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Defining Nigerian popular music

Defining Nigerian popular music

In the run-up to
planned celebrations of the arts and culture sector of Nigeria, 50
years after her independence in 1960, there was public discourse
instigated by academia as to where the timeline should fall in
identifying any art form as Nigerian. Quasi-academic arguments proposed
that ‘Proto-Nigeria’ become the designated term for art forms and
genres that were developed before Nigeria was officially declared one
country by the colonial administrators in 1914.

By this
definition, it was argued, the Benin bronzes, Igbo Uku and Nok
terracotta, as well as the photography of Jonathan Adagogo Green in the
1890s, did not qualify as milestones in defining and celebrating art
forms and genres that can truly be categorised as Nigerian. All the
same, at the risk of incurring the academic wrath of the progenitors of
this school of thought, I will attempt a preliminary examination of the
roots and development of Nigerian contemporary popular music.

Nigerian folk
music, which evolved to create and shape Nigerian contemporary popular
music, is a much older genre of music than Nigeria itself. Folk, or
indigenous traditional vocal and instrumental, music predates the
British colonial efforts to create the geographical territory now known
as Nigeria. Interactions and manipulations within the colonial process
resulted in creating regional and national centres for administration
and commerce. The drift from rural areas to these new centres in turn
created a new urban culture and music that can best be described as a
melting pot of various indigenous rhythms and folk tunes. Out of this
mix came highlife, which is unquestionably Nigeria’s first genre of
contemporary popular music.

In his interview
(published in 2005) with the then 86-year-old Ambrose Campbell, the
producer of the very seminal ‘Highlife My Life’ project, Osaze Iyamu,
asked Campbell about the roots of Nigeria’s urban music. “There was
juju music with Tunde King,” Campbell explained, “and then by 1939
Ibos, Itsekiris, Liberians (crew sailors) and we the Yorubas, the Lagos
boys, brought our own kind of song and they their own kind of song; we
used to jam together.”

Not surprisingly,
right from the beginning, there were noticeable varieties of flavours
and inflections of highlife music, characterized by the indigenous
culture and folklore of the particular musicians. It was no wonder then
that the first generation of Nigerian highlife musicians sang in their
indigenous languages as well as incorporating their indigenous rhythms.

According to the
late great musicologist and creative activist, Steve Rhodes, it was
this recognisable variety that distinguished Nigerian highlife as an
original, diverse and very creative genre of contemporary popular
music. The pioneer giants of highlife as a recognisable independent
genre of popular music who best exhibited these traits, not in order of
chronology or creative competence, were Victor Olaiya, E.C. Arinze and
Rex Lawson.

Origin of Highlife

But then was
highlife, per se, a solely Nigerian musical phenomenon? Benson Idonije,
Nigeria’s foremost researcher and radio presenter of early contemporary
popular music, has a satisfying take on the origin and creative roots
of highlife.

“Highlife, the
first fusion of West African indigenous music with western forms,”
Idonije explains, “is the sub-region’s popular form of music. Some
claim that it originated from Ghana; others say it was introduced by
sailors and crew men from Sierra Leone (and Liberia). The most credible
view is that highlife has been in Nigeria long before E.T. Mensah of
the Tempos Band introduced the Ghanaian version to Nigeria in 1952.”

Idonije cites
“King, Denge and Ambrose Campbell, Sam Akpabot and others from the
post-World War II eras as the Nigerians who fashioned Nigerian highlife
before Mensah. However, Bobby Benson was the first to create the
Nigerian highlife alternative and parallel.”

Bobby Benson,
musician, show business-man and hotelier, can be regarded as the father
of Nigerian contemporary popular music. His full ‘big band’ orchestra,
which played a variety of music from chacha to rumba, a bit of
jitterbug/jazz and of course highlife, was the training ground for many
musicians, including trumpeter Zeal Onyia and saxophonist Babyface
Paul. Benson’s (and Nigeria’s) first highlife megahit ‘Taxi Driver’
(1954) was a reaction to scorned love: “…if you marry taxi driver/I
don’t care.” Bobby Benson himself became the butt of another popular
highlife song in Yoruba, “Bobby has bought a car/but he has not bought
a house/There is no never-do-well like Bobby!”

Variants

Victor Olaiya, the
trumpeter, epitomised Yoruba highlife, though he was brought up in
Onitsha and speaks good Igbo. He introduced the drone-guitar effect as
played by Akanni, and his early hits include ‘Kusimilaya’ (Die on my
chest/breast) E.C. Arinze, also a trumpeter, epitomised Ibo highlife
and became legendary for his hits, ‘Nike Nike’ and ‘It’s Time for
Highlife’. Rex Lawson, an Ijaw trumpeter, took highlife to its golden
age, achieving national and international fame although he sang mostly
in the minority Ijaw language. Lawson introduced the three-membrane
Ijaw masquerade drum into highlife and the use of two electric guitars,
trends which were later adopted by other highlife and Afrobeat
musicians like Fela. Lawson’s numerous hits include ‘Love Adure’,
‘Yellow Sisi’ and ‘Jolly Papa’.

Yoruba highlife
musicians, naturally, introduced the talking drums. Popular
‘second-generation’ highlife musicians include Eddy Okonta, Crossdale
Juba, Roy Chicago, Adeolu Akinsanya, Erasmus Jenewari, Sonny Brown,
Apollos Fiberesima and a host of individualists and innovators.

Bala Miller, from
Kaduna North, and the Sahara Dance Band, based in Jos, were some of the
prominent bands in that sector. Mention must be made of Ralph Amarabem,
guitarist and leader of the Aba-based Peacocks who produced the
all-time hit ‘Eddy Kwansa’.

It would appear
that the vogue then was to have highlife bands led by
trumpeters/singers. Trumpeters Zeal Onyia (in whose early band Osita
Osadebe cut his musical teeth as a singer), Vicky Yemu Afumu (Vicky
give me my half-penny), Eddy Okonta (Bisi), Roy Chicago, Apollos
Fiberesima, and Sonny Brown were some of such leaders. It also became
fashionable for highlife musicians to sing in their indigenous
languages as well as in English, particularly Pidgin English, in a bid
to reach wider audiences as highlife gained prominence and acceptance
across Nigeria. Inyang Henshaw was proficient singing in both Efik and
English and set the tone for Etubom Williams and other musicians from
the Cross River axis.

