A New Phase of Art in Nigeria

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.IMG_9801w.jpg

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!Tony Nsofor, Rhapsody in Blues II

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.


Conversation in my head: Between Anthony and Richard

IMG_0084webThe 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.

Squinting at a Crowded World: Genius and Madness at Play

IMG_0479.jpgThere 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.IMG_0077web.jpg


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.

Flowers in Bloom

“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. 

Democracy\Dictatorship-Differences and Similarities for the Populace

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.

A Sad Love Story

IMG_3322-EditLove 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.Getty images

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.pablo-picasso- Marie-Thérèse Walter

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.

Reality versus Social Media Noise

It seems that there are problems everywhere, especially online. Social media in so many ways has heightened our presence and fears from all the ills befalling mankind at the speed of sound. It all seems aimed at turning us into information explosion disorder wrecks( I am sure there is a name for that now). It is more painful when it is more difficult to decipher the true news from the fake. As if the events from everyday modern living hasn’t become so much more complicated! The other day I read through a comment by Reno Omokri, the former spokesperson to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan. He was questioning why Nigerian governments of the past did not tap into the progressive technologies of Biafra to move Nigeria forward. I will not bore you about the stories of war, or of the issue of Biafra here and now. But I was struck by some lines in the short essay by Omokri where he spoke of how Nnewi, a town in Southeast Nigeria, has moved on in creating a better environment for the indigenes, without waiting for government interventions that seem not to be coming. The Nnewi people have built roads, energy plants, etc. to make their place better.

It got me thinking- why scream and shout daily on social media platforms about all the neglect and misdeeds of government? The problems are still there, in fact, the last time I checked, I don’t know if I am getting more pessimistic with age; or that it is this- things are actually getting worse on Planet Earth? Again I pause, I deviate. Whatever the case, inspired by the forward-looking mindset of Reno Omokri’s essay, I have decided to begin to create personal solutions to the challenges of daily living! It sounds quite commonsense, but the thought flees us in real life situations.

There is a lot that people can do to make a better world without waiting for others to think for them, without looking to ‘government’ as it obtains in so-called ‘better societies’/ places where things work! The Internet and online communities are such a wonderful gift and treasure trove for accessing tons of useful information about nearly all of mankind’s issues. Social media allows the sharing of tips, tons of video tutorials to make handymen of all of us. Unfortunately, most of the active generation on this planet is still drooling over the possibilities of socializing, and sharing their daily lives on platforms that can possibly reach millions of people in no time. They waste the time interacting online, bickering and blabbing about all things bright and beautiful and screaming about all things ugly and stuff in-between. So much data is wasted. Instead of seeking out solutions for fighting the beast, we are powerful social commentator and armchair critics, with a honed knack for explaining out all the reasons that show how the government has failed, how all the world’s problems start and end with the politicians.

The best minds have studied the problems of contemporary living, and continue to churn out innovations and inventions to make this world a better place.

A few good men dream up solutions and ways of making the world a better place to live in. To survive, Man keeps creating, innovating, but in these days when knowledge has increased like waters covering the sea, we only hear the groans and whining of lazy loafers who think that ‘the grass must actually be greener on the other side’. With much information available to mankind, it is easier to be deceived, to believe the lie! Hopefully, we will wake up today to start looking for the solutions to the hazards of daily living. The solution, the nirvana we seek is here with us to make, to establish. The tools are online. The answers are here with us. The shared experience of living has allowed men in different societies and stages of development to come up with answers. We must use the time well to ask Google, or whatever you ask. Its already a better world elsewhere. We can bring that world here. Kingdom comes. Lets not escape into wasteful thinking of the other side. We are not really sure how it is ‘over there’. At the point you are now, where you are reading this, is the space that you must act to change the status quo. Just ask, and you shall receive answers. Be the problem solver, the visionary who sees a brighter tomorrow.

Large paintings

To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view with a reducing glass. However, you paint the larger pictures, you are in it. It isn’t something you command- Barnett Newman.

So, my experience has been that of stepping into my work head on, walking in and living inside it. This is a refreshing way of reliving the experience of art, in connecting process to theme, action to passion and reason. The gesture of laying brushstrokes is mediated by the span and reach of the creator/artist. In the larger work, the limit is physical. But the spiritual predates all that. You finally see summaries. Catchphrases stay on the mind forUi longer in a complicated life. We can always wring the phrase to squeeze out meanings like wandwaving magician’s apprentices on off day in the workplace. The very act of doing is enough justification for being presented as ‘art’. Now one ties to the idea of the dignity of labor. Not a sweat is wasted as it falls to the brown earth. There is a system to all the chaos, to the broken form, to the patches of color pointedly placed.

