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Flashes of colour

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Hibiscus is the motif of mood disorders. There are several variants. Rude red, white streaked with pink, light and dark purple, orange. Then bushes and hedges. Even trees.

When I was a boy, our front garden had a red hibiscus hedge. The leaves had that glossy, luscious green colour that in the evening darkened into the deepest black that you have ever seen. They were lanceolate and serrated.  But, it was always the flowers that stood out, literally. The five petals, red, even crimson. The stamens flush with pollen, yellow, rich, grain-like. The pistil erect.

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After rain, the leaves glistened as if oiled and polished. Buffed and buffed again. But, the proud petals would hang their heads sorrowfully. Some petals would be limp and sodden. Dark streaks of water would have soaked through the layer of wax. I would look at these petals, at the loss of their vigour, of their virile beauty, and the stamens too, like an overworked slave carrying a load and bent low and tragic, and these flowers would seem to me to be melancholic.

In December, when the Harmattan blew in from the Sahara, bringing with it dust, dryness, cold in the evenings and unbearable heat during the day, the green leaves would be caked in a thick layer of desert sandy dust. Everything in the house, the mantel, all the bookshelves, and the few ornaments too, would be covered in this dust. And if you blew your nose, the handkerchief would bear witness to this dust that had travelled the thousands of miles from Libya through Chad to Lagos.

Now bipolar disorder has this same swing from virile self-confidence to abject self-abnegation of the Hibiscus flower.

In mania, every sinew is strained to fill the frame with vitality, the rush of aminergic eroticism and grandeur like the petals of Hibiscus when it is at its best, its most beautiful, its most seductive to bees. Mania could be described as an efflorescence.

In Chekhov’s ‘The Black Monk, the main character, Kovrin

‘laughed aloud, sang, and danced the mazurka; he was in high spirits, and all of them, the visitors and Tanya, thought he had a peculiar look, radiant and inspired, and that he was very interesting’.

In depression, the crash is experienced as gloom. Sorrow that drains the spirit leaving a bedraggled stamen with bowed head. Defeated. Despairing. Despondent. As the ancients would have it accidie which ‘hinders the mind from all contemplation of the virtues’.

Again, in Chekhov’s ‘The Black Monk, Kovrin when depressed

‘went out into the garden. Without noticing the gorgeous flowers, he walked about the garden, sat on a seat, then strolled about the park; reaching the river, he went down and then stood lost in thought, looking at the water. The sullen pines with their shaggy roots, which had seemed to him a year before so young, so joyful and confident, were not whispering now, but standing mute and motionless’

Patrick Gale’s novel Notes from an exhibition deals with a similar theme. Bipolar disorder within family life. And, in this novel, death at one stage accompanies the main character

‘Death had been following her all morning, she realized. Longer than that. Death was the belly-churning she had been mistaking for the return of her old friend, mania. Death was the skittering, chattering questions and if-onlys at her back…And now it was impatient and chasing her, running to catch up. And she was ready at last, ready to greet it like a lover’.

In the periods in between mania and depression, what might be called a normal state, there can be regret for the loss of the special status that illness confers. ‘The Black Monk’ once again

‘I went out of my mind, I had megalomania; but then I was cheerful, confident, and even happy; I was interesting and original. Now I have become more sensible and stolid, but I am just like every one else: I am – mediocrity; I am weary of life’.

To return to the Hibiscus of my childhood. These flowers that I walked by, often without much thought, now that I reside in a different clime loom larger and more vivid and distinctive than they were in childhood. The hedge that curved into the drive way and out the other side, the Frangipani in the centre of the lawn, and the delicately sensitive mimosa. Each denoting a mood. Each lending colour to aspects of my past.

Bird of Paradise Lily

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The fusion of the images of a bird and a lily is an example of how glorious language is, in depicting the world we live in. But, it is not the extraordinary and awesome power of language in this sense that I am after. Neither the mystery of metaphor nor how it is the basis of new word formation. It is not the intriguing manner of words in focusing our attention on aspects of the world that speak to other material features in distinct domains that I am examining. It is the nature and quality of the human voice, this gift of the vocal cords that is my concern.

