How can Oguta remain like this? We have this little paradise waiting to be cultivated. But we all run away from it for selfish gain. We turn our faces away as the waste of daily living is dumped into the lake. We fear to swim in the beautiful Blue lake because we have dredged deep into the heart of the earth. We fear for what lies deep within the troubled waters. The lake lies wasting in the dying sun while we are making plans to replace it. We return home with forex to build our shallow swimming pools in our backyard, and empty the dirty waters into the lake. Why won’t the lake be mad, and carry away the children of erring parents? Why won’t the forsaken lady seek her revenge? The water lily grows long and serpentine underneath, dancing in the slow waves, waiting. Nature will pay us back with what we give to it. Who will swim in the lake with me? The dredger in Umudei village. The litter at the shore. No one swims in the beautiful lake anymore. They travel on it to the neighbouring villages to trade. They stack bags of cassava pegged to the bottom of the lake for days, washing away all the cyanide and smell. That is why our akpu does not smell. That is also why Ihu Ohamiri stinks. But we are happy when we eat our cassava. You would think that you are eating pounded yam. The lake carries away all the stench.Every Christmas now, a church holds an end of year crusade in Mgbidi, a village on the road to Oguta. Their members wear this fluorescent yellow coloured posters that burn the eyes in the harmattan dryness.It is long since our people went mad. The ancestral gods have gathered dust at the corners. Worse, they are now firewood at mother’s kitchen. We found a new religion. We also found oil. Now nothing else matters but these two… not even other natural resources that our fathers lived on. No, oil is king. On Eke, the traders line up to buy produce from those who live across. Oguta people do not farm around their homes. Our farmlands lie on the other side of the lake. So Oguta looks more like an estate without greenery. The local governments in Nigeria have lost their autonomy. The state governors control the local governments. The people at the grassroots live with their waste, they live without social amenities like electricity and pipe-borne water. We live on borehole water that we must make to survive. We are our own government. We are no government. We know no government. We do things our own way. There is no way we can continue this way. We are blind to the beauty that is ours. We live like strangers in paradise. This is the new history we are writing for the children.
Our home in the village sits at the crossroads where 3 roads meet. So it must be a magical place to live in. I remember waking up on some mornings to find a basket full of sacrifices on the road. My young friend Nonso is a thriving native doctor. I must ask him why this is important. The sacrifices seem to have reduced, since I put a strong searchlight in front of my house. I needed to light up the area, as some young vandals had come to steal the battery from the NDDC solar lamp post. Apart from playing soccer, people come to the field of Trinity High School to learn to drive. I have taught some friends on this field. The cattle sellers drive their cows to graze here also. From my vantage point on the second floor, I drew inspiration for some of the images in my series of paintings A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills. As night falls, people come there to smoke weed, etcetra… The vast space has allowed me to enjoy working on larger canvases. My latest canvas cannot even fit into the door to my studio, so I have to paint outdoors. I am free here. The spaces are for flying. The air is light. The lake is nearby. This is truly home.
2018 is the year after all things Art in Lagos and yes; contemporary Art in Nigeria will never be the same. With the demise of two important stalwarts of the Arts, the rise and rise of El Anatsui, the appearance of ‘new’ artists with training in other things to challenge the status quo; with a new patronage of Art by Ambode’s government and a fading away of yellow buses, with Sotheby’s first African Art auction happening and markedly starting an international scramble for contemporary African art, with Lagos hosting a second edition of West Africa’s biggest art fair, with the opening of the first major Contemporary Arts Museum in Cape Town; and a significant body of non-figurative artworks being sold, of installation and performance art becoming an area of interest and artists building their art spaces and usurping the position of the hitherto non-existent middlemen in their practice – with all these and more happenings comes the realization that there is an emergence of a new Nigerian Art.
Art House Foundation has a residency program that is gaining in importance and creating international connections, though one is not so sure of the auctions. Don’t get me wrong- I remain one of the most uninformed about the importance (Jess speaking) of these auctions! Apart from a few open auction calls, one wonders where or how some of these auction houses get their pieces. A way to look at it is that some of the older collectors open their storerooms and put them up to evaluate the present worth of their works.
Once iconic images like the yellow buses of Lagos are now scarce. There are fewer requests for such scenes by expatriates who want to take ‘something Nigerian’ home. The yellow buses have gone the way of the ‘Fulani milkmaids, durbar scenes, and load bearing maidens by mud huts, with the orange sun drowning into a river with coconut trees lining the riverside! To put things in context as per the New Art of Nigeria, one must remember certain facts about the present- History as a subject is no longer taught in Nigerian secondary and primary schools. This means that we have returned to the days of telling tales by moonlight, and the passing on of our traditions and history by ‘word of mouth’ (though such opportunities for conversation are also very scarce with social media activity on everyone’s mind for getting noticed, relevant or entertained.
The economics of survival in a society where everything has been turned on its head has changed the view of things here. The landscapes got more and more abstract till they became blurbs of color splattered in split seconds on the artist’s canvas. Of course some of us had been early at this form of presentation of where we are as a nation, having spent most of our adolescence learning from the prophecies of King Fela Kuti. It wasn’t the marijuana that made him iconic. Not even the government of the day could rob him of his street credibility, his non-conformist, critical view of people in power. Adolescents could relate to the conflicts with their coming of age realities and phantoms. So we could paint those abstract scenes then. And like a bad dream, no one was buying it then. The connoisseurs (the buying age of pre-Independence adolescents who became adults in the glory days of the oil boom) had eyes for all histories pre-colonialism, with a few tweaks that added corrugated roofs and the bustling metropolitan chaos of an African State capital. A few of us were born in the crossroads, somewhere between the glory days and growing in the years of Nigeria losing it all to thieving leaders; to the present times where history is being erased, memories are being expunged, and new narratives to support where we are as a Nation has sprung up. For some of my generation, Art became the tool to use to speak a codified language interpreting contemporary realities. We remain the leftover bodies who did not join their smarter mates on the sojourn to new lands. We are ignorant, dull of hearing, or numb with shock at the aftermath of the disaster of contemporary Nigeria. The other day, a former classmate referred to how he now understood why some of us had publicly renounced their citizenship!
