Reviews · Visual Art

DECIPHERING THE MESSAGE

by Akumbu Uche

Message Stick by Reko Rennie

An art exhibition titled “Message Stick: Indigenous Identity in Urban Australia” has been touring around the world and on August 11, courtesy of the Australian High Commission and the National Gallery of Art, it stopped by in Abuja.

I like to think of myself as a patron of the arts so I made it a duty to go see it at the Transcorp Hilton Lobby.

Amidst the vivid striking colours and experimental styles on display, two paintings – lovely things I would have loved to hang on my walls – by Danie Mellor arrested my attention. Native Gold and The heart’s tale which place kangaroos, koalas and other indigenous animals on a backdrop of Chinese inspired landscapes are applications of pencil, crayon and wash to paper very much in the style of English willow pattern (itself appropriated from traditional Chinese porcelain decoration).

However, as attractive and intriguing as the 21 featured artworks all are, you could tell that they are not meant to be simply oohed and aaahed over. Forget art for art’s sake, the 11 featured artists stenciled, daubed and framed their works with strong historical, socio-political and spiritual messages.

The works are also bound together by their subversive challenge of identity. What does it mean to be Aboriginal? What is the Aboriginal’s place in Australian society? Created between 1987 and 2009, they document Australia’s past, present and dare to predict its future.

In a series of three Type C photographs by Darren Siwes – Gold Puella, Silver Puella and Bronze Puella – the Queen of England’s stamp on Australian currency is usurped by the profile of a seemingly mixed race woman. An alternative Head for the Commonwealth?

Julie Dowling’s The Ungrateful uses polymer paint, oil and gold on canvas to depict a white woman and her four dark skinned, possibly adopted children posing for a family portrait. However, their tense body language, stony facial expressions and sad eyes show that the family ties are strained.

Family ties are severed in Robert Campbell Jnr’s Please Welfare, Don’t Take My Kids – a heart wrenching depiction of white social workers abducting black children from their homes, a common but misguided practice in Australia’s past. Thanks to the vast amount of space given to natural elements and painstaking detail used in rendering humans, the sky, vegetation, and the earth, the voyeur is drawn into the indigenous world view and gets the sense that this is a celebration and not just another painting touching on the theme of the stolen generation.

Some like Christian Thompson’s photographs deal with how Australia’s indigenous peoples are perceived by outsiders. Captioned Hunting Ground 1, 2 and 3, they depict the artist not only decked out in his trademark costume (black T-shirt with a frilly net collar) but also holding eye patches that include kitsch images of a smiling Aboriginal woman, a near naked Aboriginal family and desert flowers.

Reko Rennie’s Message Stick is actually a series of four paintings – two message sticks and two spray cans yet all four blend traditional diamond pattern design with the pop spray paint colours of street art. Blurring distinctions between cultures and fusing seemingly polar identities, they seem to be saying, the traditional, the indigenous, the native, they are all threads in the Australian urban fabric.

It’s easy to see why this work lends its name to the entire collection.

Fashion & Lifestyle · Reviews

A SCENT FOR EVERY WOMAN

by Akumbu Uche

I grew up in a family where perfumes figure prominently in family ritual and celebratory occasions like Christmas and birthdays are incomplete without some kind of fragrance given as a gift. (Maybe we’re emulating the Magi)

Some of us have signature scents suggestive of our personalities and this inspired me to create the following labels and assign specific scents to them; feel free to interpret as creatively as you wish.

Of course things like body chemistry, personal preferences and wallet size play an important role in choosing what scent to wear but let’s have a fash mag moment here, shall we? 😉

 

Collegiate

The Beat (edp*) by Burberry – This edgy fragrance is a funky blend of white musk, cedar, tea, hyacinth and tangerine. An energizing burst of pink pepper makes it spicy and yet it is incredibly cool. The hotter it gets, the sweeter it becomes. Perfect for crowded lecture halls and the party scene.

 

Miss Independent

The One (edp) by Dolce & Gabbana – Vanilla based perfumes can often be overpowering but this one is quiet and has a clean feel, due perhaps to the softening effect of vetiver. A watery blend of jasmine, lily, plum and peach give it a refreshingly delicate and chic quality. Elegant and easy, this is ideal for a woman comfortable in her own skin.

