It is 4:05pm; Bolanle Austen-Peters walks into the room – no airs – clad in a loose fitting black blouse and black trouser, an easy smile on her face. She is forty-seven but it is easy to imagine that she is younger as she looked much younger than her age.
Her lean body frame bore little authority; making it easy to stare past her if you don’t know her. She is soft-spoken, confident without being arrogant, and walked with the grace of one who knows her lane, owns her space and comfortable in it.
But I soon learnt that Bolanle, despite her girlish appearance, is a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own and a penchant for sticking to the hard, tangible fact. And that it is difficult to actually forget her once you meet or hear her speak.
Deep into our conversation, I asked Bolanle if she sees herself as a stubborn and communicative. She furrows her brow for a bit, as she contemplated the question.
She agrees that she’s not a very communicative person and that she has a mind of her own. “Certainly, I’m not a TV personality,” she says, pointing out that contrary to what her façade might suggest she is a strong and tough person, although very private.
It is not difficult to believe this. Bolanle has carved a name for herself, doing what many before her hadn’t succeeded in.
We had arrived about fifteen minutes late for our 3 O’clock interview with her so she had gone in for another meeting. She, however, emerged from the meeting forty minutes later, beaming with smile, greeting my colleague, Oreoluwa, by name and with a familiar easiness as if she had always known him.
Bolanle is the founder of Terra Kulture (an art and culture center) and the daughter of prominent lawyer and famed educationist, Afe Babalola, the founder of Afe Babalola University.
“He is a very hardworking person and also very purposeful. If he sets out to do something, he must do it,” she says about her father.
As an example of her father’s determined spirit, she points out that despite being in his eighties, her father had opened up the Afe Babalola University and in less than five years built the school to one of the leading universities in Nigeria.
Educated in Nigeria and abroad, Bolanle, a trained lawyer, had practiced law for a while and also worked with the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Switzerland, United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the United Nations Development Program.
Bolanle has always had a love for, and enjoyed the arts and history so that when she returned to Nigeria after her sojourn abroad, it was difficult to practice international law.
“International law is no longer relevant if you’re within the borders of Nigeria,’ she says with a light chuckle.
“I wanted to do my own business, I wanted to create jobs,” she says. Years with the UN development agencies had opened her eyes to the importance of job creation. “It was critical for me to become an employer and not an employee.”
Soon after, she founded the very popular Terra Kulture in 2003 and has never looked back.
We talk about Terra Kulture and why she veered into the arts despite her training in law and years of experience as a lawyer.
“As a matter of fact, I wanted to study history,’ she says. But she didn’t. Instead she ventured into law. “Your parents will always encourage you to study professional courses.”
Bolanle says that Terra Kulture started because she wanted to celebrate Nigeria. The concept behind Terra Kulture is the concept of identity, she says.
“Who are we?”
She says that she doesn’t miss her law days but she quickly adds that she doesn’t regret working as a lawyer or studying law.
“I don’t miss it. I don’t want to go back. I don’t even remember it,” Bolanle says with a mischievous smile and a great deal of humour.
Skills she had acquired over the years in the United Nations came to play when she started the center, being a lawyer made her a better administrator and businesswoman, she admits. “No education or experience is a waste.”
And even if the hands of the clock were turned back, Bolanle says she will most probably study a professional course and work in big institutions – it gave her the experience and skills needed to run an unusual business like Terra Kulture.
At first, her father was confused about the idea of Terra Kulture, but he supported her nonetheless.
As Terra Kulture grew so did Bolanle’s involvement in the arts and creativity industry. Terra Kulture has an art gallery, a bookstore, a theatre for stage plays, a restaurant and center for learning of indigenous languages.
Over the years, many plays were shown at the Terra Kulture theatre –some of which Bolanle was the executive producer but with time she became increasingly involved in the production, costuming and directing of drama.
Bolanle soon realized that she had ideas in her head and it was often difficult to bring it out and tell the directors. “They can’t see the idea,” she says. “I get the idea, I tell them. They don’t do it right. So I ended up doing double the work.”
She admits that as a producer she would interfere with the director’s work, often undoing what they had done, causing a lot of friction. She says that the directors were asking why don’t she do it herself since she can do it.
The more she worked in plays, the more she realized that the creativity was there in her and has been laying fallow for many years. So she pushed herself, working harder, breaking records.
“The more I do,” she says with a light chuckle, a smile playing on the corners of her lips, “the more I realize that I have more to bring out. But what Terra has taught me is that a creative mind can also be worked on and if you do not allow yourself to be free, you will not realize how much you have inside of you.”
