My Body and Mind in Lockdown Dialogue | May 2020
Mind: How are you coping?
Body: I should be asking you, aren’t you the one in charge here? I do whatever you ask of me, though I used to think that I have a mind of my own, you never let that function. If what you are asking is if I am following your orders, yes, I am. Some days are better than others. I am obsessed with handwashing while I whistle “Happy Birthday” when it’s nobody’s birthday. I have not stepped out of my house now for six weeks, and when I eventually start going out again trust me to be the king of social-distancing. None of that Nigerian style of riotous greetings whereby friends shake hands, backslap one another and proceed to lift and swing each other around like Olympic wrestlers.
Mind: Is your work or focus enriched or interrupted by the crisis?
Body: Sometimes you send Fear to come get something from me, but I have been very rude to it. I have tightened my friendship with Caution – I hope you don’t mind. And we pretty much do everything together these days. Call us 5&6 or Bonny and Clyde, I won’t mind. Two of my international events were cancelled. I was supposed to give a talk at the Sidney Biennale, the event was cancelled due to the crisis. Same with a New York Times/Art For Tomorrow event in Berlin, which has been moved to September.
I have lost count, but I know for the past six weeks I have drawn different characters wearing face masks in a series I call Daily Dose Diary.
Having said that, you make me work at home every day. You, Mind, make me focus more on my writing now. But as you are very much aware, I also sketch and draw daily just to keep you calm. As soon as the crisis is about to disrupt you, you push your anxiety my way and I have to feed you with incessant drawings. I have lost count, but I know for the past six weeks I have drawn different characters wearing face masks in a series I call Daily Dose Diary. As if that is not enough, you have made me dig into my family archives of pictures, letters, notes and all sorts dating back to the 1940s.
Mind: Well, aren’t you happy I have forced you to stay in a place and focus more on things you have avoided over the years?
Body: You mean like staying at home listening to my kids’ mathematics teacher reminding me of my childhood nightmare?
Mind: Not that, but I am glad you are participating in your children’s home-schooling efforts. I mean what you said about engaging with your family archive. How is that going?
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It is a great honour to follow my family tradition of several decades, covering the Oba of Benin and royal ceremonies in Benin City. I grew up to meet some of the most amazing royal images taken over the years in my family archive. The black and whites are images made of Oba Akenzua during Igue festival in the 50s by the octogenarian photographer, Eni Ehikhamenor. And in 2009, I photographed Oba Erediuwa during Igue festival. And it was a pleasure to cover the current king, Oba Ewuare II. We don’t kill culture, we keep it. Long live the Kingdom of Benin🙌🏾 #longlivetheling #beninkingdom #familyarchive #royalchroniclers #myhomeland
Body: Truth be told, I am enjoying it. Digging up the past and knowing how you got to where you are now is sometimes exhilarating but also exhausting. You saw how happy I was when I discovered some of my childhood drawings and paintings. I did not even know such early works still existed. Glad my father kept them for me.
Mind: That’s good to know. I have always told you that if you have no archive, you have no history and that leaves room for others to construct your history wrongly.
Body: I know, I know.
Mind: Is the constant news of the pandemic and the socio-economic situation impacting your work or being?
Body: I have since shied away from mainstream news. I only catch snippets of what is happening on social media. You know how I am always blamed for consuming what affects you, so I am not feeding myself with that much negative news. But I get informed in other ways, and let me say that my source of information does not include my village’s WhatsApp group forwarded messages. I don’t click on any news, video or message longer than one line. But I must confess that I cannot totally avoid the news of what is happening in the world, it is heart wrenching and frightening, especially the human carnage and economic devastation the virus is wrecking on our continent. And the government in Nigeria is putting out an inferno with a spoon of water, it is frightening. I have not been able to make art that shies away from responding to the chaos and that is the truth.
Mind: Do you feel safe?
Body: Do you? Anyway, I think as long as I stick to the stipulated preventive measures, I am safe. But one can’t be too careful. I am staying at home and oftentimes walk and jog around my neighbourhood just to catch my breath and take a break from all your haranguing.
I cannot totally avoid the news of what is happening in the world, it is heart wrenching and frightening, especially the human carnage and economic devastation the virus is wrecking on our continent.
I have made donations to organizations as well as family members I know are adversely affected by the current situation.
Mind: How do you maintain your sanity, especially when cabin fever hits you?
Body: That’s when I feed my eyes with my art collection. I have fallen in love with the many artworks I have collected over the years, mostly contemporary Nigerian artists of my generation – some older and some younger. I have an art history class with my family, telling them about the artist and the little I know about the art. Much earlier in the lockdown, I would have my children mimic the character(s) in a painting and I’d photograph them. We started doing this now I see museums are doing the same.
Mind: Are you involved in any community work or any charity endeavours for this crisis?
Body: I wouldn’t say directly like what you would see on many people’s social media. I am a proponent of Private Philanthropy, let your right hand not know what your left hand is doing when helping others. I have made donations to organizations as well as family members I know are adversely affected by the current situation. I donated some face masks to an NGO in Lagos recently. And I also create awareness campaign related artworks with a series called #imaginarybookcovers, they are book covers of non-existent books that advise people in a quirky way about handwashing, social distancing, etc. I mostly post them on my social media.
Mind: How are you processing the situation?
Body: We are taking one day at a time. By we, I mean you and I because we are all in this together. My prayer is for a viable solution to be found as quickly as possible to curb the casualties and tragedies brought to the world by the virus.
To lose hope is to lose it all.
Mind: How are you generally?
Body: I will be alright. We will be fine. To lose hope is to lose it all.
Mind: Thank you. Now I am hungry.
Body: Me too. Oh wait, you are the one that keeps sending me hunger signals every second of the day and night. Stop it!