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.




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A Period in Art

There is no such thing as a time for making art, or for defining the growth of an artistic idea. Even defining the period for executing a piece of art is pretentious. We make a general, grand allusion to what we ‘think’ or incubating period. Art is unbound, unfettered. The idea comes by in a flicker, and many times flutters away like a big flirt.

Of utmost importance may be the visual experience of the work. It is usually safer to put a comma, to sign the piece of art even before its done. Really, Art is never done. It is handed over, and again, reinterpreted.IMG_1750

Untitled…When Words are not Enough

Untitled II, 120x120cm, mixed media painting, 04/2016

In times past, one would label a painting’s title as ‘untitled for one of two reasons-maybe one did not think up an appropriate title; or the artist simply forgot to give a title for his piece. A few weeks ago, I made two pieces that didn’t fit this category. The paintings came together as the days passed, growing outwards in ways that I quickly appropriated. One of the paintings was executed wholly in oils, while the other was a mixed media painting. The later was twice the size of the former.

This time around, ‘Untitled ‘ became the device for adding volume to the presence of the paintings. This title (or lack of a specific title, if you want) open-ended the meaning and reading of the artwork. The artist suddenly decided to allow his audience to ascribe meanings. The viewer has joined in completing the creative process, assuming the role of authentic interpreter, and co-interpreter. There is no mystery actually. Sometimes, especially in the times we live in, things don’t have clear-cut answers. The question is the answer. Silence becomes potent, loaded with insinuations and allusions. Truth becomes a many-sided mirror set. What you see is your view. It is intimate.

Untitled, 120 x 73cm, oil on canvas, 04/2016

Painting and Photography, my yin-yang.

Painting and photography as media for expression to me are like the yin-yang effect. They are complimentary tools that help me communicate in totally different ways, to express myself fully. I usually paint these stylized, or pure abstract works. I draw relatively well, transcribing the reality of objects as they appear. I also paint well. But I let go of this ability when I paint. I would rather paint with feeling like an African. I want to interpret form for its importance to the overall message. I want to paint the nose for its functionality-because you use it to breathe, not just as a well-formed cone on a cylinder. In breathing, the nose rises and falls. I want to ‘think’ like it happens in real life, not just record physical appearances. I want to get at the substance of things-the meaning and use for the eyes. Usually, every part of the human body has a function. I would like to suggest that in my drawing. Realism doesn’t allow me to achieve that. Realism is more like a small scratch, like you have a cup and you scratch the cup. If one wants to drink water, one pours it inside the cup. I am working this way generally in my paintings. I accept though, that there is a place for realism even in painting-in recording history, social documentary etc. In my paintings generally, I am doing proverbs (poetry). In my photography, it is prose. I look at the scene before me and take the photograph. This is enough realism. Then I go away and fantasize. I tell stories that are sometimes hyperboles, deeper than surface meanings. So, through painting and photography, I achieve a balance in my work. I can’t just continue taking photographs and using them as references for paintings. I take a lot of photography portraits. This allows me the liberty, when I paint, to close my eyes to immediate appearances, to unveil emotions.   
 The photographs I take are social documents with a double meaning. It’s a retelling of a story, and also it is archival, storing up memories. It’s exciting for me to find ways of retelling the story (when I tear them up and use them as ‘colour’ in my paintings). Every time I have this opportunity to eat into a story, I enjoy the new interpretation that emerges. After amassing and printing so many photographs, it became necessary for me to find ways of recycling them, to find new use for them by giving them new life. I sometimes don’t give the printed photographs to the owner-maybe they don’t come back for it, or I don’t have the time to start looking for them to give the pictures, or I think the colour synchrony of the print does not match what I had in mind when I took the shot. The joy is not immediately commercial- to print and sell the picture. The joy is to take the photograph. The photographs started speaking back at me. I began to study them for their colour as a common element I could inculcate in my painting. I found that certain colours appear more often in my society. So I would cut up the pictures for the colours. This discovery affected my vision in photography. Colour gained importance for me while taking the shot. I looked for ways to highlight hitherto subdued colours, to create contrasts. I would emphasize certain colours by framing my shot. Sometimes I emphasize the colour in post-editing, since I usually shoot in RAW image format.

 Every time I look at a scene, I think of squeezing out colour. This is particularly interesting in night photography when colours are not bleached by the sun. At this time, colours are most intense. These small bursts of colour contrast very well with the black of night.