But I speak of one set of people. The other set are new to me. They have not really absorbed our history. They know what they have been told by biased relatives who think that their farmlands end at the edge of other people’s homesteads. The younger artists in Nigeria have come into it without the necessary, slower gestures of indoctrinations happening. They take what they will, and run with it. The restlessness of youth allows for hits or misses. After all, there is still time to make amends. A new non-figurative art is quite popular these days. This is understandable, judging from the foregoing. Everywhere one looks, the faces in artworks seem contorted by mixed, exaggerated feelings- anxiety, angst and sorrow, while elegant bodies now give way robust feisty bodies whose ‘aesthetic appeal’ lies mainly in being lively. Formalism is discarded for sensationalism, the wow factor is ‘it’/’in’ for now! Everyone has joined in on the ride. Nigeria blares out a new non-representational ‘ism’, all in a flush to become noticed by the institution. Now that Africa is in the limelight. Well things may be celebrated. Art is the only truth to tell the people of the gory mess we are in.
No wonder the prices of contemporary artworks in Nigeria seem to have gone up by two digits. Two privately sponsored art museums, in Lagos and in Onitsha will soon open the door to curious society who did not see Art becoming the phenomenon that inspires change, that promotes culture and transforms the mundane into a magical place in our hearts. One cannot keep up with all the exhibitions opening every weekend in Lagos. There are so many new faces and names. Is it because one is more involved in his profession, or is there an upsurge of non-academically trained artists taking over the art space? Gratefully, art is now practiced as a true profession. Artists are more interested in the end-to-end marketing and management of their work. With the growing popularity of the acrylic paint, it is now rare to meet an artist jumping out of a bus with a wet canvas, trying to sell to Mister Akar (of Signature Beyond). The Revolving Art Incubator is a new space and Nimbus was the place to see avant-garde art. 2018 is the year that completes my circle. Three years after I moved out of Lagos to establish a studio in my village, I return to a new studio in Lekki. There are new collectors who really find a resonance with my work. It is the middle age of Art for me. One is reminded again every time there is a call for artists for art competitions- one is usually 10 years overage. Maybe we have paid our dues. Maybe we paid the price to be where we are today. We open our studio doors to the rest of the world now. They should come. Things have changed so much. This year, there will be Dak’Art, many more art exhibitions and involvement with other spaces abroad. The words are fewer these days. A new critical way of discussing art has emerged. It is light-hearted, maybe like this blog post. I said it before- things have changed. Art has become fashionable, contemporary in strong terms. The child is now encouraged to become an artist. Welcome to a new phase for art in Nigeria. It cost us so much to get here. We won’t let anyone mess it up.
The words are distinct in my head. Sometimes the two characters change places- its like the flights, the rise and falls of an angel. There are two distinct personalities. Even I mix up their identities at times. You know how we mix up who is the good or bad twins when they are identical?! So, one is called Anthony; and the other is Richard. (As good catholics, my parents got me baptized as a child. I was named Anthony, after a saint. When I got older, receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, I took the name Richard, after another saint I identified with at the time) The conversation is between these ‘two’.
Richard: You really think you are doing work that could change the world?
Anthony: That is not the intent. I want to add to the raging voices screaming for a change. Mine is a little voice among the many.
Richard: Such modesty seems veiled with grandeur!
Anthony: I may be with the lowly, but I can stand to the exalted ones!
Richard: You start your work often like one thinking to blot out, to obliterate the white canvas?
Anthony: There is usually a first struggle. Painting is a fight that goes on till the very end. At the end, one may not even be able to make up his mind.
Richard: One sees familiar bits of the anatomy of your subject, scattered like in a scene of an accident.
Anthony: The accident has already happened in my mind- I merely recollect the evidence! The work is the statement of facts. In our times, the fact is distorted by new interpretations, situations and far away dreams of other lands.
Richard: Don’t you think your time of working could be put to better use?
Anthony: Maybe I could become a banker, or better still, farmer to eat and live? One has those thoughts drifting, interfering with the waving hand. There is the lure of fast money from the nearby art patron also. Selling out is a good idea. One can do better- sell oneself! I give a part of me into the work. The artworks are my children.
Richard: Hmmm, you begin to sound anti-society…
Anthony: On the contrary, I encourage an embrace of the abandoned in our society. Adoption is an excellent option. Traditional ways of growing society are quite valid, and supported. You see some of my themes are based on conjugal love and the family unit. Maybe those that try to broaden traditional definitions of being and society stir up a furor that quakes the foundations of our society?
Richard: One would think you were answering a different question…
Anthony: In trying to be precise, I preempt every question and give answers to one question in one hasty burst. It is the way we have become. There are complexities of interactions happening virtually, intruding into our physical reality.
Richard: You have other thoughts about the use of materials/media in your work.
Anthony: Oh that. I have had these questions about Material and Idea in Art, which is the more important? The physical material on which the artwork is created can be a very important thing for the young artist. I recall gushing at primed, ready to use canvas at an art materials shop as though it was a masterpiece! After buying it, I will stare at it for a while like one confronted by the notion of a dream that suddenly came true. The idea of the material would intimidate, freeze all intuition. The Idea is a different thing. Without the gift of inscribing the idea, the artist would become but a good craftsman. I don’t say that this is a bad thing- good craftsmanship. One should try to add it in one’s work. But importantly, brood over the idea, incubate it, wait for it. The idea usually comes before the material. Sometimes, I use what is on hand. The idea must be grasped and represented for posterity. It has to get out there. This thing about the importance of the material is rubbished when one realizes that even the must durable materials can be destroyed with poor care! In a roundabout way, the most fragile material can last longer if given proper care. As the artist, I stand with the idea first. Is the idea weakened because the material is not up to standard( quite a subjective idea that has no fixed boundaries)? The way Time acts on an artwork is another thing! Even that becomes included in factoring how one wants his work to be perceived. The artist may wish for the physical work to deteriorate with time, organically. Or allow the owner to choose how the work lives, or dies, or is presented in the future. Its really like when I have unrolled a canvas painting and sold it. I wont follow the buyer to a frameshop to put a frame around it.
Richard: This is too much of an explanation…
Anthony: Sorry, explaining can take some time. Let me go and continue my painting.
Richard: You say it like it is food.
