Review of Art Naija Second Outing, Work Naija: A Book of Vocations
In Work Naija: A Book of Vocations, Rotimi Babatunde pours old wine into a new wineskin with his Introduction so that the reader will not know before drinking that she is about to guzzle old wine. Babatunde’s introduction to the work leaves the reader with a thirst that will have to be quenched by the work he appraises. Work Naija does not fully succeed in doing this, but what it does do is paint in broad strokes the various shades of Nigerianness, of work in Nigeria, and the things one has to do to survive here.
In TJ Benson’s “Four Women” (photography) all women are about their businesses. The four photographs put together in a grid reveal their contrasting interpretations wherefore when a part is looked at closely the enthusiast begins to see “what truly is in a photograph.” This will make her (the enthusiast) to see that all women are mothers, and also, to see what at first is not seen, their countenances which are lenses into the vocations they lead. The first in the series is an actress photographed onstage: her costume, her nonverbal, her countenance, what she is doing pretending to be another person. But it pays. The second, a shopkeeper, sits on a bench in her shed; her dress is customary, all the parts — buba, lappa, head-tie — the same print of ankara. Her countenance poised and determined; she is tying in a transparent nylon bag that bread that labourer will later stroll from his site to buy and have with Fanta or Mountain Dew. The fried cashew nut hawker was taken with her standing by the roadside, her countenance is quietly grim, a log of wood in society’s eyes, the kind of look only gotten from the wisdom one gains from poverty. (Call her the portrait of the low income worker.) The last, a neighbourhood provisions-store owner. She smiles in her photograph like the woman on the Minimie chinchin roll hanging on a line in front of her shop. She is that little secret joy of capitalism. She’s independent yet dependent on the factors of production, controlled by leviathans of business. What is in these photographs, these mothers and their countenances, reveal four out of the many shades of work life. It doesn’t matter the differences entailed in the photographs; the ethic is evident.
Any critique of Work Naija is in danger of becoming a photography critique because photography grabs more space than prose, claiming half of main content, and, of course, speaking louder. Which loudness is risked on the monopoly of Oluwatomilola K. Boyinde‘s monochromes. Risked because photography is the perfect analogy for art as a way of seeing, this way of seeing contingent on the photographer(s) involved, their personalities and intentions. In which case a scene can be photographed in many ways not because of the nature of the scene, but of the photographers. K. Boyinde’s photographs may well tick all the boxes of Nigerianness and the tale of survival it seems to portray but that is the problem. They are the photographs of hawkers, motorboys, a vulcanizer, street vendors/hustlers, labourers: photographs that capture a clichéd Nigerian motif. His monochroming reduces his craft to schlock stealing the identity of the photographs. There is what we see in monochromes: history, nostalgia, which inspire reverence. K. Boyinde’s does none of these; it is abuse of art — something Teju Cole has talked about in his Dappled Things. And given the places where these photographs were taken his monochromes simply take away that (sub)urban element and aesthetic related to work. A big minus on the anthology. An unchecked loudness.
