Here’s the story of my life during this pandemic written by Okey Uwaezuoke in today’s ThisDay Newspapers- https://okeysworld.wordpress.com/2020/04/26/in-new-york-and-smack-in-a-pandemic/
I enjoy talking. I enjoy the stimuli of intelligent conversation. And I hope to see underlying questions in retrospective. I talk some more when asked a question. I learn from talking. I learn from sharing. Let me share this fantastic interview with Omenka Online, the magazine for the Ben Enwonwu Foundation. Oliver Enwonwu, the son holds the grounds very well. He is also the President of the Society of Nigérian Artists.
Here is the link to my interview- https://www.omenkaonline.com/tony-nsofor-on-language-the-subconscious-and-the-mundane/
I wrote this essay for the catalogue of Uche Edochie and Tolu Aliki’s amazing show HALFWAY THROUGH A THOUSAND MILES. If you saw the exhibition, I hope you find convergent views. If you didn’t, I hope you see some of it through my words. There is colour, there are pure colours and light in the window of art called Nigeria. It is fresh and strong. Read on.
Witness- An account of Two Contemporaries
One can’t talk about the artwork better than the artist himself- his artwork is the first and original statement! It is a more daunting task when the artist also writes about his work. I will start by avoiding descriptions of individual pieces in this exhibition. Tolu Aliki and Uche Edochie share from their souls, presenting telling self-portraits. Let us enjoy the evidence before us- exuberant outbursts of colour celebrating life in its various nuances! Halfway through a Thousand Miles is a visual narrative of the journeys of two artists living in Lagos. History, destinations, aspirations are explored in a probing manner. There is the light humour, and then the melancholic palettes! The journey of life is about halfway gone and both artists share the limelight. There is no faulting the craftsmanship.
Aliki studied Mass Communications and spins titles like Colors of Passion, Intimate Moments, the Good Life, Shades of Love, etc, all thematically situated in sensuality and a heightened enjoyment of the finer things of life. The intention tends towards perfection, his cunning to erase traces of the method of application.
As the curator, Edochie sees ‘an unexpected beauty in the …heroism of (Nigeria’s) citizens’. His paintings are psychedelic flows that surprise in the transitions between two colours, keeping the palette fresh and airy. Edochie’s working experience is in 4 phases- the first two relate to art practice while the last two revolve around sexuality and relationships, topics that receive more hush treatment (unfortunately) than they should in these climes. Both artists compliment each other. On the one hand are the mature dark nuances of colour; on the other, we have the pastel, graphic colour of a dandy! So this combination works. Well. Even before he graduated from Art School, Edochie knew what needed to be done. He started to fill in the gaps in the interpretation of his work, writing at every opportunity. For both artists, Colour is applied as a labour of love. Colour is theme and light creates other illusions. Aliki brings his signature childlike stylization of form and use of pure colour to contrast the extravagant splays of Edochie’s strokes verging towards a dangerous, passionate cadence. Aliki’s work playfully, yet emphatically holds attention in its stylization of form, while Edochie masterfully weaves explosive colours through bodies making them shimmer like beings stepping into celestial lights.
The creative person lives with the fear of not communicating, of being misread! Fine art allows such an engagement with the audience. The picture is an open plain. In the pieces in this show, both artists explore the human condition and political narratives, a tendency that logically comes with maturity- the growing awareness of responsibilities, of family, of leadership, of leaving something worthwhile behind. The works presented insist on celebrating the resilience of the Nigerian spirit trying to get ahead despite the bad press, despite the daunting living conditions. The artists spin tales as witnesses of all that is good about Nigerians. In these climes, they find an eager audience willing to grab at anything that will increase the value of living here. The artworks are autobiographical and homemade. The viewer sees forms woven in emotional and emotive poses. Then there are the standalone portraits on flat backgrounds. We trudge through the dismal Nigerian life, with the strange energy of people driven by the baking hot tropical sun, flashing teeth bared in laughter (hopefully).