Innovators

Victor Uwaifo and
Celestine Ukwu are two highlife musicians whose innovative use of the
guitar and xylophone, respectively, revolutionarily changed the sound
of highlife. Historically, Sam Akpabot had used the xylophone earlier
but the instrument became Ukwu’s trademark signature. Uwaifo remains
Nigeria’s first and true master guitarist and he has incredibly
creative and fluid, lengthy guitar solos on ‘Joromi’ and ‘Guitar Boy’
to convince any doubters. Celestine Ukwu, the xylophonist and
philosopher, remains legendary for his ‘Ijenu’.

Eric Akaeze
(Ayolo), Orlando Owoh (Canary), Price David Bull and his Seagulls,
General Boliva, Saint Augustine (Asewo no be work/na management) all
deserve recognition for their contributions to developing and
sustaining highlife music.

For many of the
same reasons, Nigeria’s highlife music deserves a comprehensive and
well-edited book of lyrics, much like Sam Charters’ famous book,
‘Poetry of the Blues’, published in the 1960s. Socio-political
commentary, sarcasm, humour, veiled abuse, sweet nothings, plain good
advice, doses of ego-tripping and macho posturing, and the intricate
emotions of love and relationships have all been addressed in
indigenous and English languages in over 50 years of highlife music.
Highlife has also had its rude boys like Reggae’s Max Romeo.

The puzzle is: how come the high-class/highlife music to which
Nkrumah and Balewa danced at state functions for the independence of
Ghana and Nigeria respectively, tumbled socially and dramatically to
become the low-class music of dingy ghetto nightclubs and dives? Is
highlife dead and buried? Idonije, who postulates that “highlife
stopped evolving in all directions in the mid-60s,” also offers a
lifeline. “Highlife music,” he says, “has become Nigeria’s basic
popular music form from which creative musicians can tap into other
perspectives.”

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Talking Nollywood at film corporation lecture

Talking Nollywood at film corporation lecture

The fourth annual
film lecture of the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC), titled ‘Nollywood:
Reconstructing the Historical and Socio-cultural Contexts of the
Nigerian Video Film Industry’, was delivered by the scholar and author
of ‘Modernity and African Cinema’, Femi Shaka, at the Silverbird
Galleria in Victoria Island, Lagos, on May 5.

The lecture
afforded filmmakers and others interested in the country’s movie
industry the opportunity to discuss issues pertinent to its development.

The managing
director of the NFC, Afolabi Adesanya, reiterated the importance of the
event in his welcome address, saying, “Today’s lecture provides another
opportunity to rub minds and project a formidable vision that will
enable the film industry to be second to none.” Adesanya added that
Nollywood has grown so powerful over the years, that it is now used to
reach out to people. He noted that political parties had to “woo
Nollywood” during the recently concluded 2011 general elections to
highlight how Nollywood has been used as political and social tools.

Creative dialogue

The former managing
director of the Daily Times and chair of the occasion, Onukaba
Adinoyi-Ojo, reiterated the importance of this lecture and previous
ones. He explained that each was a platform for enlightened discussions
about Nigeria’s film industry and its contributions to society.

Adinoyi-Ojo also
noted the popularity of Nollywood across the world and its power,
adding that the industry has to portray Nigeria positively. “Power
comes with responsibilities,” he said, adding that there should be “a
more rounded and balanced portrayal of Nigeria,” rather than the
distorted image given to viewers to feed on. The writer further advised
that Nollywood should “engage other cultures in creative dialogue” and
be “a true representation of our cultural heritage.”

Avenue of escape

The high point of
the day was Shaka’s lecture, which focused on the conditions that led
to the emergence of Nollywood. “There is need to reconstruct this
social history so that we don’t fall into the trap of misjudging
harshly the popular film culture,” he said.

He, however, noted
that Nollywood arose from the need to provide relief to people from the
mass poverty associated with the political instability of the 1990s.
“The people also needed some form of escape entertainment that will
make them forget, even if momentarily, the mass poverty and sufferings
in the land.”

He noted that
movies produced then reflected prevalent social ills including
prostitution, ritual killings, violence and armed robbery. “Movies that
sold during the early years of Nollywood were tales exploiting the
themes of transgressive sex and violence.”

He added, “The
genres which helped to project Nigerian culture globally include the
ritual film, the epic genre, the Christian evangelical film and the
comic genre.”

The pioneers

Shaka, who is a
professor of film at the University of Port Harcourt, also recalled
that Nollywood took off commercially in 1992 when actors like Richard
Mofe-Damijo, Pete Edochie, Clarion Chukwura and Enebeli Enebuwa from
popular television dramas like ‘Ripples’, ‘Behind The Clouds’ and
‘Fortune’ began to play roles in movies. “It’s a transfer of television
actors to movie that helped to kick-start the movie industry,” he
reiterated. Shaka added that these set of actors were instrumental to
laying a solid foundation for Nollywood and that “stars are very
important in the film industry.”

He didn’t fail to
highlight institutions instrumental to Nollywood’s growth. “This
lecture will be incomplete without mentioning MultiChoice,” he said,
while highlighting the role of the African Movie Academy Awards.

The theatre arts
graduate of the University of Benin also acknowledged the role played
by Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, in the emergence of filmmaking in
Nigeria. He noted that the drama club Soyinka established at the
University of Ibadan in 1960 has been a major contribution to theatre
arts and filmmaking in Nigeria.

The lecturer also
offered an insight into one of the major problems facing Nollywood.
“Part of the problems obstructing the growth of Nollywood is
distribution,” he said.

Imitation of life

Three panelists, Ezindu Idimah, Vivien Torbunde, and filmmaker Victor Okhai, later discussed issues raised by Shaka.

There was also an
interactive session during which Adinoyi-Ojo suggested that Nollywood
should pay attention to animation. “Our children grow up on ‘Snow
White’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Mickey Mouse’, ‘Hannah Montanna’ and ‘High
School Musical’.”

Fielding questions
from the audience, Shaka iterated that Nollywood is “a commercial
industry,” where movies are sold based on the featured stars.

On the dominant
portrayal of black magic, superstition and ritual killings that give
Nigeria a bad image, Shaka contended that filmmakers reflect what
happens in the society, hence such themes cannot be completely erased.

“It is not good
but people should not make the mistake that art is a replacement of
reality but [rather an] imitation of life,” he insisted. “It is a dream
factory. We manufacture dream, not what you are but what you want to
be.”

Shaka also allayed
fears expressed by some people in the audience that there seems to be a
clash of interests in Nollywood following the emergence of Kannywood,
the burgeoning movie industry in Kano. “Kannywood is a sub-culture of
Nollywood. As a matter of fact, all other film cultures are subdued
under Nollywood,” he said citing Ghana and, more recently, Kenya, as
examples.

“Kannywood isn’t a distraction, it is highlighting Hausa culture. which is hybrid and borrows from everywhere.”