Anthony: It’s not far from it.
Richard: Let me think about what you have said.
There will be more stylized artworks. Finally, it will be total abstraction. The world has gone mad. The script becomes more and more complex by the day that shows that it is so- it is the bane of contemporary existence! We are the noise. We live the noise. The little things don’t matter much anymore. The artist of today tries to recreate these feelings, the intensity of white noise creating static. We will be famous for showing the zeitgeist of now. Here, it starts from Lagos, the centre of the hullaballoo. Occasionally one makes sense of the nature of things, and winks knowingly at the other. It’s a standpoint that differentiates Sense and Nonsense; a time gap too. The millennial took over while I slept. In a daze, my contemporaries are playing ‘catch-up’. The gift is prophetic, making loud declarations. Art must be understood in the context of its time. Of course some ‘art’ are not meant for now.
So sweet, so light-Such pleasure brings pain
Brown to white cling, bringing imperfections to light,
Again we lunge for it-so dark, so sweet
To our hearts’ delight,
Brown on white so sweet, brings light to our eyes,
Yet shapes us as though misaligned,
Separate from the white rows,
Below and above, yet in line.
So sweet, yet with so much sadness wrapped, full of holes.
The smile is so true,
Not blood pumping-something in the heart alights,
Butterfly on blooming flower.
“It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things,”
Georgia O’Keeffe, American painter.
‘Are you happy as a Nigerian about the political scene?’ Nkechi comes at me scathingly, as if to dare me to say otherwise- that I am happy. Through all the dreariness, the darkness, like one drowning, clutching at a straw, the pursuit of happiness here seems a daunting personal struggle. My mind immediately drifts to Michael Jackson’s final concert rehearsal video This Is It, to the sketch for Earth Song. A little girl appears, playing with butterflies in a beautiful green forest that soon starts to die out to Man’s exploitative, destructive actions. Nature’s light gives way to the stark, progressive dawn of Man overpowering the landscape, killing it. The girl, who had earlier drifted into a deep dream of peace, is jolted awake by the crescendo of rambling destruction around her- the bush burning and menacingly approaching bulldozer, and she flees for dear life. On her escape route she pursues a fleeing butterfly, and soon stumbles over the rubble as her eyes stray off the path. Falling to the ground, she finds a solitary, miraculously green plant in the decay. The little girl feverishly uproots that plant, as though it is the only hope for the forest’s future rebirth. That girl may well be Nkechi Abii (nee Duru), the willowy tall lady who will be showing artworks in an exhibition titled Fragrant Kaleidoscope, on the 10th of June, at Didi Museum, Akin Adesola Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. She holds out more than greens In the early eighties, at the other end of the street from ours in Owerri, their house was surrounded by a forest of flowers, potted plants and trees. Nkechi’s family were close friends-my sisters occasionally visited their home. I would take a cursory look while riding my chopper past their ‘green’ house. We lived in Aladinma, then a newly built federal housing estate in Owerri, at the edge of a forest. We usually ran through that forest, searching for icheku (a local seedy velvet-black berry with a succulent orange flesh) and utu (a wild sour berry). We also searched for birds’ nests and delighted in play-acting like we were actors in a Rambo or Indiana Jones movie, running wild and free. Life was simpler then, without worries.
She graduated from Nsukka 6 years before me, so Professor Uche Okeke was still lecturing. Professors Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu and El Anatsui, Ola Oloidi, Chuka Amaefuna also taught her. She must have heard the other mantra at Nsukka’s Uli School, hidden under an overriding and more populist legacy. The hidden mantra, the ‘yang’ to Nsukka’s modern interpretation of Uli, was the Theory of Natural Synthesis, that allowed for a universal search and unearthing of individual cultural/artistic aesthetics among the students. This search became silently bound in the gene of the fledgling art school. Students were encouraged also to investigate further, far from their familiar, native artistic and cultural traditions. European classical music, poems, and essays on creativity and the creative process formed the potpourri. For Nkechi Abii it was familiar turf-she grew up listening to her dad’s classical music LPs.
The 1984 Nsukka graduate of Fine and Applied Arts held a series of exhibitions during her year of National Youth service and won the Presidential Prize as Best Corper for 1985. Yet when the ovation was loudest, she withdrew into a more pedestrian life. Those demanding joys of life beckoned-Love and Marriage, then Child-bearing and Raising Children, all at the expense of resting her hitherto restless palette and brushes. The young artist needed to mature, to unfurl her creative wings and soar. It would take another 14 years before she exhibited again, starting tentatively with a bit of her testament-her-story of a bit of what had kept her away from the art scene all those years. Like the opening of a cervix, in the 2013 joint exhibition Genes Apart-Two Generations, One Canvas, with her first son and artist Nduka, Nkechi Abii came roaring back. The palette came out raw and fauvist- a medley of recollected and hitherto repressed emotions.
Roses show how flowers are not all smell and fragrance, and the hibiscus flower is known to have medicinal powers. A lot can be said about the power of flowers as food, aesthetic statements and for their medicinal, magical powers. In this month’s edition of the Italian edition of Vogue magazine (L’Uomo Vogue), there is a fantastic picture of a male model wearing a dark blazer over a flower-patterned pair of trousers. The colors on the flowers were muted to monochrome-the combination had a classic, weathered look. With her experience in fashion (she took a 2 years’ course at the Paris Academy School of Fashion, in London), Nkechi Abii has definitely seen lots of flowers in fabrics. Flowers have added an ornamental, sensual poesy to artworks. Van Gogh’s famous painting of Irises (1889) and Crows over the Wheatfield (1890) bring deep, psychotic weight that turned opened up how the flower as subject matter was used traditionally. There had been the pastel-colored, rosy landscapes of the Impressionists, the gestural, childlike paintings of Henri Rousseau, the work of the Surrealists all giving voice to the floral, little delights, the Romanticists and Pre-Raphaelites, etc. Closer home, Uche Okeke’s Flowers of the primeval forest (1982) and other works from that period show the master using flora to communicate a conflagration of ideas-from folklore to war tales. There are similarities in his drawings of flora with the ‘tapestries’ of El Anatsui, who has relocated and represented the primeval forests on an ambitious scale. Nnenna Okore continues in the same vein, weaving and planting her own forests. Obiora Udechukwu, on the other hand, mixes Euro-classical music with native lore and traditional elements from Uli. Uzo Egonu painted the Four Seasons in 1983, relocating the idea already represented in Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music of the same name, and in his Nutcracker Suite. A lot of Marcia Kure’s work and presentation of forms look like portrait renderings, much like how Nkechi Abii represents her solo flowers-portraits of women wearing textile print headgear and individual flowers standing alone on bleak backgrounds. The works of Joseph Eze rely heavily on the floral, vegetal. He is a man truly loving nature. I have related all these creatives’ stories because they share common ground with Nkechi Abii. They all stem from one harvesting ground.
