Zanzibar: Writing on Walls

The manager of Zanzibar Lounge, in Ikenegbu, Owerri had seen some of the work I had done for Full Moon Hotel, Owerri. Full Moon Hotel prides itself in its timeless, archaic classical ambience. The manager trusted that I am ‘artistic’ enough to ‘do something’ for the walls of the lounge. I was delighted at the thought: to be allowed the freedom to express myself in the top floor lounge above a busy street. As far as the eyes could reach, one could see the houses and trees in neighboring towns. The ceiling of the lounge pointed upwards to the sky. I was delighted.img_6634

Zanzibar Lounge and restaurant is one of Owerri’s well-kept secret, and for some obvious reasons too. It is situated in a seedy part of town, with neighboring residential houses sharing walls, and a parking lot that opens to the road. That road exits into the expansive, open highway of Wetheral road that leads out of town. Those that climb up the fleet of stairs to the restaurant are surprised by the ambience of cloudy greys mixed with oranges, and of course, the suggestive lounge that opens out to a stunning view of Owerri. That was were I would ‘write’.

I had to paint on the walls. The work had to help guide viewers to think lofty thoughts, to savor the pleasures of life beyond the daily chaos. That seemed to be the idea behind the space, with its high ceilings pointing upwards to the skies. In recent thinking, the works of Victor Ekpuk and Victor Ehikamenor come to mind. One was executed on a wall in the US, while the other filled a room at this year’s Dak’Art, in Senegal. Victor Ekpuk references the sign writings of the Southern people of Nigeria in his work (Nsibidi), while Victor Ehikamenor has delved into his subconscious to ‘write’ pure forms that fill his blue-lit ‘Prayer Room’. Victor Ekpuk’s wall painting of note, Meditation on Memory can be seen at the Wifredo Lam Center, US. It is interesting to note that both artists’ works revolve around the theme of contemplation/ soul-searching/ spirituality. I intend to investigate the intricacy and richness of language/communication/and symbolism.

Having recently seen the works of the cave men in an exhibition at The Origin Center, in South Africa, my mind still thrilled at the way Sign, Symbol, and the Signifier merge into one communicative ‘abstract’. This became a startling impression and inspiration.

As an adolescent in secondary school, I kept a scrapbook filled with popular brand symbols, logos and catchphrases. Each page was shorthand. Aha, that is the word. In the recesses of my mind were memories of Lynn, my nanny. She attended a Commercial school in the mornings and came back with stories and books on shorthand. I recall a book called Pitman’s Shorthand. Lynn was receiving training that would make her employable as a secretary to take dictations, etc. Those were the days prior the invention of the electric typewriter. Those were the days when I got ‘born-again’, and spoke in ‘tongues’ for the first time. The books of bible story by Jehovah’s Witness painted a good picture of writing in ‘tongues’ in the story of Daniel interpreting the writing on the wall that warned of the destruction of the kingdom. Mene, mene… a finger from heaven wrote on the walls. (The Bible, Daniel, Chapter 5)img_6658

In university, my fascination with the theories of Carl Jung knew no bounds. I felt ideas could be locked in automatic writings and ‘dream’ symbols. Interpreting the works of the surrealists was a delight. Again, I was in a school renowned for its reinterpretation of ancient Igbo sign writing. Uli to me was the opening of doors to personalized communication that connected kindred spirits. It was a suggestion- one went ahead to create a natural synthesis using one’s traditional background as a springboard for conveying and interpreting contemporary experience.

After all the ‘experience’ of cultic sign writing (Uli, Ekpe, Adinkra) that came with the training at Nsukka, I appreciated the way language can become a tool for communication. In a religious sense, sign writing can be like the word-pictures of the Book of Revelation in the bible, written to be interpreted by ‘initiates’ (sic- Let him who has understanding know…) Sacred knowledge was thus shared among the persecuted Christians as stories ‘in plain sight’. Thus, in 2003, in South Africa, a foreign land away from everyone and everything I was used to, I gained the ‘power’ of a personal language. I wrote long stories that flowed out like some form of shorthand based on how fast my frenzied hand could write out the ‘form’ of the sound of the word! Pure genius!

Once upon a time in Onitsha, the famed market-city of South Eastern Nigeria, there were walls leading to the Niger Bridge. They were walls of shops, and fences. A mad man made these walls his canvas, using white paint to write bold text of phrases, using different fonts and varied capitalization. The wordplay was amusing. Students in universities wrote thesis on these graffiti. Everyone wondered at the source, inspiration and creator. The phrases and disjointed text reminded me of Fela and socio-political criticism.

Zanzibar Lounge gave me the walls to ‘write’ again. I played on text, ‘recollected’ hieroglyphics, and the formal beauty of text from unfamiliar foreign languages. It became a babel wall of languages. These experiences all became more recognizable as part of my contemporary reality. Shorthand writing has disappeared to be replaced by the acronyms of SMS in our Internet age. Concise, fast speech must convey meaning. There is no time to be wasted now. So, I suggest you visit the lounge in Ikenegbu sometime soon. There is a message or two for you on the walls. Only the viewer has the codes in his psyche to unlock the ‘meaning’ of the symbols of contemporary living. Language has several interpretations. There are visual, and implied meaning, text, related text and context. It’s the duty of communication to convey the soaring of the human spirit.

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