“Soulcentricism: A Recovery of Ancient Truths and Indigenous Scripts” (2008) was the first exhibition I had after returning to Nigeria from the US, where I had a three-month long artist-in-residence engagement in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Worcester State College (now Worcester State University), Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, in 2005. My residency engagement was concluded with a solo exhibition titled “The Igbo World.” I was at WSC as the first recipient of Philip L. Ravenhill fellowship, 2004-2005, administered by the Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, USA. The various works I produced during the residency followed familiar paths (stylistically and procedurally) in the realization of my fellowship proposal. My proposal was to research and produce works that express the “five personality cults: Ikenga, the right hand with which a man earns his living; iru, the face which attracts anyone who gazes on it; uho, the persuasive tongue; ukwu na ije cult, the feet adventuring successfully into foreign land and umu oku, conservation of accumulated wealth” (Onwuejeogwu 1997:9).
The Computer-based Sketches and the Final Works
Most of the sketches, for example, Figures 7, 11a, 11b and 13, have the visual expression of erasure and fragmentation, a metaphor for change and death. This new visual character was influenced by the experience I had at the Worcester State College: the construction/making and dismantling/destruction of sand mandala by some Tibetan Buddhist monks. Sand mandala is a ritual art that enacts the concept of impermanence, annica, a major doctrine in Buddhism. A sand mandala is created by many monks who rasp coloured sand through metal funnels called chakpu (Figure 5). The very complex and colourful mandala that takes several days to complete, is destroyed in a matter of seconds, to enact the concept of impermanence (Figure 6). “Painting the Kalachakra Sand Mandala in its ritual context traditionally takes six days, employing as many as sixteen monks” (Bryant 2003: 33). Barry Bryant (2003: 24) also explained that Kalachakra (in Tibetan Du kyi khorlo) is a Sanskrit word that can be translated literally as “wheel of time.” Kala, or “time,” is not linear time but the flow of all events, past, present, and future … The wheel, with no beginning and no end, is also the universal symbol of Buddhism, representing the teachings of the Buddha … The Kalachakra Sand Mandala is a visual representation of the entire Kalachakra Tantra. It is also a two-dimensional representation of the five-story palace of the Kalachakra deity, in which a total of 722 deities reside, with Kalachakra and his consort Vishvamata united in an embrace of perpetual bliss at the very center.
The three Tibetan Buddhist monks (Lobsang Tenzin, Geshe Lobsang Konchok, and Jampa Dhondup) who created the sand mandala at WSC were invited to do so as part of the activities that marked the 30th anniversary of the Graduate School
Another new strategy I employed in the making of the works, is the act of cutting up paintings and using their parts in a re-creation act. The acts of painting a work, cutting it up, and using the parts for a new work, are metaphors for birth, death, and reincarnation, respectively. This concept is well expressed in the “Reincarnation Series” (Figures 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18). Reincarnation is a major belief in Igbo eschatology; and according to G. T. Basden, “Belief in reincarnation is universal among the Ibo” (1966: 286). Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor (1984: 220) have observed that for the Igbo people, “the alternating rhythms of nature – night and day, the phases of the moon, annually returning rainy seasons and the agricultural cycle, human life, death, and reincarnation – underlie the cycles and periodicity of thought and art.”
