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

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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.

Harzardous Diction: X is for…

Of course X is for xylophone, and a word mentioned in this video on Youtube! Mathijs Lieshout runs the 13th Floor Gallery, with spaces at Commissioner Street, and in Ansteys Building, in Johannesburg. Aha, for the second time, ‘X’is in the newsline. This post is about the opening of the exhibition Harzardous Diction at the 13th Floor Gallery, Commissioner Street, Johannesburg. Truly, in a land where silence was (is)the go-to code on so many issues: Language, Diction, and every other form of communication in Society is watched with suspicion and bias. But the silence hasn’t helped change stereotypes ever. So lets talk about everything from ‘A’ to ‘Zee’. It ought to be an inclusive narrative, not about ‘the other’ and capital ‘I’.

Click here to watch the video interview aired on SABC- https://youtu.be/VATrX3YD6rI. Also, see the show which begins today, February 26th, and runs till March 7th, 2017. Layziehound works with Matthews Tshuma, James Shield, Goodlord Shoyisa, Azael Langa, and Ntsika Dulwana on the exhibition. Addendum: I am the NIgerian artist mentioned towards the end of the interview. I am part of the team on another project To Build by Mathijs Lieshout- http://www.mathijslieshout.com. PS: Communication gets more complicated by the day. One must make out time to listen, then get involved.

To Build, Work= Effort over Time

In this Q and A session, Mathijs discusses the purpose of it all, the mystical Louis Kahn, Russian Constructivism, of Hybrids, work in progress in a functioning library, and reasons (or not) To Build, among other things. 
AN: What is your sense of Structure and Space?
ML: Well in my opinion there is no such thing as ‘mere space’. We humans always, in one way or another, see space as having particular characteristics.  Space comes with rules, with identity, which a set of parameters what we perceive this space to allow us to do or not. And each space tells us how to behave in it.
AN: In this project at the library, your work seems to question these parameters.

You use space as though to counter the set rules? 
ML: Well in my opinion there is no such thing as ‘mere space’. We humans always, in one way or another, see space as having particular characteristics. 

Space comes with rules, with identity, which a set of parameters what we perceive this space to allow us to do or not.

Each space tells us how to behave in it
AN: In this project at the library, your work seems to question these parameters.

You use space as though to counter the set rules?
ML: Yes and no. I am aware this is a difficult answer to your question. The thing I am building in the library has really no purpose at all. And I think it is a good thing I am allowed the space in the library to do so. I could also get space at FNB (First National Bank) I think, if I would work them for some time.

But there it would serve a very clear purpose, it would be the same structure, FNB loves Art, but I would most likely be tool for their PR department; same story in Maboneng, where Art is instrumentalised for gentrification.

In the library I can do something without it being instrumentalised.

So the library itself is not really setting up many rules for how I should use the space.

I can build stuff there that will be mostly incomprehensible for viewers at first sight.

AN:  Where does your work seek a connection, then?

With your audience here, I mean.

ML: I want to build stuff that escapes the ‘question/ answer’ paradigm
AN: Create a void in the subconscious?
ML: I want to connect to my audience by building something of which they will think: this somehow suggests a purpose, but hell: we can’t figure out what purpose

But it clearly must be good for something this thing these people are constructing, because it is highly complex. There is tremendous effort being put into it. They work for weeks- it must be good for something, right? Otherwise, why all this effort and why this very complex design!
An: TO BUILD underlines the basic definition of Work. Work equals effort over time.

Internationally, what do you think about the architectural structures around?
ML: I love Louis Kahn (the American modernist architect)

When I was visiting a friend in Boston, the only time I ever was in the States, I visited one of his buildings- the Philip Exeter Academy.

There are some small similarities between how he handles geometric shapes and my approach.

His buildings are a sophisticated balance of simple geometric shapes.
AN: “A great building must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable”, he said.
ML: He’s a bit of a mystic in his speaking I think.

I never really understand the guy. But I do understand his buildings when I walk around in them.
AN: But surely you understand ‘Architecture is the reaching out for the truth’?
ML: What could that mean!

With Kahn I see a man that sketched simple geometric shapes, and then somehow, mysteriously creates order in them of the most fascinating quality.
AN: You said it- he speaks about the spiritual air of a building.