Clearly, Nkechi Abii’s flowers are no sunflowers of happiness. Some of them look like they could use some light. The petals have an inner vibrancy. The flowers seem painted inside her studio. There is no directional lighting. The artist has chosen a different way-to bring the sun within her; to relocate the kaleidoscope of recollected experience, fragrances and joy of flowers waving in the wind, albeit behind closed doors. She owns her work totally, authoritatively giving the subject matter a reinterpretation and life that is personal, objective. She and her siblings grew up playing around flowers. There, they have shared laughs, maybe tears too. If there be roses, expect thorns.
These experiences grow in importance, and, as the artist has put, “Happiness is the key to this exhibition.” This rush of memories locked in her psyche is a return to the years of youth and innocence. The artist is aware people have associated a darkness to her paintings, a whiff of melancholy. So she deliberately turns from all the negativity and hard circumstances of living here to present a happy show, for there is much to be grateful for.
The exhibition Petals of Steel (2014) preempts her present state of mind. That show alluded symbolically to flowers, but drew pungent image from human (female) gestures. In Fragrant Kaleidoscopes, she speaks directly without inhibitions, and the flower this time is presented as subject and subject matter. Flowers filled her childhood landscape. Family members either have planted gardens or potted plants in their living spaces. When she set out on the exciting journey of actualizing the exhibition of painted flowers, it was a return to a place in her heart where all her family would feel at home. Yet, there is an underlying, taunting melancholy in the air. The titles of artworks play on words. Contrasting ideas are phrased together, in rhythmic mimesis- Weedy White Ways; Sleepless in Eko; Marigold Plane; Yellow Sweetheart, etc. Yellow Sweetheart, in particular, somehow reminds of Van Gogh’s love of the color.
The artistic training at Nsukka really showed the unity of the performing and fine arts. Students were encouraged to develop their work through research-by reading associated meanings and subtexts in every other field. This wholesome knowledge is key for the artist who wishes to communicate, to be heard in the noise that is today. She enjoys the texture of thick paint on her fingers, the sculpted look of her work. The works careen on the bridge between painting and sculpture, like a true Nsukka experimental painting student knows to work. Again and again, the artist is bound to break boundaries, to ignore categorization of her work. Some of the works don’t fall into the ‘familiar, ‘traditional’ style of painting. There are set pieces-diptychs and triptychs, randomly placed. Sometimes it is a sculptural piece; or mixed with textile print; or just flat complimentary colors. The artist ought not to bother about fitting in, framing the work. Some of the work can stand alone, away from a wall. The signature work for the show is Eriela m gi, a relief work of the spectacular climber gloriosa plant (flame lily), lifting away from two dimensionality to other dimensions. In presenting the new works, even as in her past (in the show Petals of Steel where she has works that only remain bound by the finishing frame on them) one senses a slight uneasiness, as though she feels a strain, a nudging to conform to the traditional, painterly rectangular planes.
The other question that will arise in the heart of the audience is to ask if Happy Paintings have emerged for wishing them to being. Far from the traditional, pastel colors of the spectrum, we see hard, non-contrasty mixes that are earthy and full-blooded. Happiness, for the artist, is mature, contemplative, reasoned acceptance and grand-standing. Nkechi Abii knows that the painting must come to life in the heart, and she helps the viewer on the journey; modelling in car filler, in large blobs of color applied without care for smooth transitions. There is no subtlety. The work is emphatically in-your-face, taking pride of place.
It is auspicious that the show opens at Mr. Jibunoh’s Didi Museum, resplendent with its potted plants and flowers. It is a horticulturist’s haven. The gallery owner has made a name for himself internationally for crusading for environmental matters. Let’s say the show has found home. There is a kinship.
Nkechi Abii’s plum palette reflects her familiarity with textile prints. Her studio is arranged thus-a fashion house with bespoke clothes at the corner; sofas with her artist son and his friends doing speed-painting, playing video games and watching a movie; and a high worktable that serves as a flat easel for laying liquid acrylics on canvas or board. An easel stands in the corner with one of her paintings mounted. In this space, the woman spins and lays out colors. The workspace is filled with memorabilia. Like a musician taking the stage in a command performance, the artist is very ‘present’ while she constructs new landscapes. It is her world.
The works on view at Fragrant Kaleidoscopes may be divided into three parts-portraits, duets and landscapes. The portraits are solo pieces that render the subject matter as near to life, and sometimes magnified a thousand times over. The boldness of such squinting that yields details of parts of a plant hitherto unnoticed by the wayfaring observer comes is a joyful surprise. One is moved to touch. The duets or subjects in one work, for example the acrylic painting Bee-titude, of a hibiscus flower and bee that flies out of the canvas( literally) is lush and drags the viewer in for the familiarity of such a scene. Documenting and translating, the artist watches the little miracles unravel. The landscapes or bouquet of flowers are composites. Particularly of note is a long painting with iridescent colors with a palette reminiscent of an Odilon Redon landscape. The cadmium red of the roses and yellow lights don’t mix. Two of the roses stand out in relief, growing from the painting. When she took a break from the art scene, Nkechi Abii seems to have travelled to Gauguin’s island, only to return with pictures of vibrant textured landscapes of flowers. The color space freely borrows and exchanges, revealing new interpretations and fusions.
