Two variables are pertinent to the thrust of this discussion. These are Creativity and Social Engagements. Creativity is the act by which a professional artist selects a medium of his of her choice, and working from the creative imagination, produces a work of art, a painting, a sculpture, a ceramic ware, or a textile fabric. Such a work is said to be a product of high craftsmanship, self-sufficient and autonomous, a symbol, an aesthetic object, with a reality and a being, all its own. The work of art is also mysterious like that quality associated with the mystery of the pyramid. A piece of music by Mozart is said to be immortal because of its quality of eternal freshness, very much like the Last Judgment painted on the walls of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. When Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, beheld it, he knelt down, did the signs of the cross and prayed. A work of art had incarnated a vision of heaven in material terms, thus, bonding the earth and the firmament. The work of art has the aesthetic power to raise our consciousness in varied contexts. It all goes to show that a work of art can be contextualized in terms of its social engagements, its ability to sensitize us to the human and social condition. There are several cues to this social engagement of art in man’s condition particularly in Nigeria and demand that we contextualize our discursive topic as a useful conceptual framework. Many years ago, the eminent late novelist, Chinua Achebe, was awarded a national prize for his contributions to the growth and development of African literature by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo. In an interview with the Press, he was asked if he endorsed Obasanjo’s government in view of the award he had just received. He replied that writers do not praise governments but rather tell them what they are doing wrongly. In one of his writings he said that only writers swim against the current. And that while the cock that crows in a family compound belongs to the owner, the voice has become the property of a community. Asked why he wrote, he said that he did so in the spirit of the griots of ancient Mali, who were the practitioners of the art of literary eloquence, for the benefit of the society, past, present and future. He was later to say that only artists swim against the current while others swim in its direction. There are other cognate statements. According to Ballanchandra, the Nigerian artists is no longer penned at the periphery casting wistful glances at the centre, there have moved to the centre from which to address the human society. Artists also have been described as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. The German painter and poet, Gunther Grass, had said that we should take time that we do not leave our children in plane glass jars in the sun to worry about their parents’ future. Of course, creative artists do not allow this to happen. We shall return to Achebe again. According to him “Life is short and art is long. We mitigate the brevity of life with the longevity of art (Achebe, 1980:118). The artist, Obiora Udechukwu is of the view that as an artist, he sees nothing less than a revolutionary imperative for the creative artist to break away from colonial artistic assumptions in the individual search for visual episteme (1980). He sees this in the creative return to source, to the artist’s inheritance, from which to fashion an artistic idiom which, in the words of Chinua Achebe, would be ample enough to sustain the weight of the artist’s experience and creative sensibility. For the Senegalese Painter N’ Ndaye, “Painting is a means of combat, a way of expressing my conception of the world” (1970:8). Writing on the late painter, Uche Okeke, (Offoedu-Okeke ,2012: 108). Said that, “Okeke was convinced that Nigeria’s future and cultural autonomy must be based on the social values, artistic traditions and lessons of its glorious past”. Of the painter and sculptor, Demas Nwoko, the same author says that Nwoko’s works “focus on questions of identity, alienation, political autonomy, and revolutionary cultural transformation. His representation of the heady period of transition to independence shows how people in many African countries reacted to the fast pace of changes in the urban settings”. He also notes of the Sculptor El Anatsui that “The conceptual depth of the typical Anatsui burnt-wood sculpture emerges from the slashed surfaces, dark burnt patches, and agitated lines inscribed on the sculpture’s surface signifying the continent’s enslavement, its encounters with colonialism and travails of African’s young republics under the rule of military juntas. For the ceramicist, Chris Echeta,(2009) “ his ceramic sculptures focus resolutely on social issues hedged by an acerbic criticism of Nigeria’s unstable political order. His critique of the country’s political system stems from his memories of the brutal Nigerian civil war” (Offoedu-Okeke, 2012: 358). While we can never exhaust the full range of artists’ statements, nevertheless, they provide the basis for a conceptual framework from which to discuss artists’ themes, their formal and technical deployment of media as visual metaphors of the human condition. Only selective examples can be used in this context. The Nsukka School of Art had become famous for its modernist reinvention of Uli, a form of body painting practice by Igbo women. The Nsukka artists in their discovery of the Uli tradition distilled its linear qualities in engaging the event of art. The late painter, Uche Okeke had executed an oil painting with the title “Aba Revolts” of 1929 (Fig. 1) as a post-colonial social commentary on women’s resistance against colonial depredations.
