If you were a wound-up-tight coil of aesthetic energies waiting to spring to life, you could hardly have it better than live in Lagos in the 1990s. What blew your mind about Glendora Review (GR) was the sheer surreality of its appearance. Nigeria was a worse political wreck in the mid-1990s than it is now. The winner of the elections of June 12 1993 remained in jail. Suspects in an alleged coup d’etat were on trial. The country reeled from an unending fuel scarcity. Lagos streets, even those of so-called highbrow Ikoyi and Victoria Island, did battles with beauty. The stream of down-and-out vehicles hanging on tyres ready to burst. The noise, the noise! The gaudy hoardings blocking your view wherever you turned. That was life.
Then, take a break from the sensory assault; walk into a store that looks like it must be selling books. Just for refuge. And you are in a different world, like that scene in Moses Olaiya’s Orun Mooru, with Baba Sala jumping into the lagoon to end a shitty life and landing in another world at the bottom of the big river. If you’ve ever had to crash into a cozy room for a glass of ice-cold Star after hours under the glare of the tropical sun, you know the sensation.
The store, The Jazz Hole, is out of this world. The air-conditioning so soothing, the carpet so plush, the endless array of books and compact discs carefully walled into hardwood shelves. On the wall, cool black-and-white photos. Miles. Sonny “Airegin” Rollins. Haruna Isola. Woody Allen. ‘Trane. Ella spreading out of a frame. No other word for it: style.
A Nigerian with degrees in Engineering from NYU and the University of Wisconsin at Madison has decided to open a shop on Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, dedicated to the sale of quality books and music. His name is Olakunle Tejuoso. But he’s not in this store. Further down the road, at the old Falomo Shopping Complex, is another store, Glendora Bookstore, specializing in the sale of all kinds of books – not just the high fare Alice Walker and Primo Levi but also stationery materials, self-help books, MBA-required texts, Patricia Highsmith…
The scene has to be set in this way for the presence of Glendora Review to make sense in the politically deadly but artistically upbeat Lagos of the mid-1990s. The first issue is on sale in the store. The style on visible display at the Jazz Hole lurks on every page of this even rudimentary edition. The paper is glossy, the photos are sharp, and the font stands out of the paper. The design is edgy and self-aware. The cover is “Nigerian Music: New Forms”. Stands to reason. The maiden editorial, titled “Editor’s Wishes” and signed by the editor, Dapo Adeniyi, is an eloquent testimony to the disparity between the rich and diverse offerings in all the artforms and the paucity of media through which to propagate them.
This is the frame in which the publishers of this journal present it to the public: “A yawning problem has for long, for too long we have every right to say,” the editor begins, “defined Nigeria’s art and literary landscape. And this is the problem of space. A problem of medium. Today, hardly any reputable journal exists in the country that services the vocation of artists, writers, musicians and filmmaker…”
The editorial goes on to talk about the difficulties of coping with the demands for publicizing local artistic undertakings – Adeniyi previously edited the reviews pages of Nigeria’s Daily Times – does a post-mortem of other publications which had travelled the road GR is setting on. It ends with an affirmation of its role as “first and foremost a Nigerian review�to amplify the voices of those creative people of Nigeria and of Africa wanting to speak to the rest of the world”, and an excuse for the limitations of that first issue.
But wait. On the opposite page is a curious, four-paragraph piece, set in a smaller font, titled “Letter” and signed by Wole Olagunju, an artist. This cheeky ‘letter’ takes issues with the idea that the likes of Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Yusuf Grillo, first-rate Nigerian artists are practicing any art that is remotely contemporary. Reading it, you get the feeling that the writer is poking his fingers in a hornet’s nest. And so he is. In the second issue, which came out later the same year, there’s a long, cantankerous interview with the artists Uche Okeke and Onobrakpeya, two of the pioneering artists who, as students at the old College of Arts and Sciences in Zaria in the late 1950s, broke with the colonial notion of art to Africanize their practice. “Conversation of Two Masters” is an uncompromising repudiation of the assumptions behind the ‘Letter’, and a sound defense of their careers. The Zaria Rebels as old warriors.
If you were a wound-up-tight coil of aesthetic energies waiting to spring, as I felt to be in those days, here’s a future to send your letters, the knots and bolts. In the weary days of a risky career as an activist journalist which fuses literary ambition with a yearning for political freedom, to write longish articles for a magazine like GR is close to ideal. The newspapers are either banned or can’t be bothered to entertain such extravaganzas as a retrospective article about Transition and Black Orpheus soon after the death of Rajat Neogy. And let’s face it, GR is prestigious. This is what it means to write for it: the pages of a serious, stylish, sometimes-cheeky journal of art and ideas are a place to forge a style that the bandits in power are too low-spirited to grasp. For the next five years, GR offered a steady stream of articles, interviews, photo galleries, and later a Books Supplement (GBS). Writers featured have included James Gibbs, Okwui Enwezor, Kofi Anyidoho, Michael Veal, Tam Fiofori, Bernth Lindfors, Jonathan Haynes, Odia Ofeimun, Greg Tate, dele jegede, Sefi Atta, Diran Adebayo and Kwesi Yankah. It is fair to say that it has been partial to music and the visual arts.
Due to personal differences, Adeniyi and GR publishers had to part ways in mid-2000. Just before starting graduate studies at Cornell, the present writer became one of two co-editors (with the scholar Sola Olorunyomi), and Lolade Bamidele as managing editor. Although its consistency has flagged recently for reasons that space does not allow us to discuss, GR remains alive and promising, sustained by its original vision.
Akin Adesokan, June 2008