There will be tears and thorns, and the occasional bloodletting for people playing in rose bushes. There are times when the titles of works seem misleading, as though skimmed over in the huge repertoire of paintings. No title, at least in this show, should stoop so low. Nkechi Abii has worked, and received a hard sieving of impurities from an in-house critic-Nduka, her son for whom she has the highest regards as an artist. Her younger sister Uloma manages the exhibitions. With a flair for poetry, Uloma discusses the appropriateness or otherwise of chosen titles of works. Such supportive family help Nkechi Abii to continue. She is excited, bubbling with energy after many years of silence. She has things to say-bitter or sweet, embellished with a smile.
One sees the way the painter allows color to stand alone on flat planes. The spaces break the rules of proportion as she emphasizes, leading her audience to a private, shared space. Seeing women as flowers with petals of steel is putting it rather mildly. Nsukka has seen a plethora of such women. Chinwe Uwatse and Ndidi Dike are contemporaries. Chinwe Uwatse’s watercolors exude delicate, yet strong and assured lines that veil the floral, sinuous flow of her works. Ndidi Dike’s panels are of the same progeny- full of ambitious delicacy and playful virtuosity. There are other ‘fragrant’ notes. Marcia Kure’s works still chase the fluid beauty lines of traditional Uli painters. She creates tight neo-surrealist imagery in colorful, textured montages with sheer white backgrounds that scream as loud. One thing the Nsukka artists have in common is an understanding and emphasis on using Space, rallying positive and negative spaces in random breathtaking nuances. The plane is of utmost importance. Sukanthy Visagaperumal, Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, Lilian Pilaku, and Nnenna Okore are familiar names who continue to works as artists. They are such flowers with petals of steel, releasing fragrances that hit on different notes, working in media as varied as seeds, beads, sackcloth, writing free verse poetry, creating mixed media portraits, all holding the fort in the small ranks of practicing female artists, who, as Nature calls, (as in Nkechi Abii’s case) may hibernate into periods of silence as they give meaning to their lives in ways only women can. Fragrant Kaleidoscope is the story of a woman reborn.
Anthony Nsofor writes from Lagos.
A dictator is one man whose word is deed. In democracies, a ruler can acquire the same power if the system is corrupt. It ends up being about numbers-how corrupt are the supposed checks and balances to be swayed by the highest bidder, in this case, the man with the greatest power, who is often the ruler, call him president or prime minister. In a democracy, more people are culpable for corrupt practices, crimes of injustice, etc.
What makes it not to matter anymore what kind of government we have is this-corruption levels. I am still thinking hard about unjust government practises that have been reversed after individuals win in court. Do those that rule not make mistakes, err in judgment? Are their policies sacrosanct, beatific? In governance, numbers count, election or no; how many people are carried along for the greatest good will matter the most. Is it really about how many years In Democracy, or about how many years Of Democracy? Only a few thousand of the one sixty million enjoy the full benefits. Who is fooling who?
Posted from WordPress for BlackBerry.
Love stories are quite poignant, especially sad stories. Six days ago, Sam Smith won four awards at the 57th annual Grammy Awards. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his ex for causing him so much heartache. Remember Jesus Christ, and so on? Sad love stories rock, still. They are apt to tell, particularly on Valentine’s Day, February 14th.
Maybe there are the exceptional fairytale endings that fall into place finally in the most unusual way. There was my dear friend Nkem (aka Sese). We had a wonderful friendship as boarding house mates at Federal Government College, Okigwe. We lived in the same dormitory. We were fourteen years-old, learning the ropes of love, discovering the amazing world of the opposite sex. He was in love at the time, but it wasn’t with me, with my younger sister. At the time, many of my friends were, too. See, I was the lucky guy with good looking sisters that got favors for that. In retrospect, I am not sure if I had many real friends, or just friends who had the hots for my sisters.Art
Love is a complex word spanning many dictionaries in definition. Nkem and I would share the closing hours of the day at his corner. He would prepare ‘solution’ (cold water beverages) and Oxford cabin biscuits spread with Blue Band margarine for me to eat. In return, I told him about my escapades with babes. That was how much he loved my ‘love’ stories, and I prided myself for them. After my first break-up, I had decided that love was all about striking while the iron was still hot-sex as soon as possible to cement the ‘love’! I had my reasons for becoming that way, way back then. That would be another story, for another Valentine’s Day.
On vacation, Sese and I lived in Owerri, about 20 minutes apart. So we often met to compare notes. I was the occasional love-doctor for him, the more experienced one. Many years later, as undergraduates (he was in Imo State University while I was in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka), we would reunite during holiday periods and talk about love. I had met and fallen in love with Kem in Nsukka, he with some girl in IMSU. One Valentine’s day, he commissioned me to make a portrait of both of them for his rented student’s apartment off-campus. I made an oil painting of him as a traditionally clad drummer playing for her, a dancer wearing native attire. It was made in blues. He loved it. He kept it in his bathroom. I don’t recall his reason for keeping it there. Our common friends whispered about Nkem’s obsession with this girl. I wasn’t sure if the girl was his girlfriend, or he was still asking her out. He was quite lavish with her. One holiday later, my friend Sese was dead. There were muted whispers that he committed suicide over the girl that didn’t love him. They said he was found dead in his bathroom, after drinking a solution of shaving powder. The girl of his dreams changed schools immediately after. She couldn’t survive the negative publicity at IMSU, living as the girl-who-a-guy-died-for (that would make a great title for a painting).
Sad love stories make for compelling telling, and keeps inspiring generations of artists and singers. We all have them, so we all love the retelling. It’s a love/hate relationship-the recollecting of the heady loves gone sour. We keep them in a space in our hearts, close to our most joyful moments, where tears mingle with smiles. It’s not a thin line between love and hate, its only time. Memories grow long. This is to all the girls that I have loved, so that you can see where I have been. Know what I have become. I don’t want to be hurt by love. I love you all, learning to love myself. The story continues. Till next Valentine’s Day.
I wrote this essay for the catalogue of Uche Edochie and Tolu Aliki’s amazing show HALFWAY THROUGH A THOUSAND MILES. If you saw the exhibition, I hope you find convergent views. If you didn’t, I hope you see some of it through my words. There is colour, there are pure colours and light in the window of art called Nigeria. It is fresh and strong. Read on.
