‘I’m not part of these people that are running away’
By Anote Ajeluorou
WITH most national institutions crumbling everyday with one lifting a finger to repair or rehabilitate and put them to proper use, it became a wonder why the artist-couple, the Isiuwes – Emmanuel and Angela Amami – decided to take their latest exhibition to the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. The show ran from October 11 through 18, 2022. Out of 10 exhibitions in a year, only about three manage to go the national edifice for exhibition, a sad commentary for a place that should be first choice space for visual art exhibition.
And as one walked through the works on the wall, a sense of industry, of engagement, of a people hard at work becomes apparent. What is even more remarkable is the way the husband and wife chose to hang the works, side by side. On one side is a colourful work (by the Emmanuel, the husband) while the next one to it is its black and white, grainy incarnation (by the Angela, the wife). Just like husband and wife, the works sat together, side by side, engaging in a visual dialogue of companionship.
The complimentarity of the exhibits is unique in underscoring the couple’s ‘Our Byways’ thematic thrust – indeed why the seeming ordinary things of life matter. The show was essentially a depiction of young Nigerians working in a construction site. Not a very pretty sight or line of work in these days of youthful adventure or misadventure in all manners of criminality, with high-wire scamming or Yahoo-Yahoo being the most prominent. But there they were, working at menial jobs but enjoying the dignity that comes with honest labour.
And as Mrs. Isiuwe put it, “As part of ‘Our Byways’ exhibition, what I’ve depicted here are our youths working. In Nigeria today, the older generation tends to think that youths are lazy and don’t want to work. The body of works here were done on (a building) site while we were working on a project. We were building our studio and these boys would come, and when we were making conversations, we found out that a handful of them were actually graduates.
“So this show depicts for me that Nigerian youths are not lazy, and they are ready to do any decent job, not go into scam. There are still young boys that work for money with their hands, because that’s what is available. That’s what I’ve tried to show here, that (our) youths are working, because it is one of the lowest things a man would want to do, but they are enthusiastic about it. If you go to where these boys work, you see that they are happy to do what they are doing as long as they are sure of getting paid at the end of the day. That’s what covers all my works, generally. There was only one woman on the site. There are other women who would do anything to take food home.”
Mr. isiuwe also corroborated his wife, when he said, “There is another one who is a graduate, a scientist, who had even lived abroad, doing menial jobs in a construction site, and they just did something to me, and I was just wondering. I kept sketching them there. They were all workmen in their work environment, and they have a place under a tree where they relax after work, so you hear a lot of stories when they are sitting down under the tree. This is like a detour in the journey of life, you see them moving and you think they don’t have anything better to do. Something can happen tomorrow and they move on to what they are supposed to do in life. People see them as razz, but they are just doing it to get some money and move on, so that they can bring something home.”
With their show at the museum, the Isiuwe couple simply passed a patriotic message with their show without really intending it, that indeed staying home as against the craze to ‘japa’ or go abroad for greener pastures perhaps holds the key to building a better nation. This is particularly true for Mr. Isiuwe who once lived abroad but had to return home when he got dissatisfied with living abroad. This is also true for one of their subjects who, curiously, ended up in a construction site. But Mr. Isiuwe is confident such returnees could pick themselves up again and launch out. He argued that every society is just like the next, acknowledging though that Nigeria needed to build a country her young should be proud of and not one they would rather run away from.
“Nigeria is just like every other society,” he insisted. “I have seen people in the US that are actually graduates and are doing menial jobs. It’s the same thing; it’s not only our society but all over the world. Don’t look at it as a societal thing. The black man’s mentality has a way of suppressing itself. First time I got to US, there was a film on television; there was a Black guy who put a camera in his car because a policeman was always harassing him, and he was playing the recording live and everybody was seeing it. The policeman was telling him, ‘do you know I can shoot you now?’ These are the things that happen in America; it’s also the same here, but you actually feel the cruelty over here more. Just pray to God that things will work out for you. I’ve seen a lot of things happen, so that when I look at things, it’s not about going abroad to cool off and enjoy a nice environment. I believe in coming back here. I was tired and I was counting my days to come back here.
“What I am projecting (in my works) is that we have detours; don’t look down on people, because of the way you see them. There are a lot of stories behind these people. There are women without husbands who work as labourers because that’s the option they have. We are not lazy in this part; we just don’t want to give up. Government policy and everything just not working. People need food, clothes, shelter – the basic things of life.”
And in keeping with this patriotic fervour of ‘home is best’, they settled for the National Museum as exhibition space for ‘Our Byways’. But unlike most national institutions, the duo praise how the space was being kept, especially its commodious exhibition space.
“Like the word implies, the National Museum, so I have to be part of it,” Mrs. Isiuwe enthused. “I would feel left out if I have never done anything with the museum. This is my first time working with the museum and there will be more times. Sometimes, you don’t think of some things, but at a point in your life, you will be like: ‘what am I doing being everywhere and I’ve never been to the museum?’
“I’m a Nigerian and I love Nigeria. I’m not part of these people that are running away. Though it might take some time, but I believe in my country. I must say that the museum is improving. It’s well lit. A couple of years ago, it wasn’t really like this. But now there’s light, the Air Conditioning is working, it’s well painted, and the workers are very receptive. It’s just great for me. So, I’ll do it again.”
For the Mr. Isiuwe, “It’s the space of the museum, because most other galleries don’t have that space where you can stand and look at works. I want a place where anyone sitting anywhere can look at everything and take it in. The museum is supposed to be the best in the world, but the Nigerian mentality, the artworks aren’t (being) cleaned or maintained. They even used black paint on a bronze sculpture! They should have a department that maintains all these things. We have a lot of issues, but I’m still one of those people who talk about Nigeria everywhere I go. There is a lot that we don’t get, but let us start individually. We have to start from within.”
While the husband’s works are executed in exuberantly bright colours, the wife keeps hers to black and white minimalist perfection, a visual language she said suits her personality just fine.
“For me, people speak different languages, but you have a language that you’re free with,” she said. “You choose a language that you can pass your message across best. I could speak coloured language, but black and white helps me go straight to the point. I don’t want my reader or listener to get lost in what I’m saying. As you read some books, you picture the scene and the dress the person is wearing; that’s what I do. I’d rather go straight to the point. There is a culture that, like a negotiation, I don’t want to be too specific.”