The need to create a different narrative arose from a conversation with Joan Egwuterai, manager, communications and external relations at Lagos Business School. She wanted to post something about the exhibition. I had directed her to my blog, but she found that my first writing was more an autobiography than an explanation of the works in the exhibition, the intentions of the artist etc. I had narrated stories leading to this present day, and occasionally mentioned works whose themes connected with my experiences. The works to be exhibited would speak for themselves, I explained, a notion learned in final year at Nsukka defending my works in a presentation to our painting professor Udechukwu and fellow painting students. After several well-received defences, I saw how my classmates waited to hear my last defence. Looking at the eager faces longing to be satiated, I suddenly had a strange nudge to deflate their enthusiasm. I suddenly felt a strong revolt against the entire session. It seemed to have been created to favor glib talkers over the more introspective artists. One could have easily defended bullshit.’ After many years of speaking about my work, I had come to the realization that if my work didn’t speak, then why should i? I had failed’, I said. This presentation was my shortest.
In this exhibition, as in my works, I have always believed in the communicative powers of art. My works are like my children, with a life separate from me. They will live on in new environments, disconnected from me, interpreted differently by any audience. I enjoy that aspect- of the work being ‘read’ by other people. They usually come up with entirely new perspectives and thus, expand my appreciation and understanding. I was researching the common elements that cut across all the past art styles and movements in final year. In studying Surrealism and Dadaism, I got interested in the theories of Jung and Freud. From then on, I believed that the art object as a product of both conscious and unconscious processes has readings that go beyond the initial suggestions of the creator/artist. Art spills over and blossoms, flails or flies, depending on one’s perspective and personal history.
A neighbor who had served as a military doctor on the Biafran side of the civil war had seen my happy and beautiful paintings (I had just finished a self-portrait titled Golden child, 1996; and Egwu Amara dancers, 1996). The doctor was an austere and dry-looking fellow who never smiled. His son, who had newly entered Nsukka, suggested that his father would be interested in me painting a portrait. When I met the doctor, he showed me the most shocking images from Life magazine (I think) the black and white photographs of kwashiorkor-stricken families. He commissioned me to paint the portrait of a starved mother suckling her bony child. The poignant message of the image influenced my notion of beauty. I soon started painting provocative and sometimes dark images. The idea was to aim at the strongest emotions, not usually the most pleasing. I began thinking of the human tragedy and Man’s vanities.
I communicate artistic practise as going beyond traditional genre and labels. This is informed by the fact of the artist being a strong conductor of all human experience. His touch is felt in every field of endeavor. Of course this is seen more clearly in the life of Leonardo da Vinci. In 2003, Dilompri (aka junkman of Africa) created sculptures from discarded clothes and refuse he picked on the streets of Lagos. He later created a performance titled How the Tailor Died, 2005 which showed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He had earlier told me how the artist could dance, play music, sew clothes, write, sing and sculpt in conveying messages. I have gathered together my many sides in the spacious foyer of Lagos Business School-paintings, photography, drawing, and sound. Sound as the key element has an inferred voice-in the communication and provocation of the senses. One enjoys the waking sounds of dawn- the chirp of birds, the twitching of insects and the sounds of people rushing to their workplaces etc. In sound, I understand the few lessons from secondary school days in Okigwe-the repeated beats that form harmonious sounds, the melodies, the composers etc. Looking at the pulsating rhythm of music graphs and the distances and points in pages of sheet music, I was fascinated by the logical progression of music. It was pure Maths and Reason. I had been thrilled by the film August Rush, 2007 and loved the music of Enya, Tchaikovsky and Handel. Hence, in creating experimental music for this show, I felt a freedom liberated by studying histories and changes that moved canons into future relevance. I chose themes like Revolution Bang, Water and Roads, Area Boy, Hunger Wars, and God and Man and created intuitively like one tuning the guitar by the ear.
Another interest is in presenting photography as art. I scored high grades in drawing classes in Nsukka. I did a balancing act of making good portraits on one hand, and painting stylized or abstract form. . Although secondary school did not prepare me to accept photography as art, I learned the joy of photography from Chidi Abarikwu, a classmate who owned an analogue Canon camera. One wonders when photography will be taught alongside graphic design, painting and sculpture at both elementary and secondary school levels. Mr James Efekodo, an educationist, friend and mentor whom I met working at Whitesands School, Lekki had suggested that the time had come to rewrite the art curriculum of secondary schools. His long years of experience teaching had informed the understanding that there was still a gap between art and photography in our society.
In Nsukka, I bought a camera to snap people for my pastels and oil portraits. I also made extra money snapping people at social events. I now use photography as my medium, over the painted realistic portraits, to balance my stylized work which seemed to be ‘art’. I recall Chika Okeke-Agulu chiding me for berating my work as a portrait painter, explaining how it can be quite serious work.
Abii Woman, 2011.
After being told that painting had nothing new to offer, I was faced with two options- to either abandon traditional painting as a whole; or to continue painting in traditional painting styles. An obvious choice, undertaken by many, is the first option. Of course I chose the second. I strongly believe that Africa has not built its traditional history enough to move forward. The destruction and decay of national monuments showcase how we are tragically loosing cultural and historic monuments. It is inevitable, as Abayomi Barber said in an interview he granted me (2007). The problems of conservation and preservation of art works are also due to a lack of properly trained staff, Barber added. Since graduating in 1997, I realize that we did not get adequate preparation for life after the university. There were no courses like the Business of Art, Curating, and Preservation of Art etc. that would create a better environment for practicing art. I had gone through some of the so-called-galleries, and now preferred personal interactions with collectors. The middlemen who would have helped out are nowhere to be found.