Of Facial Masks and Masquerading in My Work

IMG_1649webTill Uncle Akaraka’s death, his home was the resting place of Ude Ebube, Nwa Agbayaka the great ancient masquerade from my mother’s village Abatu. Tall, light-skinned and handsome, Uncle Akaraka seemed to live for the moments that Ude Ebube arises from the land of spirits to jolt our world. Akaraka would march out in swag, holding a large bottle of Guinness Stout in one hand and a stick of cigarette in the other as he walks alongside the masquerade; a sheathed machete slung sideways down his waist. Those are the moments that the village saw my uncle, apart from occasional sightings when he sits and looks out to the street from the balcony of his one-storey building. As an undergraduate student I made reference to the masquerades in my thesis ‘Colonial Influences on the Art of Oguta’, (to be found in the Arts department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka)

Ajekwu masquerade of Umudei Village, Oguta, Imo StateL1150594web.jpg
Ipu Afia Agu of two members of the Igbuu society, Oguta, Imo State, Nigeria

My hometown is made up of 28 tiny villages (more like clans, really). Each village has its masquerade(s). It is time to set the records straight about the masks in contemporary paintings, about the faces in my chaotic canvases.

Ude Ebube mmanwu-ihu-ekpo (spirit masquerade with the face of a mask) is like the masquerades found in the riverine communities in the Niger-Delta regions of Nigeria. She (mother to other smaller masquerades, some from neighboring villages) has taken the most prestigious titles for masquerades. She is a great spirit guided by a procession of three groups of people chanting praise songs- the first set of people are the youth in their boisterous dancing and parading; then there are the middle class followers who generally carry the medicines, the ofo, the magical hand fan that waves away evil spirits; then follow the old, the elderly who move slowly, gracefully with the great spirit. Age brings them closer to death, to the land of spirits from whence came Ude Ebube to celebrate with us, to rain blessings on her followers and admirers alike, to charge up the land of the living. Ude Ebube is an ancient spirit, and is guided by an old dibia, usually among the strongest in the land. As spirit, she knows everyone by name; she lives with the ancestors in the other world.

By writing I do not want to take away your interpretation of my work- I want to give you my memories. I grew up following the masquerades during the Christmas periods and in ushering in the New Year. All my childhood friends know that I will more likely abandon them at the drinking parlors to run after passing masquerades. Something in their performance resonated strongly. It went beyond ‘religion’.

By the Blue Lake, Oguta, Imo State, Nigeria


My young excitable mind often dreamt of these masquerades, of being chased by them through different disjointed towns to my village house. The dreams came even when I visited other lands. It was a tradition for Father to drive us to the village to celebrate the Christmas season. He loved our culture and people dearly, and would take us on rounds to visit as many relatives in the short 12 days of the holiday. He contributed to the upkeep and beautification of Ngajeme, our village masquerade. Dad would also bow in passing to the great masquerades of Oguta. He would draw a circle in the earth and place a gift of money and a bottle of kaikai (locally brewed gin) in it.

Masquerading was in my blood, as my mother was from the largest family in Abatu, the great masquerading village in Oguta. Her father Chief Okonya Okoroafor was a polygamous man. So I grew up with the spirits that seemed to float in space, whose ruffled movements were like gliding, their raffia-clad bodies shivering in the shards of the hot afternoon sun racing down to the great Ogbuide Lake. I recall the masquerades in my work- the faces, the ripple of movement, the excitement and the magic. Sometimes the masquerades fight over seniority and other skirmishes and their followers join in. Every time I work, the work is charged by these memories. It will happen again this Christmas and on New Year’s Day. The wooden gong will sound to call all together, to awaken the great spirits, to breach the gap between the land of the dead and the living. Call it fetish. I call it culture, part of my heritage. Let’s play. Meet you at the village centre.

