Please indulge me a few minutes to tell you about the painting ‘Those Who Mourn’. It was 2012, a time of mourning for me, for I had just lost my mother to cancer. I watched her suffer. One beautiful thing happened in her suffering. You see, I grew up knowing my mother as the gorgeous, fashionable wife who seemed ageless in both attitude and zeal for life. Then cancer came, and she was beatified before my very eyes-she gradually transformed into this grand matriarch with tons of wisdom and patience, a mother who knew her children well, who understood their weaknesses and strengths, and how to inspire them.
This change both amazed and delighted me, for apart from loving her, I admired her and sought her advice more often. So, in 2012, when she died, I had lost this transformed,dignified woman. I love reading, and had since gone through the Bible thrice in my enjoyment of the form of the writing( yes,there was also a spiritual thirst, to know who this God is) But also, since I had finished the Complete Works of William Shakespeare before the age of 13, and gone through much of father’s law library, I appreciated the style of narrative in the bible, the repositioning of histories, the aim always being to give meaning to man’s search, to point to some Thing bigger than man. I deviate a lot, but these are important asides.
In mourning, the Sermon on the Mount jumped out from my memory. There was the phrase that led to a series, and ultimately to my exhibition Autobiography and Beatitudes. ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted'(Matthew 5:3), and ‘Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh'( Luke 6:21). In my grief, I wrestled with those words, grasping for solace.
Many years ago, when I kept all sorts of pets, I had a monkey called Miss Jane(it was actually a ‘male’ rhesus monkey that I hastily named without checking. I left her at home one day to go work in my studio, when it was in Owerri. It rained heavily that day, and greatly distressed Miss Jane who caused itself mortal bodily harm as it jumped about, with the rope around its waist cutting into his belly as it sought to keep dry under the small shed. I got home after the rain, and heard its mournful call, to call my attention to where she lay limp in the backyard, dying.
I was shocked, and quickly ran to pick up Miss Jane, to undo the taut rope that had opened his belly. He weakly opened his eyes to look at me one more through sunken, adorable eyes hooded by fur, mourned as if to say’ hi’, and heaved in my hands. Our eyes met, and I smiled. And then my eyes caught the mirror, and I saw something strange- I was crying also! I had never ever cried at the news of death of any of my relatives, so this was a strange first for me. I patted his fury body, then Miss Jane took a last deep breathe, and died. It seemed he had waited to bid me farewell. Then the tears rolled down my cheeks, and my smile grew broader. Memories brought so much solace. It was that day I started to hesitate from keeping pets. They died more easily than humans, and their death would leave a long scar on me.
When mother died, I recalled that period, too. I have not, cannot forget her. When important issues come up, even years since she left, I run it by her. It seems some thing gives a response-reminds me of her mindset about life. I was one of ‘those who mourn’, but to put it in the context of a culture that says ‘men don’t cry’, I used a female mourner who, in her grief, flails her hands to heaven, unperturbed that she was half-dressed. Her face is a contorted work of inner pain, and her body is green with lively, revamping sorrow. She is the body of us all, male or female, as only the female body has the openness to express strong emotions.
After ‘Those who mourn’, came other pieces, and the centrepiece The Mourners(from my exhibition). A little sorrow is indeed good. It makes one more introspective, more thoughtful about the implications of one’s actions or inaction. That period allowed me to build a large body of work. I still mourn the loss of my mother, three years after. My father followed suit, dying the next year. Its the human condition, our vulnerability. ‘Have I not said, ye are gods, and the children of the most High? But ye shall die like mere men’. I carry these words, the sorrow, and the thousand escapes-the joys of an evergreen memory where they don’t die. The dead speak into our future.