The cyclical concept of time and life is an ideology that is found not only in Igbo thought, but exists in most other ancient religious philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism. Even in Christianity, some persons believe in reincarnation, and have used some Bible verses to support it. For example, Matthew 17:10-13 state: “And the disciples asked him, saying, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ But he answered them and said, ‘Elijah indeed is to come and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also shall the Son of Man suffer at their hand.’ Then the disciples understood that he had spoken of John the Baptist.”1 Kevin Williams in his essay “Reincarnation in the Bible” notes: “The doctrines of pre-existence and reincarnation existed as secret teachings of Jesus until they were declared a heresy by the Roman Church in 553 A.D at the Second Council of Constantinople.”2
Reincarnation is understood–in most African and Eastern philosophies–to stop when the transmigrating soul achieves a pure spiritual consciousness, which qualifies one to live eternally in the spiritual world. John Umeh, a practising dibia and professor of Estate Management, argues: “one is allowed seven or eight cycles of reincarnation before moving on to another plane (above or below according to one’s spiritual merit)” (Umeh 1997: 4). He also remarks that it is only by sufficient spiritual credit and transcendence that one can end reincarnation and take “permanent residence in the Spirit” (ibid. p. 40). In the Koran, one verse that suggests reincarnation is Sura 2:28: “And you were dead, and He brought you back to life. And He shall cause you to die, and shall bring you back to life, and in the end shall gather you unto Himself” (quoted in Prabhupada 1984: 4). In Hinduism and Buddhism, reincarnation is a principle teaching. In Srimad-Bhagavatam (one of the eighteen Puranas in Hinduism) A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains:
Originally the living entity is a spiritual being, but when he desires to enjoy this material world he comes down. We can understand that the living entity first accepts a body that is human in form, but gradually, due to his degraded activities, he falls into lower forms of life–into the animal, plant, and aquatic forms. By gradual process of evolution, the living entity again attains the body of a human being and is given another chance to get out of the process of transmigration. If he again misses his chance in the human form to understand his position, he is again placed in the cycle of birth and death in various types of bodies. (Purport, canto 4 chapter 29 verse 4)3
According to various Buddhist scriptures, Gautama Buddha believed in reincarnation and in the existence of other worlds of afterlife … Buddha also asserted that there is karma, which influences the rebirth, and that the cycles of repeated births and deaths are endless … The rebirth cycles continue endlessly … and it is a source of Dukkha (suffering, pain), but this reincarnation and Dukkha cycle can be stopped through nirvana.”4 The concept of reincarnation, which appears universal, is one of the “ancient truths” that are entrenched and reflected in the scroll paintings. Aside from “recovering” some “ancient truths”, “indigenous scripts” were also “recovered”, and extensively explored in the body of work that made up “Soulcentricism: A Recovery of Ancient Truths and Indigenous Scripts.” In the “Artist Statement,” I state that while in US, I became aware of many indigenous West Afrikan scripts such as Vai, Mende, Loma, Kpelle, Bassa, Bamum, Bete, Djuka and others from the gift of books I got from the library of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian, Washington D.C. However, most of these scripts have gone into extinction. As a visual artist with interest in researching through exploration and documentation of the material cultures of various Afrikan cultures through his paintings, I became fascinated by these scripts, as they offered me new visual possibilities for the furtherance of my paintings (Okwuosa 2008: 11).
Before the exposure to these various West African scripts, the major indigenous motifs and ideographs I had used in my art were uli and nsibidi. The exploration of the then newly discovered scripts: Vai, Mende, Loma, Kpelle, Bassa, Bamum, Bete, and Djuka, enriched my works, both visually and spiritually. The spiritual significance is derived from these divinely-inspired and revealed scripts, as most of the inventors claimed. David Dalby (1968: 163) has remarked that “It is, of course, impossible to determine whether or not these accounts of dreams are ‘true’, but the important fact about them is that the claim to supernatural inspiration has been such a regular feature.” His believe is that “The mystical and religious implications of writing, and of graphic (and plastic) symbolism in general, point to a further important stimulus behind the invention of the indigenous scripts–a stimulus arising from the traditional use of indigenous graphic symbols among West African peoples” (ibid. p. 165). The scroll painting titled The Lord’s Prayer in Bamum Script, “Reincarnation Series”, was inspired by a transcription of The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) in
Bamum script. This script was invented in 1903 by Chief Nʒoya of Fumban (German Kamerun), who “had a dream in which he was instructed to draw a hand on a wooden tablet, and then wash it clean and drink the water. Next day he did this, and was inspired to start his work on the script (and subsequently on his secret ‘court-language’)” (Dalby 1968:162). This scroll painting embodies different shades of spiritual knowledge, and there is a sense in which it engages in eschatological dialectics.
Another work in the “Reincarnation Series”, Revelation Through the Inner Eyes, (Figure 15) expresses the idea of supernatural revelation. Against all Odds, another work in the “Reincarnation Series”, is about how a fraction of the indigenous scripts continues to survive, and shows how a greater percentage has been obliterated by forces of modernity. Revelation Through the Inner Eyes (Figure 15) and Against all Odds (Figure 16) were the only works out of the twenty-eight works produced for the exhibition that have wooden struts that were not designed. The cut-up paintings used in making these two work are quite sizable, but for the last set of scroll paintings, much smaller pieces and fragments were used. More labour was expended in stitching the many pieces and fragments on the support. Scripts, Fragments and Dots II, “Reincarnation Series” (Figure 17) and Up in the Sky and Down Below, “Reincarnation Series” (Figure 18), belong to this category. Most of the works have two layers of stitched fragments: one was applied on the support before painting, and the other, was done after painting, using already painted and fragmented pieces. One can see an example of this in Scripts, Fragments and Dots II (Figure 17): the upper section shows fragments stitched before painting, and the lower section, shows pieces of fragmented painting, stitched on a painted support. “These fragmental pieces are metaphorical representations of the balkanization we find in races, tribes, religions etc and the act of sewing them on a single support is a process of reunification and recovery” (Okwuosa 2008:11).
