Dele Jegede’s art… where red is the colour of irony
Now we know. It is no longer imagined. It is our affirmed reality that the worlds and works of some compatriots are soaked in strains of sadism and irrationalism. The sadism of greed-driven governance and even more so, the irrationalism of displaced followership. Together, the ruled and the ruler have turned the nation-ship into a sinking boat of citizen-refugees. Refugees in our own country, refugees of our own perfidies.
Whether we live in or outside the physical entity called Nigeria, our nation has become the greatest threat to our existence and self-actualization. The universe of our culture and we the people of a naturally boisterous mien, have retreated into a universe of silence and violence. Over time we have cultivated a repugnant regurgitation of fear and violence, one that eats away into our common core, leaving nothing but ugliness. And ugliness now walks our streets, hurling abuses at our once sacred institutions of reason and morality, birthing its minions of waste in the guttural language of things material, things obscene, things horrifyingly immoral.
Then comes a time when the artist interferes. dele jegede the artist and scholar interferes in “Transitions,” his latest solo exhibition. Red is his colour, Irony is his forte, Hope, and Healing are the contents of his brilliant mind. Following on the heels of “Peregrinations,” his “Transitions” again makes art the essential interlocutor. He showcases the conundrum of our flawed and fractured sensibilities. He interferes directly with life’s predictable realm of causes and effects, revealing the simple horror of what we have wrought, unrelenting in his probing for meaning and truth in the chaotic aftermath.
It is not an easy feat, but it is one accomplished with brilliance, a collection that seems to scream from the deep vortex of loss, regret, disappointment and yet come out singing in longings of reclaimed joy, adventure, hope and healing. He plunges into the wild love for a country he has known since his birth and which has lived with him, even through the many seasons of stormy winters and lazy summers in America.
The relation of art and life becomes a concern of not only aesthetics, but also of the artist’s personal worldview. We know that jegede is a man of deep love, dedicated loyalty and compassion. We know he loves to adorn berets, a statement of conscious radicalism in “swing-state” Ohio and an America where the suggestion of being a socialist can be a stigma. We know he has never vouched for any political ideology and has never proposed a manifesto of state governance. We know that along the way of his journey, he developed a taste for kola nut, which he would, on some special occasions, put in envelopes and mail to friends in different parts of the country, via U.S. mail, daring you to waste the gift even if you had no taste for it. We know he once expressed an impatience for the indulgent nature of orogbo – a Yoruba snack that even the elderly Yoruba have described as a snack of futile profits.
“What is the worth of orogbo?” they ask. “It is unyielding to communal sharing… It is concentrically self-absorbed, it gives no redeeming nutrients and to add to the troubles, it is bitter to the tongue”. We know that even with that, jegede would sometimes sneak a bite or two of orogbo, to assuage his longing for the wisdom of savored anguish and adversity. We know he loves humor and finds the festive contours of life wherever they exist. We know he writes in long hand as if a pen was corded to his wrist from the womb and the ink seeps through his veins to his pen and his brushes. We know he loves his family so much that the permanence and unfairness of sudden death put a deep gash in his soul when he lost his son Ayodele, on a dark eve of Christmas. We know that in over three decades of friendship and mentorship, which he always gave and continues to give in generous and life affirming portions, it was most heart-wrenching to see him break and cry as he narrated the loss in that winter of 2011.
From all this, do we still need to hazard a worldview? We know that his mind is a fecund repository of smart, brilliant, intelligent affectations. We know that ‘Kole the menace’ was not just a Cartoonist’s casual construct, but a result of deep imagination and sensitivity. We know it was the beginning, before the exhibitions that have now brought us to this solo titled “Transitions” and showing at Bolanle Austen-Peters’ Terra Kulture in Lagos, come July.
“Transitions” is a ‘gumbo’ of artistic feast. It teases the palate, teaching our taste buds to love a song, caress a dance and learn the melodious fluidity of colors all over again. It is at first a howling release of life’s turpitudes, then a searing unease with political ineptitudes and finally, an elevated choric swell of celestial fortitudes. He scolds, he counsels and he celebrates. Even as he wades through the abyss of incontinent hysteria here on earth, his art and his mind have come to break new notes of consternation and joyous comprehension. These paintings in acrylic on canvas, sing in melodies of celestial commune with infinity. “The Celestial Aesthetic Series” (a section of the exhibition) he says, “deals with my recent interest in cosmic vastness, its deep, enchanting interminability, and celestial majesty. I was drawn to this reality following the sudden death of our dearly beloved son, Ayodele Jegede at the prime of life. Where did Ayo go?
There are those who paint beautiful portraits and landscapes, almost Hegelian in their all-embracing depictions of rationality and perfectibility. jegede’s preference seems to be for a space of shared conflicts and shared acts of imagining between artist and audience. He says his favorite color is red and he makes it present in every work. One sees the manifestation of Red, at first playful before the deluge of turbulence. In several paintings it is the color of a testy balance. It is the bleeding Burqa shrouding a head of terrorized humanity in “Aisha!” the vibrant touch of life in the midst of chaos, the violence poking the eyes of calm and peace in “Boko Haram”, the fading fervor of a lonesome politician amidst the cacophony of corrupting advisers in the “Internally Displaced Politician”. Red becomes the color of the haunting irony that holds the audience longer in the presence of these works, it is the lurking communion of conflicts. Red is the accent of the beautiful in the ugly, the color that salvages life from the depths of Hades. When breath is brought to consciousness again, will is restored with a new fervor that jegede refers to as “the inexhaustiveness of possibilities”
Art historians are often embroiled with art critics over the meaning and movement of art across the path of time and life. jegede has been both a Critic and a Professor of Art History. It is evident that he resolves this unresolved dialectic when he paints. What is also clear is that he draws from his rich experiential parley with the Theatrical arts. In order to provide a contextualized doorway into how his theatrical mind investigates his world and his chosen instruments or armory of expression, that is, paint, canvas, efe (ironic humor) and yeye (mockery), It is important at this point, to provide a lens into shared moments of life and art with the man we call DJ.