History was important to him as a means of transforming art into a tool for the recovery of our collective identity. His painting thus is a plastic inscription on our collective memory. In this painting, “breasts here are very much a sign of female power; they also reflect their importance in feeding the infant child with milk in traditional Igboland, nursing sometimes for as long as several years, as well as symbolizing other important female roles in Igbo society”. The dominant brown color suggests the powerful earth spirit Ana, often depicted by Okeke”. (Aba Revolt, 1965:64). A man must know where the rain began to beat him. Art can be used as a tool for mediating social realities. From Nsukka School stable is a pioneer and a painter, Chike Aniakor. One of his works has the title, The Descent of the Falcon (1992) (Fig 2). In this painting, the artist has depicted a group of figures in a compact composition retreating in fear from a falcon descending from above, and spilling blood on them from its beak. This is like a creative encounter between a predator and a prey, a proximate metaphor to Okigbo’s Obduracy, the disease of the elephants. The artist/painter, Obiora Udechukwu, did produce a drawing in pen and ink. This is a visual metaphor of the social condition in which a military president had transformed itself into a political predator. The concept of power and its political excesses is dominant in this visual narrative. The drawing depicts a military officer, nay, a head of state characterized by the following features. Where the coat of arms is usually placed in front of the officer’s cap is shown two vultures as symbols of continuing decay in the polity. In place of officer’s rank shown on the epaulette are two symbols of the naira and dollar currencies. Here, the artist has depicted the army officer as embodiment of corruption. He also holds his swagger stick. There is a visual play punning. The head of the swagger stick is transformed into the head of a snake, depicting the head of state as a political predator and a skilled practitioner of political despotism. It also points at the fragile nature of our political culture. It is a visual counter narrative to political leadership and the depredations of power, nay, absolute power.
Obiora Udechukwu is one of the Uli exponents. He has experimented in diverse ways and produced works of social vision. He had held one man exhibition, with the title, No Water. In his paintings and drawings, he showed remarkable sensitivity to the social problem of water scarcity. In some of the works, he used a possession of empty buckets as visual metaphors of a social condition of human suffering, for those, Franz Fanon, has described as the wretched of the earth. The artist has advanced his art, his visual idiom thematically by focusing on Faces and Faceless, (1985) (Fig. 3), Silent Faces at Crossroads, Blue figures (Refugees) 1968, (Fig. 3), of the depredations of the politicians and their spoils, the artist/poet had lamented:
They stole the people’s money
Lent it back to them
At 1000% interest
And they talk of philanthropy
They talk of tradition
Of age and youth.
The artist’s social engagement with human suffering has reached its omega point, when he held an art exhibition in London in 1985 with the theme, Rhythm of Hunger. For him, the artist must swim against the social current. The artist is in good company with other social crusaders such as Wole Soyinka, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, and the musician Fela, and others of the same kindred spirit. If we place the artist El Anatsui under the label of creative innovation and experimentalism, we would not be wrong. His art justifies this appellation. El Anatsui is perhaps a leading and an experimental sculptor in Africa. He has been described as Africa’s Picasso working in clay, wood and other diverse media. He has arrived at his ultimate art idiom which is sculpture installation, working with bottle tops and metal wire. This has given birth to his monumental sculptures known for their shimmering and dazzling effects or what this writer has described as the artist’s visual symphony or visual incantations in wood. The artist has been occupied with the theme of African history, in its conceptual fragmentation, atomization and balkanization as a basis for its artistic deconstruction, renewal and reconstitution of art knowledge. Art destroys only to renew, erases and substitutes. His works re-invoke his theme, Unfolding the Scroll of History, (1995) or his Invitation into History, (1995), and even his Patches of History III (1993) (Fig. 4). His Three Continents (2009) produced in Aluminum and Copper Wire, may be the artist’s attempt to re-negotiate the fractures of the African continent through the materiality of his media and the dynamics of colonialism in African history. It is the role of the artist to restored that which has been erased, and in the process, re construct that which have been diminished. Another artist, Obiora Anidi, has experimented in diverse media such as marble, concrete and metal to arrive at his unique idiom of sculptural representation. His works are marked by a quality of organicism in his abbreviation of sculptural forms. A good example, is his highly stylized,
In this work there is visual tension and contraction between lean and full forms as if this were a subtle manipulation of gravity, with the upper part of the figure seeming to weigh down heavily on the rather fragile legs of the sculptural figure. These are reinforced with the haunting qualities of the work, Down not Out (1991) (Fig. 6), a work produced in marble, concrete, metal on a stone base.
