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

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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

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.

How a carnival happened.

The Oguta Ameshi carnival just happened a few days ago. The noise had been loud, and the preparations befitting of its billing-a carnival to change our appreciation of fun during the festive season. It was announced that top musical artistes were billed to perform-Wyclef, Timaya and Flavor were rumored to be on the list of performing artistes.
An earlier visit to the town saw my cousin Joke preparing a musical jingle for the group of performers who would represent West Coast, a set of streets in Oguta Ameshi town. Different street sections in Oguta Ameshi had had been given funky, stereotypical, or representative names associated with the assumed style( Hollywood, Get Nice, Carlifornia, West Coast, Central District,),character or peculiar trait( Oruru, Plantation, Okposha).
On D day, the opening act was a cultural show including masquerades from Oguta and neighboring towns coming out to the arena at Boys and Girls Primary school, Oguta. The second day saw a carnival of people from the above-mentioned areas of Oguta town coming out with costumes to entertain.

Personal Portrait: Mary has a little boy

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Turning the camera on someone close to oneself opens that person up in many ways, and gives an understanding of the things that one respects about that person. Mary is the 26 years-old cleaner who really maintains the house-taking care of my 2 year-old son, washing clothes, cooking, cleaning and doing all other household chores I really wouldn’t be bothered with. At 22, she had a son called David with a man she lived with for a few years. David is now in the village, living with Mary’s mother. Mary works very hard, and gets paid ₦16,000 monthly(approximately $110). Following her with my camera allowed me know her more-where she lives (in a room and cubicle in an uncompleted one-storey building); to retrace the path she usually takes to my house, to feel like her, and in a way, become her. With so little daily income, she accommodates a lady with three children in that seedy looking, tiny blue-lit room of hers. And of course, she has memorabilia from her past love, Chidi-the refrigerator with Barca sticker on it (although she is a Chelsea fan); the coloured television and thick ten-spring bed; and of course David, their son. Image

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I have four brothers and two sisters, but we all live far and apart. The Lagos landscape swallows time and opportunity. Mary comes into my world six days a week, from 6am-7pm. Our meetings are short, but I live with the impact. I visited her place- met her best friend (a hairdresser called Patience), saw her home and co-tenants, and we talked about her son and Kevin. I saw an everyday woman trying her best to make things work, to build a good future for herself and her son, playing mom and dad roles. She worked, and lived with her phone constantly ringing. Her room reminded me of the red light districts in Ikeja, or the rooms of young-adults living on the streets. Her whole persona changed in the two environments-mine and hers. In shooting, it translated to blacks and white moments, and colourful nights in-between. Wearing a hairnet around my home, I tried to echo the circular orb. In her house, it was all about colour, and shadows. As I left that night, she was running to meet one of the men who had called her on the phone while I was shooting. She kept insisting that she doesn’t even have a boyfriend. Like so many other domestic staff who do such a wonderful job, surely she should get more.ImageImage

My Dream show-Autobiography and Beatitudes

ImageThe day started slowly, as the traffic on the Ajah end was especially horrid. By 3.30pm, the only people in the foyer of the Lagos Business School were family members, students and staff of the School. By 4pm the place came alive and I was swinging high- I was restless and excited at the opening of the exhibition Autobiography and Beatitudes. I also felt a numbness and my greatest joy was seeing the works in that wide, white space with high walls and curving walkways. Truly a dream-space for showing! Of course it got better with the added advantage of sponsorship coming from Kenna Partners and the Lagos Business School. My sole preoccupation was about putting up a good show.

I met some awesome people who, in talking about my works, thought me again to see the works in a new light. I got excited at meeting buyers who connected their purchases with their professional work(for instance Dr. da Silva the pediatric neurologist who bought my Joy of Motherhood, an oil and acrylic painting that i worked on till a few days before the show.Image My dear friends Obinna, Eugene, Adis made the show very happy. So too, did the  others who came. I recall feeling some sadness that a few stars in the Art circles were not there. The exhibition Autobiography and Beatitudes opened on a day that had two other art events-CCA Lagos celebrating their 5th anniversary with an exhibition titled The Progress of Love; and the exhibition Our Resolve, showing works by Olu Amoda et al at Terrakulture, in Victoria Island. Heading to Ajah to see an introvert, reclusive artist did not seem the best way to spend a weekend for the major art collectors. Mr. Akaah( of Signature Gallery, Lagos) had come to see the works on Friday, when we were still hanging up works. He had picked up five works, while Douglas, an old-time friend and alumnus of Nsukka bought two more. From that Friday, I knew things could only get better. I do not want to start counting the number of works that have been sold so far. I cannot wait to show a centerpiece- the oil colour painting Nativity that has taken me 6 years in painting. That work was so large that I have not been able to bring it to the venue for lack of the right spot to place it. Come monday, the work will be mounted somewhere in LBS, the projected photographs will display properly with my Sound, and I will rest satisfied. All the time spent organizing this show was not wasted. I did my best, and am still waiting for more visitors to the show.