Award winners

It wasn’t all talk
at the event, however, as two veterans of the movie industry, Ita
Isuaudono Okon and Aliyu Garba Kankara, were presented with lifetime
achievement awards.

The awards,
Adesanya noted, “Affirms that line in our national anthem that the
labours of heroes past shall never be in vain.” He added of all the
prize winners, “All these awards are in recognition of tremendous
contributions of veterans, essayists and corporate entities to the
movie industry.”

Anuli Agina, Vivien Torbunde and Jonathan Eze, the winners of the
2010/2011 NFC film essay competition, also received cash prizes and
certificates. Silverbird Distribution was given an award as Best
Nigerian Distribution Company while the Highest Box Office award was
presented to Chineze Anyaene for her movie, ‘Ije’.

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Reflections on an altruistic life

Reflections on an altruistic life

The public presentation of ‘Reflections
on the Events of My Life’, the autobiography of Samuel Olatunde
Fadahunsi, took place on May 5 at the Agip Recital Hall, Muson Centre,
Onikan, Lagos.

Since it isn’t everyday that a
91-year-old gets the opportunity to tell his story, family, friends and
associates of the former president of the Nigerian Society of Engineers
came out en masse to listen to him.

Doyen of accounting in Nigeria,
Akintola Williams; former military administrator of the Western Region,
Adeyinka Adebayo; and chartered surveyor Hope Harriman, were among
those who came to celebrate with the retired engineer.

Unique book

As is often the
case with accomplished professionals who value time, there were no
frivolities at the event. The reviewer, Reuben Abati, promptly got down
to business after the chair of the book presentation committee, Dupe
Olatubosun, introduced the guests.

Abati, the chair
of the editorial board of The Guardian, disclosed that he didn’t
hesitate to accept the task because of the uniqueness of the book. He
said that, unlike other autobiographies, ‘Reflections on the Events of
My Life’ doesn’t dwell on the author’s personal life, marriage, family,
chieftaincy titles or philanthropic activities. The reviewer said the
book offers useful insights on “the makings of Nigeria, the Nigeria
that seems to be lost in antiquity.”

Abati, who went
through the book with a fine-toothed comb, added that, “‘Reflections on
the Events of My Life’ is a story of Nigeria through the eyes of Mr
Fadahunsi. This, to me, is humbling. The author, though a family man,
did not dwell much on this; he went to describe Nigeria as it was in
the 30s, 40s and 50s.”

The reviewer
further described the author as a patriot, noting that instead of
remaining in the UK after completing his studies in civil engineering
at London University, he joined a group of others who returned to
develop Nigeria. “Despite the fact that Nigeria was not as developed as
it is now, these patriotic Nigerians saw it a responsibility to come
home and build.” The author’s principles and qualities, including love
for family values, loyalty and a stance against corruption, did not
escape Abati’s attention.

Great family man

But the reviewer
wasn’t the only person who commended Fadahunsi’s effort. The chief
presenter, Folorunsho Awomolo, who was represented by his daughter,
also had great things to say about the man who dedicated much of hisl
ife to the civil service. Other commentators also praised Fadahunsi’s
spirit of contentment.

One of his
children described her father as a “great man, who will do anything to
protect his family. Grandpa, as he is fondly called by his
grandchildren, is a wonderful man.”

Born on March 17, 1920, Fadahunsi studied civil engineering at
London University and returned to Nigeria in 1955. His first
appointment upon his return was as district engineer in Osogbo with the
Western Region government, where he eventually rose to become a chief
water engineer and a chief adviser on water supply. He also worked with
the Lagos Executive Development Board, now the Lagos State Property
Development Corporation, before retiring in 1971 to establish his own
firm, Comprehensive Engineering Consultants. He belongs to several
professional organizations and has a foundation named after him.</

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Workshop for romance writers

Workshop for romance writers

Ankara Press, a new
outfit dedicated to publishing romantic fiction, has invited entries
for participation in a one-day workshop holding on Saturday, May 27 at
The French Cultural Centre in Abuja.

With the theme
‘Writing Modern Romance’, the workshop is designed for aspiring writers
who have a passion for writing love stories similar to the
once-ubiquitous Mills and Boon novels, but with African characters. It
will teach participants the techniques of writing engaging and original
romance novels.

How to develop
original story ideas; preventing common writing mistakes; bringing
characters to life; creating and developing memorable dialogue; and
learning how to tie it all together, are some of the techniques
participants will be introduced to at the training.

A release from the
company said the aim of the workshop is to ensure that participants
learn how to write modern romance novels that will appeal to today’s
editors and the publishing outfit.

“Modern romance
novels now feature independent female characters who are assertive and
ambitious and male characters who are strong, honest and not afraid to
emote. Writers must be able to identify and recreate such characters if
they want to be published by Ankara Press.”

Interested applicants should send, as a Word document, a one-page,
double-spaced sample of their best romantic fiction of no more than
1,500 words, typed in 12 point font to ankarasubmissions@gmail.com.
Entries should include applicant’s real names, the title of the story,
and a phone number and e-mail address. The subject line should read
‘Workshop’.

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EMAIL FROM AMERICA: Flashbacks: For the potter’s wheel

EMAIL FROM AMERICA: Flashbacks: For the potter’s wheel

Catholic boarding
school was a difficult experience. I felt like Charles Dickens’ Oliver
Twist most days. You never knew what the day would bring, other than
trouble. I remember severe punishments and I associate the Catholic
Church in Nigeria with child abuse. As little boys we attended church
at least twice daily. Our church was not a sanctuary from abuse; we
were required to confess in church. This was tough for little boys;
there was not much to confess to. We made things up so the fathers
would not be upset. Once our principal priest slapped my friend in
church and the blood formed a beautiful crimson arc from his nose to
the floor. Perhaps it was not the slap; my friend was prone to
nosebleeds. Boarding school taught me to negotiate every human being
very carefully. Each time I enter a church I remember my friend with
the nosebleed.

In terms of
academics, we were sorted like eggs; grade 1, 2, 3 and discards. If you
were not good academically, you were most likely beaten and humiliated
for, in essence, being wired differently. These days I live in a place
where advocates fight fiercely to ensure that all kids are given an
education that matches their aptitudes. Still, America has a long way
to go; children of color lag way behind white and Asian children
academically. It is still a struggle to find the right supports for
children with special needs. It is savagery to teach to the test of a
single intelligence. There are multiple intelligences and they should
all be nurtured.