The connection is immediate. Back then in Nsukka, Edochie delighted in his eye for details, revealing objects as though with bionic vision. Life and its toll happened, and the artist sees all reality in shades of psychedelic, opium colours. The business of life must be taken face-up. Aliki responds with flat planes of pure colour balanced in contrasts that regale in the two-dimensional surface. And yet the brilliant colours insist on making subconscious connections with the viewer. The firmness of his hand is without a doubt.
One has to tread softly through the hall full of impassioned, sometimes raging colour. Life is the fierce performance without beginnings or end, a journey eclipsed by unfettered optimism that charges the space. The journey of a thousand miles must be taken, one step at a time. Or you miss the suggestions. Art flirts flatter and provokes all life. But we live in an age where Time and Space has been transcended in many ways. Halfway through looking at the works, one feels a familiarity. Tolu Aliki and Uche Edochie are our contemporaries. But there is the individuality of experience that should be investigated. There is so much effusive brilliance. There are the dark notes. The audience must speculate on this.
NB: THIS ESSAY IS FEATURED IN THE CATALOGUE FOR UCHE EDOCHIE AND TOLU ALIKI’S EXHIBITION HALFWAY THROUGH A THOUSAND MILES. This exhibition closed on the 14th of October, 2018. Follow Uche Edochie and Tolu Aliki on Instagram for more stories and pictures of their works. Also, the works for this show and other works by Uche Edochie can be found on http://www.ucheedochie.com.
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.
My 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.
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.
A few times in the past I wanted to know what people say about me and do the Google search. There are images of my work with other references from this blog, etc. Now I think this blog has been a part culprit of putting me out there. Here is how about 10 years ago I read about tips for making one’s blog more relevant in online searches, and thus, driving more traffic.
One-first lesson is to use hashtags well. The other point is to try to mention famous people and important ideas so that your blog about bathing your dog in the garden comes up when people are searching for reviews on the latest BMW. That kind of stuff could happen because I mentioned the neighbor’s BMW car parked beside the lawn of my house in the article when trying to give my story some scene props!
Now I shared what one strategy of getting famous through disjointed storytelling. The flip side is when your product or whatever you were advertising (that caused you to start blogging in the first place) gets wrongfully associated with others. A few minutes ago, a friend sent me a website called Ranker- www.ranker.com. The particular webpage ranked famous artists from Nigeria. They mentioned some great names- Aina Onabolu, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo, Twins Seven Seven, Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, and Felix Idubor, etc. Hey, I jumped to the good side. Right before the list is an intro that includes Keziah Jones as a famous Nigerian artist (fine artist)! I don’t know how or where these writers get their information from. No, I know Google is everybody’s friend! A quote from the introductory lines on Famous Artists of Nigeria gets specific ‘if you are a fine art lover use this list of celebrated Nigerian artists to discover some new paintings that you will enjoy.’
Ok, it just keeps getting worse. Which moron mentions Aina Onabolu with new paintings in the 21st century? Well, we are all bloggers. When one reads the post and images of artworks of the famous artists, the writer of the post on ranker.com commit a worse offense the works of other artists get wrongly linked with the images of the famous artists. Two of my paintings are posted on that page. One is ascribed to Obiora Udechukwu and the other to Chike Aniakor. I usually mention Obiora Udechukwu who is a mentor and my professor at Nsukka in some blog posts. Also, I must have written about Chike Aniakor, who was my professor also at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ben Enwonwu’s painted is given to Aina Onabolu while Obiora Udechukwu’s painting appears twice as Ada Udechukwu’s and Tayo Adenaike’s works concurrently. Would have been cool to make the list of famous artists, but unfortunately, only images of my work are stolen. Then the authorship is given to others. The second image is part of a poster I designed for my 2013 solo exhibition Autobiographies and Beatitudes, which held at the Pan Atlantic University. The painting is titled The Mourners from The Blessed series, culled from Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. The work was inspired by a period of mourning. I had lost my mother a few months ago and still could not live with the loss.
