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.

The Family House

Our home in the village sits at the crossroads where 3 roads meet. So it must be a magical place to live in. I remember waking up on some mornings to find a basket full of sacrifices on the road. My young friend Nonso is a thriving native doctor. I must ask him why this is important. The sacrifices seem to have reduced, since I put a strong searchlight in front of my house. I needed to light up the area, as some young vandals had come to steal the battery from the NDDC solar lamp post. Apart from playing soccer, people come to the field of Trinity High School to learn to drive. I have taught some friends on this field. The cattle sellers drive their cows to graze here also. From my vantage point on the second floor, I drew inspiration for some of the images in my series of paintings A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills. As night falls, people come there to smoke weed, etcetra… The vast space has allowed me to enjoy working on larger canvases. My latest canvas cannot even fit into the door to my studio, so I have to paint outdoors. I am free here. The spaces are for flying. The air is light. The lake is nearby. This is truly home.

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.

The Essence of Drawing

My first thought when I see something interesting is of the beauty of the subject- the contrasting lines, light and shade, and how light and the passage of time plays on what one sees. But primarily, I came to the lake for one of the boys to wash my car. I felt it was a waste of time and money to drop off the car and return later to pick it up in an hour.

Looking around, I saw this rusty old barge. I sat on a log, and started drawing. Every stroke got me thinking more and more, about the reason for drawing. It started with the caveman and his survivalist instinct of capturing the essence of the beasts he hunted down, before embarking on the hunt. Drawing started as a ritual in the struggle for survival. Then it became a celebration of events, a store of memories and memorabilia, and a delight in the beauty of life around us.

The invention of the pinhole camera, among other human achievements put to question the strength of the drawing as a store of memory. But as I stated before, drawing is more than all that. I must also add the ‘little’ aspect of drawing as a way of training the wrist to become more fluid or flexible. Some artists start the artwork from a sketch; and others, with a sketch. Drawing thus forms a primal basis for building on the idea. There are times when drawing is ‘the idea’. Again, as in points of view, these things depend on the audience. Art can either be a mirror, or a ‘being’. Investigations and interactions have a way of ‘growing’ art. Art is summarized in the drawing. Drawing can be the idea; the beginning of a new idea; or a suggestion. A drawing doesn’t necessarily stay alone. It points in all directions.

IKE FRANCIS, A KINDRED SPIRIT AND MY BROTHER

He is my cousin, and I have been friends since my time in Nsukka, when he was studying at University of Port Harcourt. Ikechukwu Francis Okoronkwo, aka IkeFrancis to you aka Kindred to those who know him from Oguta has come a long way. The fifth of six children- two daughters and four sons, he had a humble and noble beginning in life.  He ended up doing a Master’s degree program in Painting under Professor Chike Aniakor, and has since become Aniakor’s favourite son and prodigy.

IkeFrancis was called Kindred (pronounced Kin-Dread) in my village by his peers and had dug deep roots into Rastafarianism. He and his friends formed a three man Reggae singing group and they performed in the early eighties at Charley Boy’s Oguta Studio and bar. They even released an album produced by Charley Boy. That album brought fame in our village circle, but not beyond. At some point then, he would visit me in our country home and we would gist while I painted on the balcony of our two-storey building on 59 A.C. Nwapa Road, Oguta. His house was on the same street, a few compounds away. Then, he was enamoured with the scrap metal sculptures that pervaded the growing Art School at University of Port Harcourt, Choba, Rivers State. I also took note of his multi-coloured palette of pastel-coloured oil paintings executed alla prima with a palette knife.

We often discussed the artistic climate in Nsukka- Aniakor, Udechukwu, Chika Okeke, El Anatsui etc. I was pleasantly surprised to hear of his admission to gain a Master of Painting Degree from my alma mater. He investigated the power of Visual Language, and combined it with Poetry in his paintings, creating a Morph that totally delighted Professor Aniakor, who was still at Nsukka then. Ike Francis’ mural still adorns the outer wall of one of the Art History classes in Nsukka.

It was at Nsukka that he met then Sri Lankan female painter Sukanthy Visaggaperumal, my contemporary in the Art School. IkeFrancis has done well as a painter, and featured in many art exhibitions here, and abroad. It was in his paintings that I saw the use of circuit boards for the first time (I could swear that he introduced this element as a medium in Painting even before the renowned Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya, but this would distract from the intention of this essay, which is to showcase the Nigerian artist that signs off as IkeFrancis).

Ike Francis has also had his share of accolades. He won a Painting award from the Spanish Embassy in Nigeria; and more recently, won the third place prize at the last Lagos Black Heritage Festival organised with sponsorship from the Catalina de Medici Foundation, Italy, two years ago. I visited his hotel by the seaside in Oniru, Lagos, where he and about twenty-nine other shortlisted painters were lodged by the organisers of the LBHF Art Competition. I had been among the hundreds of artists interviewed prior to the beginning of the contest, at the Civic Centre, Lagos. I was not lucky to be nominated as one of the finalists, though I was pleased to have participated in some artistic event alongside other artists.

Another interesting relationship in his life, and work, was the long-term friendship between him and Sam Ovraiti. Both artists’ works share great similarities in their composition and execution of female figures- the tall slim figures with hair falling across their faces, all formed in broken kaleidoscope of colours. The major differentiating factor in their works, for me, is in the use of media- Ovraiti is a master of Watercolour while Ike Francis works mainly with Acrylics.

Ike Francis is truly my brother, a kindred spirit that has shared life, laughter and Art with me. I recall how nicely he cooked some catfish we caught trapped in some abandoned fishnet at the nearby stream in the village. We have strategized together about making it big, chased after women together like every other full-blooded jolly fellow, gone fishing at the stream, slept and eaten together. In fact, he left for Port Harcourt from my house today. He is Professor Aniakor’s first son, and still visits Aniakor in Calabar to receive mentorship and fatherly advice on sundry matters. Hail, Ike Francis aka Iyke-kindred aka Ikechukwu Okoronkwo, you are one of us, Umu-Uli.

We are still making plans to make it big as Artists someday soon. Our paths still criss-cross. Presently, he teaches Art in University of Port Harcourt and is struggling to finish a Doctorate Degree program there as well.IKE FRANCIS aka IKE OKORONKWO

The artist IKE OKORONKWO aka IKE FRANCIS aka KINDRED