There was a
library in our school. The library saved my life. I spent as many days
as I could inside that library and I read voraciously. In the books, I
travelled to other countries and met other restless boys like myself –
in places like India, England, and America. I read virtually all the
‘Williams’ volumes by Richmal Crompton, about an 11 year-old-boy and
his gang called the Outlaws. There must have been at least three dozen
of those books: ‘William the Bad’, ‘Just William’, ‘William Again’,
etc. Books are powerful; the first time I stepped foot inside London it
was as if I had been there before.

Many of our
teachers beat us up at every opportunity and I learnt that the human
being has an infinite capacity for administering punishment on others.
I also met amazing teachers. There was a Nigerian priest who put a
smile on our faces each time he entered the class. He was our English
teacher; he had travelled all over the world and he was a great story
teller. He never hit us, which was quite unusual. Our senior tutor
taught geography. He was a walking demon. He would walk in to our class
with a whip and growl at the victim of the day, “You! Show me
Saskatchewan!” Invariably, the nervous kid would point at the wrong end
of the map and the whip would descend on him. Many of us would wet our
pants from waiting for our turn. One’s turn always came.

I learnt to tell
the changing of the seasons from the church hymns. Certain hymns, when
they were sung, I knew meant soon I would be going to see my mother.
When the holidays came, I would get in a taxi all by myself and go home
to the waiting arms of my mother. It was not all bad.

There were social
events, dances and plays. My favorite teacher of all time was Mr V.O.
Thomas. He was my literature teacher. He absolutely adored me, he loved
playing tennis and during evenings while my peers were performing
manual labor, he would make sure I was at the tennis court with him,
picking balls. He called me Fat Head affectionately.

He would walk into
class and go, “Fat Head! Read! Read Abiku!” I did not like reading
Soyinka’s ‘Abiku’; it was too complex for me. I preferred ‘Abiku’ by JP
Clark’s (as he was called then). I understood it better. He knew that
and he loved to watch me start reading the wrong ‘Abiku’. I always read
JP Clark’s ‘Abiku’. They don’t make them like him anymore.

I have been reading Chukwuemeka Ike’s ‘The Potter’s Wheel’ again.
Ike is one of the most under-rated and under-celebrated writers in
Africa. In ‘The Potter’s Wheel’, a bright young boy who is doted upon
by his parents is sent off to a disciplinarian teacher in a faraway
village to learn some discipline and get an education. As a teenager I
enjoyed that book immensely; it is such a lovely book. Re-reading it
however has been painful: the scenes of physical, verbal and emotional
abuse against this boy Obuechina Maduabuchi (Obu) and other children is
just too painful for me to read. What makes me really sad is that there
was a time I thought what happened to me and boys like Obu was normal.
No child should have to suffer like that. Pray for the “child witches”
of Akwa Ibom.

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Going digital: the future of the Nigerian book

Going digital: the future of the Nigerian book

The 10th annual
Nigerian International Book Fair (NIBF), which opened on May 9, kicked
off with an international conference the next day at the Afe Babalola
Auditorium, University of Lagos.

Themed ‘Technology
and the Future of the Book: New Digital Publishing for Africa’, the
keynote speaker was Robert Baensch, president, Baensch International
Group, USA.

Oye Ibidapo-Obe, a
former vice chancellor of the University of Lagos, was chair of the
forum which had in attendance veteran actor Segun Olusola, Yemi
Ogunbiyi of Tanus Communications, Yinka Lawal Solarin, former chair of
the Nigerian Book Fair Trust (NBFT), and publishers and booksellers
from across the country.

Samuel Kolawole,
chief host and current chair of the NBFT, described the book fair as a
milestone in the history of the publishing industry in Nigeria. “We
believe there is no better time to talk about this issue than now. The
developed world has moved far away from where we are in Africa
regarding publishing,” Kolawole said.

“Technology has
impacted on the process of publishing the book and the book itself.
Today we have chosen two speakers to throw light on what is going on in
the developed world.

“Some years ago
mobile technology was something we never thought will grow in Nigeria,
but the story is different today. Infrastructure affects technology but
we should not let that deter us. Let us take something away from here,”
he added.

e-Books

Baensch’s address
was illustrative and he revealed some current trends in contemporary
e-publishing. The international publishing specialist discussed the
history of books, the early e-book, its initial success and how those
who made positive forecasts about its future were eventually
disappointed. Baensch, who also distinguished between extractive and
immersive books (books from which the reader pulls information and
books that one reads from cover to cover), offered some tips to
Nigerian publishers.

He told them that
they have to define their customers to maximise the benefits of digital
publishing. Defining new distribution and retail channels; developing
new goals which will demand new strategies and new technologies and
good management of people and publishing programmes were also
highlighted by Baensch. But most importantly, he told the publishers to
focus on quality content because “it is the real value for long term
success.”

No hiding from technology

Ibidapo-Obe, who
gave a short speech after the keynote address, noted that technology is
a product of globalisation and we cannot run away from it. “We must
find a way to harness technology to our future otherwise we may once
again be enslaved,” he stated. “Students have difficulties in using the
library. Publishers should make online versions available to students.”

The current
president of the Nigerian Academy of Science and vice chancellor at the
University of Ebonyi stated that he has a personal preference for books
but has come to terms with technology. “Whenever I go to a city, I like
to visit the university bookshop there. But we cannot run away from
technology,” he stated.

Samuel Eyitayo, a
librarian at the U.S. Consulate General, who delivered a paper titled
‘Book, Technology and Infrastructural Development: What the Future
Holds for Nigeria’, predicted that, “in the near future book production
is likely going to move almost exclusively onto the digital platform.”

He also made
recommendations to help push the growth of digital publishing in
Nigeria. “There must be an arm of your organisation that is researching
and monitoring what is going on in the industry as it relates to the
use of technology.”

He added that,
“The Nigerian Copyrights Commission should be well funded, staffed and
equipped to effectively tackle copyright infringements especially
within the new realm of technological realities.”

Reward for excellence

The conference was
also an opportunity to give awards to those who have consistently
exhibited since the inception of the fair 10 years ago and those who
have contributed to the success of the NIBF.

Dayo Alabi, the
first chair of the NIBF, revealed how the body was created during the
presentation ceremony. “It was in August 1998 that we were invited to
the Zimbabwe International Book Fair which was the only viable book
fair in Africa at the time.” Participants at the fair decided to form a
similar association in Nigeria when they returned. “The federal
government gave us 10 million (naira) when we started and Professor
Chukwuemeka Ike convened the first meeting of stakeholders in
publishing in Nigeria,” he added.

The award
recipients included individuals, publishers, and booksellers.
Recipients of awards for consistent exhibitions included: Macmillan
Publishers, Mosuro The Booksellers Limited, Academy Press, Literamed
Publications, Africana First Publishers and HEBN Publishers Plc.