Witness- An account of Two Contemporaries
One can’t talk about the artwork better than the artist himself- his artwork is the first and original statement! It is a more daunting task when the artist also writes about his work. I will start by avoiding descriptions of individual pieces in this exhibition. Tolu Aliki and Uche Edochie share from their souls, presenting telling self-portraits. Let us enjoy the evidence before us- exuberant outbursts of colour celebrating life in its various nuances! Halfway through a Thousand Miles is a visual narrative of the journeys of two artists living in Lagos. History, destinations, aspirations are explored in a probing manner. There is the light humour, and then the melancholic palettes! The journey of life is about halfway gone and both artists share the limelight. There is no faulting the craftsmanship.
Aliki studied Mass Communications and spins titles like Colors of Passion, Intimate Moments, the Good Life, Shades of Love, etc, all thematically situated in sensuality and a heightened enjoyment of the finer things of life. The intention tends towards perfection, his cunning to erase traces of the method of application.
As the curator, Edochie sees ‘an unexpected beauty in the …heroism of (Nigeria’s) citizens’. His paintings are psychedelic flows that surprise in the transitions between two colours, keeping the palette fresh and airy. Edochie’s working experience is in 4 phases- the first two relate to art practice while the last two revolve around sexuality and relationships, topics that receive more hush treatment (unfortunately) than they should in these climes. Both artists compliment each other. On the one hand are the mature dark nuances of colour; on the other, we have the pastel, graphic colour of a dandy! So this combination works. Well. Even before he graduated from Art School, Edochie knew what needed to be done. He started to fill in the gaps in the interpretation of his work, writing at every opportunity. For both artists, Colour is applied as a labour of love. Colour is theme and light creates other illusions. Aliki brings his signature childlike stylization of form and use of pure colour to contrast the extravagant splays of Edochie’s strokes verging towards a dangerous, passionate cadence. Aliki’s work playfully, yet emphatically holds attention in its stylization of form, while Edochie masterfully weaves explosive colours through bodies making them shimmer like beings stepping into celestial lights.
The creative person lives with the fear of not communicating, of being misread! Fine art allows such an engagement with the audience. The picture is an open plain. In the pieces in this show, both artists explore the human condition and political narratives, a tendency that logically comes with maturity- the growing awareness of responsibilities, of family, of leadership, of leaving something worthwhile behind. The works presented insist on celebrating the resilience of the Nigerian spirit trying to get ahead despite the bad press, despite the daunting living conditions. The artists spin tales as witnesses of all that is good about Nigerians. In these climes, they find an eager audience willing to grab at anything that will increase the value of living here. The artworks are autobiographical and homemade. The viewer sees forms woven in emotional and emotive poses. Then there are the standalone portraits on flat backgrounds. We trudge through the dismal Nigerian life, with the strange energy of people driven by the baking hot tropical sun, flashing teeth bared in laughter (hopefully).
The connection is immediate. Back then in Nsukka, Edochie delighted in his eye for details, revealing objects as though with bionic vision. Life and its toll happened, and the artist sees all reality in shades of psychedelic, opium colours. The business of life must be taken face-up. Aliki responds with flat planes of pure colour balanced in contrasts that regale in the two-dimensional surface. And yet the brilliant colours insist on making subconscious connections with the viewer. The firmness of his hand is without a doubt.
One has to tread softly through the hall full of impassioned, sometimes raging colour. Life is the fierce performance without beginnings or end, a journey eclipsed by unfettered optimism that charges the space. The journey of a thousand miles must be taken, one step at a time. Or you miss the suggestions. Art flirts flatter and provokes all life. But we live in an age where Time and Space has been transcended in many ways. Halfway through looking at the works, one feels a familiarity. Tolu Aliki and Uche Edochie are our contemporaries. But there is the individuality of experience that should be investigated. There is so much effusive brilliance. There are the dark notes. The audience must speculate on this.
NB: THIS ESSAY IS FEATURED IN THE CATALOGUE FOR UCHE EDOCHIE AND TOLU ALIKI’S EXHIBITION HALFWAY THROUGH A THOUSAND MILES. This exhibition closed on the 14th of October, 2018. Follow Uche Edochie and Tolu Aliki on Instagram for more stories and pictures of their works. Also, the works for this show and other works by Uche Edochie can be found on http://www.ucheedochie.com.
Power Play and Other African Stories (for the exhibition Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power)
Travelling through Africa has familiarized one somewhat with the slow induction into native life. Being Nigerian, I already carry a baggage and move under the shadow of an uncomfortable stereotype. Thus, engaging with Abidjan, dissociating with negative stereotypes, while reviving an artistic practice is hard work. When I started painting, I kept travelling back and forth virtually. The Internet brought daily stories from home. I see a clearer picture of our troubles- leadership and corrupt political practices have hindered Nigeria for too long.
Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power is mainly an exhibition of paintings about votes, power, leadership and politicians; and how their lives affect everyday life in Nigeria. On the one hand are the almighty politicians who turn to monsters in their quest for power; and on the other, I represent the most vulnerable people affected by the tragedy of leadership in any society- the women.
Discovering supply chains for my art materials took some time. At some point, I sent and bought materials from Nigeria. All the tools must be in place, at hand, before I start working. It is a performance of classical music where each instrument is ready and waiting for its time to be used. I am the composer, stringing thoughts with media, creating forms and marks. It is a delight when the only thing on one’s mind is to paint, to use media, and be affected by each media’s peculiar qualities. I try to explain this as part of the reason for the stylistic variations in my work. Each medium has properties. I have the mindset.
From trying to make sense of the reasoning behind party defections (where politicians who may have spoken glowingly about a political party the week before, suddenly turn round to castigate and disassociate from that party); to inspiring the masses to vote out these politicians whose integrity seems wanting; another body of work has been created with a view on 2019, the year for the next elections to choose a new government.
The antecedents have been unpleasant. There is a general perception that the government of the day has failed the common man. In the news in Northern Nigeria, you hear of Boko Haram maiming, kidnapping and sacking villages, of armed herdsmen perpetuating similar acts in villages in the middle-belt, destroying farmlands unchecked by an inefficient security service. The government response after some of these attacks is that these marauders and terrorists overwhelmed the security personnel on the ground.
Yet the nation could spare 33,000 security personnel for a state governorship election in Western Nigeria, a region that is deemed peaceful and away from all the violence in the news. The election has been reported as rigged, and the results from that election are being challenged in court by the opposition who claim to have evidence of rigging, ballot box snatching, intimidation of voters by security personnel, etc.
