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.

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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)

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Ajekwu masquerade of Umudei Village, Oguta, Imo StateL1150594web.jpg
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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’.

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By the Blue Lake, Oguta, Imo State, Nigeria

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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

You Don’t Always Have to Shoot To Kill, Love Leica!

L1137183I don’t recall if it was that article of the man who covered events with his small Leica that I saw in an edition of Vanity Fair magazine that did it. But it was easy to start getting bored with the APS-C sensor, full or medium frame cameras after shooting over 3000 images for 4 years in a row for a secondary school’s yearbook! Some of these things we do allows one to add the suffix ‘photographer’ in introductions.

I have intense bouts of love for things. This causes me to go to the limits till I fully own the object of my desire. At some point it was mobile phones. I read all the ‘To Do’ books on phones on my journeys from Ikeja to Victoria Island to visit the art galleries. (You recall those cheap small booklets that the authors peddled in the yellow buses?)I also ‘upgraded’ to the newer versions of mobile phones as soon as they came into the market. Those were the days when the Nokia phone reigned – from the famous 3300 to the 660, etcetera. The various models that hit the market were differentiated with mysterious ‘x’s, e’s after the number- that got me hooked, thinking something mind-blowing just landed on earth! I fell easy prey to the marketing strategies of those companies.

Later, I returned to my first love with cameras that dated to as far back as when I was in secondary school. My uncle gave me a Canon AE that used film. It served me well into university where it was easy to rub on young girls’ vanity of visualizing self as gorgeous. This I loved. It was akin to the recent love for taking selfies, using filters, Snapchat and Instagram.L1137810L1141498

For about 6 years, I was the parish photographer at the church in Ajah. I filled 5 terabytes of storage space with images from events, landscapes that spanned as far back as 2005. Photography was easy money for me while I pitched to sell paintings on the streets of Lagos. It was a way of looking intensely, closely at the world. I soon realized that it was not a perfect world. Beauty is affected by distance, by the space between the beautiful one and the viewer.

I made friends with Maigida, an Igbo seller of fairly used cameras and accessories on Lagos Island. It became routine to visit his shop weekly to gush over the latest cameras and lenses. He soon saw my love for photography and cameras, and would introduce me to his customers. I enjoyed sharing photography tips with them, and particularly meeting the old babas that must have been Pa Ojeikere’s contemporaries. They still shot with negative film.L1142228

The old ways of taking photographs intrigued me. I imbibed the patience, the comportment of the negative film days. I loved how each pose was well thought-out, each moment quietly recorded. One day, Maigida called to tell me of the new Leica cameras he just got from America. One of them looked a bit funny with a big body lens, but the other had a metallic retro look that I fell in love with. It reminded me of the Vanity Fair photographer. It dangled nicely at the right angle from my waist, and it shot madly crisp-sharp images! From the Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 ASPH lens, to the precise focusing, the pop-up flash, I knew I had found true love in my Leica X2.

It came at a point when I already understood that Photography was not about taking focused, crystal clear images. I had seen enough World Press Photos at exhibitions to convince me. My Leica was featherweight with monster-sized big performance. After carrying many heavy cameras with huge battery grip and flash attached, photography suddenly became a breeze. The idea became the reason for the shot. It wasn’t about the size of the camera any more.

With my Leica, the blades of grass showed up in colors that went near psychedelic. With the coming of age, one definitely needs to lighten the load of life. I capture the moments more frequently in a casual way. Moving around with a massively expensive camera has never been easier- the retro look of my Leica gives it a pass mark for street photography. Those area boys don’t know that my Leica got them covered. People still wonder if it is a film camera. I wonder how the little things in life can make precious memories. The L in my images does not just stand for images taken with my Leica. L is for Love- love of photography.

 

Abstract colors, More liberties

Detail of a work in progress, mixed media painting, 2017. 

In this blog, I have written extensively about my work, the creative process, and the figurative. It has become more important to dwell on the abstractions that seem to be taking centre-stage all around us.

Uli has shown us a way of looking at space, engaging it in a way that conveys meaning. Lines and shapes loaded with meaning are juxtaposed with negative bleak spaces that totally shriek in their silence.

Turning it around, the artist considers the power of that non-representational element as subject matter, relocation into deep meditation of color fields. Traditional notions of color no longer apply, nor restrain. Thus, color has gained an independence in its total abstraction- color is the new white noise in artistic communication.

The intention to emphasize local identity is lost on the new international that crosses borders at will. Appropriating passing fancies, one must acknowledge them as relevant memories; hallmarks from journeys, with a cognizance for seeing that in front lies an unfamiliar path that may demand new conversations/interactions. Or else, the artist becomes the bogeyman.

The body of work creates new imagery- exploring an eclectic embodiment- a morpheme of spatial representation. Visual elements are turned on their head- harmony, space, contrast, and balance. Everything is introverted to ‘work’ on the mind where it really counts. External superficialities are done away with in a signature economic style- the work is the reason. The reason is the work.

Reality is a dent on the conscience of the creative, holding ransom all notions and actions towards progress. Concurrently, one must hold on to fantasy- to the subconscious world of dreams as a vision for navigating the psychedelic, hybrid subcultures of today’s world. All accepted standards may fail in the circumstances; boundaries and borders melt away (standing only as a physical presence at the most). Time and Space suddenly embrace to become one experience.

Color is language, identity and representational subject serving all intents of the artist. Color can only be interpreted on a personal level, irreverent to all else. Herein lays the bane of the tribal art grouping- this melting point that allows no measures/ standards to retrain the use or absence of interpretative color.

Having learned drawing, we unlearn drawing. Drawing pretends to unravel the spatial feel of things, working as a witness to a ‘presence’. In turn around, drawing is the real presence. These are tangible existential ideas- generally cultures acknowledge an ‘other’ life separate from this one. Man then begins to ask his place- is this or that the ‘real’ life? To and fro, the tussle becomes the very matter of contention between Realism and Abstraction, the signifier and the amplifier.  

Our visual senses mediate in between engaging and nurturing the mind. Truth is- we know nothing. Let all knowledge begin from there to interrogate meaning.