Awardees in the
second category included: Segun Olusola, Yinka Lawal Solarin, Repro
India Ltd, sponsors of the book fair and University Press PLC.

We‘ll get there

Kolawole shed more
light on digital publishing, challenges that would likely beset its
proliferation and its effect on the existence of printed books after
the ceremony.

“The challenges
are in terms of infrastructure. We know the state of electricity supply
in Nigeria today. You need access to internet broadband. The level of
broadband deployment in Ghana is higher than that of Nigeria. We’ll get
there someday. Those are the challenges we are facing,” he said.

“Someone raised
the issue of piracy. If the hard book is being pirated, what will
happen to the digital content which you can see on the internet? A lot
of things can happen when you put your book in digital format
especially in a country like Nigeria. But we can’t say because of the
challenges of today we won’t prepare for the opportunities of
tomorrow,” he added.

On whether digital
publishing could lead to the extinction of physical books, Kolawole
asserts: “It’s not going to go into extinction, especially in Nigeria.
Students in our primary and secondary schools will still need to have
access to these hard books.

“You can talk
about the cities that so many schools are now using e-learning, but
what is the percentage of those schools compared with those that are in
rural areas that don’t even have chairs and tables to sit and write,
and you are talking about Kindles and Amazon.com? It doesn’t mean
anything to them.” He added that, “Until we reach the level of making
provisions for all those people, the hard book will still continue to
exist in Nigeria but of course technology too will have its impact. I
believe the hard book will still continue to exist especially in the
textbook segment.”

Kolawole also touched on the effect of digital publishing on the
Nigerian economy. “We should bring out books on our culture, on our
history, on our ways of life in the format that the international world
will want to read. If we are able to do this, we’ll be able to bring
foreign exchange into Nigeria.”

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Artistic journey into memory

Artistic journey into memory

A solo exhibition
by artist and creative director at NEXT newspaper Victor Ehikhamenor,
“Entrances and Exits’, opened on Saturday, May 7 at the Centre for
Contemporary Art (CCA) in Yaba, Lagos.

Ehikhamenor set
up the exhibition with assistance from Bisi Silva, the director of CCA,
and artist Jude Anogwih. The show is the second of a four-part series
the centre is hosting, with photographer Mudi Yahaya having held the
first. Yahaya’s recently concluded exhibition at the centre was titled
‘The Ruptured Landscape’.

“This is
important for us because what we are interested in over the next two
years is working with Nigerian artists based here and artists that
reside primarily in the diaspora,” said Silva.

“We want to push
artists to go beyond their comfort zones to be able to use CCA as a
kind of laboratory where they can experiment, where they can try new
things and bring new dimensions to their work,” she added

Site-specific drawing

The works on
display include paintings and photographs by Ehikhamenor, who is also a
photographer. And underlying the works is the symbolism of the door in
all its shades of meanings, and its function as a point of entry and
exit.

The interesting
works are also the artist’s way of preserving the memories of his
childhood as seen from a site specific drawing with chalk on one of the
walls of the exhibition space at the CCA. The wall, which was initially
white, was repainted black and Ehikhamenor used white chalks to draw
patterns on it.

Some of the
paintings also have chalk drawings similar to those which appear on the
wall. The linear and circular lines in the drawings and paintings are
linked to every form of art the artist rediscovered while photographing
for the exhibition. “I decided to do a site-specific drawing, which is
what is going on around the art world right now. Unfortunately, we
don’t have funding from the government here so you can’t really play
around by just going to a place and say okay, this is what you want
people to see.

“So I decided to
do the site-specific, which again takes on a different meaning because
it is temporary and it is also permanent. It will be washed out after
the exhibition but people would have engaged with it.”

Feeding on memory

Another series
include photos of thatched walls and wooden doors with chalk
illustrations and drawings. The artist explained the series thus: “I
grew up in the village but I lived outside the country for about 16
years. Right after I got out of the university, I left the country.
When you are in exile you pretty much feed off your memories.

“When you are not
home, you tend to consume a lot of what you have experienced and I kept
doing some things with doors as far back as 10 years ago. Just like
thinking about the doors of my grandmother.

“My grandfather
had eight wives and each of them had their own houses with different
walls so I kept feeding off of those things and eventually in 2010, I
came back to the village and I realised that these things are going
away because nobody is taking care of them anymore.

“So I started
photographing them. After photographing, I looked at the images and
said well, they are just ordinary doors. The following day I got some
chalks, went back to them and started working on each of the doors,
which this series is all about.”

The artist added
that the series represents different doors, each with its own history.
“I showed them to Bisi [Silva] and we started talking and looking at
possibilities. I started thinking of what else I should do with it. I
started looking at where I went out from and where I decided to go back
to. That is how the whole door series started.”

For the artist,
essentially, it’s all about memories; going out and coming in. “In
doing that I was able to revisit my childhood. I was able to revisit
the visual codes that were there in the community and I decided to
replicate that.”

Ehikhamenor’s
fascination with doors and windows is also evident in the paintings
that are embedded in wooden window frames. “You can give the door
series a subjective analysis yourself because [a] door means different
things: they can be physical, they can be imaginary and we have doors
in our heads. How do we weave in and out of memory?” he said.

In ‘A Quest for
Memory’, a mixed media piece on canvas, old photos of the artist’s
grandfather and his wives are welded into the painting. He explained
that, “As far as the family picture image is concerned, it is a way for
me to feed off of my memory and to keep their memories as well so that
people can see them and say okay, this is where this guy is coming
from.”

Aside from
parallel patterns and illustrations on the works and the interesting
window and metal frames, some of the paintings are richly hued. The
colour choices are deliberate and the artist explains that the colours
in the painting are evocative of the red clay, ochre, charcoal and
sometimes chalk white that could be found on walls in his village.

Cultural artist

Silva expressed
satisfaction at the body of work. “This is an artist that is going back
into culture, going back into history but then looking at how that
impacts on the present and I think that is interesting,” she said. “One
of my favourites is the one where he has embedded vintage photographs
of family members into his work and [is] using that as a starting point
to begin to engage his ancestry; and how he, as a contemporary urban
individual, is engaging something intimate and that idea of home,” she
added.

Silva also
disclosed that the next installment of the exhibition series will
feature UK-based artist Jide Alakija while the fourth will focus on the
works of six female artists; three from Nigeria and three from the
diaspora.

‘Entrances and Exits’ is on display at the Centre for Contemporary Art, located at 9 McEwen Street, Yaba, Lagos until May 28.

