“Finiteness is a concept that has been imposed upon us by the Whites,” Bruce Onobrakpeya explained to me one day. He is one of the greatest contemporary artists in Nigeria.
Ageing close to 91, small in stature and with disheveled grey hair, Onobrakpeya is recognised at auctions worldwide. He exhibits at the Tate in London and at the MoMA in New York. His work is sold for tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes more. And yet the old man lives in the modest house he built during the 1960s in Mushin, in the heart of Lagos.
At the time he built the house, Mushin was a remote village nestled amid luxurious vegetation and tropical trees. It is now an overcrowded district on the mainland. His house is jammed between warehouses for auto parts and markets swarming with people. But he lives there like an elder in his village, as if he couldn’t see any of it.
I was writing an article about the 50th anniversary of Lagos several years ago, and I interviewed him about his relationship with his beloved city-his inexhaustible source of inspiration. He led me through his three-storey house and into his workshop, with a combination of pride and mischievousness that only old people can get away with. He showed me dozens of his paintings, sculptures and engraved bronze doors, laying here and there in the damp and the dust.
I touched everything. I wanted to see it all. I couldn’t stop asking questions.
And this one, for example, how much is it worth? And what were you trying to say in this painting? Does it have any meaning?” The poster for his first exhibition in Lagos-the first exhibition of the post-colonial era in the capital of free Nigeria-was lying carelessly n the top of an old beam. It was half torn by time and indifference. I was as impressed as I was astounded. ‘But sir you can’t keep all this here, in this heat…It’s going to rot, to get damaged…This poster is superb, it must be worth a fortune!” He didn’t say anything.
A little further on, inside old cardboard folders, a black and white etching was hidden. The sides of the large paper were eaten by humidity, and green stains were already attacking the drawing but you could still make out the title written in pencil: Mami Wata Oyinbo-Mami Wata and the White Man, 1976. The drawing was of perfect geometric shapes. They depicted a short white man, very confident, colonial hat on his head, hands on his hips and smoking a pipe. He was looking up towards large shadows with ghostly, feminine shapes. He was looking up to these beauties and without him noticing h it, Mami Wata was embracing him with her fish tail. The mermaid was raising her arms elegantly towards him and we could guess that, soon,she was going to completely engulf him.
I ran towards the artist. “Sir – You can’t leave it like that! You need to protect this drawing, I mean… It’s far too important…It is powerful.”
The old man turned towards me with disdain.
“You want it? Take it.”
I hesitated. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, take it if it makes you so happy.” And as if he had waited for the right moment to lecture me, he stopped. “You know, to preserve art, to make it immortal, to give it financial worth, or any worth at all, these are western concepts which do not belong to us. You imposed them on us.”
I felt terribly intrusive. Stupid. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from trying to change his mind.
“But sir, it’s going to disappear… The world will never see it…”
“A piece of art is organic. It lives, it dies, it disappears that’s normal. Nothing is destined to live forever. Not even art.”
He could talk on and on, but I couldn’t shake the idea that this drawing didn’t belong here — in Mushin, in his dusty attic, in oblivion. It had to serve history, to be a part of the history of humankind, of colonisation, and of our memories. But as if he wasn’t listening to me, he went on:
“The world might not remember some of my works. Perhaps even – according to your criteria – the most beautiful of them, the most powerful, the most expensive, will never be known. It doesn’t matter. Maybe its place is here. It will die here and is no less important in my eyes. Art is the representation of spirits inside the material world.”
Finiteness does not really exist in African ancestral beliefs. It has emerged from the abstract and moralising concepts of Heaven and Hell that, after decades of forced evangelisation, still haunt the minds. But in Igbo culture, the Chi, the divine spirit of nature, a sort of representation of our inner god, lives in us and guides us throughout our time on earth. When we die, it mourns us, it escorts us to the afterlife, and then it moves on to another being. Life is only a mortal substrate for infinity and time. These two concepts do not belong to us. They belong to the ancestors.
In Nigeria, every sentence, every wish, every project is punctuated with a “by God’s grace” or an In Shaa Allah.” It is a humble admission that tomorrow will never be completely in our hands. The ancestors, God, your Chi or the Orishas are here, omniscient, to watch over us and protect us. But everything organic will die and rot, eventually to be forgotten and replaced. It will all turn again to dust, disappearing on this day or the next, despite all our efforts to interrupt the natural course of events. Like this drawing of The Goddess of Water and the White man of 1976, which I eventually framed and hung in my living room, sheltered from humidity and time.
THE LIGHT OF DAY WAS RISING OVER the Atlantic Ocean. The waves were growing higher and noisier with the tide. Lagos was waking up, stronger and more fragile than before. I imagined her, head high and eyes on the horizon, raising a whole continent with her. She whispered to me that I should trust her and that I was wrong to worry; that she would continue to stay the course, come what many. The sun became a large red disk through the humidity and the clouds, and almost immediately, the heat became unbearable. As I was leaving the beach, I had a quick look at my message.
He had written to me. I hope you’re okay. I’m back in Lagos. I missed you.’
I threw my phone into my bag. And I went back to Manuwa.
Excerpted from Manuwa Street, a Memoir, first published by 1ER PARALLELE in April, 2021 and later published in Nigeria in 2022 by Farafina.