 

Yummy Mummy

Tresor (edp) by Lancôme – I associate this 90s classic with motherhood probably because it was once my own mum’s favourite; its smell conjures up the image of tasty pastries with caramel topping. In actuality, it is a very warm and romantic combination of rose, apricot, amber, vanilla, musk, sandalwood, peach and pineapple. Tender and comforting.

 

The Queen

Chanel No. 5 (edt) – Different scent groups are well represented and blended in here. Ylang-ylang, lemon, civet, oak moss plus an injection of aldehydes are just a few of the many interesting notes on roll call. If you think you have this one’s precise scent pinned down, a surprise awaits you. It has mysterious and sophisticated written all over it.

 

*edp – eau de parfum; edt – eau de toilette

Books · Reviews · Writers

WHISPERING TALENT

by Akumbu Uche

Every so often, a journalist will try his hand at fiction. Daily Trust’s arts correspondent, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is the latest to do so; prompting the question, do journalists make good fiction writers?

Put out by Parresia, Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees is a slim collection of 12 stories, some earlier published on literary sites such as Hack Writers, African Writing and Sentinel Nigeria. (Parresia co-founder, Richard Ali is also an editor at Sentinel)

The Whispering Trees, makes easy, enlightening and occasionally, humorous reading and a subtly didactic prose style distilled with clear language, straightforward and short sentences – no doubt influenced by the author’s newspaper career – promises to secure this book a much better fate than Ibrahim’s literary debut, the poorly circulated novel, A Quest for Nina.

Ibrahim may be adept at compression but he is yet to perfect the sleight of hand needed to pull off suspense. For instance, in Night Calls, framed-for-murder Santi attempts to clear his name by recording the real perpetrator’s confession but when he half prophesies his running out of tape, the reader is cheated out of a climactic experience.

Sharper-eyed editors could have pointed out to the author that there is a thin line between foreshadowing and spoiling the show.

As indicated by the titling of the book as well as the stories Twilight and Mist and Cry of the Witch, magic is a recurring theme and characters are subject to the interplay of nature and the mystical in their lives.

A good number of the stories feature butterflies and moths as heralds of evil and enchantment. In Pledge of Fidelity, the mysterious Gambo not only wears a butterfly-speckled wrapper, the mere fluttering of her eyelids, imitative of “frisky butterflies dancing”, seduces the narrator.

Indeed, the author’s lepidopterophilia inspires a beautifully illustrated cover but when butterflies “bursting into incandescent colours”,  “flapping their wings”, flit from page to page, story-to-story, dancing and “floating giddily” across rooms and characters’ faces,  “sapphire lights glinting off their wings”, it borders on irritating.

There is much however that is good with Ibrahim’s work.

Dear Mother with its theme of domestic violence echoes the radio play A Bull Man’s Story, for which he won the 2007 BBC African Performance Prize.

Back then, he received praise for his ability to get into the mind of a child and now he displays an empathy for women.

An unhappy bride wrestles with guilt as she contemplates adultery and abortion in The Garbage Man while Closure is a depiction of two women mourning the death of their brother and husband in different but disturbing ways.

His male characters are just as emotionally fractured. In The Whirlwind, a father’s erotic attachment to his petulant teenage daughter puts his marriage under strain and the narrator in the titular story plummets into a deep, dark melancholy after losing his eyesight.

It is understandable that Ibrahim would wish to embellish his writing but in this collection, it is the stories portraying characters living their everyday lives, not the fantastic, which convey artistic beauty.

Books · Reviews · Writers

NAIJA STORIES ANTHOLOGY: A REVIEW

by Akumbu Uche

As a voracious consumer of fiction, I always look out for new and exciting writers to add to my shelves as enthusiastically as fashion tastemakers hunt for the next ‘it’ apparel.

My method however is less glamorous. Rather than attend runway shows and visit ateliers around the globe, I am more likely to surf the Internet and read as many short story anthologies as I can get my hands on.

One of such compendiums that I have read recently is the Naija Stories Anthology*. Subtitled Of Tears and Kisses, Heroes and Villains, the book features 30 fictional pieces edited by novelist and founder of the naijastories.com, Myne Whitman.

I know the interactive website well and I think it a good answer to pessimists who insist that Nigerians have no reading culture and the cynical notion that new Nigerian writing is only imitative of Achebe and Soyinka.

The same spirit permeates through its printed counterpart and though I must admit that I am unconvinced of the printability of all the stories, I cannot deny the writers’ talent and inventiveness.