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ART OF THE MATTER:A competition without integrity

ART OF THE MATTER:A competition without integrity

“Dear Colleagues,
this is a solidarity call to all members to shun the LBHF painting
competition as the organisers are unprofessional and disrespectful to
artists.” That was a snippet of fury from the Lagos State chapter of
the Society of Nigerian Artists to withdraw the entirety of its members
handpicked to participate in the second edition of the much
talked-about Lagos Black Heritage Festival painting competition,
organised on behalf of the Lagos State government by Foluke Michael, a
principal partner of the Caterina de’ Medici of Africa, which organised
a very successful maiden edition last year.

This call,
according to Oliver Enwonwu, chair of SNA Lagos, became the last option
as the competition was found to be fraught with “insincerity and total
disregard to professionalism.” That the participating artists, who are
meant to be key factors in the competition, were not respected by Ms
Michael and her team, easily triggered a wave of raging fury from the
artists and their professional association.

From the start,
all processes preparatory to the organisation of the competition were
set on a wrong footing. The requirements and attached incentives also
run at variance with those of last year’s competition. Competitions of
international standard, after which the LBHF painting competition is
fashioned, are often endowed with adequate publicity that provides a
level playing field to all contestants and participants. All of that
happened last year when the preliminary panelists finally shortlisted
50 participants from over 200 entries. It was the biggest participation
of professional artists in a competition in Nigeria. Out of 50
shortlisted candidates, only 30 were selected for the competition. This
year, instead of publicising the competition to attract many interested
artists, the remaining 20 candidates dropped last year were secretly
handpicked to become competitors!

A letter sent via
internet to each artist and signed by one Kayode Olorunsola reads in
part: “The selection procedure was based on your performance during the
last year’s edition of the LBHF Painting competition selection’s
process.” The third paragraph reads: “The painting competition takes a
new, experimental format, with 20 artists inevitably interpreting – or
maybe none at all – themes that will emerge from the symposium:
ANIMATING HERITAGE.”

Disrespectful

Due to the
emergency nature of the letter, only 14 of the invited 20 candidates
could show up at the Vintage Hotel, Lekki, where they were camped for
the competition. According to most of the participants, they waited in
vain for adequate information on the competition vis-à-vis the
procedure and the prize money. Ms Michael, who had the information, was
not willing to meet the artists; nor could her representatives handle
the situation other than taking the participants out for feeding at
eateries.

The artists
insisted on meeting with Ms Michael, but their request was rebuffed; so
they decided to reach out to the chair of their professional body, Mr
Enwonwu, who immediately sought to iron out issues with the organisers.
The response he got from Ms Michaels, according to him, wasn’t pleasant
to the ear. “That was disrespectful to us and our noble profession,” Mr
Enwonwu fumed.

Ghetto prize

Meanwhile, unknown
to the organisers, some of the artists had logged on to the
competition’s official website where they discovered, to their chagrin,
that the prize money, which they consider “extremely ridiculous,” had
just been posted online. This was coming more than 24 hours after they
had all resumed camp. The prize money was the straw that broke the
camel’s back, and one can only understand better if compared with what
obtained last year. At least there were cash prizes for five winners
last year, in the following order: 1st prize – $20,000, 2nd prize –
$15,000, 3rd prize – $10,000, 4th prize – $7,500, 5th prize – $5,000.
The cash prizes, which attracted such crowded participation last year,
was drastically reduced to scratch this year. It wasn’t surprising that
the organisers had decided to keep it secret until the artists had
resumed camp and discovered it on their own.

For this year’s
cash prizes, check this out: 1st prize – $2,500, 2nd prize – $1,500,
3rd prize – $1,000. While the organisers believed the artists should
appreciate their participation outside of the prize money, the artists,
who are all professionals, believed otherwise. To them, the prize money
was ridiculous as one of their paintings would be worth more than the
1st prize money. “Why can’t I stay in my studio, produce a painting of
the same size and get it sold instead of subjecting myself to this
modern day slavery and monumental fraud?” one of them quipped. The
raging disagreement resulted in the ejection of the artists from their
hotel rooms, while the organisers sought alternative means of carrying
on with the competition.

SNA bites back

This, among other
degenerating issues arising from the “ridiculous” prize money,
compelled SNA Lagos to withdraw its members, and this was communicated
to the media. The press release, signed by the chapter’s public
relations officer, Ola Balogun, reads: “The Society of Nigerian
Artists, Lagos, wishes to express its displeasure with the organisers
of the art competition of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival over their
unprofessionalism and the shoddy treatment of artists, including their
ejection from the hotel accommodation provided for the duration of the
competition, over their agitation for professional management.”

He further states
three reasons for the society’s action: “One, entries for a competition
of this nature should be announced publicly and participants should not
be hand selected; two, criteria and prize money should also be
advertised beforehand; three, non-recourse to the registered
professional body for visual artists in Nigeria.” The release
concludes, “While applauding the efforts of the organisers to promote
the visual arts in Nigeria, we insist on professionalism and the fair
and proper treatment of artists.”

If the competition
had been thrown open and the prize money announced in earnest, there
could have been a different level of participation from interested
artists who may not necessarily be professionals like those
specifically invited. In Nigeria, art competitions are organised with
the notion that the prize money does not matter. Most of the organisers
erroneously regard competitions as a way of helping the artist. They
never see the point of appreciating and rewarding creativity and
originality. It is a similar case with some art patrons who believe the
only reason they buy artwork is to help the artist – as if the art
works in question do not command any value.

Not in Soyinka’s name

Last year’s maiden
competition, greatly influenced by the editions annually organised by
the Caterina de’ Medici of Italy, was roundly applauded. The prize
money had attracted many big names to participate, with many of them
travelling in from outside Lagos. It also resulted in the high quality
of works that won prizes, a few hiccups notwithstanding.

This year, the
organisers tried to blackmail the artists by constantly using the name
of Wole Soyinka, who was instrumental to the grand success of 2010.
Unknown to them, the artists had made their findings and had discovered
that the globally-acclaimed professor, known for his integrity and
credibility, had advised the organisers not to hold the competition
this year, especially due to lack of funds. The reason was corroborated
by Ms Michaels: most of the sponsors are only willing to play ball next
year.

The organisers may look inward and do a better job next year,
bearing in mind that when the integrity of the Nigerian artist is
dragged in the mud, ire is also drawn in the process.

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All things black and beautiful

All things black and beautiful

BlackBird
By Jude Dibia
Jalaa Writers’ Collective
233pp

I’ll cut to the
chase: trailblazing writer Jude Dibia has worked up a tour de force
with his latest offering, ‘Blackbird’. Coming after his debut, ‘Walking
with Shadows’, and the prize-winning ‘Unbridled’, this latest work does
well as a worthy addition to a steadily growing oeuvre.

