Journalist and editor at African Arguments, Ayodeji Rotinwa, thinks more Africans should be interested getting Africa’s stolen artefacts back from the West: ‘My favourite topic to write about these days is restitution. Not only because it is topical but also because restitution is still perceived to be an elitist pursuit by (some) African observers—when it should be everyone’s interest.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
My diet growing up was full of school-mandated books. Some required for me, others for my siblings. Those books often transported me to hamlets, towns, histories, customs literature, and a richness—usually but not always in southeast Nigeria—that I still haven’t visited till date. Yet I have lived them, in a way. When I read Eddie Iroh’s Without a Silver Spoon, or Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Bottled Leopard. Or what I consider to be the most compelling piece of literature I have ever read: Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine. Or Festus Iyayi’s Violence. J. P. Clark’s deliciously mischievous The Wives’ Revolt.
I would eventually find young adult novels—usually British or American—which, in hindsight, were what I should have been reading all along—for their lightness. The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High series. Archie Comics. And a little-known serial called Harry Potter. I should have been reading these and Nigerian young adult novels, if they existed and I knew about them. I say this because the heart-breaking story in The Concubine, of Ihuoma, possessing a beauty and grace that would attract many that could come close but only so her… that told of how she was doomed to never love—else fatal consequences—was really quite heavy for a twelve-year-old! But I regret nothing. That book moulded my mind in ways I can’t articulate.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
All the chapters in bell hooks’ All About Love, which are collectively a guide, an enduring attempt to try and be better at love. I think it might be a 30+ thing, but I often think a lot about love these days: not necessarily the romantic kind but what it means as a daily, active service. What it means between friends; what it can mean in a power dynamic (we recently saw an astonishing lack of love or compassion in employer-employee relations when the TechCabal story on #HorribleBosses broke). What it can mean between those elected to serve and the people they reliably disappoint. All About Love doesn’t necessarily go this far in scope but it’s definitely a take-off point and fuel for my thoughts.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
Every comment on Twitter over the last two or three years that shows an increasing and disturbing lack of grace or compassion for women, for children, for queer people; for inventive citizens who have responded to a lack of housing by creating theirs on lagoons (branded ‘slums’); for people of faith who protest the detention of their leaders, for people who don’t have any faith at all; for people who protest police brutality, women’s rights; for nursing mothers.
There’s a lot of punching down going on Nigerian social media these days. It’s not like it hasn’t always happened but I do think there is a particularly wicked edge to the ‘opinions’ shared these days. In them, to my mind, there is barely concealed hate. There are too many absolute hard lines and a truly stunning intolerance. Someone said once—I can’t remember who—that people keep planting flags instead of building bridges. It’s true.
There’s a lot of punching down going on Nigerian social media these days. Someone said once—I can’t remember who—that people keep planting flags instead of building bridges. It’s true.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I used to think it was a given that African Americans and really anyone of African descent, should automatically, be in fellowship with Africans since we share an ancestry; and I would be cross and disappointed when I saw instances when the opposite was the case, convinced that African Americans, Afro-Latinos, Afropeans were in the wrong.
This incredibly well researched, argued, nuanced piece by Alden Young, ‘How Black America Fell Out of Love with Africa’ put paid to my assumptions and makes a case for how and why there is little ground for solidarity between both groups. I would highly recommend this read.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
The more I write, even in writing responses to this interview, I edit as I write. It’s certainly a more tiresome process, but it’s a good exercise, working at clarity in real time. Sometimes I find when I have finished drafting, I am so drained. I don’t want anything to do with the piece for a few days or weeks. If you are a writer/author, this might fly but not when you’re a journalist with a deadline; so, I edit as I write.
What’s the greatest story /piece of journalism you’ve ever read?
Should caveat this by saying this changes every few years and protest that I have to choose one. Journalism can do different things, in different moments, and in different ways. A great piece of journalism can be called so sometimes for its timeliness, and not necessarily its content or application; or for its interrogation of something, and not necessarily the way it was interrogated.
One of the greatest pieces of journalism I have read is Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s Pulitzer Prize winning, ‘A Most American Terrorist’. I don’t know if I could describe it better than the Pulitzer Prizes itself, which said the piece is: ‘an unforgettable portrait of murderer Dylann Roof, using a unique and powerful mix of reportage, first-person reflection and analysis of the historical and cultural forces behind his killing of nine people inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.’
For context, Roof is white. The folks he killed in the church were all Black. Ghansah is African American. So, the piece is, in some ways, righteously personal. It is a long read too, about 10,000 words if not more. What gives the piece its power is both the compelling, visual, resonant style in which Ghansah writes it and the deep, painstaking reporting that involved bringing many pieces, as told by Roof’s family, friends, former teachers and the surviving members of those killed. It had many intersections: racism, gun violence, hate crimes, mental health.
