The arts of oil: a cultural history of Port Harcourt

Prof David Pratten

A collaborative research programme in association with the Institute of Niger Delta Studies, University of Port Harcourt

uniport logo

Is there a popular culture of oil? How is oil - its production, pollution, profit and politics - inflected in Nigerian popular arts? Can we understand how the oil industry is perceived through the popular arts that represent and resist it? This research will examine what the popular arts tell us about understandings of African petro-states, resource curse, and post-oil futures. Through the music, literature, comedy, art and film produced in the urban hub of the Niger Delta the research will explore localised and everyday ideas about enchantment and disenchantment, wealth and inequality, pleasure and pain derived from the oil economy. 

ph life

< PH Life, Tony Bros, Port Harcourt Clubs, 1975-78> 

The first comprehensive study of the popular arts and culture of oil in the Niger Delta, this project will produce a cultural history of Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s main ‘oil city’. Port Harcourt has been both a symbol and a catalyst of incorporation into the global economy of energy capitalism. Founded in 1913 as a port for the export of coal, it has been the headquarters of the main multi-national oil companies since the first discovery of oil at Oloibiri in Rivers Province in 1956 by Shell D’Arcy. The research intends to provide an original insight into people’s perspectives on oil and the oil industry as narrated and mediated through the plastic and performative arts. This project examines the development of eco-aesthetics in the light of key historical watersheds, the Ogoni crisis of the 1990s and the militant insurgency of the late 2000s. 

pastor jumbo

<Pastor Jumbo, Bende Street>

recording agaba songs with area united

<Recording ‘agaba’ songs with Area United, 2017>

Through oral history, archival research and ethnography, the project examines a range of artistic trajectories including literary histories from Elechi Amadi and Ken-Saro-Wiwa to Kaine Agary and Chimeka Garricks; it traces the city’s musical history from Rex Lawson to Duncan Mighty; and it explores the visual representation of oil through art, documentary media, photography and Nollywood ‘militant’ films. How do the artists and citizens of Port Harcourt account for the legacy of oil since its discovery in the late 1950s?  How are they engaging with contemporary issues of violence, corruption and environmental pollution? And what might the popular arts offer by way of insights into post-oil  dependency futures?

graffiti  obi wale st

<Graffiti (anon), Obi Wale Street, Port Harcourt> 

Fieldwork and research activities for this project is funded by the Oxford Martin School programme ‘Governing African Transitions’


Related activities under this programme

University of Port Harcourt and University of Oxford Collaborative Workshop

26-27 July 2018 (University of Port Harcourt Business School).

This workshop was conceived to launch this collaborative research project, and in order to produce a ‘state of the art’ account of research on the arts of oil in Port Harcourt. Working with established and emerging scholars the workshop sought to showcase multidisciplinary papers from literature, photography, art, theatre, sociology, anthropology and history among others. The workshop also sought to provide a platform for artists and performers in order to bring artists and scholars into more creative dialogue. The workshop programme therefore included various performances and exhibitions, including dance performances, poetry readings a historical exhibition along with a photographic exhibition on artisanal refineries.

Download the workshop programme here.

This event was sponsored by the Africa Oxford Initiative

workshop grp photo

Arts of Oil Workshop 26 July 2018

seaview poetry edit

Seaview Poetry Club performance


Africa Oxford Initiative Visiting Fellowship
Professor Abi Derefaka (Director, Institute of Niger Delta Studies, University of Port Harcourt)

Under the ‘Arts of Oil’ Programme, and supported by the Africa Oxford Initiative, Professor Abi Derefaka was a Visiting Fellow at Oxford (Aug-Sept 2018). Professor Derefaka is the Director of the Institute of Niger Delta Studies at the University of Port Harcourt. This is an interdisciplinary research centre with its own journal publication that coordinates research on the history, culture, environment and politics of the oil-producing Niger Delta region. Professor Derefaka is a leading scholar of the region with world-renowned expertise in the archaeology of local crafts and the policies and politics surrounding tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

seaview poetry edit

< Profs Derefaka and Pratten appearing on Rivers State TV ‘Globe in 60’ with presenter Bon Woke, 28 July 2018>