The story is
gritty and even saucy in places, only fitting for a tale that pulsates
with the stuff of everyday relationships, one suffused with the
colouration of something ripened by the elements. It has the power to
work on the mind to see, for the first time, the rearranged prejudices
it had been fooled all along to take for thinking.

The writer did it
for me when he had the flustered oyinbo main character of the story
finally retort to his black interest of the moment, an unsung singing
marvel: “The real issue is that you Nigerians never let your guests
forget that they are foreigners.” It is he who, by this state of
things, is able to get at the hospital what she needs to save her son
from certain death.

That’s no spoiler
alert; I will not be giving away any thread of the plot of the story,
or even its arc. You will get the book and you will read it for
yourself. If I could enforce that, I would.

Dibia’s tale is a
variegated land populated by characters that are by no means
paper-thin. Rather, they are sufficiently nuanced by their maker to be
driven around by demons within and without. This they do almost
mindlessly to tackle the insufferables and ponderables of a society in
the grip of change, triggered by the lustful glare of the rich and
powerful who want more land on which to grow their tribe, even if (or,
especially) at the expense of the dregs at the neck of society.

A tragic study in contrasts

In the middle of
all the action are mixed marital fortunes caught up in the tension of
the moment. Take the white-weds-black marriage of the curious Mr Edward
Wood and the narcissistically ugly Mrs Nduesoh Wood. Each party in the
contrivance has a set of reasons for entering into the marriage,
mutually exclusive to the other. And what an institution it was for
each to live through!

It is the same
for the counterpoise couple, Maya and Omoniyi. Both pairs, taken
together, present a cocktail of a tragic study in contrasts.

Mr Wood is a
Briton with an insatiable libido and an uncontrollable weakness for
black women, whose skin he has taken liberties with to arrive at a
well-informed conclusion: They “glisten like ebony when wet.”

Very married, Mr
Wood, an hotelier, is wont to follow his nose in his quest for strange
– not pale, like his own, but hale – flesh as in of a vibrant hue; to
be had wherever it is to be found.

Reaching far
beyond the creepy blandness of contemporary portrayals of emotions in
relationships in fiction, Dibia instead works a blender with great
tender loving care to squeeze sweetness and tang from the “sour feel of
things left unsaid,” his take on the many marital tensions of the rich,
who are poor in ways untold, and the poor, who turn out to have been
rich in understated hues.

Also worked into
the canvas are the many unstated ways in which Africa has undersold
herself, both in colonial times past and the post-independence present.
Dibia gets ‘the other side’ to reveal how the bargain was struck to get
it institutionalised. ‘Blackbird’ even captures the irony of the
moment: though it has effectively told on itself, that and many more
tellings won’t get it undone.

And how that
state of affairs has morphed into the status quo: a master-mendicant
relationship between pale-skinned intruders and otherwise hale-skinned
ousted landowners, with the former finding they could very well wear
their pigmentation like a cloak of superiority, with which comes a
mounting sense of invincibility.

Chekovian stunts

‘Blackbird’ brings
home with startling clarity the force of newfound truths: displaced
hosts now treated by the scheming, usurping guests as invisible –
except when it comes to hands and legs to run errands and other body
parts required to keep the fancy of the new landowners tickled and
pleased.

‘Blackbird’ is an
authentic narrative of urban space as either utopia or nirvana, or
neither, for the hordes that throng in to either find worth in it or
give their worth to it; the artificialisation of everything on its path
as it is forced to slough off its skin to make it to a new phase.

Pregnant with
irony and the weight of the contradictions of life, love and the lies
that bind them all together, ‘Blackbird’ is proof that the writer has
an eye for intricacies and delicacies; his powers of description are
redoubtable. It is an understatement to say that this writer is one
from whom we shall be hearing for many, many more moons to come. It is
clear that he has many clearly important and ticklish things to say to
us.

His handling of
interior monologue is as cool as it is intriguing. I also found it
achingly accurate at many points. Even the prison notes are so
beautiful they would melt a heart of stone.

For one, he has
proven worthy of inclusion in our conversations by growing for us on
his patch a whole new array of definitions – of things like love and
kindness. But these are, really, not new; only pristine and human at a
rock-bottom fundamental level. His freshly baked similes and metaphors
– how they resonate with mere reality.

While at it, he
even pulled off many a Chekovian stunt with unassailable precision.
Don’t try to catch him placing a gun in Chapter 1 that proved handy in
Chapter 10. Just prepare to catch your breath along with their rhythm
in place.

His portrayals of
what a woman would do for love (and for her man to prove) and what she,
as a mother, would do just to keep her child alive, are almost
revelatory, even celebratory.

A celebration of ordinariness

Dibia’s blackbird
symbolism is a throwback to the use of the raven, a large black bird of
the crow family, by the trailblazing Edgar Allan Poe, the American
writer famous as the first master of the short story form, especially
the psychological horror tale, to which ‘Blackbird’ hints in places.
Like Poe, Dibia appears to also have an obsession with death, as was
the poet John Keats before them both.

Further, Dibia’s
singing, stinging prose is arguably on par with that of Khaled
Hosseini, the highly renowned and important American writer originally
from Afghanistan. Dibia’s writerly senses, honed into instincts, do not
miss anything: the clock stuck… at 9:11. It’s ominous, but so is his
treatment of time in the story with its cache of anti-serendipities,
like anti-matter. Not pat but poignant.

It is obvious:
Dibia is familiar with his characters, but he does not treat them with
contempt. He cares for them; hence they could not but trust him with
their atubotan, or end — which became his beginning.

The tale ends on
a dreary but beautiful note. But it is only a false bottom to a valise.
The author isn’t quite done, not without driving home, perhaps
literally, the symbolism that is the lodestar for his inspiration.

I think the
writers’ collective that undertook the publishing of this book deserve
the flack for the copious copyediting blemishes that abound in the
book. The awkward comma that cuts into the flow of the story, again and
again, betrays a practice of poor punctuation. The ‘winner’ is a sore
thumb on page 284, a mix-up in the names of two key characters who are
sisters.

Yet there is, for
the writer, a little matter of nomenclature that tells on his stylistic
finesse. One example is the use of back-masking for the name of a
place, which makes it unwieldy, rendering it everything but memorable.
Even now, trying so hard, I can’t recall the name.

Apart from the staccato of typos and formatting errors that flare
up occasionally as you move through ‘Blackbird’ country, the book
passes in flying colours as a celebration of the ordinariness that dogs
the heels of the dreaded life.