The scroll paintings that made up this body of work were the last scroll paintings I produced between 2006 and 2008. I produced the first scroll paintings in 1998, and they were shown in a four-person exhibition “Dynamism” (1999) at the National Museum, Lagos. I used scroll as a metaphor for ancient spiritual knowledge, because it was one of the earliest materials used for writing down some of the major ancient spiritual knowledge and philosophies. This last body of scroll paintings is framed under the rubric of Soulcentricism.
Soulcentricism is a combination of three words; ‘soul’, ‘centric’ and ‘ism’. It is an art and life philosophy that addresses the mind and body by the practice of the culture of the soul. The soul culture recognizes that we are all spiritual beings who are undergoing material experiences and that our spiritual essence is the same in every aspect. It affirms that we all belong to one race and that is the human race. That there is really one common language: The language of the heart and one religion: The religion of love and one Supreme Lord who is known by different names such as Allah, Yahweh, Krishna, Chukwu, Olodumare etc. I am certain that the elusive world peace will be achieved if we begin to celebrate these commonalities and not balkanize them (Okwuosa 2008: 12).
Bill Plotkin in his book Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World 5 notes that “most humans are alienated from their vital individuality–their souls” (2008: 6). In the book, one finds
a narrative of how we might grow whole, one life stage at a time, by embracing nature and soul as our wisest and most trustworthy guides. This model for individual human development ultimately yields a strategy for cultural transformation, a way of progressing from our current egocentric societies (materialistic, anthropocentric, competition based, class stratified, violence prone, and unsustainable) to soulcentric ones (imaginative, ecocentric, cooperation based, just, compassionate, and sustainable) (Poltkin 2008: 2-3).
The exploration of ancient spiritual truths and indigenous scripts was an effort to understand one’s self and its relationship with others. It was meant to celebrate man and his achievements–ancient and modern–in a world that is becoming more and more fragmented. The computer, a major invention that has redefined our modes of documentation, communication and other activities, has been explored as a sketching device. This new protocol in my art-making process, is an interesting and enduring discovery. Other new techniques and ideas explored in the making of the scroll paintings for “Soulcentricism: A Recovery of Ancient Truths and Indigenous Scripts,” include: cutting up paintings and leatherette, and using needle and nylon thread to stitch them on a support; the use of newly discovered indigenous scripts like Vai, Mende, Loma, Kpelle, Bassa, Bamum, Bete, Djuka; the use of undesigned wooden struts; a dialectical enquiry on reincarnation in Igbo, Buddhist, and Hindu thoughts; and the application of the concept of impermanence derived from seeing the making and destruction of sand mandala.
- Quoted in Kevin Williams, “Reincarnation in the Bible.” http://www.near-death.com/reincarnation/history/bible.html, accessed December 18, 2016.
- See A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s purport of Srimad-Bhagavatam canto 4 chapter 29 verse 4, http://prabhupadabooks.com/sb/4/29/4, accessed December 18, 2016.
- See “Reincarnation.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reincarnation, accessed December 18, 2016.
- Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World was published in 2008, the same year “Soulcentricism: A Recovery of Ancient Truths and Indigenous Scripts” was held, but I didn’t know that the book existed until 2011. “Soulcentricism” is a word I coined and it is interesting seeing a coincidence in the book where the author, Bill Plotkin, used the word “soulcentric”, severally. Plotkin calls a life-cycle model he developed: “Soulcentric Developmental Wheel” (Plotkin 2008:13).
- Basden, G. T. (1966). Niger Ibos. London: Frankcass and Co. Ltd.
- Cole, H. M. & Aniakor, C. C. (1984). Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles.
- Dalby, D. (1968). “The Indigenous Scripts of West Africa and Surinam: Their Inspiration and Design.” African Language Studies 9: 156-197.
- Okwuosa, T. (2008). “Artist Statement.” Soulcentricism: A Recovery of Ancient Universal Truths and Indigenous Scripts, exhibition catalogue, pp. 11-12. Lagos: National Museum.
- Onwuejeogwu, M. A. (1997). Afa Symbolism and Phenomenology in Nri Kingdom and Hegemony: An African Philosophy and Social Action. Benin City: Ethiope Publishing Corporation.
- Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. Novato, California: New World Library.
- Prabhupada, A. C. B. S. (1984). Coming Back: The Science of Reincarnation. Juhu, Mumbai: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
- Umeh, J. A. (1997). After God is Dibia: Igbo Cosmology, Divination and Sacred Science in Nigeria, Volume One. London: Karnak House.