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Face Facts, Language and Communication

The lure of becoming an international figure fascinates me- to cross national borders effortlessly and encounter new people with their cultures. Travelling can be out of curiosity, to see how the other side is. One’s identity could become fluid, of course. People always want to put you in a bottle, place you in a defined space or context. I don’t know how important that is now that we have the internet. Anyway, with the camera in hand, I started studying the places and people I met on my journeys.

Working in transit meant reducing the scale of my paintings. Smaller pieces were more convenient to work on in hotel rooms or lug through airports. I had begun a new body of work called Citizens of Nowhere to commemorate this migrant phase. In 2017 I created 100 paintings of faces for the series Citizens of Nowhere. A collector friend of mine persuaded me to give him 3 pieces from that collection before my friend Chika explained how the works needed to stay together. They needed to be in a collection. So, he has kept them for me at his home in Princeton. A time will come to show those pieces.

This arrangement shows 21 of the 100 Faces from 2017, 2018 arranged together, from the Citizens of Nowhere series.

The Faces from 2017 and 2018 were mainly monochrome, black and white picture. The recent follow-up series Global Citizens has more colour. The added expressiveness of colour gives more weight. Starting from a structural, more formal rendition, the work has evolved to the external embrace that colours bring. Colour affects our perception of reality so strongly.

Another reason I started travelling abroad was from being uncomfortable with the political atmosphere in my country. In 2009 Nigeria removed History from the school curriculum (This misnomer was corrected in paper only in 2021). Over 50 years after the Nigeria-Biafra war, the pangs and pains of that event have not been adequately addressed by the Nigerian government. Our people (Biafra, or groups of people from parts of Southern Nigeria) remained traumatized, victims who are continually made to pay for a war that ended with the Nigerian government claiming that there was ‘no victor, no victim’. The political atmosphere runs amok- this phrase is a blatant lie. So much about the lifestyle didn’t make sense. We looked like one people that the colonialists divided when they split Africa among themselves. We shared similar skin types and physical features, so the ethnic rifts hurt more than racism.

The more I travelled, the more I felt alienated and a strange kinship- I formed an alliance with people everywhere. But the alienation came from being uncomfortable in America. In response, I started the shock series Songs of a DbAA (Dead black African Artist)

There was a certain frustration with a system that did not acknowledge one’s presence. These are some of the agitations with being a migrant. Also, the nostalgia for the homeland never leaves you. These complex feelings affected how I saw reality so much.

I pushed the series Songs of a DbAA at the height of the pandemic. 2019 saw me stuck in New York, caught up by the travel restrictions of the time. I started making collages with magazine cuttings and painting with acrylics. I was in an unfamiliar land. People avoided each other. We all wore masks. I wanted to see the faces, to see if a smile followed the glint in the eyes of the cashier at the grocery store. The masking policies suddenly put importance on human faces. The idea of faces that told all the story was something I had done before. I started creating new faces. The memory brought a schismatic image.

Headshots are strong. The faces are small, like mug shots or passport photographs that are required for creating a travel ID. I still look to people, to faces. Maybe we will find the heart’s intent in their faces? I have met some people who call themselves global citizens. That sounds more precise- Citizens of Nowhere has birthed the series Global Citizens.

Some of the older Faces I have painted in the past.

At the Nsukka Uli School, we learned about traditional Uli and other symbols to communicate ideas. Powerful storytelling inculcated iconic patterns understood by the initiates who shared these symbols.

This is like using emoticons in texting or adding the avatars on social media platforms like Facebook; and in virtual gaming platforms like ROBLOX.

I started making faces at a time in my village history when a sacrilege had occurred.

As a child, I have always felt tied to these cultural expressions and entertainment ushering in the new year or on occasions to commemorate the passage or visit of great people to Oguta. Masquerading is one such tradition. The masquerades have raffia bodies and stand as tall as 9 feet. They wear Ekpo masks also. Similar masquerades are played in other parts of Southern Nigeria. The invigorating performances of the masquerades caused the audience to be in a presence of a ‘being’. The idea of looking to the specifics of the being usually fled with all the terror and excitement of witnessing these masquerades performing, walking the entire course of the village with their charm-bearing followers who chanted songs of praise and stories of the exploits of the masquerades.

In 2016, two rival masquerading communities in Oguta clashed at the beginning of the New Year. A young man died during the fight. In retaliation, the siblings of that man attacked and sacked the other community. They brought out to the public the paraphernalia of the masquerades from the shrine of the rival community, tore them apart, and disappeared the masks.

My mother was from the Abatu community that lost their masquerades in that skirmish. The people pride themselves as the supreme masqueraders in Oguta. For a long while, there was a search for a rebirth of the masquerades. The king placed a temporary ban on masquerading.

In my series Citizens of Nowhere and the 100 Faces, I studied facial expressions. I searched in Jakande market, Lagos for similar Ekpo masks. I also looked at the masks in Ochanja market, Onitsha. The facial expressions and ornamentation differed from pictures taken of the masquerades from my village.

Art history tells of how cultures have dealt with the idea of the face. Hieroglyphics, the Ife heads, and other older African sculptures have given the face (or rather the head) much prominence. Ihu oma akpo na m (transliterated good face has called me but means that one has a foreboding of good tidings. The faces represented in my work are symbolic of the diversity of expressions of human emotion. The stylization allows for a free interpretation. Viewers should see themselves in the artwork as though before a mirror- to seek understanding and apathy. Nowadays travel is easy; the internet and communications are flawless- we have access to everywhere. Sometimes the experience is virtual. People realize that we are different, and the world is large. Moving around, one finds that we share so much as humans. We need to look more closely.

Some months back, a mentor of mine made an interesting observation- he suggested that I was ‘anti-Uli’ in my work (There was a complete absence of traditional Uli symbols in my works). My work is unpretentious in its intentions. An artist could choose a different path, another strategy. Instead of recycling symbols, I invented a pictorial language of loosely drawn faces in their randomness conjuring a bundle of emotions.

Colours are used arbitrarily in the series while the subject matter is still the human head. My work borrows the formal elements of passport photographs or those portraits of our ancestors we hang at home. Those pictures keep reminding us of those that have passed. We must never forget. I think of the meaning of the face as identifiers- suggestive of myriad meanings.

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