Media & entertainment entrepreneur and Onitsha native, Obi Asika is steadfast in his campaign for the development of a new African narrative. “The African narrative and African story is totally under reported, we don’t engage with who we truly are,” says Asika. “It’s only when we accept and promote our culture that we will be able to own the narrative about Africa in general and its art in particular.”
Obi offers up his thoughts on what he believes is needed to drive up awareness of African culture and classic African art.
The Asika collection of over two thousand pieces, started as a joint effort between my parents, but my Mother was really the driver. What motivated both of them to collect was their background as academics, they were both deep lovers of art, culture and literature. They were also resolute in their study of human evolution, and the origin of man, Africans and the Igbo people—that’s why over 30% of collection is of Igbo art (with Ife, Benin, Minna, Nupe, Igala and Nok pieces forming the rest of the traditional collection). They had liberal academic backgrounds; both studied at The University of Los Angeles, California (UCLA) in the early ‘60s, my Father’s PHD was in African Liberation Movements, and both approached art from the perspective of anthropology, therefore its connection to culture and life.
My family background ensured that I was always taught about the power of ideas, literature and art. I believe this has guided my passion for Nigeria, her culture and Africa’s lost narratives. My background has created who I am today—a proud African and an even prouder Nigerian. I am aware of who I am and where I’m trying to get to because of the work my parents did in educating me about my past.
We Africans have been useless at telling our story. The Europeans, Americans, Asians all know their history, they know their past and are telling it to future generations, we haven’t even begun telling our story in Africa. No other nation rejects their culture as readily as we do. Only the African is afraid of who he is, but validation comes from within. It’s only when we accept and promote our heritage, will we be able to own the narrative about Africa in general and its art in particular.
Nigerians make up one in every four Black people in Africa, one in every five on the planet! How many biopics are out there about Nigerians? I’m praying that in the next five years, we’ll focus on telling our stories to educate and empower future generations. In doing that, we’ll begin to really understand the power that lies within us—the culture that cuts across everything, from the music, the dance, the drum, the food, the fashion and the art!
I think it’s critical. The African narrative and African story is totally under reported, we don’t engage with who we truly are. To engage with who we are, we must first understand our history. For me, traditional art is just a natural expression of who I am. Now, I’m of a particular age, I’m a hip hop kid but guess what, I’m also a titled man from Onitsha. I became a member of the ancient Agbalanze Society of Onitsha in 1994, on the land in which the males in my family have taken the same title for the past 500 years. I entered the masquerade society at 16; I can’t run away from the masquerade, I am the masquerade, but I also go to church. In this context therefore I am both Ancient and Modern. There’s no juxtaposition to me.
I think what happened was that when the colonials were in the process of invading Africa, to justify their actions, it was very convenient to communicate that Africa was a dark continent full of Negroes, with dark souls and empty hearts. But I’m sorry that's not me and that’s not my people. That’s not where we’re from and not what we’re about. Our centuries of established kingdoms and cultures, now that’s us. The Kanem and Bornu Empires that ruled much of Sub-Saharan Africa, that’s us! Our culture, our history, our ways of governance and morality—our societies lived with a strong code of morality for millennia.
And the art, we’ve lived with our art for centuries too. In Africa, culture isn’t something you stick on the shelf, we live our culture and we use our art. But sometimes we don’t recognise that we’re using it and that we’re connected to it. When I walk into the foyer of RocNation (Jay Z’s Entertainment Company) and I see a contemporary rendition of an Igbo Maiden masquerade costume from the south East of Nigeria, they don’t know why they bought it, they were drawn to it. I believe it was calling them back ‘home’, that’s why they were drawn to it.
But we don’t communicate our heritage and I think communication is the key missing link, in all African narratives. Therefore, those of us who sit at these global intersections of our culture, must speak out and enable reconnections of global Africans—our people are everywhere and can be found in all corners of this globe.
"The thing wey black no good, Na foreign things them dey like, No be so? (He be so!)"—Fela Kuti, Colonial Mentality
When we play the drums in my hometown, during the royal festival, we know who’s supposed to dance and how they’re supposed to dance. Whether you’re from Ife, Ijebu, Benin, Onitsha, Bornu, Zaire, Sokoto, Accra, it’s all the same. When you’ve been to enough of these places, you realise that we’re all African, we’re all one. Africa’s gone global already; all the carnivals in the world, to me, come out of this continent, some say from the New Yam festivals from the East of Nigeria—an annual exhibition of music, dance, colours and masquerades.
It’s so difficult because you’re dealing with centuries of repression, we are dealing with centuries of negativity. We are dealing with centuries of misinformation, of being told we have no value and the things we were doing in the past were wrong or evil. When a superior conquering force not only enslaves you and colonizes you, he also expropriates your culture, questions your humanity and shreds your history, this is in our recent past. It remains for us in this new era to confront our own demons, to see the truth around us, to understand who we are, and to understand why these narratives persist. I find that many of our people cannot move past what they consider to be ‘juju’ or ‘idolatry’ of our original faith and belief systems.
I hope to open the Iba Ajie Asika Centre in my hometown in Onitsha in a few months. The centre will be an innovation hub, cultural centre, library and gallery. We will focus on the narrative of who we are, where we're from and where we're going. This’ll all be underpinned by music, entertainment and art, really to make it accessible to the younger generation. The centre will house over 30 thousand images, 20 thousand books, and 500 pieces of African Art. The plan is to enable study, research and appreciation of our heritage and culture, and to provide a space where innovation can happen.
I don’t believe you can beat people over the head in terms of wider acceptance of our culture. In Nigeria, we are lucky because we still live our culture to some extent, but, we have to let people come to it in their own natural way. I personally make connections with concepts people can understand and relate to. So when I mention Sango, but also mention Thor they get it. It doesn't sound so crazy because in pop culture, they can work out Thor as the Nordic god of thunder and relate that back to Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder.
But when I say "what is the difference between Sango & Thor", all my Yoruba and Nigerian friends shout that it's the same thing! However I always say no, there is about a 10 billion dollar difference. The Nordic version has been franchised while over 75 million Yoruba people have totally abandoned their own original mythology, their gods, their original ethos.
"Almost every Black person knows all there is to know about Western history. What do we know about Africa? What do we know about ourselves? Until you know these things you will not have real value in yourself."
I think the great opportunity we have in this age is social media. It enables us break barriers and get direct access to content that would otherwise not be commissioned by major broadcast houses. I am a firm believer in the disruptive power of technology. One of the major opportunities presented to all Africans is the access that these new media platforms offer for us to promote and push these narratives around our history and culture. Google is your friend, there are no excuses. I’m not waiting for anybody to tell our story, we have to tell it ourselves.
It’s important that people understand that in the new world, those who will win, or who will have success are those who really understand the power of content. And that content, the overwhelming content of the world that has not been explored, lies in Africa. Too many Africans have been defensive about being African. Our tradition and culture is not something we should throw away. Ife, Igbo Ukwu, Benin, Sokoto, Kanem Bornu, Nok, Ijebu—look at their history, look at the craftsmanship. Look at the fact that none of these things could have been made anywhere else on Earth at the time they were being made. We live on top of, and in the middle of, incredible treasures. But we’re still so disconnected from that reality. We need to change our mindset about the value of our artistic history. Our culture and antiquities are priceless, all of them were here before Christianity and Islam.
I firmly believe that the natural expression of Africans is just about to begin to impact the world, the power of over a billion Africans with mobile phones cannot be underestimated.