So Google’s search algorithms bring up images of my works when you type Obiora Udechukwu images. That’s how these things happen. Google can help show off how shallow some writers are. Or just lead you to enjoy great writing and stories behind the images. And a lazy journalist looking for cheap fame just downloads the image instead of visiting the site, adds up some stats from Wikipedia, and quickly posts. Sadly, the webpage shows the number of times people have viewed this misguided article a whopping 87.4 times, as at the time of writing this article. Maybe I should appropriate stuff for my blog and get up to a thousand views for one of my articles for a start. Maybe I should get famous for lying. The victims of such lies are everywhere. The one that got famous that way soon becomes a god with clay feet.
The image of The Mourners used in the Ranker.com article-https://nsoforanthony.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/my-dream-show-autobiography-and-beatitudes/ ;
2018 is the year after all things Art in Lagos and yes; contemporary Art in Nigeria will never be the same. With the demise of two important stalwarts of the Arts, the rise and rise of El Anatsui, the appearance of ‘new’ artists with training in other things to challenge the status quo; with a new patronage of Art by Ambode’s government and a fading away of yellow buses, with Sotheby’s first African Art auction happening and markedly starting an international scramble for contemporary African art, with Lagos hosting a second edition of West Africa’s biggest art fair, with the opening of the first major Contemporary Arts Museum in Cape Town; and a significant body of non-figurative artworks being sold, of installation and performance art becoming an area of interest and artists building their art spaces and usurping the position of the hitherto non-existent middlemen in their practice – with all these and more happenings comes the realization that there is an emergence of a new Nigerian Art.
Art House Foundation has a residency program that is gaining in importance and creating international connections, though one is not so sure of the auctions. Don’t get me wrong- I remain one of the most uninformed about the importance (Jess speaking) of these auctions! Apart from a few open auction calls, one wonders where or how some of these auction houses get their pieces. A way to look at it is that some of the older collectors open their storerooms and put them up to evaluate the present worth of their works.
Once iconic images like the yellow buses of Lagos are now scarce. There are fewer requests for such scenes by expatriates who want to take ‘something Nigerian’ home. The yellow buses have gone the way of the ‘Fulani milkmaids, durbar scenes, and load bearing maidens by mud huts, with the orange sun drowning into a river with coconut trees lining the riverside! To put things in context as per the New Art of Nigeria, one must remember certain facts about the present- History as a subject is no longer taught in Nigerian secondary and primary schools. This means that we have returned to the days of telling tales by moonlight, and the passing on of our traditions and history by ‘word of mouth’ (though such opportunities for conversation are also very scarce with social media activity on everyone’s mind for getting noticed, relevant or entertained.
The economics of survival in a society where everything has been turned on its head has changed the view of things here. The landscapes got more and more abstract till they became blurbs of color splattered in split seconds on the artist’s canvas. Of course some of us had been early at this form of presentation of where we are as a nation, having spent most of our adolescence learning from the prophecies of King Fela Kuti. It wasn’t the marijuana that made him iconic. Not even the government of the day could rob him of his street credibility, his non-conformist, critical view of people in power. Adolescents could relate to the conflicts with their coming of age realities and phantoms. So we could paint those abstract scenes then. And like a bad dream, no one was buying it then. The connoisseurs (the buying age of pre-Independence adolescents who became adults in the glory days of the oil boom) had eyes for all histories pre-colonialism, with a few tweaks that added corrugated roofs and the bustling metropolitan chaos of an African State capital. A few of us were born in the crossroads, somewhere between the glory days and growing in the years of Nigeria losing it all to thieving leaders; to the present times where history is being erased, memories are being expunged, and new narratives to support where we are as a Nation has sprung up. For some of my generation, Art became the tool to use to speak a codified language interpreting contemporary realities. We remain the leftover bodies who did not join their smarter mates on the sojourn to new lands. We are ignorant, dull of hearing, or numb with shock at the aftermath of the disaster of contemporary Nigeria. The other day, a former classmate referred to how he now understood why some of us had publicly renounced their citizenship!