Artistically resonant, the work is a sculptural abbreviation of a reclining figure with linear perforations on its body. The reclining figure is partly reclining, and partly struggling to get up. The bodily tension is underscored by the use of open work metal rods to heighten the rather unresolved nature of both man and the human condition. From the Zaria School of Art comes a painter, Gani Odutokum, with a quivering temperament and jazz-like brush strokes saturated with the intensity of contrasting colours held in chromatic tension. His work, For the Oppressed (1992) (Fig. 7), a work was executed in oil on canvas. At the right hand base of the picture plane, the artist depicts three figures with terrified and terrifying faces in blue, red and brown tones. Quavering strokes of colours zig zag around their heads and empty themselves into a shimmering background above, balanced by a planer blue area to the left of the picture plane. The painting is like a chromatic invocation to the helplessness of the human condition, and of man’s predations and artifices. It is a creative encounter with the acidic face of the sun. His other work, Exodus (1994), oil on canvas, relies on a silhouette technique to underscore the theme of exodus as a visual narrative of sorrow and gloom, and of a humanity in search of a new home that remains elusive, if not treacherous. This work aligns well with the works of the figure-landscape painter, Kolade Oshinowo. His painting, Migrations (2009) Fig. 8), oil on canvas is the artist’s macro-view of themigration train. His rather jubilant colours seem to conceal and reveal the anonymity that defines the helplessness of migrants as they snake their way into the unknown under the lure of distant boundaries. Oshinowo’s mastery of his palette is not in doubt given the chromatic pulses of their silent music. His
painting, Gates, Bars, Barbed Wires, (2003) (Fig. 9), is a work executed in oil on canvas. It is a circular pictorial composition laid out against a muted yellow ochre background. Combining the various tones of blue, red, yellow and other related colours, the artist creates a grid work of figural images and other pictorial elements, invented, to underscore a compact composition whose overlapping and interlocking elements simulate the threatening obstacles that a welfarer may have to encounter and wrestle with, and possibly overcome. There are other directions that Nigerian artists have followed in engaging Nigeria’s social condition. A typical example is represented in a painting, with the title, Woman Crucified (c. 1999, Mixed Media)(Fig. 10) by the painter, Nsikak Essien. This artist is known for his capacity to invent, reinvent and improvise with the skill and empathy of a jazz player. In an oval composition, the artist deploys image of a cross on which a woman is crucified as if she were Christ on the Cross. The central female figure, a little attenuated in form and rendered as a silhouette, is balanced on both sides, by inscriptions, such as prostitute in different colours against a silhouetted background at the base
of the picture as if they were visual echoes of a trade carried out in the red district. On the face of the cross, the artist has pasted perforated Nigerian currencies in different denominations in combination with pasted coins. These underscore the sexual adventures of the central figure, the prostitute. The brightness of the cross surface is like a halo of shame, the omega point of adventures of the corrupt flesh. His paintings differ from the sculptures of Ndidi Dike who has experimented with wood, with consummate skill and a creative commitment from which to view society with her searching artistic lens. The artist-sculptor has developed a highly conceptual view of her art in context of art installation. A good example is her work with the title, Waka in Bondage: The Last ¾ mile, (2008) (Fig. 11), executed as mixed media installation. Working in the creative spirit of Duchamp with his Ready Mades, the sculptor drafts a canoe into the events of art making, and in fact, the structural prop of her art installation. The boat, with exterior decorations, is half filled with water to underscore the middle passage. The boat is hung and suspended from a roof as a way of simulating its movement across the sea. In this way, the artist draws our attention to our inherited burden of history as a lesson of how things
were and how they ought to be. The artist must swim the against the current in the same way that the story is our escort. In the end, the artist prevails and her visual narrative is left for us to ponder. With the sculptor, Dilomprizulike, art literally takes a new name. Instead of constructing, he destroys only to construct and reconstitute. With his works we enter into the domain of the conceptual and the creative processes of fragmentation, surprise, visual punning punctuated by the echoes of artistic laughter. The example of his work, Firewood Stack, (2004)(Fig. 12), was executed with found objects such as various sizes of food cans, milk, bottles even bottle tops. These are simply allowed, so to speak, to arrange themselves in a container sealed with wire net. In front of the container is the inscription, Make Your Phone Call. Here is a visual encounter with the artist as a junk man. Working with a creative insanity that is shocking if not troubling, the artist reverses if not violate our symmetric thinking like a madman who sees what is near as very
