Celebrating the Last Glass of Water with a Smile: A Foray Into the Life of Artists and their Sacrifices
Let us commence this journey with this poem by a Nigerian literati.
By Obu Udeozo
In flight, frightened
Like a weaverbird
Frantic at nestling futilely
From an infinite bazaar of
Affluent kins and well wishers
In their dense forest of mansions
Of suites and duplexes.
And yet outcast
The street dogs stalking my
Swollen steps must think
I am mad
No home has welcomed me
Like two sides of a coin. Not lining some phat pocket, bursting from the sweat of urchins and street people, but tossed askance to some desolate island by Bedouin winds. What can we make of the of the Vagabond and the Hermit? Cutting short the rhetoric, the former, among a plethora of possible connotations, is someone, an individual, mam, woman, child; with no HOME. As we approach the daily twilights of dusk, Man and Beast, especially the diurnal hurries home to roost, but the vagabond simply roams on. He has no home to return to. He may only find temporary solace in eaves, arches and porches along the street. The latter, is simple, one cut off from the society. At best, anti-social. He very rarely leaves his home, his hermitage. Like a bird perpetually bound to his perch.
There’s a commonality, an essential salt that runs through the essence of the vagabond and the hermit. It is their stoic personalities. Their homogenous sense of lack! This deficiency, which one may describe as the logic of the illogicality, is most ironically, their source of strength! For their humanity and human spirit is heightened whence cut off from the mundane, that which is petty or cosmetic or vogue. Like, killing one’s self for things we want but do not need. That, so eagerly sought, so jealously guarded, so easily lost! And those we actually need, like the common want of salt and pepper that the woman forgot to ask the politicians at the rally of rallies, when she got home to her children and all she found was the empty kitchen ware staring her in the face in Odia Ofeimun`s poem: A SERIOUS MATTER.
The vagabond and the hermit are beyond this state. In other words, he has matured through the various institutions and degrees of suffering and grown numb to the hunger and acid bites of despondency and deprivation.
The ongoing is analogous to the HUNGER ARTIST of Kafka, when his art took him to heights before un-ventured, like places in the sky where even the eagles fear to dare, he was the strongest of mortals present at he zoo material time. Here again, that divine paradox, that illogical..Logic: his weakness was his strength as the former only informed and served the latter. The vagabond would die in the end. So would the hermit, as did Kafka`s hunger artist. And so would we all. But again, as Toni Kan once interred in an elegy for late Ayo mamudu at his last duty post at the University of Jos in the early nineties:
What is life? But death
What is gain but loss?
What is laughter but sorrow?
That tasks our lives…
And Olu Jacob, a fellow traveller like Toni kan, Helon Habila, Ter Agbeder, I.k Akonobi, Abiye Krukrubo, David Njoku and my humble self also expressed in the poem from our writers forum days in at the University of Jos: WHEN I DIE.
When I die
Feed my body to the vultures
It is not death that I fear but extinction!
For what is life, if you lived it
Without fame nor fortune
Thus it is not the life you lived or are living that matters, but of what quality? That is the question. We all remember Ayo Mamudu and Zack Orbunde among others and their untold sacrifices staying faithful to the Arts: they’re ever truly jealous spouse, the same of which many have paid the ultimate price. Distinguished in this category is the callous murder of KENULE BEESON WIWA, known to the world simply as Ken Saro Wiwa by the Abacha junta. And someone very dear to my heart, whose piratical leave taking left such a wind blowing in my mind; he was called Carlos Izzia Ahmad!
Other Artist, painters, and writers spreaded across the continents of the globe that has lived through various degrees of untold, unqualified suffering include inter alia: Leonardo da Vinci –an Italian artist and to properly label him: a master of masters, jack of all trades and master of all! Physician, painter, sculptor e.c.t among his best known works are the ever refreshing portrait of the mystery lady, Mona Lisa. Song and celebrated in all art forms. This painting, glanced from every which way you choose, a different pictured is conveyed for your delight! It is at best, kaleidoscopic in nature. A still painting, smiling when viewed from an angle and at another, the smile is gone, just like magic! And here’s the interesting part, it is like a sweet joke told for your exclusive benefit, yet you can neither unravel nor fathom the exactly what its all about…Leonardo da Vinci`s Mona Lisa. His other notable works are: The Last Super and The Madonna Of The Rocks. He is also known on records to be the first to dissect the human anatomy! He painted the motifs on the ceiling in St Peter’s Basilica lying straight on his back on a ladder and the paint was entering his eyes, from which after so many months, he wrote a letter to his family describing his hazardous task and his deeming sight.
A great man indeed won’t you say? In the words of Obu Odeozo: an archetype of the western genius (he lived in the time when to go to the University meant you simply studied all the disciplines to be learnt therein!) But here’s the catch! He was poor most of the time, never knowing when his next meal would come. He wallowed, wobbled and stumbled from one royal court to another, struggling daily with his servant for survival amidst the smallest denominations of the Italian peso.
