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HOW ARTISTS ARE COPING WITH THE MUSE IN THIS PANDEMIC ERA

Doofan Kwaghhool. Untitled 2. Watercolour

So much has happened in so short a time that it seems like ages. What started out as a promising year suffered a mishap at the take-off, much like an ill-fated flight. We have barely left the First quarter of 2020 and the experience has been quite grim. From rumours of a Flu outbreak in China- which gave no cause for alarm, the flu, known as Corona Virus, a highly contagious and speedily travelling phenomenon, soon got to our doorsteps in a matter of weeks. What started out as a remote problem that briefly rattled the world’s largest and most populous nation became a global enigma leading to a shutdown of over three-quarters of the world. It is fair to suggest that quite a few living humans have experienced any occurrence of this magnitude since only a few people witnessed the flu outbreak that was this devastating known as the Spanish flu of 1918. It is clear, from this debacle, that there were no ready measures (around the globe) to mitigate such a formidable foe. For sure the art world had no clue of the looming disruption and therefore, like the rest of the world, was caught napping as the pandemic unfolded. Prominent among these problems as currently being experienced is the months-long lock-down measures taken by affected nations and their governments to contain the further spread of the disease. These lock-downs have drastically suspended all business and economic activities and virtually left art practitioners at the mercy of their accumulated savings, where they exist insufficient amount or to the elements in the cases where they fall short. The lock-down has been ongoing for over five weeks.

Creativity as history has availed us, thrives in all circumstances, and depending on the convictions of the artist involved, situations, whether positive, or negative, offer narratives that can be put down, either in writing, drawing and painting or through sculptures and installations. So by default creative activity is relatively unhinged by political or economic upheavals and disease outbreaks, however, it is one thing to have ideas, and another thing to have the requisite materials for production. On sensing possible government shutdown as it was becoming apparent that the flu pandemic had penetrated our Check-ins and seated comfortably within our Nigerian social space, I went on materials acquisition frenzy. I will not describe myself as an introvert, but it comes as a default setting that artists need a lot of time alone to ruminate on and produce work, and If it was going to become state policy that I sit at home for the next couple of weeks, then I better paint my way through it. I would say, so far so good? Well, objective intellect demands that the appraisal about my work is the premise of third parties, so I leave it at that.  In the course of the lockdown painting exercise, “interaction” with close associates has been alive. As Abuja’s creative landscape continues to broaden, individualistic ideas are being pursued, in the sense of creative direction and purpose. Accordingly, I took a day out bearing in mind the importance of social distancing, to visit Ifesinachi Nwanyanwu, one of the notable figures defining Abuja’s vibrant landscape, in his studio in Katampe II Abuja. His relentless activities in environmental regeneration have earned him local and international recognitions. Nwanyanwu is the founder of One Environment Project, which has been ongoing for five years. Its activities cut across the fields of Arts & Architecture, Engineering & Technology in a uniquely artist-driven interdisciplinary synergy towards the purpose of working against environmental degradation. He was a visitor to a Havard Africa Development Conference in March 2019 where he made a presentation on “Civil Society: Developing Africa from Ground Up.” He had flown in to attend from the University of Shanghai where he had participated in an environment-themed event on the invitation. His current preoccupation is with aluminium, which he smelts and places in moulds made of unidentified materials. These moulds contain engravings of motifs, carved by hand, of Igbo traditional Uli symbols. The studio is a shed constructed with zinc-coated corrugated iron sheets within an expansive plot of land. The furnace is somewhere besides the structure, with a bellow, a hammer, and an anvil. The artist employs similar devices used by blacksmiths in Eastern Nigeria where he grew up. The setup of his workspace is a statement on its own, of a man drawn to the innovative aura of his ancestral roots. “I want to explore my heritage in my current creative direction. To do this, I am reconstructing the way Uli is used, to expand my narrative and new creative platform” he explained in chat. We have witnessed these linear forms painted on wooden doors, and mud huts, carved into wood panels and trunks. It was a refreshing encounter for me seeing Nwanyanwu working in a medium not traditionally used by Uli artists but which his virtuosity makes malleable, yet formidable. The use of the medium of aluminium by the artist will be his first post-COVID 19 body of work to watch out for.