The stories from Nigeria are enough to keep one engaged. Staying in the moment, being contemporary means engaging actively in the stories of one’s times. It is documentary narrative, investigation and protests against the ills of the society in which one lives. The paintings in Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power follow the news closely like daily commentaries on the state of the nation. Keeping up often becomes difficult when one has taken on the responsibility of playing out the drama. Art graphically illustrates. My work reads like the popular cartoonist Mike Asuquo’s illustrations, only in a much more robust abstract style. Also, the ambitious sizes of some of the pieces (some are over 8 feet wide) are in another league.
My work is dark humour, satire and a comedy of sinners and their casualties. Distorted bodies fill the space; sometimes these monsters have no feet- referencing the unguided, selfish and self-sustaining defections. In the series, I use sections and angles to suggest the cuboid of ballot boxes. Limbs appear and disappear irrationally into folds of cloth; tortuous colour is applied in rapid succession to suggest the mad furore of the season. As the series developed, it became more and more necessary to introduce women, positioned as vulnerable victims of dirty politics. They keep the family unit together and protect the infants from an unfamiliar, unfriendly world of adults breaking moral codes wantonly.
Thus it was easy to create works around my earlier series- Women of Nigeria and A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills series, as all these were contributory effects and implications of the power games in Nigeria. As the stories and body of work for Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power grew, one felt freer to sit back and absorb the real present- the landscape of Abidjan poignantly rendered in some watercolours and a huge canvas. This distraction was a breath of fresh air, like a swimmer reaching upwards while fighting the waves of a fast flowing river.
Then other works about the people of Abidjan, the men and women happened. One’s interactions and struggles learning a foreign language have left impressionable marks. The vivid stories allowed one to rethink past sojourn in other African countries and the reception from some of the natives of those countries.
A rebranding of Africa is pertinent. The pre-Independence fathers of Africa spread the gospel of Pan-Africanism. At the dawn of independence of many African countries, they developed policies that presented Africa as a beautiful bride to the world. Post-Independence, Africa has suffered myriad wars, genocides and other turmoil caused by the uneasy unions of nations created by colonial masters who mainly seemed to be mapping their real estate. The chaos of peoples of diverse nationalities having to share, to be subjugated, has led to conflicts, despotism, and nepotism and corrupt practices that mired the image of Africa. Making sense of experience as a visitor means taking into cognizance the collective history of Africa- post-colonial past, slavery, colonialism and bad leadership. Formal education and the news media have strongly shaped the retelling of the story of Africa. African history has been negatively impacted by these two forces, seen in some quarters as agents of a perpetual colonialism on the continent.
As Chinua Achebe earlier said, Africans must begin to write their own stories. This idea is similar to what Uche Okeke, member of the Zaria Rebels and founder of the Nsukka School proposed in his essay Natural Synthesis. We should all go back to our traditions and use what we can to represent our contemporary existence. It is Sankofa, the Ghanaian word that translates to ‘go back and get it’. My series A New African History has been affected by some of these ideas, by firsthand experience in teaching and discovering that the educational system may not create the kind of positive mindset that will lead to an African Renaissance and self-sustenance of individual talent.
Then came the hugely popular Marvel Comics Movie Black Panther. The story of an African Hero and democracy resonated well with an international audience that has been tired of all the negative press about Africa. For me, that movie only scratched the surface at the potentials and opportunities for using the African image to change perceptions. My New African History series starts by celebrating real-life African heroes like Sundiata, Mansa Musa (Mansa Musa Travels), the pharaohs, civilizations and cultures like the ancient Benin Kingdom of Nigeria, the great walls of Zimbabwe, Timbuktu etc. In my travels to Francophone Africa, particularly in Senegal, some of the renowned scholars delved deep to make archaeological research to substantiate evidence of a glorious African heritage.
This body of work is only evolving, and of course one needs to dust history books and investigate the gaps in the narratives told by either missionaries or colonialists who communicated their response or perception of another culture.
Galerie d’Art Houkami Guyzagn is housed in a three-storey building that includes rooms for artists at the top two floors, a bar/lounge on the first floor. There are a restaurant and gallery space for exhibiting artworks with offices. As the date of the opening of this exhibition draws near, my interactions with collectors, artists and other patrons of Galerie Houkami Guyzagn has enriched my understanding of the Ivorian (and my knowledge of French, hopefully) Suddenly my work veers towards painting portraits, making notes of the beautiful landscape of Riviera 2 with its undulating landscape.
The residency has been a rewarding period of artistic exchange and assimilation. My excitement can be evidenced in the large body of work created in the short time span. Other ideas are trickling into my subconscious, some of which I am working on tentatively in the collages. I also realize that any new work may not necessarily be the most powerful. But the beginnings are the best parts of the journey. The accidents are more, and there is much more passion. Stereotypes have not been formed yet.
My head is full of stories, of probing questions, or suggestions. Sometimes I present troubling images, sometimes screaming images. The energy is my blood flowing out in the plastic medium of painting. I am responsible for my actions. As a human, I own all the weakness you see. I present all the force of brilliant colour. Bear with me. My story is full of tears from thinking back to the motherland. Half the story has not been told. But I have started somewhere. Let’s see how you continue in the conversation.
The exhibition Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power opens on September 13th at Galerie Houkami Guyzagn, Abidjan.
I was called to order that I quoted a friend out of context in my last blog post Turn@Red. I have pulled it down and apologise for giving a meaning that is contrary to the views of my friend. With love from Dakar.
From July 18-21, 2018, the Art Historical Association of Nigeria (AHAN), in conjunction with the Department of Fine And Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka is organising a conference on art history in Nigeria.