But I speak of one set of people. The other set are new to me. They have not really absorbed our history. They know what they have been told by biased relatives who think that their farmlands end at the edge of other people’s homesteads. The younger artists in Nigeria have come into it without the necessary, slower gestures of indoctrinations happening. They take what they will, and run with it. The restlessness of youth allows for hits or misses. After all, there is still time to make amends. A new non-figurative art is quite popular these days. This is understandable, judging from the foregoing. Everywhere one looks, the faces in artworks seem contorted by mixed, exaggerated feelings- anxiety, angst and sorrow, while elegant bodies now give way robust feisty bodies whose ‘aesthetic appeal’ lies mainly in being lively. Formalism is discarded for sensationalism, the wow factor is ‘it’/’in’ for now! Everyone has joined in on the ride. Nigeria blares out a new non-representational ‘ism’, all in a flush to become noticed by the institution. Now that Africa is in the limelight. Well things may be celebrated. Art is the only truth to tell the people of the gory mess we are in.
No wonder the prices of contemporary artworks in Nigeria seem to have gone up by two digits. Two privately sponsored art museums, in Lagos and in Onitsha will soon open the door to curious society who did not see Art becoming the phenomenon that inspires change, that promotes culture and transforms the mundane into a magical place in our hearts. One cannot keep up with all the exhibitions opening every weekend in Lagos. There are so many new faces and names. Is it because one is more involved in his profession, or is there an upsurge of non-academically trained artists taking over the art space? Gratefully, art is now practiced as a true profession. Artists are more interested in the end-to-end marketing and management of their work. With the growing popularity of the acrylic paint, it is now rare to meet an artist jumping out of a bus with a wet canvas, trying to sell to Mister Akar (of Signature Beyond). The Revolving Art Incubator is a new space and Nimbus was the place to see avant-garde art. 2018 is the year that completes my circle. Three years after I moved out of Lagos to establish a studio in my village, I return to a new studio in Lekki. There are new collectors who really find a resonance with my work. It is the middle age of Art for me. One is reminded again every time there is a call for artists for art competitions- one is usually 10 years overage. Maybe we have paid our dues. Maybe we paid the price to be where we are today. We open our studio doors to the rest of the world now. They should come. Things have changed so much. This year, there will be Dak’Art, many more art exhibitions and involvement with other spaces abroad. The words are fewer these days. A new critical way of discussing art has emerged. It is light-hearted, maybe like this blog post. I said it before- things have changed. Art has become fashionable, contemporary in strong terms. The child is now encouraged to become an artist. Welcome to a new phase for art in Nigeria. It cost us so much to get here. We won’t let anyone mess it up.
Till Uncle Akaraka’s death, his home was the resting place of Ude Ebube, Nwa Agbayaka the great ancient masquerade from my mother’s village Abatu. Tall, light-skinned and handsome, Uncle Akaraka seemed to live for the moments that Ude Ebube arises from the land of spirits to jolt our world. Akaraka would march out in swag, holding a large bottle of Guinness Stout in one hand and a stick of cigarette in the other as he walks alongside the masquerade; a sheathed machete slung sideways down his waist. Those are the moments that the village saw my uncle, apart from occasional sightings when he sits and looks out to the street from the balcony of his one-storey building. As an undergraduate student I made reference to the masquerades in my thesis ‘Colonial Influences on the Art of Oguta’, (to be found in the Arts department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka)
My hometown is made up of 28 tiny villages (more like clans, really). Each village has its masquerade(s). It is time to set the records straight about the masks in contemporary paintings, about the faces in my chaotic canvases.
Ude Ebube mmanwu-ihu-ekpo (spirit masquerade with the face of a mask) is like the masquerades found in the riverine communities in the Niger-Delta regions of Nigeria. She (mother to other smaller masquerades, some from neighboring villages) has taken the most prestigious titles for masquerades. She is a great spirit guided by a procession of three groups of people chanting praise songs- the first set of people are the youth in their boisterous dancing and parading; then there are the middle class followers who generally carry the medicines, the ofo, the magical hand fan that waves away evil spirits; then follow the old, the elderly who move slowly, gracefully with the great spirit. Age brings them closer to death, to the land of spirits from whence came Ude Ebube to celebrate with us, to rain blessings on her followers and admirers alike, to charge up the land of the living. Ude Ebube is an ancient spirit, and is guided by an old dibia, usually among the strongest in the land. As spirit, she knows everyone by name; she lives with the ancestors in the other world.