The human voice can speak in a hushed tone, be intimate as in a whisper. It can soar and then do a somersault as it tells a story. It can enchant, charm, seduce or command and reduce to tears. To listen is to be enthralled, to enter into another situation, to participate in the invisible but influential web of narrative, an unseen structure that is yet durable and unmistakable in its force.

Sometime last year, in Port of Spain, Funso Aiyejina took me to Cascade to meet Earl Lovelace. Earl lives in a large house, built into the hillside. We sat on his verandah, which overlooked a sheer drop, enveloped by mango trees. So close to the city but quiet, secluded and immersed in bird call and cricket sound. He opened a bottle of rum but I had freshly squeezed lime-juice, the very best.

The talk started slowly like an engine rusty from infrequent use, a spluttering start, a misfire, a stalled attempt but then when the cobwebs and the sediment were all flushed out, a silky pure run of magnificent horse power purred. I learnt of the mutiny, of the need for a clean break from colonization, of the need for patience alongside the passing of irrecoverable time, essentially of the bad faith of politicians.

We left in good spirits for the West of the city, the Western Peninsula, past Westmoreland, with Belmont behind us. There were runners, cyclists, and also yachts. The breeze too was perfumed! The rich and important live here in condominiums, large detached houses, and the roads are merely thoroughfares, no aimless loitering or liming here, no corner shops, no stalls, only vistas and scenes, views.

On another evening, in different company, I ate at Veni Mange. Veni Mange is a Caribbean restaurant run by a pair of sisters, one of whom recently died, suddenly. It is a friendly place. Our waitress was a young woman, slim and bronze. She had exquisite, almond shaped eyes. Her smooth skin and her face had the quality of a mask. When she smiled, it was like a bird spreading its wings and puffing up ready to take flight. The face and eyes called out to be admired. But, she rarely smiled. She barely tolerated serving others. Her look said if you think that just because I’m serving you we’re on the same plane, you’re wrong! She walked back and forth, swinging her derrière in the African fashion, like a horse switching its tail one way then the other, slowly, deliriously slowly, suggestive but as if with utmost disdain for any admiration. Haughty is her middle name.

Nadila who served us the last time, came in from the pavement outside, where she had been holding court. She was about 5 feet 4 inches tall with a broad torso on tapered lower limbs. She wore her hair in an Afro, an uncombed Afro that she tugged at, and pulled for effect whilst she spoke, somewhat, like a European woman, who preens her hair this way and that, touching it and smoothing it and then starting all over again. Except that here the action was a tugging, a pulling, a flourished wide gesture of sweeping the hair in a bunch, and all the time staring you directly and provocatively in the eye.

The Caribbean accent is made for seduction. It soars and sings, it hangs in the throat, it is spat out in guttural stops, and then it wraps itself in warm oil and perfume, around your viscera before once again soaring in a final soprano waltz. Nadila exercised these dark arts as she told her stories of cricket at Old Trafford with sixes clapped gently like an after dinner speech and movement restricted in between overs. Her gestures, her arm across her not inconsiderable breasts, her laugh and energetic movements moving the story from mime to pantomime, and raising the action from soap opera to Shakespearean tragedy!

It was a performance that gave the evening a special color. It turned an ordinary outing into a private performance of improvised theatre.

Of course, the actual stories are important in these encounters. But, to ignore the cadence of the voice, the tone and music, the way in which the materiality of the voice coaxes or inveighs, rails against or endears is to miss the point completely. It is to miss the richness and beauty that is for free.

A clinical encounter has all the possibilities of what it is to reach out to another being. But, there’s much that obstructs the potential creative aspects of the interaction. For one, the demands of computer entries of information, the sterility of the clinical space for all the modern design and attention to atmosphere. Then there is fear. Terror, that the limits and boundaries of propriety will be breached.

Hence the voice is stilted, the words become anchors that weight the feelings down. And, the words too, are counted out, like a miser’s pennies. Further impoverishing what is already denuded.

But to use the voice and to listen is singularly human. Both the corrosive and the caressive aspects, the longing and the sorrowful tension in the timbre, and the lightness of hope balancing the harsh unforgiving dimension of despair. These can be listened for, accentuated or moderated as necessary. But listened to and understood.

