“That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive…”
- My Last Duchess, Browning, Robert (1812-1889)
I wanted to write this story about making a portrait of my father, but it became so much more. It is the portrait of a man who believed in justice for all. Barrister Emma Nsofor came from a family of many great legal practitioners. He took over the law chambers of his uncle Justice Adiewere Nsofor. In his time, Justice Adiewere served in the Federal Court of Appeal and was appointed to the International Criminal Court in Hague. Justice Nsofor later served as Nigerian ambassador to the US till his death a few years ago.
Dad wanted me to become a lawyer, to inherit his law chambers and a rich library of books. It was never verbalized, but it seemed the next step. In high school, I was torn between becoming a lawyer or an artist. I chose subjects that allowed me to qualify for either course of study. After high school, I told Dad I would study Fine Arts and later return to university to read Law.
Dad’s younger brother was a painter who studied Art here in the US. Again, one of his best friends Ogbuagu Bons Nwabiani was an artist. Uncle Bons was classmates with Professor Obiora Udechukwu, who spoke highly of him and his skill as an artist. Professor Obiora later taught me in Nsukka.
I drew very well in university and got commissioned by fellow students to make portraits. I once told my dear friend and lecturer Chika that I had the dilemma of just staying on as a portrait painter or doing more abstraction. He felt I could pull it off. I thought portraiture was so predictable- the outcome, that is. Maybe I should have added my twist to it. Maybe I will, one day. I became popular in my village for painting portraits of deceased people. Those portraits were displayed beside the bodies of the dead while they were lying in state. Usually, Dad helped me to take the artwork to the home of the people who commissioned the painting. I recall a time when he proudly propped one of those portraits in the boot of his Mercedes Benz as we drove slowly in procession with other vehicles and the ambulance carrying the corpse of my subject (Doctor Udom). Dad rode from the hill to the blue lake. I was in the passenger seat. I remember the sense of pride Dad felt as the villagers came out to admire the portrait. Dad had the satisfaction of knowing that his son had learned well. My pitch for getting commissioned is simple- the dye of colored photographs fades over time while my portraits retain their original color. When I was ready to study Law, he felt it wasn’t necessary. I was doing well as a young artist. He let me be.
Sadly, I started painting this portrait in 2013, a few months after my father had passed died. In the painting, he is dressed as the attorney-general of Imo State. He had turned 40 and was at the peak of his career. This was the highest recognition he got. He had met the criteria for becoming a SAN (Senior Advocate of Nigeria). He told the story of how he was asked to bring gifts of ballpoint pens for all the SANs to become a member. Dad felt it was ridiculous-so he never became a SAN. Dad was a big admirer of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, that distinguished lawyer we all crowned Senior Advocate of the Masses. Gani reportedly refused a similar condition before being made a SAN. He was a member of the Boys Scouts of Nigeria and a one-time president of the Students Union at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. After graduating, he did many pro-bono cases representing my village Oguta. He was known to fight for the cause of poor, oppressed people. So, he was a fierce advocate for everything right, for justice.
Wherever he is, I hope Dad thinks of me with pride. Strange how these things are important to us, the longing for our parents' validation. The dead never leave us- they are alive in our memory. The portraits keep them fresh- in true color. The children will see and know their ancestors. They will know where they come from. Portraiture became historical documentation, a pointer to origins, to lineage, a putting forward of pedigree. So, they never forget. So, we never forget. With love to my dear Dad who passed away 10 years ago. May his soul rest in peace.