How can Oguta remain like this? We have this little paradise waiting to be cultivated. But we all run away from it for selfish gain. We turn our faces away as the waste of daily living is dumped into the lake. We fear to swim in the beautiful Blue lake because we have dredged deep into the heart of the earth. We fear for what lies deep within the troubled waters. The lake lies wasting in the dying sun while we are making plans to replace it. We return home with forex to build our shallow swimming pools in our backyard, and empty the dirty waters into the lake. Why won’t the lake be mad, and carry away the children of erring parents? Why won’t the forsaken lady seek her revenge? The water lily grows long and serpentine underneath, dancing in the slow waves, waiting. Nature will pay us back with what we give to it. Who will swim in the lake with me? The dredger in Umudei village. The litter at the shore. No one swims in the beautiful lake anymore. They travel on it to the neighbouring villages to trade. They stack bags of cassava pegged to the bottom of the lake for days, washing away all the cyanide and smell. That is why our akpu does not smell. That is also why Ihu Ohamiri stinks. But we are happy when we eat our cassava. You would think that you are eating pounded yam. The lake carries away all the stench.Every Christmas now, a church holds an end of year crusade in Mgbidi, a village on the road to Oguta. Their members wear this fluorescent yellow coloured posters that burn the eyes in the harmattan dryness.It is long since our people went mad. The ancestral gods have gathered dust at the corners. Worse, they are now firewood at mother’s kitchen. We found a new religion. We also found oil. Now nothing else matters but these two… not even other natural resources that our fathers lived on. No, oil is king. On Eke, the traders line up to buy produce from those who live across. Oguta people do not farm around their homes. Our farmlands lie on the other side of the lake. So Oguta looks more like an estate without greenery. The local governments in Nigeria have lost their autonomy. The state governors control the local governments. The people at the grassroots live with their waste, they live without social amenities like electricity and pipe-borne water. We live on borehole water that we must make to survive. We are our own government. We are no government. We know no government. We do things our own way. There is no way we can continue this way. We are blind to the beauty that is ours. We live like strangers in paradise. This is the new history we are writing for the children.
Power Play and Other African Stories (for the exhibition Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power)
Travelling through Africa has familiarized one somewhat with the slow induction into native life. Being Nigerian, I already carry a baggage and move under the shadow of an uncomfortable stereotype. Thus, engaging with Abidjan, dissociating with negative stereotypes, while reviving an artistic practice is hard work. When I started painting, I kept travelling back and forth virtually. The Internet brought daily stories from home. I see a clearer picture of our troubles- leadership and corrupt political practices have hindered Nigeria for too long.
Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power is mainly an exhibition of paintings about votes, power, leadership and politicians; and how their lives affect everyday life in Nigeria. On the one hand are the almighty politicians who turn to monsters in their quest for power; and on the other, I represent the most vulnerable people affected by the tragedy of leadership in any society- the women.
Discovering supply chains for my art materials took some time. At some point, I sent and bought materials from Nigeria. All the tools must be in place, at hand, before I start working. It is a performance of classical music where each instrument is ready and waiting for its time to be used. I am the composer, stringing thoughts with media, creating forms and marks. It is a delight when the only thing on one’s mind is to paint, to use media, and be affected by each media’s peculiar qualities. I try to explain this as part of the reason for the stylistic variations in my work. Each medium has properties. I have the mindset.
From trying to make sense of the reasoning behind party defections (where politicians who may have spoken glowingly about a political party the week before, suddenly turn round to castigate and disassociate from that party); to inspiring the masses to vote out these politicians whose integrity seems wanting; another body of work has been created with a view on 2019, the year for the next elections to choose a new government.
The antecedents have been unpleasant. There is a general perception that the government of the day has failed the common man. In the news in Northern Nigeria, you hear of Boko Haram maiming, kidnapping and sacking villages, of armed herdsmen perpetuating similar acts in villages in the middle-belt, destroying farmlands unchecked by an inefficient security service. The government response after some of these attacks is that these marauders and terrorists overwhelmed the security personnel on the ground.
Yet the nation could spare 33,000 security personnel for a state governorship election in Western Nigeria, a region that is deemed peaceful and away from all the violence in the news. The election has been reported as rigged, and the results from that election are being challenged in court by the opposition who claim to have evidence of rigging, ballot box snatching, intimidation of voters by security personnel, etc.
The stories from Nigeria are enough to keep one engaged. Staying in the moment, being contemporary means engaging actively in the stories of one’s times. It is documentary narrative, investigation and protests against the ills of the society in which one lives. The paintings in Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power follow the news closely like daily commentaries on the state of the nation. Keeping up often becomes difficult when one has taken on the responsibility of playing out the drama. Art graphically illustrates. My work reads like the popular cartoonist Mike Asuquo’s illustrations, only in a much more robust abstract style. Also, the ambitious sizes of some of the pieces (some are over 8 feet wide) are in another league.
