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On Art and the Element of Play

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Great works of art carry a distinct mark about themselves – an element of play. Not play in the sense of drama/theatre but play as imaginative freedom, as unrestrained and childlike creativity. Play as a surpassing of ‘reasoned’ and ‘logical’ approaches to creation and tapping directly into the intuitive, the superior knowing of the aesthete needed for the art to truly be, to come alive.

Perhaps more than ever in the history of civilization, artists must protect this element of play in their works. Stubbornly, determinedly, artists must strive to see this element of play makes it into the final form of the art that reaches its audience.

Art in the 21st century exists against a backdrop of centuries upon centuries of predecessors, and having the methods and products from so so many years means producers/studios/financiers today have a large enough database to restrict (reduce?) art to a formulaic process. This, combined with advances in the craft of marketing which has improved the ability to sell (even questionable creations), means that the element of play becomes, to the producer, bothersome.

Why so? Because the element of play brings a strongly personal and often experimental voice to artistic creations it very often falls outside the scope of ‘creativity’ within the formula which producers and financiers are comfortable with. Also, misconceptions about what constitutes serious art makes some erroneously reject the element of play as juvenility.

For these two reasons (and possibly more?) artists who understand the true power of the element of play in their works must strive that bit extra to guard it. Sometimes this may mean playing the politics of the business behind the show, other times this may require educating the powers that be on the necessity of the element of play to the work.

Sometimes this element of play is enforced by artists who have attained top level of respect in their fields, enough to demand creative control. A favourite example is John Travolta’s reported insistence that the only way he would play the part of Charlie Wax in From Paris with Love is if he got to keep a goatee. The contribution of that element of play to the performance is obvious, Travolta had a blast! (Despite the movie being meeeh.)

Other times this element of play is enforced by unknown artists who merely posses the requisite testicular fortitude or care so much for it they are willing to sacrifice losing the job/contract/deal if that playfulness isn’t going to be part of the work.

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Producers, administrators, marketers, and people from the business side of creative industries will always hold little value for the inclusion of this element of play in artistic works. Often it is those with a background in the artistic side (former artists, appreciation for art developed in childhood, genuine desire for artistic/cultural development) who understand and/or are willing to take chances on the element of play in works of art.

What makes these people unique, and in my opinion, superior, is that they understand the value of creative ingenuity, of the element of play, to the business prosperity of the art. They understand that a work of art needs that incomparable spark, that inexplicable thing which can then be used to the benefit of the work’s financial viability.

Among artists and audiences we find, worrisomely so, a loss of value – or worse, of understanding – for the relevance of the element of play. Two reasons stand out for this: one is caving to the ever growing pressure from the business side to submit to the formula, the factory process of creativity. A second reason is the massive access to massive amounts of information in a global society whose cultural and artistic development isn’t being supported as much as its technological development.

Terms of the suspension-of-disbelief contract seem to have been forgotten, or breached. But not destroyed. Such is the innate beauty of art that at worst valuable aspects can only be forgotten for a very long period of time, but not destroyed. Art is energy, it cannot be destroyed.

However, now is the time to reignite ourselves with the power of play in art. The fire still burns in many. Among the best of humanity’s works of art we find this common thread – the element of play, that freedom and energy and endless possibilities of a child at play. Picasso said it best, “Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain a child when one grows up.”

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Whether the creation is comic, dramatic, horrorful, sorrowful, thrilling ecstatic … it is always there. That element of play. It’s Pacino on a saying hello to his “liru fren”. It’s Gaiman playing with gods in America. It’s Fugard murdering Sizwe Bansi. It’s Jim Carey yelling “sssmokin’! ” It’s Soyinka revelling in the duplicity of Baroka. It’s the swagger in Cumberbatch as he adorns Sherlock Holmes’ hat. It’s Coelho alchemising. It’s Sartre in a hell-room with three strangers. It’s Denzel Washington in the final scene of Training Day. It’s Ocampo finding faces in leaves and clouds, finding the beauty of a woman’s curvature in hills and flowers. It’s Rod Serling welcoming you to … It’s Achebe tearing the centre apart. It’s Donne daring death’s pride. It’s Shakespeatre at the steps of the capitol with Mark Anthony. It’s Nas telling you how It Was Written. It’s Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. It is Stan Lee swinging around New York on spider webs. It’s Kendrick Lamar going “Tu-tu-tu-tu!“. It is Okigbo summoning Idoto.

That element of play is an electrifying spark, an erupting force, an indescribable energy that ignites your art. Find it! Create it! Protect it!

Find Me in Issue 11 of the Critical Stages Journal

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So I’m super excited to have my works as a playwright be feature in an essay in the latest issue of Critical Stages – a journal published by the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC). The essay was written by Professor Emmanuel Dandaura – who, among many awesome things, is the president of the International Theatre Institute, Nigeria (ITI). Working as a research assistant on the paper was a great experience for me, and it is delightful to see the final product be so brilliant.

The essay is titled From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights, and I appear alongside two terrific playwrights – Sefi Atta and Donald Molosi.

It’s a great read and if you are interested in theatre, playwriting and 21st century history in African/Nigerian literature, you’ll definitely be captivated by the essay. Give it a read and share a thought if you wish. Linked to the text below:

Critical Stages journal, issue 11: From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights

Dear Nollywood … A Love Letter

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Dear Nollywood,

How are you? It’s been a while since we hooked up on here, hasn’t it? Forgive me, I’ve been occupied with a bunch of personal stuff. While I was away I did keep up with all the exciting stuff going on in your life, though! You aren’t ever a boring girl, are you? I remember you celebrated October 1st in style, and everyone loved that (in fact I hear the party is still going on). And I must confess, I got a bit jealous when I heard you asking some other guy what happens When Love Happens? Anyway …

Nollywood, there’s something I really want to talk to you about. It’s a sensitive topic and I hope it doesn’t get you mad, yet strangely I hope it does get you mad. Not mad like never-want-to-talk-to-him-again mad, or mad like hire-Lasgidi-area-boys-to-kick-his-ass mad; certainly not mad like cancel-our-traditional-wedding-and-return-his-bride-price mad. But mad like I-have-to-do-something-about-this mad; mad like I-have-to-be-responsible-for-myself mad, you know?