Another piece of journalism I’ve loved and has stayed with me a while is Nanjala Nyabola’s sound analysis on the fate of Rafiki, a Kenyan film featuring queer love interests and leads, that faced cultural, social and constitutional battles in Kenya. Nyabola’s piece was quite breathlessly argued, and again, intersectional, drawing on distinct but interconnected factors as to why this film was so fraught with risk.
What’s a common misconception about African journalism/African storytelling?
That there’s such a thing as African journalism or storytelling.
A great piece of journalism can be called so sometimes for its timeliness, and not necessarily its content or application; or for its interrogation of something, and not necessarily the way it was interrogated.
You’re Deputy Editor at African Arguments. What makes a pitch good?
Clarity. I see too many pitches where the writer or journalist is unsure of what exactly they might cover or focus on; or can’t speculate convincingly on what they might discover. Sometimes, you could have a hunch, and not have all the answers—and seek to find those answers in your reporting. But then said hunch has to be communicated. Also, every piece needs to answer the question: Why? Why does it matter? Why should anyone care about this? And this answer needs to be clear in the pitch.
Competence. When you make a case for or prove why you are the best placed person to write a particular story, as an editor, you are more comfortable, more inclined to trust the writer—especially when it’s one you haven’t worked with before.
Access. Tell us: who are your sources! Who do you have access to? What do you hope to learn from them?
This isn’t a definitive list but some of the top considerations, I would say.
What is more important to you: the story or how it is written?
How it is written. I am a stickler for style. Even the densest topics—the most restless to tame—can be solved with stylistic writing. I am particularly partial to literary journalism anyway because my entry point into any writing at all was fiction.
I have seen too many juicy, rich stories with plenty of opportunities to do wonders on the page—to inform, illuminate, trigger thinking, as well as entertain—squandered with bad writing.
What’s one thing you’d like to see more of in African / Africa-related journalism?
What I would like to see from African journalists is more reporting that addresses historical illiteracy. Often in Nigeria—the constituency with which I am most familiar—reporting of events in politics, business, sports, the economy, art, entertainment is often presented as novel, as isolated from previous happenings. There are endless missed opportunities for connecting contemporary events with what has happened in the past; in a way that deepens understanding or provides nuance and context for the reader. This kind of reporting is desperately needed, especially in a country like ours where ignorance is often weaponized—usually by politicians, and also private people—with violent, tragic results.
The more we merge history and journalism, the better we would understand conflict patterns, trends; we would be better educated as civic participants, and when the time comes, voters, in the electoral process; we will better understand that the trajectory and ascendancy of cultural soft power like Afrobeats and rapacious Western interest, has once happened before and then dissipated. So, what can we learn from the past to inform today?
The consequence of a lack of historical reporting is best explained by Rachel DiCarlo Currie in an American Council of Trustees and Alumni op-ed: ‘A citizenry that fails to learn about or appreciate its cultural and political inheritance is far more likely to squander that inheritance.’
I would also like to see reporting that is more service-oriented and local. I read something recently that completely threw me—even though it should be fairly obvious. That sometimes what people want is information, not news. Typically, actionable information: that they can use to make a change in their lives, find safety, care, illumination.
I think of Outlier, an American service-focused media non-profit in Detroit that designs its reporting based on what its audience in Detroit are thinking or worrying about. During the pandemic, it created a text service where people could ask about testing access, dealing with food security, childcare during the outbreak. Recently, through reporting via the text service, it uncovered a story of landlord scams.
There’s such an incredible opportunity for local, engaged reporting, media-as-a-service in Nigeria, and other African countries. There are housing challenges and rent scams ongoing in Lagos in certain Lagos districts that deserve closer scrutiny; which would benefit many dwellers, for instance. Or more local reporting about conflict in the North East. Finally, I would like to see—and this is obviously a bias—more nuanced, rich, supported reporting about art and culture. There is so much reporting about why we are (broken, challenged), but much less reporting about who we are, how we are and where we come from, what we make; and how we respond creatively to our brokenness, our challenges in art, what our identity is grounded in.
Also, I say ‘supported’ reporting because I would like to see this reporting taken as seriously and platformed as in politics or business. Certain African countries are particularly primed for this kind of reporting because they have exploding creative industries and for the life of me, I don’t understand why the media does not equally rise to match this trajectory, analyse, document, consider it rigorously. There are so many untold culture stories. Of course, there are always untold stories everywhere, but the culture ledger is overflowing at this point.
