Coming of Age in Africa

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

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

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

 

Advertisements

Abstract colors, More liberties

Detail of a work in progress, mixed media painting, 2017. 

In this blog, I have written extensively about my work, the creative process, and the figurative. It has become more important to dwell on the abstractions that seem to be taking centre-stage all around us.

Uli has shown us a way of looking at space, engaging it in a way that conveys meaning. Lines and shapes loaded with meaning are juxtaposed with negative bleak spaces that totally shriek in their silence.

Turning it around, the artist considers the power of that non-representational element as subject matter, relocation into deep meditation of color fields. Traditional notions of color no longer apply, nor restrain. Thus, color has gained an independence in its total abstraction- color is the new white noise in artistic communication.

The intention to emphasize local identity is lost on the new international that crosses borders at will. Appropriating passing fancies, one must acknowledge them as relevant memories; hallmarks from journeys, with a cognizance for seeing that in front lies an unfamiliar path that may demand new conversations/interactions. Or else, the artist becomes the bogeyman.

The body of work creates new imagery- exploring an eclectic embodiment- a morpheme of spatial representation. Visual elements are turned on their head- harmony, space, contrast, and balance. Everything is introverted to ‘work’ on the mind where it really counts. External superficialities are done away with in a signature economic style- the work is the reason. The reason is the work.

Reality is a dent on the conscience of the creative, holding ransom all notions and actions towards progress. Concurrently, one must hold on to fantasy- to the subconscious world of dreams as a vision for navigating the psychedelic, hybrid subcultures of today’s world. All accepted standards may fail in the circumstances; boundaries and borders melt away (standing only as a physical presence at the most). Time and Space suddenly embrace to become one experience.

Color is language, identity and representational subject serving all intents of the artist. Color can only be interpreted on a personal level, irreverent to all else. Herein lays the bane of the tribal art grouping- this melting point that allows no measures/ standards to retrain the use or absence of interpretative color.

Having learned drawing, we unlearn drawing. Drawing pretends to unravel the spatial feel of things, working as a witness to a ‘presence’. In turn around, drawing is the real presence. These are tangible existential ideas- generally cultures acknowledge an ‘other’ life separate from this one. Man then begins to ask his place- is this or that the ‘real’ life? To and fro, the tussle becomes the very matter of contention between Realism and Abstraction, the signifier and the amplifier.  

Our visual senses mediate in between engaging and nurturing the mind. Truth is- we know nothing. Let all knowledge begin from there to interrogate meaning.

Sighting Nelson Overhead

It was a sunny afternoon in Maboneng

I passed by two friendly lovers

That mingled with the shades

Overhead loomed gigantic portrait of bare-chested Nelson

Poised as though ready to take on Amin

It was a beautiful portrait

But again, should I envy a man in his prime

After helping him regain his father’s throne,

Myself, a fellow prince?

 

To all casualties of Xenophobia, dead and yet living. 28/02/2017.

The Unrepresented Grew Familiar, Closer

img_0008web

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.

Thousand Cattle, Two Hills

Many times in the past I have painted cattle in different ways. At a time, I used them as a symbol of how providence and good fortune comes from a higher being, or luck. That was in a work I called Cattle on a Thousand Hills, a paraphrase from the bible where God talks about owning and being the provider of wealth.

There is another significant artwork titled ‘The City Eats Grass’, an artwork that talks of rural/urban migration of sorts that harms the economic landscape. The rural areas that used to be productive spaces become empty as people migrate to the urban spaces in search of greener pastures. The urban spaces are so devoid of greenery, and thus imply a lack and foreboding of hunger and loss of agricultural activities that will support lives.

Pastoral tales are as old as the act of human survival. In prehistoric times, primitive man painted bulls and scenes of the hunt, and capture. Picasso, who comes from a culture that has the bull featuring in a local pastime, made a lot of artwork with the bull as subject or matter. He pushed the idea by connecting the bull to other representations in other cultures, to other myths. In Nigeria, the Fulani cattle herdsman was a popular subject at the birth of western styled painting.

In the nineties, as a student union activist fighting the corrupt leadership of the time, Olu Oguibe made the drawing The Beast Had The Face of Someone I Know, alluding to apocalyptic references in the bible, connecting the satire to General Ibrahim Babangida who ruled Nigeria at the time. Instead, the bull’s head had the pasted face of the gap-toothed military dictator.

Recently, the upsurge in Fulani herdsmen attacking and maiming members of their host communities to suppress them has shifted the attention of the nation. Now, the leadership is sponsoring a Grazing Bill in the National Assembly to allow reserves of grasslands all over Nigeria. The hypocrisy of it is in the fact that the sitting president is a professed owner of some of these cattle. He also is employer of his fellow Fulani who have been creating terror and murdering villagers from North to South. The national outrage is that these terrorists are not being called to order. It seems that the leadership is biased in its treatment of this menace of herdsmen.

All came together after a visit to the Walter Battiss exhibitions that ran concurrently at Wits Arts Museum, and at the Origin Center of the University of Witwatersrand. The line drawings took me back to my own origins, in Nsukka, the Uli School.

