The Goethe-Institut in Nigeria is turning 50. The event has been celebrated through a cultural festival for several days, leaving a lot of footprints on the cultural scene in Lagos.
Richard Siegal is a US citizen who lives in Germany. The choreographer uses English and French to train young women and men in an old run down hall located in the center of Lagos. Following the beats of pop music, the dancers jump and perform acrobatics on the rubber floor. They come from Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal. They are rehearsing to perform at the jubilee opening ceremony.
Established in 1962, just two years after Nigeria had gained its independence, the Goethe Institut became known as a mediator between the worlds.
It all started with theater
Umweni Sunday is one of the "brains" of the Goethe-Institut in Nigeria. Although he hesitated to accept the offer of becoming the institute's director general back in 1968, he has helped to shape the cultural programs for four decades. He retired in 2011.
"Back then, Nigeria's government was negotiating with East Germany (GDR) for the opening of an embassy. I knew that the West Germans would close their representative office. That didn't look like a secure job," he said, grinning.
Nevertheless, a few months later he took the risk. It was a time when the GDR opened a representative office in Lagos while the "thawing" Eastern political atmosphere continued.
To mark the anniversary, Umweni has been holding an exhibition on the history of the institute in Nigeria. In it, he documented the work from the late 60s and early 70s. At that time, theater was the core of the institute.
It was especially a time when playwrights from the Yoruba people like Hubert Ogunde and Duro Ladipo were known. "That went on for about five years," said Umweni. As soon as Ogunde and Ladipo were established, the institute began to promote other, younger theater groups.
Career start at "Goethe"
Promoting young local talent stays at the center of the history of the Goethe-Institut in Lagos. The sculptor Ndidi Dike has also benefited from this program. As a young, inexperienced artist she left her home, in the southwest of the country, and came to Lagos in 1987. At that time Lagos was still the capital of Nigeria.
The German cultural institute gave her a room to showcase her work, especially carvings resembling totem poles. For Dike, that was the start of her career.
"In order to understand the influence of the Goethe-Institut on the Nigerian art scene in the last 50 years, one has to look only at the first exhibitions of each critical artist in Nigeria."
The institute discovered the talent of these artists before a large audience was aware of their works, Dike says.
In the late 1980s, filmmaker Victor Okhai, who only wanted to learn German, entered the rooms of the institute for the first time and was enthused by the chance to see German and international films. Today Okhai is an internationally known representative of "Nollywood," Nigeria's film industry.
Okhai, who also runs his own film school, says he owes a lot to the Goethe-Institut. "Many of my contacts and connections began during my travels to Germany," says the director, who travels every year to the Berlin Film Festival. "Goethe' has given me a lot of connections in Africa. Through these contacts, my name has spread like wildfire."
Opening the city and its people
In addition to the more traditional art fields such as film, theater, art and music, about a decade ago the Goethe-Institut also became involved in more experimental art forms.
Marc-Andre Schmachtel has been heading the institute for over two years and he is committed to display the life of Lagos through art. One of his predecessors sent a Nigerian artist living in Germany out to one of the seething neighborhoods of Lagos, recalls Schmachtel.
"They worked with people from the street, by creating art forms like graffiti. That's how ordinary people became involved in the program." That was something new for the institute, but in the meantime leaving the the Goethe-Institut premises and going out to people now has become our routine, Schmachtel says.
Often Schmachtel and his colleagues have to leave their current premises located in the "City Hall", because the place is not large enough for big performances. The lack of affordable and suitable facilities has endangered the existence of the institute in Nigeria on several occasions in the past 50 years. Even 2010 was a year when the institute didn't have its own premises, not even for its German courses.