Not too loud but digging into the matter are Ada Chioma Ezeano’s “They Don’t Say Nice” about her sojourn into what it would be like living in the skins of sex workers, what that life entails for them. The same is the subject of “In Their Bodies”(nonfiction) by Joshua Omena; Frances Ogamba in “Scavengers” writes about the unknown lives of men and women who scour dumpsites as a means of living and the less-advertised dignity in their work; Chisom Okafor’s poetry on how to build a barbecue on a Saturday night is not a tutorial per se but a tribute to men who become one with their vocations; John ‘Lighthouse’ Oyewale enjoins us to learn how to write long sentences and how to use the semicolon in his essay “The Photographer as an Osprey.” It is a bit didactic, that one should not fall on a career as a result of a thrown dice but enter into it because one has the eyes, mind, hand, and discipline for it; and a bit definitive, about what a photograph (or picture) is. (In one of his quotes, this one by Diane Arbur, “a picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.”). Michael E. Umoh’s nonfiction piece, “A Circle of Kekes” is the “it was a hot afternoon” archetype re-enacted in Umuahia, suburbia tales, also examining how the psychology of a group of workers homogeneously evolve due to the nature of their job. Osinachi’s digital art is less complicated, not so signature-like because many young digital artists are doing more than experimenting with the style, but it registers an aesthetic uniqueness of his perception to admirers. His “In the Air. A Dancegroup in precolonial Igboland” is pretty and has a millennial habit; his “Gangways of Faith” is a beautiful mosaic. Oriogun Romeo kills it in “No. 4 Marina Street” with his signature poetry. In it is “a bitter tale; a sweet tale” of a mother and children: the mother who works her life out hawking just for the kids to eat. “Skin, Gallas” by Otosirieze Obi-Young enters into the peculiarities that dictates who goes into one barber shop or another because of the barbers in the shops.
Work Naija repeats a mistake made with its prequel Enter Naija, a hasty decision of friends after a rendezvous, which is to promote niche-and-buddy excesses. The baton of whose photography occupies more space is handed over from Bura-Bari Nwilo in Enter Naija to K. Boyinde in Work Naija. The curator is too interested in Osinachi’s digital art that four pieces from the same artist have been republished — or imported — from EN to WN. Is this really publishing? It is a bit too overt not to be noticed, this excess sprinkled all over the work when, for example, the same work of the same artist or writer appears in another form down the pages. The work takes a selfie of itself, basically: Even Babatunde’s introduction in the opening pages is redacted to chiefly zoom in on the praise with the full version reserved for the last pages of the anthology. What is an introduction doing at the end of a book?
‘This is how a man keeps his head above water/ in a settlement of rusty stilts & shacks in calabar:/ His aged hands believes not in trawl/ but in a rusty net the size of his expectation…’
The anthology really begins to speak about work towards the end. Jennifer Emelife’s So Much Tenderness”, TJ Benson’s “Untitled”, Umar Turaki’s “Praises, Prayers, Blessings” contain both excellent prose and excellent sense. Abdulrahim Hussani’s poem, “When A Man Loves a River” is the telling of how unnatural some vocations may seem but how they meet ends. A fisherman must fish; the fish has to die, but there’s protein to enjoy. This elevates or explains the work ethic or something about it. Read: ‘This is how a man keeps his head above water/ in a settlement of rusty stilts & shacks in calabar:/ His aged hands believes not in trawl/ but in a rusty net the size of his expectation…’
In other places an Argungun (this would be a fisherman at the Argungu Fish Festival in Argungu, Kebbi) puts ‘his ego in baskets of . . popular triumphs . . casts a net the size of his popular pride,’ ‘for he has become versed and sated with expectations./ […] he becomes an enchanter caressing the sea with a white cock/ […] His sweat & strain becomes justified/ when score of hearts can’t bear his catch.‘ In the poem the ethic is contrasted with the innocence of a child who wants fishes free unaware that he needs them for their protein:
‘A little boy too holds his own calibre of love for pliant waters thus:
Under a sullen sun, with a brimming hat
down the peaceful Niger, rowing a limp yacht;
he throws crumbs of sugar and bread,
fishes claw at it; he then leaves, satisfied.‘
‘At twilight, they both sit at a table—
the man who killed and the boy who freed,
and love elapses in consummation as proteins in intestines‘
If I haven’t mentioned the good prose of Arinze Ifeakandu’s “The Gift of Melancholy”, Osinachi’s “Grandma Grace” and Sibbyl Whyte’s “Prognosis”, I was distracted by monochromes. When it comes to book cover art design, The Art Naija series, as it is said in the street, still dey learn work. In Enter Naija the cover accuses itself of overwhelming naïveté; Work Naija may be suave but it lacks thematic depiction. Well done, nevertheless, to the young spirits behind the anthology who worked in their own ways.