far, and sees what is very far as very close in a reverse perspective. What is the artist telling us? Is it that we live in a world of junk in which what is new is already old, and that order is disorder, and that to create is to destroy, and that out of ruins, new forms shall rise while departure is already arrival. The work is a study in creative atomization following postmodernism’s theory of fragmentation. In such a world of virtual media, reality is only a simulation in which the shadow has become the substance. He is a master printmaker who has explored into and experimented with the full range of media available for his creative enterprise. His name is Bruce Onobrakpeya. His diverse media include lino, mixed media, copper foil, serigraph, plastograph etc. He is a global and an enduring brand in printmaking. He has creatively explored the cultural wealth of his Niger Delta Heritage, including seamless experiments in art installation. In this he combines his print making media with found objects for a rich aesthetic surface. Such works include Man and Two Wives, Serigraph (1965-2010), Leopard in the Cornfield, additive Plastograph (1987), Pope John Paul Iv,
Isene, (1983), Stations of the Cross, Lino Cut (1969, Leopard in the Cornfield. His exhibition, Sahelian Masquerades, may be described as a plastic essay in proverbial speech. Very fond of complex compositions that posit perhaps the complexity of his creative vision and ideology, the printmaker presented series of deep etchings of lattice-like compositions. He framed them in a grid-work of visual images of perhaps Fulani herdsmen and their cattle. On the iconographic level, one would identify the Fulani herdsmen in their perpetual search for pastures. To Onobrakpeya, the herdsmen represent images of endurance and undaunting will as they engage the forces of the Sahelian environment, in order to overcome the daily threats to both individual and collective ecological survival. What the printmaker is telling us is that we should cultivate the spirit of endurance in embracing the challenges and burdens of the Nation-State, Nigeria. It is a social vision of the dilemma of the human condition. Like the artist, we should all swim against the current. There are other creative rumblings in the artistic firmament. The painter, Krydz Ikwuemesi, has painted a dirge (Fig. 13) to the late writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Using the symbols of his profession as a writer, he shows the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka presiding over what seems like a burial rite of passage to a man who paid the prize so that others would live. Dying we live. In his other drawing with the title, Parliament of Vultures, it provides a visual narrative at once resonant of Nigerian politicians shown as vultures who scanvenge our national wealth and heritage in favour of individual opulence and social extravagance.
An artist such as Francis Ike believes that all of us are netizens because of the impact of the cyberspace and information superhighway. Nevertheless, in being world citizens as depicted in his sculpture installations, we are at the same time wearing the burdens of the nation-state, its threatening cactus and receding shadows like a soldier’s politicized epaulette. His art installations may be overt with the netizen imageries. Foundational to art as a tool of social criticism is the painting by Demas Nwoko, painter, sculptor, an architect, with the title, Nigeria in 1959, (Fig 14). The painting is a political parody on colonialism, a counter-narrative, a writing to the empire and demonstrates clearly that for every imperialist logic, there is always a reversal. The painting may be viewed as a visual essay on decolonization and a satiric response to colonial depredations. If colonialism was a political tool of the group containment, Nwoko’s painting asserts the ascent and triumph of the national collective will over the colonial other, as shown in the contrast between the traumatized colonial officials at the front row and the confident will of black people in the second row. It reflects something of the Derridian philosophy of deconstruction in which he says ‘that to follow you is at the same time not to follow you’. One needs to place any leadership under the follower’s critique. This is a means of liberating one’s self in the pedagogy of the oppressed. Nor can one overlook a ceramic work with the title, Casualties by Ozioma Onuzulike (Fig 15). Always inventive and interrogative in his exploration of his art media in the search for new art idioms, the work is a visual narrative that pricks our collective conscience from the visual coding of this form of art as an
embodiment of searing experiences, as if it were a retreat into anonymity. A visual metaphor of the social absurdities in the nation state, the work reveals the folly of misplaced wisdom that gives birth to social casualties. As in all things, art always plays with ambiguity as one of its signatures and as something created out of the veil of darkness. Let there be light, in the social field and environment. This is like a creative snap shot of generational chaos that accompanies urban traffic in Nigeria (Fig 16), as people wrestle each other in daring attempts to gain access into bus. The painting employs a high colour palate that has some form of jazz syncopation. Employing what looks like a technique of magic realism, the figures form an all over composition in
