Lockdown New York

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/

Blind to the Beauty

How can Oguta remain like this? We have this little paradise waiting to be cultivated. But we all run away from it for selfish gain. We turn our faces away as the waste of daily living is dumped into the lake. We fear to swim in the beautiful Blue lake because we have dredged deep into the heart of the earth. We fear for what lies deep within the troubled waters. The lake lies wasting in the dying sun while we are making plans to replace it. We return home with forex to build our shallow swimming pools in our backyard, and empty the dirty waters into the lake. Why won’t the lake be mad, and carry away the children of erring parents? Why won’t the forsaken lady seek her revenge? The water lily grows long and serpentine underneath, dancing in the slow waves, waiting. Nature will pay us back with what we give to it. Who will swim in the lake with me? The dredger in Umudei village. The litter at the shore. No one swims in the beautiful lake anymore. They travel on it to the neighbouring villages to trade. They stack bags of cassava pegged to the bottom of the lake for days, washing away all the cyanide and smell. That is why our akpu does not smell. That is also why Ihu Ohamiri stinks. But we are happy when we eat our cassava. You would think that you are eating pounded yam. The lake carries away all the stench.Every Christmas now, a church holds an end of year crusade in Mgbidi, a village on the road to Oguta. Their members wear this fluorescent yellow coloured posters that burn the eyes in the harmattan dryness.It is long since our people went mad. The ancestral gods have gathered dust at the corners. Worse, they are now firewood at mother’s kitchen. We found a new religion. We also found oil. Now nothing else matters but these two… not even other natural resources that our fathers lived on. No, oil is king. On Eke, the traders line up to buy produce from those who live across. Oguta people do not farm around their homes. Our farmlands lie on the other side of the lake. So Oguta looks more like an estate without greenery. The local governments in Nigeria have lost their autonomy. The state governors control the local governments. The people at the grassroots live with their waste, they live without social amenities like electricity and pipe-borne water. We live on borehole water that we must make to survive. We are our own government. We are no government. We know no government. We do things our own way. There is no way we can continue this way. We are blind to the beauty that is ours. We live like strangers in paradise. This is the new history we are writing for the children.

About Uche Edochie and Tolu Aliki

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.

Uche Edochie, Conversations II: School Fees, acrylic on canvas, 2018Tolu Aliki, The Elect and the Electorate, acrylic on canvas, 2018Witness- 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.Tolu Aliki, Half full or Half empty, acrylic on canvas, 2018Uche Edochie, Dark Places II: Doubt, acrylic on canvas, 2018

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.

A New Phase of Art in Nigeria

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.IMG_9801w.jpg

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!Tony Nsofor, Rhapsody in Blues II

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.

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.

Personal beauty, or Poise

 
The Washerwoman, 48″x48″, mixed media, 02/2016

Long ago in university I realized that individuality is not to be sacrificed for the applause of the crowd. That is the training and calling of the artist, to give a personalized take on matters. We must say what we believe, and stick to it. It’s also professional integrity.In my work, it started with questioning the notion of beauty. Beauty is not static. It differs among people and cultures. So Beauty moves like a flowing river, with course changing as things come at its path-time rocks, hills, valleys, trees. Beauty of character, though, remains constant, compartmentalized. We say, ‘ Agwa by Nma nwanyi'( Good virtues are a woman’s beauty) she wears it on her.