My work is dark humour, satire and a comedy of sinners and their casualties. Distorted bodies fill the space; sometimes these monsters have no feet- referencing the unguided, selfish and self-sustaining defections. In the series, I use sections and angles to suggest the cuboid of ballot boxes. Limbs appear and disappear irrationally into folds of cloth; tortuous colour is applied in rapid succession to suggest the mad furore of the season. As the series developed, it became more and more necessary to introduce women, positioned as vulnerable victims of dirty politics. They keep the family unit together and protect the infants from an unfamiliar, unfriendly world of adults breaking moral codes wantonly.
Thus it was easy to create works around my earlier series- Women of Nigeria and A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills series, as all these were contributory effects and implications of the power games in Nigeria. As the stories and body of work for Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power grew, one felt freer to sit back and absorb the real present- the landscape of Abidjan poignantly rendered in some watercolours and a huge canvas. This distraction was a breath of fresh air, like a swimmer reaching upwards while fighting the waves of a fast flowing river.
Then other works about the people of Abidjan, the men and women happened. One’s interactions and struggles learning a foreign language have left impressionable marks. The vivid stories allowed one to rethink past sojourn in other African countries and the reception from some of the natives of those countries.
A rebranding of Africa is pertinent. The pre-Independence fathers of Africa spread the gospel of Pan-Africanism. At the dawn of independence of many African countries, they developed policies that presented Africa as a beautiful bride to the world. Post-Independence, Africa has suffered myriad wars, genocides and other turmoil caused by the uneasy unions of nations created by colonial masters who mainly seemed to be mapping their real estate. The chaos of peoples of diverse nationalities having to share, to be subjugated, has led to conflicts, despotism, and nepotism and corrupt practices that mired the image of Africa. Making sense of experience as a visitor means taking into cognizance the collective history of Africa- post-colonial past, slavery, colonialism and bad leadership. Formal education and the news media have strongly shaped the retelling of the story of Africa. African history has been negatively impacted by these two forces, seen in some quarters as agents of a perpetual colonialism on the continent.
As Chinua Achebe earlier said, Africans must begin to write their own stories. This idea is similar to what Uche Okeke, member of the Zaria Rebels and founder of the Nsukka School proposed in his essay Natural Synthesis. We should all go back to our traditions and use what we can to represent our contemporary existence. It is Sankofa, the Ghanaian word that translates to ‘go back and get it’. My series A New African History has been affected by some of these ideas, by firsthand experience in teaching and discovering that the educational system may not create the kind of positive mindset that will lead to an African Renaissance and self-sustenance of individual talent.
Then came the hugely popular Marvel Comics Movie Black Panther. The story of an African Hero and democracy resonated well with an international audience that has been tired of all the negative press about Africa. For me, that movie only scratched the surface at the potentials and opportunities for using the African image to change perceptions. My New African History series starts by celebrating real-life African heroes like Sundiata, Mansa Musa (Mansa Musa Travels), the pharaohs, civilizations and cultures like the ancient Benin Kingdom of Nigeria, the great walls of Zimbabwe, Timbuktu etc. In my travels to Francophone Africa, particularly in Senegal, some of the renowned scholars delved deep to make archaeological research to substantiate evidence of a glorious African heritage.
This body of work is only evolving, and of course one needs to dust history books and investigate the gaps in the narratives told by either missionaries or colonialists who communicated their response or perception of another culture.
Galerie d’Art Houkami Guyzagn is housed in a three-storey building that includes rooms for artists at the top two floors, a bar/lounge on the first floor. There are a restaurant and gallery space for exhibiting artworks with offices. As the date of the opening of this exhibition draws near, my interactions with collectors, artists and other patrons of Galerie Houkami Guyzagn has enriched my understanding of the Ivorian (and my knowledge of French, hopefully) Suddenly my work veers towards painting portraits, making notes of the beautiful landscape of Riviera 2 with its undulating landscape.
The residency has been a rewarding period of artistic exchange and assimilation. My excitement can be evidenced in the large body of work created in the short time span. Other ideas are trickling into my subconscious, some of which I am working on tentatively in the collages. I also realize that any new work may not necessarily be the most powerful. But the beginnings are the best parts of the journey. The accidents are more, and there is much more passion. Stereotypes have not been formed yet.
My head is full of stories, of probing questions, or suggestions. Sometimes I present troubling images, sometimes screaming images. The energy is my blood flowing out in the plastic medium of painting. I am responsible for my actions. As a human, I own all the weakness you see. I present all the force of brilliant colour. Bear with me. My story is full of tears from thinking back to the motherland. Half the story has not been told. But I have started somewhere. Let’s see how you continue in the conversation.
The exhibition Ballot Boxes and Beasts of Power opens on September 13th at Galerie Houkami Guyzagn, Abidjan.
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.