By writing I do not want to take away your interpretation of my work- I want to give you my memories. I grew up following the masquerades during the Christmas periods and in ushering in the New Year. All my childhood friends know that I will more likely abandon them at the drinking parlors to run after passing masquerades. Something in their performance resonated strongly. It went beyond ‘religion’.
My young excitable mind often dreamt of these masquerades, of being chased by them through different disjointed towns to my village house. The dreams came even when I visited other lands. It was a tradition for Father to drive us to the village to celebrate the Christmas season. He loved our culture and people dearly, and would take us on rounds to visit as many relatives in the short 12 days of the holiday. He contributed to the upkeep and beautification of Ngajeme, our village masquerade. Dad would also bow in passing to the great masquerades of Oguta. He would draw a circle in the earth and place a gift of money and a bottle of kaikai (locally brewed gin) in it.
Masquerading was in my blood, as my mother was from the largest family in Abatu, the great masquerading village in Oguta. Her father Chief Okonya Okoroafor was a polygamous man. So I grew up with the spirits that seemed to float in space, whose ruffled movements were like gliding, their raffia-clad bodies shivering in the shards of the hot afternoon sun racing down to the great Ogbuide Lake. I recall the masquerades in my work- the faces, the ripple of movement, the excitement and the magic. Sometimes the masquerades fight over seniority and other skirmishes and their followers join in. Every time I work, the work is charged by these memories. It will happen again this Christmas and on New Year’s Day. The wooden gong will sound to call all together, to awaken the great spirits, to breach the gap between the land of the dead and the living. Call it fetish. I call it culture, part of my heritage. Let’s play. Meet you at the village centre.
This is an interview I had with artist Anna Mapoubi, artist and owner of the online magazine www.africafuturistic.com. We became friends in 2016 in Dakar during the last Art Biennale. Her works were exhibited at the main pavilion of the biennale. Originally from Cameroun, Anna lives in Paris.
Anna: Hello, how are you? I return to you for the continuation of my interview. As I explained the aim of this online magazine is to offer Anglophone or Francophone Africans the opportunity to discover surprises. Many young Africans are not interested in culture in a broad way, apart from their musical universe, because there is very little text, and magazine accessible for free. The goal is to create a large contemporary archive for free. There are several headings. I would like to introduce you to the People Inside section, this section talks about the artist, but without insisting on his works, but talking about the human, and especially to give more poetry to see, while talking about his job.
I love your work, your personality, and having a Nigerian artist in this section will be an honor. The goal is also to collaborate with other critics in Nigeria, because writing is lacking. If you have notes, texts already written by other critics, they will complete our interview. Here are the main questions:
To begin our interview, I would like you to introduce our readers by explaining your vision of a futuristic Africa since the dawn of time.
Anthony: The future of Africa is in unraveling the treasures of the past. Africa has so much undocumented history and so many warped narratives in archives that see Africa as The Dark Continent, a colonialized, vanquished people! More often, outsiders who look in with an air of assumed superiority tell the narrative coming from/ about Africa. I want us as Africans to look backwards- Sankofa (Ghana), Natural Synthesis (Nigeria/Uche Okeke). We must rediscover our heritage and start, like Achebe suggests, telling our own stories! And so, the field of possibilities for the African is vast. We can only start telling our story from where we find ourselves- in the centre of an internationalized world! This is joyful, liberating to find discover that we have so much raw material to work with in Africa!
Anna: What definition do you give to Art? And how do you perceive Contemporary Art?