Due to the movement restriction, I leveraged on social media to discuss with Chinyere Odinukwe, another Abuja based artist. Odinukwe joggles with corporate media job and her art practice which she pursues studiously. Her art practice has seen us exhibit alongside each other and it has given me the opportunity of a closer observation of her career progression which includes her participation in two Artist in Residency programs in Sweden and South Africa in 2016 and 2018 respectively with other professionals in the sector. Her draughtsmanship stands out in her many female portraits rendered in charcoal while her exploration of flags and anthems as creative resource holds great promise. I asked Odinukwe about her current work and lock-down musings, “I have gone back to my childhood when Crayons was the first painting medium for every child and I have been focusing more on using it to draw and paint.” She reveals that one of her works from the lock-down is a Crayon painting titled “Peeping in a Lock-down,” which she made during Easter celebration/holiday with an accompanying short poem that reads “… The stay home command stands. And so Easter comes like a Passover for us to re-examine our hearts. While we obey the lockdown command, Easter births us with its gracious splendour and glory. As we peep through our windows, we long, long for freedom forlorn”. Odinukwe’s work makes one feel the momentary disillusionment occasioned by this disruption of a yearly ritual, which we have participated in it for the better part of our lives. The choice of her colours is solemn while the accompanying poem reminds one of what should have been of a special day but which could not hold.

Nduwhite Ahanonu is one of the pioneering figures of what we can refer to as Abuja’s Art Circle. He has joggled between roles as an artist, curator and entrepreneur. Sensing the need to raise the stakes for practitioners in his field, Ahanonu teamed up with other art enthusiasts to establish the International Institute for Creative Development. The objective was to link the art community to other international art institutions in what could be referred to as systematic engagements. This he has done successfully for nearly a decade. In liaison with various foreign missions, he has organized several workshops and residencies locally and internationally. Like the rest of us, he is caught unawares too “I have my schoolwork to cope with, it’s quite tedious as I have to read on print since I don’t cope well with prolonged screen viewing. This challenge is amplified because the print shops are closed as a result of the lockdown so I am forced to make do with the available”. Ahanonu is currently studying for a master’s degree in Art and Cultural Management from Leuphana University, Hamburg Germany. On his art practice, Ahanonu confesses about time constraints which would surely abate throughout his programme, “however I have a lot in the works” he replies as he forwards a picture of a three-dimensional sculpture made of fibreglass and found objects from engine parts, which I find rather promising. “I’m not ready to publish them yet, so let’s keep them confidential”, he interjected. I understand him. It’s always best to showcase when you are perfectly fine with your output.

Not a few artists have moaned about cancelled events and exhibitions, I am also having to deal with a disrupted calendar, and of course, the challenges of readjustment are there especially about what nature of the exhibition is possible, how to deal with social distancing demands through the course of each event, and how to ensure that visitors stick to basic etiquette that keep themselves and other attendees safe. These are serious concerns to ponder on as visitors stroll through the halls having a feel of the works on display. These issues are daunting to ruminate on, and one might also, in addition to personal ideas, look up to big institutions around the globe and how they manage their post lock-down engagements and perhaps borrow from their templates. Doofan Kwaghhool, another upwardly mobile artist who recently moved temporarily to the United States of America from Abuja, narrates her lock-down experience. “The lock-down is not total in Maryland, it’s still possible to go out and get materials from the store”. However, there is a curfew from 8 pm that goes on until morning. “I have been away from the comfort of my studio in Abuja, and the weight of the pandemic has increased my anxiety levels. I began painting people with masks, drawing from childhood memories.”

There seems to be a connection between Odinukwe and Kwaghhool’s musings as they both draw from childhood memories. Most of these periodic works are rendered on paper as well. Kwaghhool continues about her work process, “I started a new series of works titles ‘Karantenne Tvare’ which means ‘Quarantine Faces’ in English. This involves creating caricatures of my friends on social media, and those I see while going for walks.” What has this exercise done for her emotionally? She concludes by sounding positive notes, “the process of making this work has been therapeutic for me, new ideas and energies have been injected into my practice, and I feel less anxiety”.

The times call for sobriety and I mean in the positive sense of the word. As I wake up every morning to begin my day’s routine, I bear in mind that the greatest casualty of the COVID 19 debacle, outside the loss of life, is the loss of time. However, the intuitive and innovative artist has in his advantage to make use of the moment, to make contents, to tell stories of this most perilous era. The road to artistic genius is laced with uncertainties. And with these uncertainties come the greatest value of all, the prospect that one lived through them and made a compelling narrative. 

Obi Nwaegbe is an Abuja based artist and analyst.

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