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.