Nigeria – Excerpts From My Diary (Part 2)

Sunday, May 17

Ekenma took me on a ride all over Nsukka – we saw markets, churches, hospitals, and people everywhere, and even a Volkswagen garage! Once we got back on the huge campus, she showed me every department, the Library, the schools her children had attended – kindergarten, gradeschool, middleschool, highschool. I saw the housing areas for senior professors; junior lecturers; administrative staff; girls’ dorms; boys’ dorms. It turns out that female population of students is now larger than the male’s. We visited several of her friends who all served us food and drinks, and engaged us in interesting conversations. It’s so easy to ask Nigerian people any question. We talked about race, social issues, colonialism, women’s position in society, the meaning of marriage in Igbo culture, and on and on! With her friends Ngozi and Obi, we discussed Nigeria’s negative international image — a source of much sadness for people. We also talked a lot about mosquitoes since that’s her specialty. Sometimes, to learn about mosquitoes’ biting habits, she sets herself as bait for 24 hours! That’s dedication to your job.

Monday, May 18

Today I demonstrated color printing – monotype, viscosity, and a new technique: collagraph. Once again, I was stunned to see how fast everyone mastered what I had just showed. Within hours there were dozens of new plates and prints. My students have an uncanny ability to see potential uses, and fearlessly experiment with the supplies. It is a very gratifying experience as a teacher. After class, Godwin took me to the Computer Lab so that I could send an email to my friends. What a miserable time technology usually brings upon me! Total fiasco – we spent two hours for me to be able to finally send a ten-line email!

Now that I have made two good friends, Ngozi, who is doing her MFA in ceramics, and Muyiwa the printmaker, I just want to hang out around the art department after work. Tonight we just sat outside, and as the light slowly faded, we kept talking. Several people stopped by and joined in; after a while I couldn’t really make out who anyone was anymore so I tried to recognize them by their voices! At 8PM, I walked back in the print studio, and found a bunch of students still printing, using their cellphones as torches! I was really touched.

Tuesday, May 19

One student came to class with six plates she had made at home last night, using solely supplies she could find around her house! That’s exactly what I want them to do – turn this workshop into something sustainable in the long run. Her plates were very meaningful to me. Collagraph is known for being challenging at first, yet everyone here is working fearlessly. And many of the prints look good already.

The end of my time in Nsukka is approaching fast, and I don’t want to leave. This past week, many individual relationships have developed, and I’m getting really attached.

I gave my lecture today. After a few questions were asked, Professor Onuora gave some final words that were of interest to me “You just saw a lot of art. Some of it you may have liked, some you didn’t. And a lot you probably didn’t understand at all. But the important thing is that you got to be exposed to it”. I was mesmerized “Not understand? Our art? What is there to not understand?!” That goes under the heading “the beauty of cultural differences!”

Wednesday, May 20

I spent hours sorting out prints this morning, and with the help of several students, hung the final show in the gallery. At the opening reception, every single participating artist, art faculty member, and friends, were present. Several speeches were made. It was very personal and deeply moving. George performed a long poem with lots of bravado and music, the topic was me! It was hilarious. He went through all the stages of printmaking, imitating me (quite well!!!), and the grand finale was “She has so much energy, she has so much energy, now I know what she is — she is a Man! I want to work very hard so I can be a Man like her!” Nobody could talk for a long time because we were all laughing so hard. And as always I was asked to make a speech. I got a little emotional, and thanked George for clarifying to me what I was — A Man!

It was getting dark when we piled up in Krydz’s car and left for Enugu.. I was quickly reminded of the pleasure of road traveling in Nigeria! If negotiating the highway is death defying by day, by night it is simply terrifying! But once again, Chijioke’s driving put me at ease, I stopped looking at oncoming traffic, and relaxed.