Vincent Van Gore. A Dutch painter known like Da Vinci in the world of Art was only able to sell one singly painting in his lifetime! Funny don’t you think? He was reported to have lived perpetually under the benevolence of his younger brother. But interestingly, only a few years ago, his painting DR GATCHE sold for 82 .5 million dollars (American). He suffered so much in his lifetime that he first cut off his own ear. And finally suicide took pity on him for escape from this miscellaneous Earth we habit.
Rembrandt. Equally celebrated today as the others, one of the greatest painters of all times, was so poor, he went bankrupt and invited auctioneers to sell off his desk, chairs and even his the very beddings that he slept on: because of untold hardship! And dept!
James Joyce. The writer attached to the city of Dublin and credited for giving the world Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man amidst several notable literary works, dropped out of medical school. Lived from hand to mouth, hardly had clothes on his back nor could cater for family. He eloped with a young lady whose name was Nora Barnacle (his wife in later life) and lived together as man and wife –companions until their old age before engaging on that proverbial nuptial flight. With a name like Barnacle, she would never leave him, said his father. And his prophecy was true. She stuck to him till the very end! Through the hunger and deprivation. How is this for a note to spouses of contemporary Artist?
Another very interesting case scenario is T S ELIOT. Author of THE WASTELANDS, among several other books. I had a lot of laughter discussing him with my wife Rahmah-Allah, he suffered much, and they had to make donations for him. Literarily put: to employ the words of the migrated Carlos Izzia Ahmad:
Not a man was left in him that could stand tall against the wall and piss…
He battled perpetually between working for a living and living for his Art. The very Art that could not support him in Europe. It’s on record however that he was subsequently saluted with the coveted Novel for his Literature.
John Keats took to smoking to escape his poor status and ended up with tuberculosis as reward!
Even our own very W. S (Wole Soyinka for those who still don’t know we call him this for short) before he went on to win the Nobel, then as a lecturer in UI, went from bank to bank looking for a loan to erect a domicile for his head (the same that the agents of the Abacha junta would destroy later at his home town in Abeokuta looking for the root of Radio Kudirat) and not one, not one single bank in Nigeria was willing to oblige him. The story of course has been different since he won the Nobel! Abroad as a student, he was reported to have played a guitar in bars to raise a few bucks to keep body and soul going.
Niyi Osundare. Author of Waiting Laughters, The World is an Egg, among several others, recently retired from his many years scholarship in UI, has no home to call his own, his children are still rallying round to complete the one he has been building for so many years (as reported last year in the Vanguard upon his retirement). And if the heinous jaws of the dreaded Hurricane Katrina swallowed him up where he was cooked up in the attic at his University home in New Orleans, Waiting for Godot, which, very fortunately for him and all of us for that matter, came in the form of his neighbour’s flying boat. If the midwifenight came for him then, other than having trained tons and tons of creative souls in and around the world and raising his children to fruition, every new thing about Prof. Niyi Osundare would have been simply posthumous!
The list of artists, painters and writers who have paid, are paying, making these unqualified sacrifices in their fidelity to the Art and their calling are endless, but lets turn the spotlight to one of such individuals, the last to be mentioned herein, but not the least in the tribe of sufferers, and the reasons for which we’re here gathered today.
OBU UDEOZO. As Chike Uwechie described him, a three star General. Poet, Painter and Clinical psychologist. Author of five poetry collections, written through blood and sweat, published through same medium. Palmwine, Stimulus, Cyclone, Compassion, Excursions. He has painted through hunger and strife. Commissioned by the Federal Government of Nigeria to paint portraits of past Presidents of the country. To get this job, he fasted for seven years! He did the job at the expense of his family life, like getting married on time and propagating his species i.e. he never wanted anything to affect his determination and perfection of the responsibility to his calling as an artist! Millions of Naira was voted for him for the job, but he is yet to smell even half of it, and perhaps, never will. This is enough to give a man hypertension, but Obu Udeozo has held on. It is his faith and the spiritual persona that has kept him going. And the wife… this woman … she has really tired, he’d often say, shaking his head from side to side, tears raging his eyes. Obu Udeozo has just come out of his Hermitage.
The University of Jos, of whom we heard from as being thrilled to have him work with them yesterday has given him a chance to further keep the fire that consumes itself to give light to others, burning. But the consolation here for those who’ll feel sorrow for the artist, symbolised fully by the life of Obu Udeozo, is that Poets, Artists never die! We simply go forever! Like a meteor, journeying forever. We may only change substance. But again as Helon Habila said in that MUSON winning poem: ANOTHER AGE: poets in the end become poetry… we become, in the end, the very poems and stories, articles and essays of our creations, to be studied, analysed and dissected by all generations (like Viktor Illich Chaikoski`s all time symphony: THE NUTCRACKER SUITE) …forever, `till all the birds tumble from the skies!