Cattle have come up again in my work. They are being painted to show their movement, the trail of blood they leave behind. They move as though they are suddenly become sacred, owning the ‘so-called silent spaces’ of Nigeria. The cattle suddenly threaten the existence of the 5 percent who feel unrepresented at the centre of power. The beast gains preeminence even in this dearth of farming and other agrarian activities that will support our development and elevate the scarcity of homegrown foods. In protest, I had stopped eating cow meat. Now, I paint ‘moving cattle’ in protest of the importance they are being given over human lives and existence. The numbers will grow, from ‘Cow 1’ to maybe a thousand. In defiance, cattle have become subject matter. Maybe the nation will notice, that men matter more. Farmlands matter, too. Nigeria shouldn’t have sacred cows. It is as simple as that.

 

 

Error of Being A Nigerian CItizen

The tragedy of citizenship in a country that does not reward her children becomes more obvious when one leaves that country, to another country. Seriously, what are the benefits of being a Nigerian citizen? What government policies give a citizen advantage over any other person? What basic utilities or amenities do we enjoy? What reasons do I have to be proud of my nation?

These reflections could be coming from a hangover from dancing to House music all night at Kitchener’s Bar, in Johannesburg. It was a Friday night, and my friend Bukosi had advised that that was the coolest place around. So I walked down Joubert Street through Park Station to the place. This is not so much about my night out as it is of the people (person) I met there.

Since I came alone, I mixed freely till I met Nomfundo, a tomboy South African girl who introduced herself as a former nerd and wizkid. I stayed with her, dancing the bobbling rock that goes with House music. The music seemed like a never-ending sound that had little vocal accompaniment. My Nigerian mentality waited in vain throughout the night for some vocals or familiar Nigerian music. I jumped up and down sporadically danced till we left around 3am in the morning. It kept the cold away.

Nomfundo and I talked about many things. She wondered why the rest of Africa wants to come and stay in her country. ‘We are a young democracy,’ Why wouldn’t everyone else (other African nations) let them (South Africa) grow their economy to benefit her citizens? The Zimbabwean or Nigerian will come into the country and take up jobs at half the salary that a South African citizen would take. The South African had a better appreciation and self-worth, than people from some of these African countries, she said. True, as here, things seem to work for the citizens.

Nomfundo took me to issues of religion. Nigerians seemed to be quite religious, yet they would do anything to acquire wealth. We seemed not to have a conscience, she said. I recalled her first exclamation when I told her that I am a Nigerian, ‘Where are my drugs, ‘she shouted in laughter! She then told me the pathetic tale of her stepsister’s death at the hand of a Nigerian. She believed the sister was murdered so that the husband could get her insurance benefits. I think our Nollywood movies do not help matters. Nigerians are portrayed as ritualists and corrupt in many of these films. The rest of the world is watching it.

South Africans are quite vocal. They seem to protest about anything, and everything. Their rights must be respected, at all times. This is one country where a sitting president has been convicted for mismanagement of public funds, and is in the process of refunding the money to the government. The rule of law works here!

It is not farfetched to see how things work in this country. After decades of apartheid, the people came to terms with their history by creating public hearings where the victims and the perpetuators of injustice faced each other. All over South Africa, the government has erected monuments and institutions to preserve the history and lessons of their darkest period. The youth must know what led to the building of the nation, the sacrifices of the founding people.

Nigeria had her own Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission set up to do something similar in the mind of the masses to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to help deal with what happened under apartheid.  The Nigerian commission stopped short. It seems that the Nigerian-Biafra civil war and the injustices from the period- the unjust government policies against the Southeast and South-South peoples doesn’t count in the conscience of Nigeria. What about the abandoned property laws set up in places like old Rivers State, which saw many pro-Biafra citizens forfeit their lands and properties?

It is a sad joke that the National war museum, with its archives, is located solely in Umuahia, and nowhere else. It is as if the Federal Government wants to keep the lessons of the civil war close to the heart of the Igbos. The terms of surrender, and declaration of a ‘no victor, no vanquished’ people portrays a false picture of the state of affairs. The nation continues to be run as the private property of a certain tribe and part of Nigeria.

Governments in Nigeria have been run like private businesses. One cannot point to tangible advantages one has of being a citizen. The people are so shocked, that they no longer complain or protest against the government. The so-called social critics have all been bought over, and the press reads more like a government release. For their sanity, fir their lives, some of Nigeria’s best brains were lost during the brain-drain era. The citizens who should form the middle-class would rather run away to other countries to work and live. The suppression of free speech; suspension of rulings of the judiciary; corruption; marginalization; poor infrastructure and unavailable utilities, among others, are some of the reasons for this exodus.

Why, for instance, should a nation with a huge unemployed population accept that the landlords rent out their houses for yearly leases? The economy has been crafted to favor the super-rich alone. The common-man cannot assess financial loans, and everything from education to personal property is paid for on a ‘cash and carry’ basis. I am still thinking hard to ascertain what my Nigerian citizenship has brought me.

Every time one crosses the border; one bears the shame and corruption of past political leaders. The Nigerian citizen is seen through the prism of a faulty system. The saddest part of it all is that no one is crying, no one is protesting the immorality, partiality and corruption of our times. Like a puppy beaten to submission, Nigerian people no longer fight for their rights. The will is gone. The will to remain faithful, too, is gone. The green passport is more of an obstacle. As a citizen, I must insist on my rights in this nation. I cannot do this from a foreign land. That is why I must return.