close affinity with the yellow vehicle. The latter is placed in a profile across the picture plane as if to restrict any illusion of depth of field which is however, hinted at through the placement of shadowy figures behind the vehicle. It is obvious that this is not in single narrative event but something conceptualized out of memory images that present us with a pictorial composite. The figures are not arranged in perspective which is rather violated by transforming them into dream images as an act of narrative dematerialization. The real and the surreal become each the other. Perhaps, the painting is a parody on the fragmentation of the urban environment in Nigeria in which human beings serve as agents of social despoliation. Ironically, in front of the vehicle is an obscure figure with an amiable disposition and waving the right hand in mute jubilation. It provides a narrative counterpoint to the enveloping din that even in the midst of chaos, there is always a stabilizing point however fragile it may be. From creative realms, new forms can rise. However, these works are devices through which the artist seeks to renegotiate and overcome the social and historical situatedness of Nigerian problems. Indeed, it can be said that many Nigerian artists, in their various creative ways have confronted Nigeria’s political predators as unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
In his remarkable book, The Man Died, Wole Soyinka has said that if we keep silent before oppression, the man dies in us. Chinua Achebe, on the other hand, has suggested that it may be better to describe African literature as applied rather than as pure literature. He delivered a paper with the title, The Uses of African Literature as a way of demonstrating that art is a tool for engaging the social and human condition. Similarly, Robert Thompson (1969) has suggested that African religion lies at the centre of social facts, the human condition. Various artists, from painters, sculptors, printmakers, mixed media to installation artists have explored and exploited the materiality of their media and their technical management in interrogating the human condition through their works of social vision. They have done so through the resources of their creative innovation, experimentalism, and in some cases, through a radical manipulation of pictorial images. These are products of their searing experiences in Nigeria, which are well-nigh scorching like acid rains. As aptly summarized by Ballanchandra, the Nigerian artist is no longer penned at the periphery casting wistful glances at the centre. They have moved to the centre from which to address the human society through their creative prism. In the process, they have learnt to swim against the current of the human condition. Through the range of their numerous works, their private creative vision has become our public vision. Their visual narratives have become our escort and part of our collective memory. Without them we are lost. To interrogate the works of modern Nigerian artists is to examine and explore their various creative responses in the contexts of the changing patterns of the human condition. This of course is to assume that Nigerian creative artists have
responded to their social environment and their artistic terrain with the creative loftiness of their art. They have developed creative themes that reflect the social burdens of Nigeria. They have confronted them with their seamless imagination, the dexterity of their craft and the experimental temper of their media handling, not to forget, their creative restlessness that has enabled them to confront the social condition in Nigeria by looking the sun in the face. In doing this, they have demonstrated that art is a powerful tool of social engagement, as powerful as the artistic imagination from which works of art are brought forth into social and material being. For the artists, art is a way of thinking, a philosophical method, a radical way of interrogating the social condition through which works of art are transformed into the social narratives of that condition as well as visual metaphors that ground their materiality in historical time as an art event.
In their visual awesomeness, Nigerian artists have deployed their works as visual metaphors for engaging the politics of representation within a social paradigm. Through it, they have sought to interrogate and contest Nigeria’s enduring and persistent social problems. They have done this by reconstituting that which has been displaced, by restoring that which has been denied and in recomposing that which had decomposed so that there is no darkness at noon. For them, out of ruins, new artistic forms shall arise in their creative hunger to mediate the fragile condition of the social environment. Baktin’s theory of dialogism, including the theory of rhizome and multi-accentuality, may be useful in understanding the semantic openness of creative thoughts and images as they explore the shifting boundaries of meanings, and provide hints on the nature of man, society, and his social condition. It is always the nature of art to narrate within an endless chain of signification, thus, releasing the signifier (the work of art) as an endless slippage of the signified, based on the theory of difference. The artist for us then, is a social critic, the analyst after the event, and of which a select number are the living avatars for all of us. Their works invoke a creative sensibility that is driven and nourished by their social ambience, as they, in the words of Aldous Huxley, walk the inner corridors of their mind.
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