I want to read about why Nsukka is the deep well of such intellectual force and largesse in Nigeria and the world. I want to read about the confluence of an economic downturn and prosperity gospel in the 80s-90s in producing the Christianity culture we have today. I want to read about how and why bronze-casting in Benin is dominated and has been conducted by several generations of three, specific families; or why there’s a growing market for Nigerian music in Japan—of all places! (These are all ideas I myself want to explore when time allows but I am happy for someone else to run with them, too!)
Because politics is privileged over all else, every new cadre, or generation of reporters sensibly move that way. To report culture, art exclusively these days—is almost to be edgy. To go against the grain. And perhaps most disappointingly, to be lesser than. This cannot continue to stand.
What I would like to see from African journalists is more reporting that addresses historical illiteracy.
You write about African art and culture. Who are three African artists we should all be paying attention to?
Permit to cheat on this question. I recently had the opportunity to join a press trip to the Republic of Benin, to see an exhibition of Beninese artists alongside their restituted artefacts and I was truly gobsmacked by the incredible art making there and embarrassed that I had not discovered it sooner.
Julien Sinzogan, Ishola Akpo, Yves Apollinaire Pede, Moufouli Bello, Youss Atacora, Elaine Aisso, are just a few of a rolling roster of artists creating work that unapologetically speaks to their history, rich culture and living dead. They do not seem terribly concerned with market trends or fitting in with what the Global North art market demands—unlike their contemporaries in Nigeria or Ghana. Their visual signature is so clearly defined, and they deserve your attention and patronage.
Closer to home, I would pay attention to the incredible Kelani Abass, whose painstakingly produced, archival mixed media work about personal family, social and political history in southwest Nigeria is something to behold. He should be more critically acclaimed than he currently is. Emerging artists Helena Foster, Musa Ganiyy, Ayanfe and South African, Shakil Solanki, are also very exciting.
I would also pay a closer eye—though for concerning reasons—to Ghana’s art scene which seems to be mass producing portraitists, which wasn’t the case until—I would hazard, and I could be wrong—the breakout success of Amoako Boafo, whose work has sold for millions of dollars at auction. Figurative works of the ‘black body’ are very popular in the West at the moment, triggered by some guilt post the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed. [Mostly white] Collectors suddenly realized they had not been collecting Black artists. Some Ghanaian artists seem to be quite committedly feeding this trend. Will it last?
In what ways can African art contribute to political activism?
African art can make political activism more digestible. Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, some of us don’t respond to protests, placards, rightfully angry op-eds, Twitter threads, people movements making good trouble and disturbing the peace. We don’t like things that startle. Too on the nose, maybe. Art can take the edge off.
When we sit in a cinema, or in front of my TV at home, and we see love between two queer people is humanized; or we watch a play, in which women are the authors of their own fates and destinies, with impressive results; when we see a sculpture that unusually centres little children at play, and creates a world in which they can escape from child labour, abuse; when we read satire that makes plain, humorous and ridiculous the state of political affairs… we may be more easily convinced of activists’ ambitions. Through aesthetically pleasing, experiential means, we may be encouraged to join a cause.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘Don’t say purchase, when you can say buy.’ — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, June 2015.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
bell hooks. I only started reading her after she passed but, my God, what a woman. What a writer. What a gift. I am catching up and I will. I have been sitting with All About Love for a few weeks and it has completely turned me inside out on my thoughts on love, compassion, trauma, hurt, living? May she continue to rest with angels.
Who are the journalists you’re most excited about today?
This is a shameless plug—but I am very excited about the young journalists in the African Arguments Fellowship for Young Freelancers whom I have the privilege to work with closely: Ope Adetayo, Immaculata Abba, Yared Tsegaye, Lara Reffat, Nicolas Nhalungo and Wyban Kanyi.
The reason is a little selfish: I have a front seat to watching them grow and get better in real time but, more importantly, they are producing compelling journalism. Have you read Abba’s breathless review of a Nigerian work installed in St. Paul’s Cathedral, positioned as ‘challenging British history’? Or Adetayo’s timely, lucid reporting on the plight of African students trying to flee war in Ukraine? Or Reffat’s visual, resonant telling of women in Egypt taking back their power and flipping the finger to Egyptian patriarchy by riding bikes? You should!
Figurative works of the ‘black body’ are very popular in the West at the moment, triggered by some guilt post the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
My favourite topic to write about these days is restitution. We are seeing a slow, yet maddening, but somewhat exhilarating paradigm shift in the relations between Western museums and governments and our ancestral, spiritual, cosmological, religious artefacts, they pillaged by military conquest or ‘bought’ in contexts of power imbalance.
