Out of Context

I was called to order that I quoted a friend out of context in my last blog post Turn@Red. I have pulled it down and apologise for giving a meaning that is contrary to the views of my friend. With love from Dakar.

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Coming of Age in Africa

L1143252wMy 40th birthday anniversary was celebrated with a great party. I had a beautiful cake with the number 40 stuck at the top. I thought that was the age of new opportunities, but the rest of the developed world seems to think otherwise. They think that 40 is the age after everything good should have happened in your life, about five years earlier!
Let me explain. But before that, let’s go back to when I was 35 years old. Everyone who wished me well was on my neck to ‘settle down’ (in other words ‘get married). I was in-between two mindsets. One thought that a man can marry whenever ‘he feels’; while another point of view felt that I should have married earlier so that one can begin to have children earlier.
Whether one had a steady source of income at the time (which I didn’t) was irrelevant. We are part of a teeming population of graduates fighting for the few jobs that appeared to come in ratios of 1:20,000 people. I mean proper jobs that pay your house rent and still leave you with money to spend on personal needs. The better jobs allow one to save some money on top.

At 35, I had worked for two privately owned companies that ran the business like they were a family affair. One of the companies made me work without a salary for over 8 months. It was the case of enjoying the work you do without getting financial gratification. I didn’t have a job then. It was a hobby. I sold the odd portraits/painting and raised the money for transportation to and fro; for feeding; etc. At age 35, most of the Nigerian youth are heavily dependent on family members for financial support and accommodation. They even go ahead to borrow money to have extravagant weddings that show off their parents’ affluence in society. With all the expectations that come with it, any job would do at the time.
Unfortunately, in Africa, we seem to be just getting used to being adult at that age. We seem to be ten years younger than our contemporaries in the West. We look it.
My sister and her husband who live in London brought their children to spend the Christmas holidays in Nigeria. Kamdi my niece was 2 years old the first time we met. It’s been over ten years now, and I cannot get over her composure as we sat in my sister’s parlor discussing life. Anyone eavesdropping would have thought we were two adults having a chat! Kamdi’s mates would have run outside to build sand castles in the dirt. We live younger for longer.DSCF0083w.jpg
Unfortunately, the rest of the advanced world thinks differently. One is expected to have peaked in his career by the age of 35. So the opportunities out there for growth are open to the younger generation of adults who just graduated from university/polytechnics, etc. The demographics favor those between the age of 23 and 35.

Here is how I soon found out. By then, I was more serious about my work and life but it seemed already late. I started looking for residencies to apply for. I saw some funds also that I tried to apply for. There were competitions too. The guidelines generally had age restrictions the applicant must not be older than 35 years old. Africans are supposed to run at the same time with their contemporaries in the West. I wonder who make these rules across the board for all humanity. It’s as if they are blind to see our leaders- old grandpas that should have been retired to their villages to live out the rest of their lives. The West turns a blind eye to the fact of the millions of unemployed youth still struggling to survive in Third world countries.
They have a system that supports their youth to reach their full potential as long as they have the right dreams. Here the youth will dream and die hungry because they live in a society that does not promote excellence and hard work.
Some of my contemporaries may have run off for the residencies or received funding from the West. It is easy to forge one’s birth certificate, to get a passport that reflects the same age in these climes. ‘Fantastically corrupt’, we have been called. The corruption is in the system. The thing is, the youth immediately bear the brunt of the sick system. Either they use any means necessary to escape to the West to seek ‘greener pastures’ or they keep hope alive and work decently, hoping to outlive the system that has failed.
In the case of some of us who embraced the Internet wholeheartedly at an earlier age than our contemporaries here in Nigeria, the exposure means that we have shared enough personal data with the rest of the world to make it almost impossible to create another identity. We are who we were forced to become. The rest of the world doesn’t care. The choices to continue after the age of 35 are few. I have become that unbelievable survivor who made it through insurmountable odds. I am a rarity that the rest of the world can’t believe. I don’t blame them. There are times when I can’t even believe the fact that I am still here, and well. I will be 45 years old in 18 days. And I will be partying at the opening ceremony of the thirteenth edition of the African Contemporary Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal. Believe me, I will pay my way to be there. The time of expecting aid is passed. I work and pay my way through. I have the green passport. I am proudly African. And hey, you will never believe my age if we met. I look younger than 35.

 

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

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.