The “New Religion’s” Crusade Against Art

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The Nigerian newspaper NEXT runs an editorial by Tam Fiofori that reminds us that the Pentecostal fervor in Africa that is feeding the horrific witch-hunts against women, children, and the elderly, is also waging a larger cultural war that brands indigenous and tribal-inspired art as demon-possessed.

“Sometimes the righteous attitudes of ardent followers of the ‘new religion’ border on the ridiculous. Take the case of artist Tony Akinbola who is doing a wonderful job of creatively rebranding Calabar through indigenous-related monumental art. When he put up his work of huge Ikom monoliths as a monumental tribute to artists who about a century ago demonstrated that they could portray vivid human facial expressions on stone carvings, ironically, members of the same Pentecostal faith he belongs to, saw the huge monoliths as an affront celebrating devil-worship. Soon after the monumental monoliths were put up at a strategic roundabout in Calabar, members of his faith held a prayer session around the monumental art piece “casting and binding the demons” supposedly inhabiting the monoliths.”

Fiofori points out that by contrast the local Catholic church is actually quite tolerant of indigenous themes in art and culture being incorporated into a Christian context, but not the “new religion” of Pentecostal Christianity, and as it spreads it is destroying the artistic culture of the countries it infects.

“Aino Oni-Okpaku – member of the Board of Trustees of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation and a Swedish-born Nigerian art-lover and owner of the Quintessence outfit in Falomo Ikoyi – has depressing stories of how the ‘new religion’ has literarily poisoned the minds of Nigerians towards their traditional and contemporary arts. She tells of a collector who had bought an artwork from an exhibition at the Quintessence Gallery and had gone on to prominently display the artwork in his office for pleasure and inspiration. His wife visited his office, saw the artwork, took it away in anger and burnt it because it was demonic…”

This newly instilled anti-traditionalism also marred an art show held in honor of the recently passed Suzanne Wenger, the Austrian-born iconic Yoruba traditional religion devotee who helped win protection for the Osun-Osogbo sacred grove. With many refusing to enter on the grounds that the pieces were “demonic”.

Sadly there seems to be little to stop this trend at the moment, the popular “Nollywood” film industry has regularly made traditional African religions the enemy, and some local indigenous religious leaders have bleak outlooks concerning the future.

“Christianity has destroyed our culture. The people have lost faith in our ancient gods and values. The pastors go to church in the morning and preach Christianity, and in the evening they come to me and speak with their forefathers. Christianity cannot compete with our ancestors. Your God is impotent against Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. That’s why the Christian pastors in Nigeria all die so young. Oh well, that’s how things are nowadays. Nothing’s free in life except death.”

The issue of art and culture may seem trivial in the face of an international epidemic of witch hunts, but in many cases that is where the poison of intolerance enters the cultural system. If you believe that all manifestations of your traditional culture and religion are actually demon-haunted and evil, it changes the way you think and feel. We overlook the plight of artists, storytellers, and writers in these situations because they (understandably) don’t have the same human dimension as the now-ongoing horrific tragedies often perpetrated in the name of the “new religion”, but the more culture is remade, the more permanent the damage done, and the more remote the chances of reversal.