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.

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.

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

More Cattle- Staying on one topic

IMG_0092web‘More cattle?’, a recent collector asked yesterday. the voice was one of wariness, as though a certain boredom had crept into an otherwise very enthusiastic, excited life! I felt a bit like I was staring too much into the sun, and the rays were blinding.

The feeling was momentary. When I started the series ‘A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills’, I had one thing in mind. Many months later, the idea has grown on me. Staring, investigating the same subject concurrently has yielded fruits. Other ideas have come up. I see myself being led in directions I hadn’t thought of. I see now with more clarity than at the beginning. Time brings the stimuli of the other instances of life.

It is an eye-opener to focus on a subject for a long time. The form has shown up in many ways, but generally, the images are created with a mindset to suggest movement. More cattle will come. The troubling issue(s) that led to the beginning of this series continues to trend in our communities. From my studio’s balcony overlooking Trinity field on one side, the cattle are being led out to graze. Their stall is close by, beside the abattoir in the new market in my village Oguta.