“We’re boxed in by the profession that we choose,” she adds.
Working as a lawyer, Bolanle was tied to a desk, but once she stepped out of those shoes and started Terra Kulture, she soon realized that she could do a lot more than she had ever thought she could.
She has always had a creative side, Bolanle says, but she never tapped into. As a young girl, she had designed the interior of their house.
“I designed the interior of Terra Kulture too,” she says, pointing around proudly. “But these are things you think is a fly by night,” a one off. But it wasn’t, her creative side laid mostly untapped till she returned to Nigeria and decided to pursue the arts rather than law.
Bolanle worked as the executive producer and costume designer for 93 Days, a historical film based on the Ebola virus epidemic in Nigeria, The First Consultant Hospital and Dr. Ameyo Adadevho.
In 2013, Saro, The Musical, a stage drama produced by her, shattered glass ceilings in the theatre industry and was an instant hit.
She realized that there was a gap in the theater industry: nobody was doing musicals. Leveraging on Terra Kulture’s platform and name, amongst several other advantages she
had, Bolanle set out to produce Saro, The Musical – an expensive stage production that involved three different skill sets: dance, music, and acting.
But she pulled it off.
After the success of Saro, Bolanle had to solidify her position in the industry and prove that Saro was not just a flash in the pan. So she began work on Wakaa! The Musical. But Wakaa was much more difficult than Saro. “It was very deep,” she says about Wakaa.
On Saro, she was the producer and worked with a director. But she directed, designed the costume and produced Wakaa all by herself, something pretty difficult, but not impossible, to pull off in theatre.
“It was very difficult, let no man fool you.”
Unlike television where there is a chance of a particular scene being shot over and over again until it is gotten right, plays do not offer such grace or options. You have to get it right once on stage, in front of a room full of people.
While Saro satirized Lagos, Wakaa sought to satirize political corruption in Nigeria, explore the migration of Nigerians, seeking greener pastures abroad.
On Wakaa, she says that the story is very deep, “it was difficult to balance a very, very important and heavy topic: corruption, and make it amusing at the same time.”
Following the success of Wakaa in Lagos, where it was showed for 12 times and viewed by over 10,000 people, Bolanle was approached by Mixta Africa, one of the sponsors of the show, to export the play abroad. She agreed. MTN Foundation came onboard also as a sponsor. Soon after other sponsors agreed and that was the genesis of an international success story.
“Artists should focus on their craft and get it to the right level. If it’s at the right level, people will look for you.”
Arrangements were made and Wakaa was shown in London where it sold out 7 shows at the Shaw Theatre in 5 days. It beat out all expectations and made history as the first Nigerian musical to show in the city.
“London embraced us. It was insane,” she says. “The reception was unbelievable.”
The play was talked about on BBC’s prime time news, while the BBC arts editor, Will Gompertz, wrote glowingly about the play. The play did what the British Art Council has tried to do for years (encouraging racial diversity in the arts and attracting people of colour to the theatre). Wakaa did it.
Wakaa, with its compelling storyline, cut across the racial and economic divide in the UK and told a story with a universal message despite it being authentically Nigerian.
“The timing of Wakaa’s showing in London “could not have come at a better time,” Bolanle says. British former Prime Minister, David Cameron, had made a joke about Nigeria being a “fantastically corrupt” country. The joke, which was caught on camera, trended for days and wasn’t funny at all most people. Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption war has made headlines both within and outside Nigeria and has been a source of numerous heated conversation.
Bolanle says people came from the Caribbean; others drove from Scotland and other far places to watch the play.
She was told that she couldn’t do it. That it was impossible to sell out the 446 seats in the Shaw Theater because Africans in the diaspora and British citizens were not particularly interested in a Nigerian play. But she, with support from her sponsors, did it and has etched her name in the walls of theatre history.
Despite the plot of Wakaa being political, Bolanle says that she isn’t interested in politics. “To be honest with you, I’m not even interested in politics.” Her stories, she says, are influenced by the environment and she hopes to pass a message with it.
“I don’t go for known faces,” Bolanle says about her work with artist. She wants real talent not just a popular name and face. A’rese, the winner of the just concluded reality TV show, The Voice, played a role in Wakaa. Adesua Etomi, this year’s best actress at the AMVCA and K-Peace, winner of Nigerian Idol, all went through the stage at Terra Kulture.
Somehow, the conversation boiled down to her father and what he thought of the play’s success. Bolanle says that he wrote her a letter, congratulating her on the success of Wakaa.
“He was so proud,” she said, her face a picture of serene joy.
Photo credit: Hycinth Iyereosa