Journeys, away and home again

We are a few days away from ArtX Lagos and I am so excited about this. Will you be coming? The buzz of the art crowd is my biggest thrill! I look forward to all that.
I have also completed some of my most ambitious pieces till date. I have worked further on my series about the lives of a people ‘Citizens of Nowhere’. My recent visit to Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania made me think again about leadership, and citizenship. Rwanda particularly was quite inspiring! There I met 5 brothers from the same parents who were given different surnames by their father. People would prefer to be known for them than get tied to ancient stereotypes that they may not appreciate, or even be aware of! I saw a people trying to make sense of life after witnessing a horrendous genocide. The story at the Kigali Genocide Memorial indicts many surprising parties! I really wanted to see the memorial to think again about the calls from various quarters in Nigeria (as in many other countries internationally) for a separation, for their own nation. One major lesson I took away was the fact of how Good leadership will always inspire followership and make people-friendly policies! It hit me how the great leader shone more and more brightly as I got into conversation with the citizens. So, after painting about sheepish sycophantic citizens in Dey Follow-Follow Nonsense and citizens who suddenly start becoming aware that they have been lied to (Follow-follow don Dey Open Eye)? In talking about good leadership, I painted The Radiance of the King is His People, how great leaders are praised, glorified by the masses. Their praises seem to make the King glow more, as I noticed when I visit kings’ palaces, or see much-loved politicians being appreciated by their followers. The strokes of my brush are indistinct in The Radiance of the King. I deliberately wanted to suggest rays playing over an anonymous crowd. Faceless, the passage of the king is in bursts of light, as he performs for the crowds. It is the King in audience being adored by his court; it is the King taking centre-stage to dance for his people at Ofala; it is the celebration of a great harvest season, it is the Durbar festival; or the performance of Eyo masquerades at the Oba’s palace; the coronation of the Obi of Benin; or even a political rally! The accomplishments of good governance are in the public spaces everywhere you go, be it in a few of our Nigerian states, or anywhere else. Some of the works I just described are over 9feet wide! I have also made smaller pieces of individuals living in this land called ‘Nowhere’, those who live at the fringes. They are the displaced people, the economic and political migrants, the tourists, the immigrants and those unwilling members of a union they are uncomfortable with! My pieces are personal documentation of the lives I have met, of living here. Like newspaper headlines, they are ‘daily’ living, contemporary. More often, I would prefer to suggest forms ‘coming to being’, taking shape. One gets the feeling of constant motion, of crowded, uncomfortable spaces that one can’t breathe into. The anonymous crowd repeats liveliness, and pieces of ‘bodies’ are spattered all over the canvas. It is more dissection at a surgeon’s table.
I have continued the series A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills, using the cow as a metaphor and central subject. The stories of the horrors of terrorism keep happening. About a week ago, it was the media reporting how about 27 people were killed by suspected Fulani herdsmen in a village in Plateau State. The more shocking thing was that the village was placed under a curfew, and the victims were kept ‘ under protection’ by the Nigerian army in a place at the time! More shocking was the fact of the absence of the army when the killers arrived at the scene! The killers come and then varnish into thin air. Some people suggest that they may be foreigners… Whether working on the series ‘A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills’, or on ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ the theme is still the same- it is about citizenship, governance, migrations, tribalism, nepotism, and disenfranchised people. All form is dealt with in a very impersonal manner, without detailing the parts in ways that could ‘intrude’ into the ‘feeling’ of the collective; the bond of shared aspirations

Citizen of Nowhere: Finding Home

L1143152w.jpgThe story continues as I travel through East Africa. I am gathering more affirmation for the series ‘Citizens of Nowhere’. The restlessness of living in a land of myriad conflicts of identity, misrepresentation/ non-representation, forced silence at the encroaching darkness of days and nights, among other issues, forces one to pack up bag and head out again to neighboring countries. Those countries have borders that can be shared, that are open to me with my dark green passport. I can become ‘a tourist’ among brethren.

The faces are familiar, and yet have a distinct individual look; the languages are a thousand, and yet I know what they say to me. As in my paintings, I see shards of me everywhere. The portraits are of Self living among many others- not self- portraits. Of course, in the new world, traditional definitions have become obsolete. The colours of life acquire an exotic mystery when combined with the history of new spaces. At every border, one must re-present Self in a sort of introduction that affects admittance or rejection. From Nairobi to Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam to Kigali, we meet those that seem to envy the freedom, and decide to steal from you, regardless of the fact that they steal from themselves- they erase the memory of the first honour that a visitor bequeaths on the host!L1143201w.jpg

The sense of belonging can suddenly turn into a loathing of which those we meet assume we should be. There is a conflict where reality meets with long-grown stereotypes scripted to keep one at bay. I am that Citizen of Nowhere, that adventurer, that nomad, that must obey the rules and laws of where one is at the time of identification, at the point where introductions and welcome is about reading from some passport. My current host Patrick mentioned the (Nigerian) tendency to quickly profile people- ‘When two Nigerians meet their first questions are – What is your name? Followed quickly by an interfering ‘What is your surname?’ Then every other thing about personal identity affects an otherwise enjoyable interaction!

Like the lines from T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, ‘ a hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night’! For the disenfranchised citizen, travelling becomes the path to salvation. He is free again; there is a union, a blending into passing visions of places. Transitions, no matter how brief, unfurl meanings. The troubles at home no longer seem insurmountable.L1143290w.jpg

A search for identity has led one to that so-called Rainbow Nation where the Commonwealth of Man work out the complexity of living as one Human race. One soon sees the cracks in the décor. Rwanda is another story, and becomes important as a case study for all the peoples who scream for a separate nation- for Biafra, Catalan, Kurds, and other exits (Brexit) etc. Beyond the tragedy of Sudan, Africa has the example of all the good things that are happening after the horrible genocide in Rwanda. The lessons from the country are majorly of the importance of inspired leadership instead of schisms (fanned by a sense of alienation)- one language, one human race.

Despite the serenity and lure of clean landscapes, soon one must return to bring to friends and hitherto perceived enemies the new gospel of reconciliation. I have found a new peace. The war is to look for excellence in aspiring leaders- to enthrone merit beyond tribalism/racism- to restructure the nation. The system that had been enshrined since Independence about 57 years ago to ‘balance’ Nigeria must be questioned at this point in time. Many lies have been swallowed; people have been deprived from their place in the nation. There is a Nigeria that most of the rest of world does not know, and it is a glorious nation! In time, they will see. For now, I still belong to that nation. It could be in my dreams, or in my paintings, there to be free to live, to love, to belong, and to be the best. Isn’t that the prayer of all mankind? I am a citizen of the Commonwealth of Man. It is not a mask. It is you.L1143252w.jpg