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a view from my corner

George and Uche belong to the same generation. Born in 1972 and 1973 respectively, they are good friends and they have more than a few things in common. Now, they have one more: the last two additions to the growing contemporary art collection at Lagos Business School are works produced and placed “in situ” by them. Both pieces, Peters’ “Free yourself” and Edozie’s “LBS” can be seen, suspended from the ceiling, in public areas of the LBS buildings at Ajah, Lagos.

In 2009 I helped putting together an exhibition at Omenka Gallery titled: Nigerian abstract painting now. George Edozie and Uche Peters (at that time his name was still Uche Igwe) participated in it. Since then, Uche has produced only a few works, mainly using  galvanized steel wire, while George has been a prolific artist, increasingly incorporating textiles into his works.

Uche is an unusual…

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Another walk

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The weather that weekend had been cold! The temperature hardly rising above freezing. But thankfully the snow had been mainly a light dusting of talcum powder. Nonetheless the hills were darkly defined against the fields. The stream plashed and glistened as it flowed downhill. The light now fading was a gray, mellow, bluish light. Sombre, it was restful to the eyes. Looking out from our sitting room window, the brush land woods were exactly the height to which the heart soars, not the Alps, not the Simian mountains, a modest, human scale.

The sky was like a well, you looked into the infinity of its depths, the water’s meniscus eased  gently against the wall as it does in a bucket. The darkness a glimpse of our own soul, where our fate sits inside the unplumbed depths of the self. This vastness of the sky, opening out between the converging edges of the valley, tugged at the energies of the heart, like a ripcord or a tugboat, pulled where the blood eddied in the arteries, a call to prayer. Us poor sinners!

The walk down from Midge Hole along Hebden Water to town took us along a muddy track. We were accompanied by the rushing water, the splashing and echo as the water caressed the rocks in the manner of streams. At the bends in the valley, froth collected snuggling close to the rocks and rimmed by a rust brown line, an eyeliner thin fringe clinging to the lacy hem of the rim. The river is unchanging in its character except when it floods. It runs, at bends it turns and spills frothing downhill.

The brush of woodland branches, everywhere, forms a curtain of net that shrouds the snow white carpet on the fields. And the hillside wore an Afro pockmarked by disease, perhaps by an errant alopecia that was spreading and contagious.

One or two groups of other walkers, family groups were also out. There was the ubiquitous dog walker on her own. Fresh mounds of dark earth, signs of moles still at work even in the grim weather. The birds nestling on branches, mostly black birds, magpies, solitary robins merge with the vegetation and were visible mostly in flight.

We met a young couple going up hill. She had her hair in the purple and brown that twinkles even in the gloom that is Hebden Bridge in winter.

I had been reading Chekhov’s letters to Suvorin, to his sister Misha during his trip to Sakhalin (1890) in Siberia. Our genteel descent down what can only be truly described as a modestly steep hill was like a molehill to his mountain. His journey through Tomsk to Irkusk & Lake Baikal during the winter, in extreme cold and flooded rivers, even though he was spitting blood, a consumptive, puts ours to shame.

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At the end, I bent down to re-tie my laces, and standing back up, swayed from the cold catching in my breath, a quickly passing swoon as of a veil before the eyes. As if to say, this is heady stuff!  How remote a mile from town feels, how distant from the heave and stench of commerce! How incredibly refreshing is the wilderness that is not really wild or untouched. Not even grand in any sense.

The drive to Art

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We drove from Kalgoorlie to Lake Ballard in search of Anthony Gormley’s sculptures. This is an account of the trip itself and it asks what is it that drives us to art?

Kalgoorlie is a mining town, actually it is an out back town 7 hours by train from Perth, the nearest metropolis. It is very like a frontier town in the spirit of the ‘Wild Wild West’. The main street, Hannan Street, has a number of grand hotels with ornate balustrades overlooking the street.  And, the bedrooms, open unto these verandahs. Any moment now, you imagine a fight on the verandah, gun slinging cowboys and men falling down unto the road below, and splintering balustrade with wood flying everywhere. It mustn’t have been that different in the early days of the 20th century here on Hannan Street. The gold rush started in late 1800s and by 1902 the town was full of ambitious, aggressive people or people with a big dream of gold and wealth. Today, the town has the air of a worn and weary dress that has been to the best parties, that has danced with the handsomest men, that has soaked up sweat and perfume but that has now yielded to the second hand market in a bazaar in the back of beyond.

