language which she believes is pivotal to the identity of any country. Like every great creative mind, she was moved to find a solution to the problem, saying, “In relation to identity, I asked myself the question, what makes you a Nigerian? It is typically about the food, their art, their theatre and all those things constitute their culture and the language. That’s why I decided to put together Terra Kulture.”

Terra Kulture became the heart of learning the Nigerian culture through the elements listed above. Regardless of this start to a worthy cause and the ripple effects it has had on the Nigerian art scene, Austen-Peters still considers the appreciation of her brainchild as well as the industry it stems from as ‘a work in progress’. Citing the Nigerian music industry as an example, she says, “We started about 15 years ago, I remember when we started, Nigerian music was non-existent apart from the older generation like Sunny Ade, I.K Dairo and people like that… But the interesting thing is that in the last decade or so, it’s really caught on. If you know what happens in the music industry, you can hardly go to any party where it’s not 99.9% Nigerian music that and that is even across borders in West Africa.”

The arts and culture have seen that same spike in appreciation. She says, “When we started there was little or no appreciation for Nigerian art. Now, people are turning out to see art exhibitions, Nigerian art auction houses have sprung up, one of them is our Terra Kulture and Mydrim Art Auction House, there is also Arthouse Auction. You have a lot of galleries like Nike Art Gallery, Mydrim Gallery that existed before us. We also have art festivals now, where you have art exchange like Art X. Things are springing up all over the place, it is a testament to the fact that Nigerian art is growing.”

Regardless of this growth, the Nigerian arts and culture industry needs to be given more life, she notes. For the arts and culture promoter, the important thing for the Nigerian is “an appreciation by the general mass”. She goes on to say: “I think that it is really expanding, and it is growing. Government is supportive of a lot of the initiatives, at least, in Lagos State.”

Save the involvement of the government she mentions the rise of artistic ventures springing up as businesses as opposed to the past where artists considered themselves to be just artists. This is evident in the movies, theatre, fashion, food, art and literary sector.

A living testament to the growth of this industry is the work Austen-Peters is working on with the Lagos State Government to raise awareness for arts and culture through the building of similar structures like Terra Kulture across the state.

With excitement, she says, “You can imagine what that will do to this industry?” The structures will be erected in areas like Epe, Ikorodu, Badagry, Igando, Jibowu and Surulere, and four will be ready in the next three months. She also explains that the structure is bigger than what she currently has with Terra Kulture.

For her, the arts and culture industry are getting bigger and better as she says, “All over the world people are appreciating our art, who we are as a people, our culture. The younger generation is very creative; everybody is getting their hands into things that they love to do.”

Being more than just a woman invested in the passion of the creative industry, she shares, “But the important thing is that we should be able to turn it into businesses and not just passion.”

Although Austen-Peter’s Terra Kulture started with attacking the problem of culture from the language level, she has upped the ante with a play and film productions outfit – BAP Productions. BAP Productions is responsible for critically-acclaimed plays like Saro The Musical, Waka the Musical, 93 Days and most recently Fela and the Kalakuta Queens.

Much like Terra Kulture, BAP Productions was predicated on the need to fill a void, this time in the Nigerian theatre industry. Austen-Peters noticed that practitioners needed a space where they can showcase their plays and she opened an underutilised space in the building to them for free for seven years. Seven years down the line and she found her love for direction to which she took a course in directing.

Speaking on the productions she has been involved in so far, she says, “Saro was a story that I thought of, a story of four young boys coming into Lagos, same with Waka, it was focussed on corruption and Fela and the Kalakuta Queens was something that I thought about, that there should be a spin on Fela’s story instead of us talking about Fela all the time…that there were his girls who also worked for him and we get to know little about them. 93 Days was somebody’s story, Steve Gukas and Dotun Olakurin brought the story to me but I was one of the executive producers and I also designed the costume for that.”

The productions outfit has only existed for four years, but on the account of its successes, Austen-Peters says she feels it feels like it’s being existence for decades. Part of the successes recorded she ascribes to the abundance of talents in the country. She says, “Increasingly you realise that the wealth of Nigeria is in the creative mind and not in the oil that we have.”

This year, BAP Productions is working on another movie which Austen-Peters gives us a sneak peek into saying, “It is a movie about life in Lagos, the drama that comes with living in Lagos especially society life.”

Despite all her achievements, when asked if she considers herself to be successful, she asks, “Myself?” almost unbelievably. She goes on to say, “I’m on a journey. I’ve been able to add value to a lot of lives; I’ve been able to create fun for myself in the course of this. And I’m grateful to God and I believe that we’ve got a long way to go.”

Speaking of her success in the theatre industry and being the first woman to have a private theatre, she really doesn’t believe that gender matters when starting a venture. She also believes that the fact that she is the first woman to do so is a coincidence. She goes on to say, “It’s a business that we are running, it is important that the business is sustainable.” With Terra Kulture and BAP Productions, she says, “We looked at the sustainable angle to doing theatre and movies. And the only way to make money in this place is to have your own space and that’s what drove my desire to build the theatre.”

This venture has helped add value to the industry as she explains, “From the beginning of this year, we haven’t had one free weekend. A lot of plays have shown, a lot of plays will show, and it just improves the quality of the craft. The lighting, the sound, the stage. It allows actors to bring out their best and for me, that is the most important thing.”

Speaking to the woman reading this in the celebration of International Women’s Month, she says, “As a woman, it is important that women are strong, it is important that you follow your passion. You know, our circumstances are different, so I cannot give a recipe that will fit all hats and head. The truth of the matter is everybody has to develop their core as human beings and hopefully through prayers and hard work all our desires will come to pass.” Taking what some in this age and time will deem a controversial point, she says, “The truth of the matter is, there is gender inequality in Nigeria to an extent, but there is also pressure on men and men also go through a lot of inequalities as well, because it is not only women that suffer these things.”
At the end of the day, the enigma of the arts and culture industry says, “The important thing is we should learn to love one another, we should learn to respect other people and we should recognise that human beings are human beings, it has got nothing to do we were all born the same way, we’re all going to die the same way. At the end of the day, it is about respect.”

Creative Team
Creative Direction: Chidera Muoka
Photographer: Anny Roberts
Makeup: Jumoke Tychus for Eyesome Beauty
Styling: Nkem Okorafor
Hair Styling: Tony Aigbogun

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