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David Pratten, Art and Oil in Port Harcourt

Date:21 December 2022

In the Niger Delta, decades-long oil extraction has impacted lived experiences, popular imaginations, and artistic expressions. On 8 December 2022, the AFREXTRACT team held a seminar and Q&A with Professor David Pratten, Head of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford, on ‘Art and Oil in Port Harcourt’. When examining the petroleum industry in the Niger Delta, heritage and capitalism are two major sub-topics. Pratten discussed the new directions of his work, from youth and security to popular arts in oil culture in Port Harcourt, and how masquerades, texts, and images have been used to document this.

Pratten’s lecture explored the history of the petroleum industry in Port Harcourt and how it has impacted popular art such as music, masks, and songs. He provided a historical analysis of how petroleum is portrayed in art, and how this art is a reflection of livelihoods and the materiality of extraction. For example, he showed photographs and art from Port Harcourt in the 1970s that reflected a change in masquerades, documenting cultural conceptions and assumptions about energy usage. Pratten spoke about literature, and how those exposed to the petroleum industry are described in it. He discussed Kaine Agary’s 2006 book Yellow Yellow and the privileges a young female encounters when having connections with oil contractors and politicians. Pratten spoke about the use of popular art as a story-teller. Tracing these stories and their entanglement with oil extraction’s enchantment and disenchantment is Pratten’s methodology in his research on art in Port Harcourt.

Link to George Osodi’s photo collection on the Oil Rich Niger Delta 2003-2007 

Oil Cultures

As a point of departure to his discussion, Pratten makes a solid argument that oil in Port Harcourt is and has been an unfiltered natural resource, which is deeply entrenched in various aspects of peoples’ lives and their existence. The crucial clues of this can be found in popular culture. Among the various imageries and works used in his presentation, Pratten referred to scholarship on ‘Oil Cultures’ as pioneered by Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (2014), and photographs of the Niger Delta from Edward Burtynsky to explain this complex interconnectedness. Based on Pratten’s discussion, popular culture is a great aid to capture other meaningful understandings of oil in the Niger Delta. Pratten traced the cultural life of oil, the way in which oil structures patterns of life, and its impacts on resistance.

At the end of the lecture, Pratten engaged with the attendees, explaining the relationship between art and oil and how they have influenced each other. We discussed why art in Port Harcourt so often serves as a vehicle for protest against the oil industry. Illustrative in this respect is Burna Boy’s 2022 song ‘Whiskey’ in which he critiques the effects of air pollution and soot as a result of oil refining in Port Harcourt. Pratten also highlighted the importance of understanding the individualistic role certain groups such as youth have on the politics of oil in the Niger Delta. As a final reflection, we discussed how different resources (oil, gold, copper) and their materialities might influence artistic expressions. While art can serve to criticise the environmental impacts of resource extraction, its role in making sense of everyday change is equally important.

Written by Theresa Atutu and Tholithemba Ndaba


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