Thursday, May 21

Today I gave my lecture at IMT University. As usual, the slides came out in random order. I guess it’s better than not coming up at all! I received a wildly different response here than in Nsukka. One lecturer challenged the students by asking them how they felt about the simplicity of the work. Simple? Our work? Another lecturer encouraged the students to consider simplifying their work too. I was mystified. Then the same lecturer turned to me and said “We teach our students to use bright and beautiful colors. I noticed that the art you showed does not do that. Please talk about your use of colors. Is this art represented in galleries, and do people really buy it?” I was divided between feeling offended and fascinated! In my mind I translated his question into “Why do Americans use ugly colors to depict plain imagery. And who could possibly want to buy that?!” So I launched into a philosophical answer that addressed issues of subjectivity, culture, climate, aesthetics, and the individualistic nature of the American artist’s relation to art versus the collective aspect of maintaining a century old tradition of aesthetics for the Nigerian artist, Igbo in particular. I was exhausted after that, but actually quite excited by the dialog. I had learned more about my own culture and my friends’ and my art-making process in half an hour than in my entire life!

After the lecture, we went back to Professor Okay Ikenegbu’s Office, the IMT Department of Fine and Applied Arts’ Chair. Every art department’s chair and art faculty was there too. Together we trotted over to the Rector’s office and had another reception – complete with speeches, speech response by the Cultural Envoy, kola nuts for President Obama and myself, delicacies and beverages!

From there, Okay, Krydz and I went to the Enugu State Minister of Information and Culture. The Minister, his cabinet, and the entire staff was present. A bit intimidating, but I have gotten used to it by now. Once again, there were many speeches, an offering of kola nut for President Obama (none for me this time!), many wonderful foods and a lot of palm wine. It was of course announced (three times!) that the US Cultural Envoy would give her speech shortly. I was told to wait because the press wasn’t there yet. When they arrived, they stationed themselves a few inches from me, and shoved a microphone and video camera right to my nose. I figured I better give them a really good speech … one of those that speak of the role that such cultural exchanges play in making the world a smaller place by breaking down preconceptions and ignorance; I talked of fear as a dangerous weapon that breeds hatred. I was relieved that words came out easily!

We then were treated to a spectacular performance of traditional dances. At that moment, everything became a bit surreal for me. It felt as though I was looking at a picture of intense-looking African chiefs in an anthropology book, with me in the middle, kind of like an anomaly!

Friday, May 22

Krydz and I started our day live on Radio Kosmo! The topic was Art and Society, and they took in calls from the audience. I was very impressed by the quality of the staff. It was an intelligent show, and afterwards I felt energized and excited. That’s good as I’m starting to feel a bit tired by now.

From the radio station, we went back to IMT where Petrolina and I taught school children a day-long workshop on issues of AIDS and child abuse. There were about fifteen gradeschool students present who seemed quite excited to be exposed to printmaking. Instead of linoleum and knives, we used child-proof foam and pencils. Interestingly, their response to my teaching mirrored that of my university level students. Once again I was struck by their aptitude and resourcefulness. They first listened and watched very attentively, and then jumped in fearlessly. They immediately produced great results, and, imaginatively experimenting with the supplies, came up with new techniques before I could show them! Chukwuemeke, Gozie’s son, was one of my students and once we got home, he stuck by my side until bedtime, telling me how exciting this had been for him and his friends. He said it had been the best day of his life, and that he will never forget it. I was stunned because ten-year olds usually don’t express things to grown-ups openly, and I had no idea the children had enjoyed the workshop as much as he said they did. His mother confessed to me later that she finally got tired of him thanking her over and over for letting him participate!!! Without Chukwuekeme’s feedback, it would have been hard for me to evaluate the workshop’s success. Now I am confident that it was indeed a very important part of my time in Nigeria.

Saturday, May 23

Godwin Uka and Sammie Echem came by to pick me up, and drove me all over Enugu. We had a blast! We started with getting some food and beer at the “café shop” of the Museum; and then went through many different neighborhoods, stopping at corner markets to buy (more!) food from women who had set up tables and BBQ pits. He also bought two very bright traditional shirts for me! I couldn’t talk him out of it. And if I didn’t choose something, he was going to buy two more boubou’s, and what would I do with three boubou’s in Seattle?! We hung out in front of his house into the evening, eating and talking to all his neighbors.

Sunday, May 24

Krydz and family took me to “the village” as they call it here. When you’re outside of Lagos, they call Enugu “the bush”, and when you’re outside Enugu they call it “the village”, no matter which village you are going to! In this case we went to Inyi where Krydz and Petrolina are presently conducting an Uli workshop with support from the US Embassy.