Of Facial Masks and Masquerading in My Work

IMG_1649webTill 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)

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Ajekwu masquerade of Umudei Village, Oguta, Imo StateL1150594web.jpg
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Ipu Afia Agu of two members of the Igbuu society, Oguta, Imo State, Nigeria

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’.

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By the Blue Lake, Oguta, Imo State, Nigeria

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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.

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My interview with Anna

IMG_0480webThis 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- Staying on one topic

IMG_0092web‘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.

Chaos and Creativity

IMG_0019The subject matter of Creation is Chaos’-The Plasmic Image, Barnett Newman.

While working, I see the possibility of multiple stories jumping out from the artwork. It is a sort of cross-referencing, both directly and in the mind; at being explicit in a crude way that could rob the work of its ‘reading’ as poetry. Beyond visuals, one has forced in the literalness of text.

In moments of quiet, the various elements are then reunited with firm brushstrokes. I blur hard edges, bringing in smooth transitions and coherence to the formal elements of the picture. When I cut bits of magazine for their color, I am surprised by the sudden change that happens to the cutouts when they are ‘relocated’ into the canvas. They acquire separateness, an abstract nature. The soft pastel colors used in magazines have subtle transitions generally. I take the textures of cloth, hair and other patterns and start reinforcing. I take from here, forget it, come back to look at it again and again. The text of the magazine print suggests a complex fusion of ideas. That is how art mimics life- things do not stand-alone. Whole lines of disjointed phrases are included as the fast whiff of a brush.

Ruth, Orpah and Naomi are three women whose destinies are tied through marriage. Then, their characters evolved. This work deals with the theme of famine, migration and marriage, and how it affects the lives of three women from the biblical story of Ruth. The similarities in the cultures of the Jews and the Igbo people of Nigeria make it a familiar story. The work of Art is first an aesthetic statement, then come the stories of people seeing, interpreting and pushing deeper into the picture plane. We try to find sure footing when confronted with the otherworldly encounter with a painting. People take what will become theirs, and then there is the mindset of the artist- usually suggested by the title of the work. We must come again and again to see. Chaos becomes something beautiful.

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.

The Unrepresented Grew Familiar, Closer

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At first they seemed like the opposition. Then they became the masses, then the line of separation was drawn. They were many; the unrepresented soon showed how they had become the ‘majority’. Though they stayed under, their voices soon started wearing recognizable faces in the din of mourning voices in the cities and villages. Suddenly, everyone knew the suffering ones by name- You, I and Theirs. We gathered together, soon we will become their nightmare. Soon after ours is gone with the dawn.

Bloody Cattle, Bullshit System

Some months back, I promised a friend that the series A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills will be pushed till I have a thousand artworks! Not being the most meticulous person/ artist, I have not been counting. I could always stop at some point and ask anyone to also add the number of ‘cattle’ portrayed in the pieces as ‘individual cattle’! ‘They say the system works but we wont let it(sang Tracy Chapman) I am still looking for that system. There is a formal redirection towards a disintegrating world, where bedlam reigns and colour Red is the new Green. Reality is a horror movie of whirling beasts floating in space. Its all bullshit, really. Await another life, or wake up screaming.img_0115web