Here’s the thing babe, these days, it’s getting harder to recognize you for who you are. Your identity is fading away, Nollywood. Perhaps more specifically, the uniqueness of your identity is fading away, vanishing, and frankly that worries me. You’re in an identity crisis, babe, and we have to address that.

Now, I’m going to say something and I don’t think it’s something you’ll like to hear, so I’ll just come out and say it: Nollywood, this identity crisis all began when you started hanging out with that American girl, Hollywood. Yes, yes! I know, I know! She’s very pretty, has a great rack and an ass that won’t quit. And she’s also friend’s with the Kardashians … I know. I’m not saying it’s bad to be friends with her, no. I’m also not saying it’s bad that she influences you, no. What I am saying is, it’s messed up that you’re letting her influence on you distract you from discovering and exploring who you are.

See, Hollywood is doing her thing, being herself, and that’s inspiring. But rather than that inspiring you to do your own thing and be your own self, you’re abandoning your identity and trying to be Hollywood. Nollywood, that’s messed up. You’re not Hollywood and Hollywood isn’t you. Would Hollywood be a cool chick if she was trying to be like that Indian babe that lives across the street, Bollywood? Would Bollywood be so hot if she started acting all European? And what if Euro chicks started pretending to be like those sexy girls from the Orient and the sexy girls from the Orient started behaving like South American mamacitas? See where I’m going?

I’ve been doing some thinking, Nollywood, and I think I get it. I mean, why you’re so hung up on Hollywood, I get it. You spent your life watching Hollywood! Think about it! From childhood to your teenage years you watched out the window as Hollywood teased her cleavage and swung her hips and all the guys just fell under her spell. And now that you’re beginning to grow into a beautiful lady yourself, you think that in order to be sexy and beautiful you have to be like Hollywood.

But it’s a big world out there, Nollywood. A big big world and there are so many ways to be beautiful. What makes you sexy, and what will make all those guys swoon because of you, are the things that are unique about you. (I mean, why should they toast a Hollywood-wannabe, when they can actually toast Hollywood?) I’d really really like to go out on a date with you to the cinema (our favourite spot, right?), get some drinks and popcorn, and watch a movie that doesn’t feel like a pitiful knock-off of J’Lo’s romantic comedies from the early 00s, or a poor photocopy of thrillers from the late 90s, or action movies that look like The Matrix shot on a deficit.

One very cool influence Hollywood has had on you is providing some pretty awesome things with which you can accessorize your persona. I can’t tell you how so damn good you look anytime you step out in that form fitting DSLR dress that accentuates your curves, and those Red Dragon heels that push up your booty, and that flashy F55 handbag, and… whoo! So so so much better than that VHS outfit you used to wear before. But these things are meant to aid you find yourself Nollywood, not lose yourself.

Take the world by the scruff of its neck! Don’t be afraid to explore what it means to be Nollywood. Experiment! Get adventurous! A great discovery of who you are awaits you, but you have to take the leap. The lovers you are trying to attract, whether it is a true love or a sugar daddy, will be way more attracted to a “you” that is like no one else, not a “you” that is a cheap imitation of someone else.

Learn from the errors of your elder sister, Federal Government. For many years have people not been encouraging her to get involved in other ventures apart from that her crude oil business? Did she listen? No! Now the price of oil barrels is dropping like a hot piece of ass in a Snoop Dog video and she’s getting all confused and panicky. Don’t wait until you are at the fringes of a crisis, Nollywood, please don’t.

The myriad of identities are what make life on this third rock such a beautiful and captivating experience. Be part of that adventure Nollywood, a full part, not just an imitation of it.

With relentless love,

Pensage.

“54 Silhouettes” Written & Directed by Africa Ukoh Hits the Stage

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This November, the premier production of my (self-tooting horn alert) double award winning play “54 Silhouettes” finally hits the stage!

Where? Alliance Française, Jos
When? 16th November
By? 5pm
For? N500

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You can listen to an abridged radio version of the play produced by the BBC World Service here. And check out other stories here, here, here, and here.

It’s time we paint Africa!

Theatre From Africa: 54 Silhouettes

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I got a theatre show coming up in Jos city “J-town”, Plateau state, Nigeria. Watch this space from lots of awesome photos from rehearsals and performance.
Find out more here: http://wp.me/p2VHfW-HP

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Coming Soon: “54 Silhouettes” a play written and directed by Africa Ukoh

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I GOT SOMETHING COOKING!!

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THE TRUTH ABOUT NIGERIA’S AMALGAMATION

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If you love folktales you have to read this.

ndamofgindim's Blog

The year was 1914 but the lion did not care. The savage beast was hot on the trail of Fabong, it was drooling as it salivated at the sight of cringing muscles on its prey’s shirtless torso. The magnificent beast gave chase and covered the distance with each passing second, the end was near and Fabong could sense it. He ran and screamed till his lungs emptied all the air in them, the tropical sun scorched his skin and sweat trickled into his mouth with each scream, he couldn’t register the salty taste as all he could taste was his fear. 

 

300km away, Ndam was bored out of his skull in the forests of lokoja. He had previously struck the ground in anger with his hoe thereby creating the river Ibi. On this day for amusement, he channelled the water to what we now call River Niger. With his…

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