Theme:“The harvest is plenty, but the labourers are few”: Art Historians in Nigeria and the Challenges of Historiography
Date: July 18-21, 2018
Venue: Department of Fine and Applied
Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
By the second decade after the civil war in
Nigeria, the pioneer art historians in Nigeria had emerged; namely, Babatunde Lawal,
Ola Oloidi, Chike Aniakor and Dele Jegede. For a modern art tradition dating
back to about 1900, that was a late development. In spite of the boom of modern
Nigerian art in the 1990s and beyond, the gap between studio practice and the
business of historiography is far from shrinking. Not even the Ph.D. spree occasioned
by NUC‘s order, that university teaching staff, including visual arts faculty,
should obtain Ph.D. (in anything), has helped the situation of art history in
Nigeria. While a significant number of art historians has emerged in the last
decade, armed with masters or doctoral degrees, only few are committed to the
business of art historiography. The implications of this reality are easily
palpable in the art departments in our universities and other tertiary
institutions; as well as in the field of practice where art historians should
construct the stories that oil the wheel of art. This situation remains very
worrisome, in view of the traditional role of art history and the enormity and robustness
of Nigerian art; much of which begs for investigation and documentation by
professional art historians. In response to this situation, this conference
invites papers from art historians on any of the subthemes below or on any
other issues that are relevant to the development of art history in Nigeria:
Art and the Challenges of Professional Art Historiography
of All Trade/Master of None: Artists as Artists and Historians
History in Nigeria: Towards Proper Research Methodology
and Failures of Engaging the Verbal-visual Challenges in the Nigerian Art Field
of Art History in Nigeria: the National Universities Commission (NUC) Benchmark
Colonisation, Art History and the Need for
g. TheNigerian Art Historian and the Politics of Postcoloniality
History, Art Criticism and the Space In-between
Curricular Problems in Art History Training
Art History in Nigeria and the Global Standards
Art History in Nigeria for the Challenges of the Future
participants are to submit an abstract of not more than 250 words before April
30, 2018. Abstracts should indicate the full title, name, and institutional
affiliation of the author(s) as well as keywords. Send abstracts and enquiries
to firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com Conference registration
fee is N15,000, payable not later than two weeks before the conference.
AHAN convenes this
conference in honour of its retiring founding president, Emeritus Professor Ola
Oloidi and the other pioneers of art history in Nigeria, Prof. Babatunde Lawal,
Prof. Chike Aniakor, Prof Emmanuel Odita and Prof. Dele Jegede. These icons will be
honoured at the conference in Nsukka.
Elections will beconducted to usher in a new executive.
conducted to usher in a new executive.
Professor Babatunde Lawal; Prof. Chike Aniakor
My 40th birthday anniversary was celebrated with a great party. I had a beautiful cake with the number 40 stuck at the top. I thought that was the age of new opportunities, but the rest of the developed world seems to think otherwise. They think that 40 is the age after everything good should have happened in your life, about five years earlier!
Let me explain. But before that, let’s go back to when I was 35 years old. Everyone who wished me well was on my neck to ‘settle down’ (in other words ‘get married). I was in-between two mindsets. One thought that a man can marry whenever ‘he feels’; while another point of view felt that I should have married earlier so that one can begin to have children earlier.
Whether one had a steady source of income at the time (which I didn’t) was irrelevant. We are part of a teeming population of graduates fighting for the few jobs that appeared to come in ratios of 1:20,000 people. I mean proper jobs that pay your house rent and still leave you with money to spend on personal needs. The better jobs allow one to save some money on top.
At 35, I had worked for two privately owned companies that ran the business like they were a family affair. One of the companies made me work without a salary for over 8 months. It was the case of enjoying the work you do without getting financial gratification. I didn’t have a job then. It was a hobby. I sold the odd portraits/painting and raised the money for transportation to and fro; for feeding; etc. At age 35, most of the Nigerian youth are heavily dependent on family members for financial support and accommodation. They even go ahead to borrow money to have extravagant weddings that show off their parents’ affluence in society. With all the expectations that come with it, any job would do at the time.
Unfortunately, in Africa, we seem to be just getting used to being adult at that age. We seem to be ten years younger than our contemporaries in the West. We look it.
My sister and her husband who live in London brought their children to spend the Christmas holidays in Nigeria. Kamdi my niece was 2 years old the first time we met. It’s been over ten years now, and I cannot get over her composure as we sat in my sister’s parlor discussing life. Anyone eavesdropping would have thought we were two adults having a chat! Kamdi’s mates would have run outside to build sand castles in the dirt. We live younger for longer.
Unfortunately, the rest of the advanced world thinks differently. One is expected to have peaked in his career by the age of 35. So the opportunities out there for growth are open to the younger generation of adults who just graduated from university/polytechnics, etc. The demographics favor those between the age of 23 and 35.
Here is how I soon found out. By then, I was more serious about my work and life but it seemed already late. I started looking for residencies to apply for. I saw some funds also that I tried to apply for. There were competitions too. The guidelines generally had age restrictions the applicant must not be older than 35 years old. Africans are supposed to run at the same time with their contemporaries in the West. I wonder who make these rules across the board for all humanity. It’s as if they are blind to see our leaders- old grandpas that should have been retired to their villages to live out the rest of their lives. The West turns a blind eye to the fact of the millions of unemployed youth still struggling to survive in Third world countries.
They have a system that supports their youth to reach their full potential as long as they have the right dreams. Here the youth will dream and die hungry because they live in a society that does not promote excellence and hard work.
Some of my contemporaries may have run off for the residencies or received funding from the West. It is easy to forge one’s birth certificate, to get a passport that reflects the same age in these climes. ‘Fantastically corrupt’, we have been called. The corruption is in the system. The thing is, the youth immediately bear the brunt of the sick system. Either they use any means necessary to escape to the West to seek ‘greener pastures’ or they keep hope alive and work decently, hoping to outlive the system that has failed.
In the case of some of us who embraced the Internet wholeheartedly at an earlier age than our contemporaries here in Nigeria, the exposure means that we have shared enough personal data with the rest of the world to make it almost impossible to create another identity. We are who we were forced to become. The rest of the world doesn’t care. The choices to continue after the age of 35 are few. I have become that unbelievable survivor who made it through insurmountable odds. I am a rarity that the rest of the world can’t believe. I don’t blame them. There are times when I can’t even believe the fact that I am still here, and well. I will be 45 years old in 18 days. And I will be partying at the opening ceremony of the thirteenth edition of the African Contemporary Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal. Believe me, I will pay my way to be there. The time of expecting aid is passed. I work and pay my way through. I have the green passport. I am proudly African. And hey, you will never believe my age if we met. I look younger than 35.