Oba Gbenga Sonuga is the Fadesewa of Simawa, in Makun Sagamu, Ogun State. Despite being the custodian of the culture of the community, his love and obsession for art and culture is very strong that he is always seen in many art events in the country. Before being crowned Oba, Fadesewa of Simawa, in Makun Sagamu, Oba Gbenga Sonuga, sometimes fondly called ‘OBA ART & CULTURE’ or BABA CULTURE was the Director for the Lagos State Council for Art and Culture.
As he celebrates his 70th birthday, art and culture aficionado and enthusiast the Freedom Park, Lagos where the occasion was marked with the presentation of his photo autobiography titled Deep As the Ocean. The book, entitled; “Deep as the Ocean: An Auto-Photo- Biography in Three Cycles,” according to Sonuga, is a rich diary of his life from the cradle to royalty, and specifically touching on his roles within the country’s art industry.
Oba Gbenga Sonuga has long been a voice for change and excellence in the Arts & Culture scene, having been under the tutelage of Prof Wole Soyinka, whom he fondly calls ‘Mon Prof’, then working under Demas Nwoko for a decade at the New Culture Studios in Ibadan, then running a film company called 4Reels, before becoming the director of the council under the late Governor Mudasiru where he served for another ten years.
As Director he produced a touring performance of ‘Ori’ by the state troupe to the United States, he also wrote and produced a play for the World Decade for Cultural Development, declared by the UN via UNESCO in 1989 called SALT, which was rehearsed for 3 months and then performed for one night only at the National Theatre Main Bowl where few have been privileged to perform. After formal public service he founded the International Centre for the Arts, Lagos (ICAL).
Remembering the performance at the National Theatre Oba ‘Art & Culture’ bemoaned the under-investment and limited patronage in the area of arts and Nigerian culture, siting the under utilization of the National Theatre as a big example. SALT he said was performed in the Main Bowl of the theatre, which has now fallen into disrepair, and never shown again. In celebration of his 70th birthday, he will premier the video recording of the play SALT for the first time ever since it’s performance in 1989.
The National Theatre is a national heritage and should be brought back to the standard needed to support long running performances and shows in the main bowl and annex halls. He said it was a shame that the artists having worked so hard and rehearsed for three months, never got to perform that play again. In the audience then were General Mohammed Buhari, Governor Mudasiru and the Late General Sani Abacha amongst other dignitaries.
On why he wrote and produced the play SALT he mentioned the adage ‘of being the Salt of the earth’, that nothing in life is sweet without Salt. And art and culture is like the salt of life. Without it we can never truly enjoy life. Leadership without an appreciation for art and recognition of local culture is prone to all sorts of gaffes and misdeeds. Followership outside of a cultural context appropriate for instance to Nigerians only fosters an identity of individuals and communities that are alien to the local sensitivities of our surroundings.
They will never truly fit in well, like a square peg in a round hole. Trying to shoehorn western ideals of leadership without application of our Nigerian culture of selecting leaders with a good head through consistent demonstration of leadership in their communities leaves much to be desired. Obas and Baales and community leaders have a strong role to play.
Recalling his time at the council in Lagos, he edited and published one of the first dedicated books on Lagos Life & culture to wide and global acclaim. It serves as major feature on the coffee table of many lovers and residents of Lagos today. Oba Gbenga is truly a living legend and cultural icon in Nigerian Art & cultural history.
Recollecting how he came to be Director for art and culture, he fondly cited that that was the only job he ever applied for, and the only one he ever got. However it was not all smooth sailing as he did not get the job for another three years because it transpired that the then governor of Lagos State, Gen Jakande did not want to give the job to someone from outside Lagos.
Then he was still at New Culture Studios, with Demas Nwoko. But following the coup in 1983, and the appointment of Colonel Mudasiru, the job became his because he was deemed the most qualified for the job at the time. Smiling he recalled the Late Chief Segun Olusola calling him to say someone in Lagos clearly wanted to give him a job because the wanted advert literally published and read like his personal resume, asking for 10 years experience in art and culture, and international exposure amongst other things.
By then he had successfully taken a troupe to FESTAC 77, where working with him then was the current DG of the National Troupe of Nigeria, Akin Adejuwon. As Director of the council he would go on to work with and often help shape many of today’s greats in theatre and film; Otunba Sola Fosudo, Mufu Onifade, Toyin Gbajumo, where they performed the play ‘Ori’ meaning head of destiny. The philosophical undertones of the play were that the greatness of the nation was key to having a ‘good head’ at its helm of leadership.
On leaving the Lagos State Council Oba Gbenga Sonuga set up the International Centre for the Art Lagos to promote Nigerian Art and Culture both around the continent and internationally. Chaired by the late Ambassador Chief Segun Olusola ICAL went on to stage many cultural interventions in London, the United States, Ethiopia and many others some funded by grants provided by the Ford Foundation.
Reflecting on a life well lived the man we fondly call ‘Oba Art & Culture’ has indeed lived a full life, and a life of impact. He said ‘I am inspired by the new generation of artists, playwrights, and producers. Particularly with the focus on developing sustainable patronage, because art cannot survive without patronage, and culture cannot be preserved without being practiced and passed on to the next generation.
He cited a few good examples such as the Terra Kulture, Beeta Universal, the new Nollywood, and Theatre in the Park, The Omenka Gallery, the centre for contemporary art & culture, and so many others. He said “The baton has truly been passed on but we must continue to build an area of art and culture in all the areas we build and develop. Much like the West End in London, Broadway in New York, Le Louvre in Paris, we need more areas where art and theatre, and culture can survive and thrive.
Onikan was planned for that, with the National Gallery, National Museum, the MUSON Centre, in that area. A master plan to develop a cultural district is still very needed.” He continued “I hope to continue my series of lectures on art and culture, to help and foster the next generation, and propel the ideas and lessons needed to continue to have a good head, and a good nation”.