The aspect of Obu with Prof. Ben Obumselu and Christopher Okigbo is another story that calls for a separate paper and would get that from me soon in another forum.
The Vagabond and The Hermit, The Hunger Artist, The Poet…. Is a terribly lonely creature. His shoulders stooping, his entire physical and mental composition burdened and encumbered by too many knowing. He enjoys the rare and again, terrible privilege of viewing and travelling between two worlds– the mundane and cosmetic and petty and vogue, and the merciless spiritual. (Like Ben Okri`s Azaro for instance). And to employ an antiquated cliché`, to whom much is given, much is expected. There’s always a price to pay as the spirit maliciously swoops down on the Artist for her Shakespearean pound of flesh! There may exist or have existed a negligible few however to this rule e.g our much trumpeted favoured Christopher Okigbo reported as probably the only one in the tribe to have ridden in sports car, domiciled in Cambridge house and even saluted with the divine luxury of owning a dashing white horse! But if we look at Okigbo again, the question that comes to mind is simply this, so where is he now? He joined those who paid even the ultimate of prices for their Art when he tried to do with GUNS (or is it AGRICULTURAL TOOLS?) what he did previously (in all spiritual majesty) with POETRY.
And so in the end, all creative souls will pay their dues in one form or the other, we all – Painters, Poets, Novelists, Musicians, Sculptors, e.t.c., hear what my very near and dear Toni Kan says about this:
The poet is the prince of solitude
A voyager into the dark, where
Secrets cluster in hives, buzzing
Like mad bees, light blights us
Blinds us, so we grope in the dark
Poets like you and I, lie lonely and sad
In dank dungeons wrought out of stones
And our desperate fears, missing mothers
And lovers and willing words into action
Poets are like mad spiders, crazed by the logic
Of our webs, we fall to our deaths,
Cackling as we go…
(From: They call me a poet, for Akin and Ogaga)
His or her entire lifetime is mostly uncelebrated. Some (like Mmaasa Masai) are only known to a few friends and critics. Some have since disinherited themselves from our trade. Some wish they could quash the spirit musings urging us all, even at insane periods to get up and create, but are plain bound and have nowhere to run to… like poets in the end becoming poetry! Ha!
The nineties in Nigeria ushered in our catalogue of woes, occasions oiled and wheeled by the military incursion into our polity, (the melancholy insane elephants!) gory and disturbing tales of colossal penury, homelessness, hunger and a plethora of opportunistic diseases live, rage and depleted our numbers. Like that once famous ASUU slogan. Your take home pay cannot take you home. We were and are still witnesses to break down in law and order, public utilities as water, roads, hospitals etc., essential commodities as food shelter and clothing, occasioned by the mad inflationary terms in Nigeria defied and still defying the ancient tested and trusted law of gravity! All that ever went up, simply keep going up! All this in turn unleashed the world of crime and even compelled criminals upon men and women of goodwill blossoming naturally like flowers down a boulevard!
All the above is the society in which the contemporary Nigerian Artist habit and held responsible to change in fulfilling his or her duties to humanity. As James Baldwin once said … to recreate out of the disorder of life, that order which is Art!
To conclude this piece therefore, it is all together imperatives to say that an attempt has been made herein, to trace the inner crisis that besieges the Artist, his responsibilities to the society in which he or she resides and the human race in general, the pains and sorrows surrounding his or her creative processes and the overabundance of obstacles he wades through even at great personal harm (and at times physical death) to pay his dues to mankind.
The following excerpt from works of two quintessential Artists per excellence, Colleen McCullough and Obu Udeozo, aptly amplify all that I have tried to say here i.e. CELEBRATING THE LAST GLASS OF WATER WITH LAUGHTER! In the novel, THE THORN BIRD, the former had interred the following as prelude to her story of Maggie Cleary and the priest Ralph de Briscassart (which inspired our dear Chimamanda Adichie, and as I concluded in my WHY ALL THE RHAPSORDY FOR PURPLE HIBISCUS? She made a very poor showing compared to McCullough’s treatment)
There is a legend about a bird, which sings
Which sings just once in it’s lifetime, more
Sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth
From the moment it leaves its nest it searches for a thorn tree
And does not rest until it finds one. Then, singing
Among the savage branches, it impales itself upon
The longest sharpest spine. And dying, it rises above its own
Agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative
Song, existence is the price. But the world stills to listen and even God in heaven smile. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain…or so says the legend
And this stanza from the latter’s poem JOY, from the book STIMULUS:
…And not even for the Artist
Whose deity is fame alone
Nor the writer, just for not
Feeding or paying rent
Our song is for all, whose
Loftiest rapture is a consuming
Gratitude to God, for this single
Lived in harmony with self
And concord with others
Not for him who owns castles of wine
But those who share their only
Bottle of water, with laughter.
This piece is therefore written to celebrate the best in all of humanity (lesser gods and goddesses), the ARTIST who deprives himself to bring joy and order, and hope to the world!
Responses, criticisms cum rejoinders are welcome