One is but a Theatre Director whose path came across dele jegede’s at the then Centre for Cultural Studies of the University of Lagos, where he was a senior colleague and sometimes co-actor. Many gifts have also followed, like the morning of graduation from Yale University when he showed up in the early hours of dawn to spearhead the celebration. He had driven 18 hours across nine states from Indiana to Connecticut. That enduring expression of exemplary humanity, one believes is part of the quintessential qualities of consequential artists like jegede. On another occasion, he was on hand with Biodun Jeyifo (critic), Robert Fox (poet), Awam Amkpa (playwright/director) in celebration of Soyinka at my University in Carbondale. His movement and interests, as can be seen, traverse all of the arts – literary, performative, creative writing and visual. These shared spaces of creativity have sponsored a rich insight into his person and his art.
Once on the shared stage of live Theatre with DJ at the University of Lagos in 1978 and 1979, he was cast and played against his own temperament in the role of Oba Alaye – King of the World and a narcissistic, scheming tyrant. One was also cast in the role of Lawuwo his young and brash union leader antagonist. On an afternoon in the studios of the Nigerian Television Authority, Ibadan, as we recorded Bode Osanyin’s The Shattered Bridge, there was fatigue. Lawuwo would chew up the memorized lines, threatening a disruption of the scene’s flow.
Sweating under the sweltering lights of the recording studio, one had succeeded in turning Lawuwo into a blabbering idiot in front of his arch-enemy – Oba Alaye. dele jegede as the tyrant was quick to step up. He took a contemptuous look at the struggling actor in his palace and whispered to his chieftain Chief Area (played by the late Adeyeye Fadele). He cited from a Yoruba witticism – “E ma wule bawon ja” to which Fadele completed the phrase “Fun’ra won, ni won o ma fun’ra won l’ogun je Kabiyesi” It translates to “We shall not waste our resources fighting these morons. With leaders like this, one after the other they will brew and feed on their own poison”.
In one swipe he had deployed his wit, finding the double-sided sting of irony. This sense for the dramatic, an understanding of the functionality of dramatic conflict that is also the most essential ingredient in the mimetic world of theatre can be seen of the subjects, characters and the intent of the temperament he presents in his paintings. His brush travels frenetically across the universe of the canvas. Colours and strokes meet, as if pulled by a force that only the gods understand. He turns the canvas into the taut skin of drums only the elders can play. When inspiration meets imagination in the front-yard of technique, his results are enigmatic.
A piece of this exhibition is ‘Roforofo Fight,” a palette of knowledge and brash violence. jegede uses this in questioning the antics of the loud-mouthed “fart-ti-tudes” of the Nigerian police, calling our incredulous gaze to the rogue policemen who act out their uniformed ‘thug-life’ without shame or remorse. The fighters are silhouetted in murk and disorder, they blanket the landscape with dust, filth and blood, while we all are swept involuntarily into their horizons of immorality.
Another striking work, one that saddens and whips up fits of sympathy and anger is of an “Internally Displaced Politician” from the “IDP” series. The subject wears a Stetson with his chin resting on his palm. On one edge of his Stetson perches a bird that is caught in some raptured conspiracy with yet another bird that sits on his shoulder. The subject looks to the world in frustration and boredom, uninterested in the birds’ debate. It is one delivered in strokes and swashes of smart, contemplative and daringly sympathetic colours. Using different hues of red, jegede disguises his contempt, he coats disdain with sympathy and throws this boss of the plains into a retreating irony, delineating the sensibilities and sorrows of the character’s ambition from his inadequacies as the leader of a tumultuous nation. This smart, insightful and tight work is beautifully realised and poignant.
A few days ago in the quiet of Ohio, jegede quietly stood up and disappeared down into his studio. A few moments later he was back and in his hands he held an enigma, a painting still wet and raw. May I introduce you to ‘Aisha!’
Aisha is a haunting voyage, a kind of omen, a dark, brutal omen that leads without hesitation to the damaged psyche of Nigeria’s decaying collective humanity – the Chibok girls. Aisha exists fearfully in a range of bestialities. The bestialities of rape, slavery and misogyny wrought by fanatical men who descended upon whole schools of girls in Nigeria’s current history. jegede weaves the terror into a ruthlessly direct symphony of self-assessment that Nigeria badly needs. There are no celestial possibilities in Aisha’s hollowed stare. Her demeanor is of foreboding intensity, her eyes a bewildered pair of deeply internalized terror. She gazes across and beyond the canvas, her broad forehead wrapped in red burqa as if hiding a bleeding hole at the centre of her cranium. Her mouth is clenched as if trapped in the middle of a prolonged hiss at an adult world that forsake her. In waves of green, white and of course red, Aisha harbors a horror now squelched in the harrowed passage of her throat. In her dark visage, one could almost hear her terrorized scream from here to eternity. This is the one that haunts.
This is the one that is worth a thousand visits, the one that pierces the facade of our collective deceit as a people, as a nation, as a humanity. This is the one that pulls and repels, coiled up like a ticking bomb!
When jegede says that his work “attempts to rupture the boundaries that are installed in the way that we construct and affirm self-hood,” what he leaves out is what comes after the rupture! In this exhibition, it is definitely a rupture of colours, an embrace of disruption and indeterminacy along the journey to a “one-of-a-kind” rapturous celebration of self-hood!
* Prof. Segun Ojewuyi, Head of Directing, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, U.S.