The Philip Exeter Academy has those crisscrossing lines similar to what you do in your work
MA: Yes.

I really recognize something in how he deals with space.
AN: What do you think of Antoni Gaudi’s architecture?
ML: I’ve never been inside any of his buildings. I know the images, but for my taste it is perhaps too organic.

I see the quality, and the buildings must be great.
AN: Ok. Your work emphasizes geometry.
ML: But I always like straight Modernism or Art Deco leading up to it more.
AN: Like the Bauhaus?
ML: I am very fascinated by Bauhaus.

Also, the hybrid they tried to make of all disciplines.

Russian Constructivism.
AN: Hybrids. I think that is what your installation/performance is all about
MA: I think you are right. I am not an architect, but people always ask me if I am one, or an engineer.
AN: Hybrid life in the 21st century
MA: What would that be- hybrid life nowadays?

The way I am handling that now is really new for me.

This is the first project that really puts the centre point of my project outside of the installation itself.
AN: The beauty will be to sync all into a ‘whole’ body of work.

Is there a possibility of relocating this work in other spaces?
ML: The system, the wood grid, can be done in many places. But the connection it makes with the location is site-specific. Not to say that the library location is completely unique and one of a kind.
AN: But it is
ML: Well it might be, yes.
AN: Because you can never replicate the library anywhere else, with the people flowing into the building, its location, etc.
ML: Exactly. There are similarities with earlier projects. The one in the shopping mall was similar, but certainly not identical
AN:  Of course, that shows a rhythm.
ML: It is difficult to find locations, as I want to use. I need a public place that allows for a mix of my work and the location. But I also need some sort of a retreat in that space- to be able to work in relative quiet.
AN: That precludes open spaces outdoors
ML: The problem with open spaces will be: my work will become a sculpture, or a monument.
AN: Apart from being created in a place of ‘too much’ external?
ML: I need some sort of intimacy for my work. Wide-open spaces don’t provide that.
AN: What is the duration of this installation/performance?
ML: We started on the first of February (2017), and the process will continue until the end of April- 3 months.

Building up the work, making it more complex, but also taking it away again. There will be no moment when the work is finished.
AN: Construct, deconstruct, show voids.
ML: It takes another breed of artist than me to make a piece that will stay where it is.
AN: Are you making any connections between the installation and the primary function of this particular space? The Library?
ML: Well… it is a very open place. There is the studio, which operates in the limelight of the library system. It is there, it is hidden a bit, it is not very official, but it is there. And it is open to society in the best way possible in that building (the Johannesburg City Library). Also, it is free-no entrance fee. Everybody can use a table to study there. I also like the fact that therefore access to my art will be free. It is a place to explore ideas, to encounter stuff you were not looking for but stumble upon when checking the books.
AN: Your work brings in ‘noise’. Do you think it does not detract?
ML: We are in a peculiar spot in the library. The big open spaces we use are ‘half there’. They are in-between the old library and the new parts built into it in 2012. We are strangely very visible but at the same time a bit out of sight. We do any noisy work before opening hours, or in a nearby studio. 
AN: Ok. The joining is done in plain view?
ML: Yes, but that is very quiet work. And we are in a very deep space. The people studying are not disturbed
AN: Your work is full of repetitions, of hexagonal shapes, crisscrossing lines

ML: Repetition it is, yes.
AN: Interceptions, and optical intrusion on space. What other elements play on what you are doing?
ML: The use of wood. That has its own will, and it is handwork. It is precise but not.
AN: Wood-organic and a bit pliant. It’s a very basic material to build with.

ML: More basic would be clay
AN:  Do you nail the joints?
ML: Everything fits together with bolts and nuts. We drill holes and fix parts together with bolts and nuts- like meccano.
AN: Will the structure be freestanding, or cling to the interior of the library for support?
ML: We will lift it, with hoists. I would prefer to connect with the library walls, but the building is very fragile. So I think it will be more or less free from the walls. But I will do my best to connect to the actual library building to avoid a structure that appears to be detached from it.
AN: Thanks, Mathijs. We are done for this set. 
From a chat on Facebook Messenger, 10am, February 16, 2017