by Emmanuel Iduma


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Nengi Omuku

While she drove away a man struck the rear of the car. She slowed, and I wondered if something was wrong with a tire, or if a door hung loose. The man scurried to us and stood by my window. He claimed, as soon as we bent forward, that we were the only good people in Port Harcourt. “No one would listen to me. No one would stop for me,” he said. “I am on my way to Lagos, and the bus has left me behind.” At that moment he began to weep. “Your city is a terrible place. People here are wicked. If I can leave you would never see me again.”

Four days prior she told me she was robbed the previous year. Throughout our conversations the robbery was referred to in anecdotes—possessions they made away with, how she shivered when she recalled the night, what security measures she’d had to take, and how unsafe she still felt.

To the man we gave our sympathies and a little cash. He wiped his eyes, indicated some gratitude, and yet, dallying beside the car, appeared to consider our gift paltry in comparison to his utter want. We debated if he was a conman, if his desperation was faked. I thought he was honest because he had taken the risk to stop a moving car. But she mentioned being stopped in a similar fashion once, being asked for help by a man in need of the other half of his transport fare. Days later the same man approached her, at the same bend of the road, making the exact request.

She is surrounded by such recurring affront. By all superficial evidence she is in fortunate financial circumstances, considering the SUV she drives and the part of town she lives in. That the bungalow she lives in is her family’s, and that she struggles from year to year to make her life as a painter possible, are facts imperceptible by those who consider her from a distance. As a woman in the Niger Delta, young and unaccompanied for the most part by a man, men older or younger, strangers or neighbors, imagine her as a wife-in-waiting. One man, she recalled, only entering her studio for the first time and watching her work, told her after their brief chat: “We are looking for a wife.” By we he referred to himself. His use of a collective pronoun couldn’t have been more discerning of the delusions of fellow men.

Since she began her career in 2009, considering the date of her first inclusion in an exhibition, she has painted almost exclusively with oil: on paper, canvas, panel, linen, and board. She could be called an abstract painter, but this would simplify her fascination with figuration. Figures began to emerge in her work early on—figures that seemed, at first, like wiggling gobs, but became discernible as human outlines; faceless, wigged, and decked in apparel. At a cursory glance, no one looks at her paintings without seeing the human form—or, to use a more heady word, the forms are anthropomorphic. Yet when I steady my eyes, the forms become specters motionless for a brief moment. Transient, hovering in the foreground like atoms before they break into smaller particles.

Of her use of colors it is easy to note the recurrence of rose madder and phthalo blue. One glob of color is tacked beside another. Where the figures seem to billow, the backgrounds she places behind them are firm and steadied, often in contrasting colors. With such color schemes she distinguishes figure from background, action from stage, and event from setting. In two of her recent paintings, there is an additional figure, decked in a blue cloak, bearing the smaller one, like a mother would. Looking at those with two figures, her paintings hint at, and are façades for the existential. “Foremost on my mind,” she writes in a statement, “are the ways in which the body needs to adapt in order to belong.”

When the colonial authorities needed a port east of Lagos, they sought out land along the Bonny River. Finding one without forest growth, under cultivation, and easily drained, they negotiated with the Diobu and formalized, so to speak, by May 1913 the takeover of farmlands then known as Igwuocha. Once the British bought the farmlands, they needed a name to indicate the capitulation of the locals. They then proposed to Lewis Harcourt, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to have his name associated with the new port town. In the century since, the city has been defined by potential: a main port of exit for national resources, first coal then crude oil. This potential is its very nucleus. Anything else, including the safety and dignity of its inhabitants, seems to matter less.

She has had to adapt to Port Harcourt. Her studio, at the time I visited, was located on the second floor of a shopping mall. She rented it from a relative for a few months, and worked there four or five days a week. Most of the other shops were unoccupied; the landlord had difficulties finding tenants. She shared a floor with a law firm, and sometimes a lawyer or two would come to say hello, watch her paint, or make small talk. Every day a film of black dust settled on the floor, gas flares blown that way by harmattan wind. She would have to begin by mopping the floor, and if there was no electricity, turning on the generator. It was important to keep the doors and windows locked, for safety and quiet. Sometimes she draped a blanket over the glass doors.

When she completed her studies, earning a master’s degree at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, she spent a year of national service in Ibadan. Then she returned to Port Harcourt, to use her hometown as base and buffer as she made her way in the art world. There was nothing that suggested to me in our encounters her intention to stay longer than necessary—not even the fact that, in her spare time, she manages her mother’s gardens. The city seemed intolerable to her, as though she couldn’t entrust to it her future. Very few painters in Nigeria, at the edge of renown, can bear to live outside Lagos, with its rotating mix of galleries, fairs, and collectors. She has considered moving there.

What do I mean by “edge of renown?” I refer to her youth, yes, and the number of years she has worked professionally. But by referring to an edge, a margin, I imagine what it means for her to insist on negotiating between figuration and abstraction, to jump over a cliff of her own making. Her “floating” figures are painted with great care and intention, but they hint at the unresolved question of what to do with the face. She is disinterested in being commissioned to paint portraits of people. Her renown is therefore a matter she would have to resolve, for herself. If she has set out to imagine ways bodies adapt in order to belong, what is the range of options available to her? How mutable can the body get, how unmanageable, how transient?

The question is not far-fetched. She is enthused by the work of Wangechi Mutu and Chris Ofili. In their best representational work, the figures are composed so that although two-dimensional, they cannot be seen from one perspective. Both artists are inclined to the psychedelic as to the fantastical. “Fantasy” might sound too wide a word if it didn’t originate from the Greek phantastikos, “able to imagine,” and from phantazein, “make visible.” Her task, by using colors with such exuberance, is an invitation to consider the fantastic potential of the body and mind in their cycles of change. How a body is fertile, what makes a mind healthy—these are the cosmic themes that preoccupy her mind. Her paintings, in their most sublime and abstract, seem to me like molecular versions of life’s big experiences.

The second time we met she decked me in a felted woolen fabric, and took photographs. The cherry-red fabric was patterned with horse and lion heads. It is known in the Niger Delta as blangidi, from the Nembe word for “blanket,” allegedly introduced to the region by a woman, an Okrika cloth merchant involved in trade with European firms. I have seen how the blangidi appears in her paintings: the first time she painted fabric it was in “Bodija Heiress,” a portrait of a woman she’d observed on the roadside in Ibadan, who by all indications was mentally ill.

The snapshots she took might later inform a painting, but at the time she was not sure.

I imagine a use for it:

On the day I was a model, we drove past an intersection and she pointed out a man she always saw lingering about, his clothes tattered, his hair wild. From time to time she noticed the man being cared for by a woman. This woman would come to cut his hair, bring a change of clothes, brush his teeth, and even pray for him. “One day,” she could be heard saying, “you will be delivered from this madness.” That day hasn’t come. Who knows what version of it might exist on her canvas. ︎

February 2018

A Sum of Encounters is a year-long blog by Emmanuel Iduma featuring intimate portraits of Nigerian artists based in Nigeria or the United States. With support from the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.