Lulufa Vongtau’s Jesus of Sports Hall had me in stitches; the narrative of Bankole Banjo’s The Writer’s Cinema kept me guessing and I found Rayo Abe’s Mother of Darkness hair-raising. After a thrilling start, A Glimpse into the Mirror by Yejide Kilanko and The Devil’s Barter by Raymond Elenwoke, the alpha and omega (literally) of the collection, disappointedly turned out to be sermons in camouflage.

Given that non-residential Nigerian writers are well represented in this compilation, I thought it unfortunate that only one story (One Sunday Morning in Atlanta by Uko Bendi Udo) detailing the ‘Nigerian Abroad’ experience could be found.

On the bright side, Henry Onyema’s Rachel’s Hero, Kingsley Ezenwaka’s Best Laid Plans and Tola Odejayi’s Co-operate! with their larger-than-life, gun-wielding, reality-bending characters proved interesting reading, a  foretelling perhaps of an imminent explosion of the crime/action genre.

I also predict that we will be reading a lot more from Gboyega Otolorin (What Theophilus Did), Uche Okonkwo (Blame it on a Yellow Dress) and Lawal Opeyemi Isaac (It’s Not That Easy). Not only do their stories stand out but also one gets the impression that they have fine-tuned their talent to construct unique literary styles.

Who knows? Maybe in the future, when they and a good number of the writers featured would have become household names, teachers of writing or much anthologized, the NS Anthology will be a collectors’ item.

* As of press time, the book is available on Amazon but not in Nigerian bookshops.

Music · Reviews

NNEKA – CONSCIENCE OF A NATION

By Akumbu Uche

Singer/Songwriter Nneka

MOBO award-winning Nigerian singer/song writer Nneka likes to describe her music as “simple, complicated and dynamic”.  Her third studio album, Soul is Heavy (2011) certainly lives up to that account.

Laden with themes of heartbreak, political agitation, spirituality and self-awareness, the album is a continuation of the singer’s obsession with Nigeria’s fate, history and future.

Despite the title and serious inclination, the songs in Soul Is Heavy are not the pounding, warrior-cries that made Heartbeat, from the 2008 album No Longer At Ease, a breakthrough performance.

Instead, you have an hour-long expertly produced melange of reggae, afrobeat, hiphop and even flamenco accentuating the singer’s seemingly fragile vibrato.

Do You Love Me Now, an intimate, introspective four-minute duet with her throbbing guitar, reminds the listener that Nneka’s acoustics can stand without the support of sound engineering.

She is often compared to Lauryn Hill, partly due to her girl-with-the-guitar image, but she has more in common with Nelly Furtado. Both have pale skin, high cheekbones, naturally curly hair, high pitch and heterogeneous appeal.

The similarities do not just end there. Like Furtado, Nneka can pull off edgy rhymes as well as a tune.

In Camouflage, she launches into combat mode with lines such as “The thing wey you dey plan, e dey destined to fail/you know say our battle na spiritual one”. Just when you expect to hear explosive sounds of warfare, the songbird returns to her trademark canary sweetness.

Her confident rapping provides a backbone for the tracks Sleep, Don’t Even Think, Stay and God Knows Why.

Unfortunately, a guest appearance from Black Thought, of The Roots fame, cannot save the latter from awkwardness and want of pace.

Although her choice of subject matter often means that her music is the least likely to be associated with the nightclub and party circuit, some of the songs such as My Home are cheerily up tempo and danceable. She even shows off a relaxed and romantic side with the tracks Shining Star, Restless, and Valley.

Her pièce de resistance comes in the title track, in which she powerfully invokes the revolutionary spirits of Ken Saro Wiwa, Isaac Boro and King Jaja of Opobo.

It comes as no surprise then that the current face of Reebok France is in solidarity with the Occupy Nigeria Movement. The refrain “Vagabond in Power” from the song V.I.P might as well be adopted as a rallying cry.

DEMONSTRATION; 40,000 today in Ojota [in Lagos], yes we are making history…first time in my life time that Nigerians of different tribes come together in pain to fight the corrupt system….the struggle continues…fight till we kpeme

So reads her January 11 Facebook update accompanied by photographs of a massive crowd and herself, right hand clenched in a manner evocative of a Black Power fist.

Whether or not the 15-track compilation will attract a cult like following, it is a vibrant and intricate yet humble lyrical demonstration that the protester can be passionate but the act peaceful.