Anthony: Art is the intention to communicate that moves a child to action. Suddenly, Art has grown in presence because of the opening of the world to new ways, of Neo-internationalism. Art is the beginnings of the reason for creating action(s) that affirm, condemn or suggest. Art has an open-ended meaning since we allowed pop, advertising, video, performance, installation, and photography. As the meaning of what can be called Art has expanded, so also, (has) our appreciation of its importance. We (artists), thus become custodians of this gift. It is a humbling task, as we only must show others outside the aesthetic, the artistic side of life, which occurs naturally around us all.
Anna: When did you know that you were devoting your life to art?
Anthony: It started with my ability to draw from life, or from stories of the Bible. The Jehovah Witnesses’ My Book of Bible Stories was very popular growing up in the eighties. Then I would look to the skies and somehow ‘see’ scenes from the Bible stories we had read. When I tried to share these visions verbally with playmates, they didn’t see what I was saying. I then started drawing pictures of the things I was seeing. Though they did not see what had earlier inspired my work, they enjoyed that I could show these things clearly. So, Art became my personal interpretation and voice for speaking, communicating. Later I started drawing portraits from photographs in the family album. They loved it. I saw that I could get paid for doing it. So I said, Why not? Though my father had groomed me to take over his law chambers as his first son, I made a deal with him that I would study Law after graduating from Art School. When I was done at Nsukka, I told him I was ready. But he told me that there was no need, as lawyers don’t earn a good living!
Anna: As an artist, how will you define yourself? How did you reach the finalization of your fingerprint?
Anthony: A living artist will be most foolish to try to define himself- he is still on the journey! Again, the answer to your question will preempt the art historians; will take on their role. I am still learning, still being excited and overwhelmed by the myriad stimuli in our present world! Sometimes I have a feeling of ‘another bodily existence’- I see myself as one who is just approaching a door of discovery; sometimes I feel that the main ideas I will share with the world is close, that I am almost there! In horror, I shake myself away from such thoughts like someone who is on his deathbed making his will, his final wishes. Actually, I am not near any ‘finalization’. There are worlds/ world-views that I have not experienced. Being African, I have so many uncrossed borders, so many spaces that may never allow me access. So, I am in the process of finalizing my vision. Maybe that would be the way to understand my place in the world better.
Anna: What emotions stimulate you? What is the main work of your creation?
Anthony: Emotions? Emotions are our response to the stimuli of living, our answer to being alive! There is so much. An important thing for me is about relationships, about sharing our niche with others. Themes like love, chaos, how we manage our space all crop up in my work. I am also intrigued by perception of others- I look and it appears more like it is a mirror, not another story that I see. Generally, in my work, the people all wear masks, as it happens in real life! We put up appearances appropriate with the time and place we find ourselves in. The face thus becomes a mask that contorts to express emotion, ideas. A mask is tied with performance- so it has a timeline for appropriateness. Then it is discarded. So, I love the fleeting, whimsical, playful moments. I communicate this-no?
Anna: What is the view of your work by the public, by the artistic community?
Anthony: The public is such a huge audience for one to pretend to know their mindset about One’s work. The people I have met usually see me as that Nsukka artist who has continued painting for this long! It is quite a difficult thing, knowing that Art receives very poor appreciation/ sponsorship from African governments. The economy of our countries is struggling from internal problems of graft, poor leadership, and questions about tribal/ ethnicity to even think of our shared art history/ cultural heritage! I have continued to produce work with the support of family and a small, dedicated group of collectors who seem to be amazed by my new work. The thing is, my work is a child of this daunting society. My work thrives on all the chaos, all the negativity that should kill the creative spirit. It acts differently on me, like one getting high on some banned substance! I throw back my angst at my audience. This audacity against the odds seems to delight them; particularly the privileged ones who may afford to collect my work. For them, it becomes a charity done to society- to show them all that has gone wrong. At other times, of course, my themes celebrate the mundane, ordinary living. I stare at a clay cup, and it transforms into something golden. That is the sort of alchemy that I want to achieve at all times through my work.
Anna: Ongoing projects? Currently, where can you discover your work?