There are two working brothels left on Hay Street, a reduction from 6 just 20 years ago when the whole street was valiant and strident as it displayed women with one who stood on the street inviting customers in as they still do today in many parts of the world. One of the brothels had a red light, a fluorescent lamp above its doorway and the other a blue light. Both were housed in a shed, a wooden building with a tin roof. When we walked past, one of the women was dressed in her negligee, walking with a cup of tea or cocoa in hand. This was brothel life at its most prosaic. There was no long line of sailors or miners restive in the queue. Just us, and then a car of middle class voyeurs, a couple and one parent, who stopped to breathe in the intoxicating air of sensuality, the mystery of brothel life. Were they aroused? What is secret and hidden held to our gaze, to satisfy not merely our curiosity but our repressed desires, our guilt and our urge to transgress.

Past Hannan hotel, we stopped to read the plate that told of the race riots of 1934. Jordan, a well-liked miner had insulted the barmaid whilst in an inebriated state and had been warned several times to desist from his intolerable behaviour before being told to leave. Next day he came back and a scuffle ensued during which he was pushed and he fell, knocking his head on the pavement and dying of a broken skull. Two days of rioting commenced. The British settlers shooting and killing southern European and Slavic immigrants. Hannan hotel was itself burnt down, it is said, because the immigrants cut the hosepipe of the fire engine.

On the outskirts of town is the Super pit, the largest open cast-mining site in the world. It is several kilometers long and several more deep. This is an inverted, cylindrical pyramid, cathedral to gold mining. The colours shade from brown through yellow and rust red to crimson and then blue-grey granite, to black. Gold is extracted as efficiently and totally as current technology permits. It is estimated to last until 2021. All the stories here are of nugget finds, prospectors staking their claim, crime and murder. But above all, the beauty and prestige of gold, its romance and power to lure and allure.

We drove to Menzies and stopped briefly. Menzies is a desolate place. Anthony Gormley has cast the 51 residents in rusting iron and placed them in Lake Ballard. For posterity. Menzies has one bar and we stopped to use the toilet. We were served by an Irish woman, thin and ill-used. Standing behind the bar waiting to serve the unlikely tourist, never knowing whether any would turn up. She was still cheerful though. On the wall was a sheet of an Irish dictionary of medical terms:  Cauterize (caught her eyes), Dilate (stay alive longer), colon (a punctuation), coma (a punctuation), etc. Across the road from the bar was the only shop in town, now shut for the day. A stocky aborigine strolled past it, his walk was a rolling from side to side, all loose limbed. Just down the road was a play space with bouncy castle, and other rides festooned with banners reading  ‘Menzies Awareness Day’! There was the solitary child on a swing, not much of a day, then. To imagine that this was the equivalent of a shire/county headquarters. Bleak and sorry.

We drove 51 kilometres from Menzies to Lake Ballard. The road was uncovered laterite red with the dust billowing behind us and ahead of us on the few occasions when we were overtaken. On the map, Lake Ballard lay to our left but we did not see it shielded as it was by vegetation. There were surprising and sudden glimpses of bulls and cattle. Black and self satisfied, these animals grazed on the tussock-like grass or walked as on a Sunday promenade in Barcelona across the road without any caution or care. Lake Ballard itself was mostly dry. The lakebed was a white crust of salt on bare laterite red. Gormley ‘s sculptures were laid out across the lakebed. Thin stick like figures. The male ones had their penises stiff against the wind. The females, their breasts on stalks like fruit borne on the chest without any risk of flopping southwards with age. The iron was already rusting reddish ferric brown. Against the light the statues were stately even proud. They cast long shadows, thin, in the evening sun. I am not sure what essence Gormley was trying to capture or depict but the each figure was strangely solitary and insulated from the others. Is this how our lives are, ultimately? Strangers to one another even if we live in a small town of 51 souls. Terrible.

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What urge did this drive satisfy? There is quite a literature on why human beings create art but far less why we attend to art. Was it the journey, the actual drive that was satisfying, providing opportunity for self-reflection or was there something about the art itself, some ineffable something that we grasped at, reaching for an object in the external world that points back inwards, to our subjective world? And, why was that satisfying?

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

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