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Rom Isichei’s many women

Rom Isichei’s many women

You would think you
have met them all, in different sizes, colours, or styles. They are
unmistakable because they are rendered in thick linear lines of warm
colours. Some of the women appear in full figures (thin and large)
while others merely show happy or serene faces. The portraits of these
women are sometimes cohesive in one large canvas or divided by straight
white lines.

However you see
Rom Isichei’s women, their splendor will captivate you even though many
have a certain air of sadness oozing from their eyes. Many art
enthusiasts who have been following Isichei for years would conclude
they have seen all his women. To them I say, not so fast, until you see
the new ones in his new solo exhibition, ‘Quiet Spaces’, at the Nike
Art Gallery.

Late last year, I
visited the easygoing artist in his studio, to hang out and discuss
Nigeria’s contemporary art, a subject he is very passionate about. The
new works I encountered were, in a way, different from what I was used
to yet the same. What he was working on got me transfixed for a while
because I was trying to resolve the duality of my interpretation. His
latest women were rendered quite differently from what people like me
were used to. The known lines had been ditched for thick layers of
paints; the heavy wood dust foundation that foregrounds these new works
gave them a three-dimensional, sculptural feel. The layering of colours
to build depth had earlier been commented on by the renowned artist
Kolade Oshinowo in 2001 when he said, “His (Isichei) colours are
generously and heavy palette knife-applied, most of the time virtually
built into relief, enhancing the tactile value of the painting.” And 10
years later, he piled it on these works even thicker.

Since I knew I
would be back, I did not ask too many questions before I left. Most of
the works were still in the formative stage though the Isichei
signature was already unmistakable.

Lots of women

Two Saturdays ago,
when I needed a break from preparations for my own ongoing exhibition
at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Yaba, I went back to see the
progress of his works. Upon arrival in his studio, all the women in
their regality, like no one has seen them before, welcomed me. In
various media, they climbed from the artist’s tastefully furnished
living room on the first floor to his spacious studio on the second
floor and everywhere else in the house. Isichei had stretched his
terrain, both in subject matter and the material used since my last
visitation. I was more interested in the women, because they form more
than 90 percent of his latest offering. Some of the women were painted
with or, rather, sculpted from found objects, discarded bottle covers
and corrugated zinc roofing sheet. Large eyes popping out from behind
gorgeous colours were either coloured by acrylic or represented by
round hard metal objects.

The first question
I asked the artist from Asaba, Delta State, was, why the obsession with
the female subject? In short, what is your fixation with women
characters? I asked and he laughed because I was not the first to ask
him that question. Surprisingly, his answer had to do with the inside
than the external physical and visual viscosity of colours that one
sees in the large paintings. Isichei believes women are more
emotionally expressive than men. One can hardly measure the temperature
of an environment through the stoic and face-masking, macho-masculinity
of the male specie in our society, hence his concentration on women to
spread his subliminal socio-political message. This is why over the
years he has tapped into the expressiveness of women and keeps painting
them in varying degrees.

Fire in his furnace

The body of work
that makes up ‘Quiet Spaces’ deals with how we react to events in our
private spaces. And the first painting to capture this essence in its
entire oeuvre is ‘Prayer Warriors’, which has two characters with hands
in private supplication. The mixed media on board painting is used by
the artist to remind us that private religion alone will not solve
national problems; we need to publicly tackle issues head on.

This leads us to a
lone figure, a heavily made-up female portrait with all the whistles
and bells that come with a Sunday preparation. This painting speaks
with many voices in an interesting and thought-provoking way with a
title like ‘Preacher’s Wife’. Despite its multiplicity of meaning,
Isichei narrowed it down to “the way Nigeria overdoes things. Though it
is called ‘Preacher’s Wife’, it is more or less about our various
leaders’ wives and the way they carry themselves. Their loudness that
signifies certain hollowness. Our first ladies are distractions to
their husbands and it is unfortunate the men at the helm of affairs
cannot see this overzealousness.”

As if to
counterbalance his take on our leader’s wife, a similar painting titled
‘Feeling Incomplete’ talks about the pursuit of perfection, using the
preachers’ wives of our society as a benchmark. ‘Feeling Incomplete’
has a very dissatisfied woman tugging at her disjointed and badly
coordinated beads. Her head gear is askew and her dangling single
earring makes her incomplete. Though the subject’s face is bleached
out, she is not as gorgeous or loud as the preacher’s wife.

Unsurprisingly, it
was ‘Preacher’s Wife’ that fired up the usually quiet artist
politically and sent him commenting on all that has gone wrong in our
society. At the end of our discussion about the painting and its
accompanying piece, Oshinowo’s voice came screaming in my head, “There
might be snow on his (Isichei) roof, but there is plenty of fire in his
furnace.”

Fresh frontier

Many of the
paintings in ‘Quiet Spaces’ reference religion or the pageantry that
one is bound to experience on a Sunday afternoon in Lagos. This is not
surprising as most of the warehouses around Isichei’s Ilupeju axis have
been converted to churches and a large number of women fill these
places of worship. The fiery colours that exude from two outlandish and
heavily-coated paintings, ‘Habits and Rituals’ and ‘Glitterati’, speak
volumes about the way our women dress on Sundays and during social
ceremonies.

‘Habits and
Rituals’ and ‘Glitterati’ are both diptyches that depict women in
different formations and dresses, with handbags that glow and glitter
once in contact with light. These paintings remind one of Isichei’s
floral paintings of the past, because the colours are like the blooming
field of a well-tended garden. Though the artist does not zoom in on
these female figures’ faces as he does with others, the exquisiteness
with which he painted these city girls and fashionistas puts him in the
forefront of other chroniclers of beautiful women.

No matter how we
view these female characters, Rom Isichei has an unending stunning
romance with women in his art and there is always something new about
his old style. In his new exhibition, many art lovers who know Isichei
will find something to ruminate about. Though one is bound to find his
old style among the new works, their similarity form a pleasant
continuation of the conversation the artist is having with his
environment. The newer ones, especially those in the ‘Body Language
Series’ and the introduction of metal linearity in works like ‘Passage
to Remorse’ and ‘Ruminations of Uncertainty’, are definitely pushing a
fresh frontier.

How have you grown as an artist, I asked Isichei. “Very subjective.
Growing for me is that I am satisfied with where I am now and where I
am heading because many people were worried when I left advertising for
an uncertain future of a studio artist. [There is] no need to measure
myself with my financial success, but the fact that I like waking up
and doing what I love doing, is very satisfying and I would rather
measure my growth with that,” he says.

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