Anthony: Ongoing projects? Well, I am working on so many things now- there is the group exhibition coming up in Lagos- Art X; then I am preparing for DakArt 2018 and a solo exhibition for that year. In between, I have commissions for paintings, and the occasional portrait coming. This seems a good time to work, generally. The small group of collectors is responding quite enthusiastically to my work since I relocated from Lagos to my village Oguta. I now have more time to concentrate on my work.
Nigeria’s huge population and diverse ethnic groups make it such a culturally rich place to live in. There is so much music, festivities and the topography shows such a diverse space where the people have adapted their architecture, culture and traditions to survive. Nigeria has the highest number of ethnic groups. Where does one start any journey through it? Each locality has its attractions. In Lagos there’s the New Afrika Shrine, there are the festivals- Eyo etc. There are the cosmopolitan spaces like Lagos Island with its clustered architecture and the beaches of Lagos! Seeing Nigeria may actually take a lifetime! I decided not to leave Nigeria for other Countries this year, just to look around a bit- I have lived all my life here and I still haven’t seen much!
Anna: Could you tell us about other places touching Nigeria? For example music, design, writer, shopping, galleries, food (foufou) etc.?
Anthony: I read Fine and Applied Art at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, majoring in Painting. Personally, I think the educational system training our youth is flawed. For instance, in teaching Fine Art, I am not sure there is any measure for judging Art as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Well, the educational system Africans inherited from the West (I can speak for Anglophone Africa) did not acknowledge the traditional, cultural and local educational systems already in place when the colonials came. They came with that air of superiority that banned or banished all other knowledge that they saw as primitive, archaic or evil. After all, they were bringing ‘light to the Dark Continent!’ So we find our artists being unrecognized/ or pushed into obscurity in the discussion of Nigerian ancient masterpieces. Our Art history is full of beautiful artworks that are labeled ‘artifacts’, anonymous works that only have location tags, or are associated with a certain culture or tribe. We have masterpieces that date as far back, and rival work of others from other civilizations on earth.
Anna: You can also tell us about your training, formation school in Nigeria, the school and the artistic training in Africa, the fundamentals and the foundations of the African school (like that later we can make a dossier on aesthetics and Art in Africa)
Anthony: Places? You can start with my village Oguta. It is on the shores of Oguta Lake, the second largest lake in Nigeria! The lake has a confluence with the Ulashi River that empties into the Niger River. Beautiful sight! Then there are the colonial trade posts at the shore of the same lake, the capsized gunboat from the Nigeria/Biafra war, the shrines of Mami-wata (the Lake Goddess) Mami-wata is the half-woman/ half-fish (mermaid) worshipped by people all down the west African regions- from Nigeria, Benin, Togo downwards.
Every village in Nigeria has its own color, culture, foods etc. It is so multi-diverse and rich that it can only be experienced to understand it! A Google search would explain more explicitly. I don’t have the time to even begin.
You can ask about my village. I may answer a bit. But all of Nigeria? No. It will take too much time! Documented history and so many warped narratives in archives
NB: Here is the facebook link to africafuturistic.com- https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=africafuturustic for more of such African artists and their stories.
‘More cattle?’, a recent collector asked yesterday. the voice was one of wariness, as though a certain boredom had crept into an otherwise very enthusiastic, excited life! I felt a bit like I was staring too much into the sun, and the rays were blinding.
The feeling was momentary. When I started the series ‘A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills’, I had one thing in mind. Many months later, the idea has grown on me. Staring, investigating the same subject concurrently has yielded fruits. Other ideas have come up. I see myself being led in directions I hadn’t thought of. I see now with more clarity than at the beginning. Time brings the stimuli of the other instances of life.
It is an eye-opener to focus on a subject for a long time. The form has shown up in many ways, but generally, the images are created with a mindset to suggest movement. More cattle will come. The troubling issue(s) that led to the beginning of this series continues to trend in our communities. From my studio’s balcony overlooking Trinity field on one side, the cattle are being led out to graze. Their stall is close by, beside the abattoir in the new market in my village Oguta.