Ameh took a step backwards and re-examined the portrait on the table. It is near perfect, he thought. I can now call her to take a final look before packaging it for the competition.
“Mama Ilema!” he called out in the direction of the kitchen, stroking his Osama beard.
Ameh had been working on the portrait for three years now. He began the project on the day the president was declared winner at the polls. He had hoped then to complete the portrait soon enough to present it to him on his inauguration ceremony. But subsequent events dictated otherwise.
One of the crippling problems was his initial impression of the president. This affected the first sketch of the portrait so much that he had to wipe it off and start all over again. His wife was the first to point out the faults, then his daughter.
“Daddy, why does he look so handsome and innocent?” little Ilema had observed.
“You think the president is not like this?” His pride was pricked by the criticism. After twenty years of being in the profession, he thought he knew enough.
Just a few weeks after the criticism, Ameh began to learn better, as unfolding events began to portray the president in conflicting lights, especially the controversy over the outcome of the election. His opponents said the election was heavily rigged. International election observers said it was slightly rigged. And the election tribunal seemed to find the case too difficult to decide.
With all these and other political complications, Ameh decided to slow down; to put the work under periodic review for some months. And so the portrait could no longer be presented to the president on the inauguration day, which took place in spite of the raging controversy.
Mama Ilema was not happy about the delay. The family had been going through hard times and she had hoped the portrait would fetch them something from the president.
“The inauguration day is the only opportunity for us,” she had observed. “Opportunity comes but once.”
“No, opportunities come all the time,” he had retorted. “If we can’t present it now, we will present it on his 100th day in office.”
The 100-Day Anniversary came and passed and the portrait was yet to be ready. Every month Ameh would dust it and apply fresh colours. It was quite a task. At a point Mama Ilema suggested he should copy from the president’s photograph. But he rejected the idea with a spit, saying the president was the subject-matter, not the man. He sounded like one possessed, so she left him alone.
She had remained silent over the issue till today, three years after he started the portrait.
As Mama Ilema now stepped into the gallery, she instinctively knew what was expected of her; she picked up the portrait.
“It looks artistic,” she said, scrutinizing it. Then she added cautiously, in a sentence that was neither a question nor a statement: “But he looks too ugly…”
“Is there any African leader who is not ugly?” he queried. “I mean, apart from Mandela…”
“But our own president…”
“Please…!” He snatched the portrait from her, and in the process, it slipped off and fell on the ground, knocking off bottles of colours. The colours spilled on the portrait.
“I’m sorry,” Mama Ilema apologized, picking up the portrait. It was like the smear of blood and rotten eggs. “I’m really sorry…”
“Leave it!” Ameh screamed, as she made to clean up the mess. “That is the perfect finish!”
“What do you mean?” she asked, looking surprised.
“It has won the prize!”