It is fascinating to see countries like Benin find some success in getting sacred royal treasures of Abomey returned through pragmatic diplomacy; Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes, ivories, wood, returned through relentless advocacy; countries like Germany having a come to Jesus moment after having been glib about these works for so long; countries like Britain maintaining a retentionist stance; France giving works back piecemeal to Benin, Senegal and soon, Ivory Coast and the Seychelles, on a case by case basis. France does this, maintaining that this return is not an act of repentance for the violence visited on their former colonies and subsequent theft, but rather ‘friendship’. A really interesting time in cultural geopolitics.
I write about all of this not only because it is topical but also because restitution is still perceived to be an elitist pursuit by (some) African observers—when it should be everyone’s interest. There’s a good reason why. Pitt Rivers Museum curator and author of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, Dan Hicks, once told me in an interview that what colonizers did in pillaging these works from us was ‘seeking to undertake a cultural dispossession, seeking to destroy sovereignty, seeking to destroy religion’, and most importantly to my mind, the ‘destruction of knowledge.’
Of course, restitution seems abstract and unrelatable, because we have been separated from our heritage, no longer able to understand or appreciate our history, ancestry, our pride, religions, which some of these artefacts—and the customs around their use, were vessels of propagating. If these works weren’t valuable proponents of all the aforementioned; and if our histories and religions weren’t powerful, they would not have been so painstakingly taken apart.
And so, I write about this mainly to mainstream the idea of restitution for Nigerian readers—and at large African readers, should the work reach them. I hope to express the importance of these works, how they tell our story as a people, how they are markers of identity, of pride; to recall their positions as works of truly—and I must borrow this cliché—immaculate conception.
And if you are not even compelled by the cultural, historical, historical significance—consider that they are works of wonder, who in today’s capitalist world invite curious eyes and paying hands. Western museums have put on exhibitions, displays with a Cameroonian wood sculpture of the Bangwe Queen, Sossa Dede’s life-size, anthropozoomorphic statues of past Benin kings, Glèlè and Béhanzin, or Mukanda masks from southern Congo or North-East Angola. And they have charged visitors handsomely for it. While we may not have a culture of monetizing sacred objects, who does this windfall really belong to?
I also fully realize that writing with this kind of intention, I can be easily branded as not being objective as journalists should. I welcome any questions or debate in this regard.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on understanding or studying what the business and future of journalism, and media sustainability looks like in the Nigerian context. I am interested in what new business models will be—particularly as it concerns coverage of arts / culture / history, or even more traditionally successful beats like politics, business. The ads-based, patronage revenue model still works for most traditional print publications now—but not for much longer as the reading audience evolves and even the way they want to consume media changes too.
For folks who want to produce compelling, independent journalism free from political influence or private interests, they must start thinking of alternative business models to the ads-heavy one. We have seen what happens to publications when they hold power to account. (hello, 234Next?). They can be needled by the government, who, by extension, can exert pressure on private companies who can starve them of ad money. This could be an exaggeration, but it seems to me that there is no way to be a journalist in this country—working in a traditional, legacy print publication, without serving political interests somehow. So, we must explore alternative revenue streams, some of which directly collect from the audience: subscriptions, paywalls, live events, merchandize, consulting services, more. We must also interrogate the audience culture and ease of paying for media content—which is still problematic.
David Adeleke analyses these issues beautifully in his newsletter. Particularly on the South African example, investigative publication, Daily Maverick and their membership model, challenges of the subscription model in Africa and the cost of good journalism in Nigeria. I’m invigorated by the promise of the likes of Big Cabal Media and Stears Business who’ve fundraised recently and are exploring interesting revenue models and mixes: paywalls, donations, consulting services, etc. They are yet the exceptions to the rule. I am deeply invested in thinking out what similar ambitious media ventures could look like: how engaged journalism or membership programmes can work here, how product thinking can be applied, how journalism can be more responsive, service-oriented, how or if it can paid for; and how culture, internet penetration, language, social media behaviour, play a role in all of this.
Restitution seems abstract and unrelatable because we have been separated, no longer able to understand or appreciate our history, ancestry, our pride, or our religions.
Question from Ayisha Osori: If your work would never be published, would you still write?
Probably not. I—perhaps hubristically—see, hope, and work hard at my work being a service to those who encounter it: that it informs, that it illuminates, that it humanises, it deepens knowledge of something, that it questions, that it breaks stereotypes. There’s a satisfaction I get from knowing when I have succeeded in doing any of these things. That satisfaction is facilitated by the world seeing the work…published. Although that is my journalism.
For my creative writing—not to say journalism isn’t a creative pursuit—I would probably still write to record, to document, to tell memories, events, histories for myself. Sneaky two-for-one answer, yes. Can’t help it!
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What question do you wish this column asked you? Why are you currently thinking about this, and answer?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].