I have spent the past week deeply immersed in the transcript of a never before Seen or Heard early 1990s interview with Ken Saro-Wiwa, which was posted on this Blog on 10th November 2020.
Marcus Garvey once said:
“Men who are in earnest are not afraid of consequences.”
It seems as if the Ancestors including Ken Saro-Wiwa are watching and guiding the now awoken younger generation and affirming the past great works and sage insights of the elder statesmen of Nigeria’s creative and cultural industries.
The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was founded thirty years ago today and the Ogoni Nine were executed twenty-five years ago.
After three decades of loyal commitment to their cause, land and people, MOSOP continues to strengthen the social movement required to transcend the struggle faced by the Ogoni communities and those throughout the entire Niger Delta.
Alongside the UK charity Platform London and Film and Video Production company Fried Egg Productions, AFRICA: Seen & Heard (ASH), were patrons of MOSOP EU’s 25th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday 14th November 2015.
ASH’s Founder and Director, Winifred Adeyemi commissioned one of Nigeria’s greatest living artists, Lemi Ghariokwu to produce two commemorative works of Art: SPIRIT OF THE OGONI and THE POWER OF NINE to her intense vision and bespoke brief.
With our plans for a morning interview postponed as Lemi prepared to welcome His Excellency Jérôme Pasquier, Ambassador of France to Nigeria for an impromptu visit to his Lagos studio, he kept his promise to mark MOSOP’s 30th Anniversary and made time before the day closed to speak with Winifred and recall the 2015 commemorative Fine Art Commission.
They reflected on the impact Art has had on Nigerian and global society since MOSOP’s inception in 1990 to the dynamic social movement of the present day.
MOSOP’s founder, Ken Saro-Wiwa continues to be recognised globally as an iconic Nigerian writer, television producer and unrivalled minority rights, environmental and climate change activist.
Much of what Ken Saro-Wiwa described and exposed 30 years ago could well have been observations Nigerian citizens would make today.
DID YOU EVER MEET KEN SARO WIWA OR ANY OF THE OGONI NINE?
“I never met any of them but I knew about them.
I was well informed by what they were doing.
I saw like a snippet of Ken Saro-Wiwa once.
Where I lived in Ogba, there’s a posh estate behind the street where I lived, the place was called Dideolu Estate as it was owned by Dideolu Awolowo, the wife of Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Ogba is in the Ikeja area of Lagos. There was a woman living one of the duplexes, it was said she was Ken Saro-Wiwa’s wife or girlfriend, so he came to that place on a few occasions and one time I saw his back going into the building.
That’s the nearest I ever came to meeting him.”
AS AN ARTIST, WHAT WAS YOUR IMMEDIATE REACTION & RESPONSE TO THE OGONI NINE EXECUTIONS?
“Naturally it was a great shock because I had been involved with Fela‘s movement from the ‘70s so I really understand what it meant to be brutalised by the state, by military dictatorship or any oligarchy.
Fela went through his own bit, but fortunately he was not killed through that brutalisation.
I witnessed the end result of it even though I was not there, I was never around when the police raids happened, but the next day or days afterwards, I come to Kalakuta, I see the pain of that and as a human being I know how that feels emotionally.
Now to relate it to someone fighting for the rights of his own people and the rights was very just because the Ogoni area, the Niger Delta area provided the oil that is feeding the whole of Nigeria and they never got a fair deal.
No proper infrastructure, the environment was totally denigrated, destroyed by that process and there was nothing for them to show as gain.
Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues stood up.
You know society will always have people who will stand up, you know we have destinies, so some people it is their destiny to come and fight for the freedom of the generality of society.
It is not a selfish thing at all to stand up, it is very selfless for one to lay down their lives, to put their lives on the line and Saro-Wiwa and his team paid the ultimate price.
Abacha, – like you know – was totally authoritarian, he was power-drunk and he was very beastly and there are still remnants of people like Abacha.
Our present government has someone like that at the head.
Someone who will not show emotions, who does not care about the citizens and all that, so when that killing happened the whole nation was shocked.
I was shocked, I was petrified and I remember with all the fight Fela had with consequent military dictatorships, – you know many military governments during his time, – in the ‘90s during Abacha’s time because Fela can be very, very spiritual and philosophical, I remember he had cautioned his younger brother Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti because he too was a very strong activist and he was a member of the NADECO [National Democratic Coalition]– the people who were fighting for Moshood Abiola’s victory that should be ratified, people who were fighting for democracy to come back to Nigeria, who were fighting for military dictatorship to go.
Fela had cautioned his brother once and said to him:
“Be careful of Abacha. Abacha will bite you.”
Remember Abacha also sentenced Beko Ransome-Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana, even Obasanjo they were all sentenced to death.
Saro-Wiwa was hanged which was very bestial .
It was a great shock to me as a person, this is the way I can reflect on it.”
The brief for your AFRICA: Seen & Heard TestamentART™ commissions was quite epic, visceral, evocative and intense.
WHAT DID YOU THINK WHEN YOU SAW AFRICA: SEEN & HEARD’S BRIEF FOR THE FIRST TIME?
“I was very excited.
I was very happy, because my life is about my environment.
My assignment in this lifetime is to contribute no matter how little in my own corner towards the mental liberation of our people, towards the realisation of an African Renaissance and Nigeria is part of it because my constituency is Nigeria directly.
Like most of Fela’s work were related directly to what was happening in Nigeria, so I was always involved emotionally and mentally and also physically too if need be with anything that was going on in Nigeria in a social-political scenario.
And for people who are fighters, people who are warrior-spirits, people who are revolutionaries, I always love them.
People like Saro-Wiwa were in my books as revolutionaries and somebody who laid down his life and made the ultimate sacrifice.
We don’t get to celebrate such people so well in our society here because there’s too much ignorancy going on.
The average Nigerian is not even conscious about the realities of life, the daily struggle is enough to keep them occupied with vexation and frustration and you know they just take out the petty issues of life on one another.
So, when I got the commission from AFRICA: Seen & Heard to do something related to the Ogoni Struggle, Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP, I was very excited because every time I have my exhibitions, I always have a section called ICONICITY™.
I do portraits of icons who are relevant to Africa, you know Pan-African icons and Saro-Wiwa is one of my icons.
So, he’s one of the icons that we need to learn about, our generations after generations need to know that story so we can inspire others because as we say “the struggle continues”.
But I’ve stopped saying “the struggle”, I don’t like that word “struggle” because words are powerful.
The more we are saying “the struggle continues” it’s like we are envisaging “struggle, struggle, struggle.”
I would rather say: “The mission must be accomplished.”
So, I don’t use the word “struggle” any more, I’m on a mission, I’m not on a struggle.
We’ve got to be conspicuous enough to have the sense of a mission, so we work towards that mission.
It takes time, that’s why I’m not a revolutionary per se in that regard I’m an evolutionary.
I believe things will work when we build it up gradually. When we work assiduously, we have a plan, we have a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, we set goals and we work towards it because we cannot change things in one day.
The destruction mentally, morally, physically was not done in a day; every society.
I’m loving it, loving it.
I am looking forward to more people getting to see those pieces of work and more people getting to the realisation of the role and the capacity of an icon that people like Ken Saro-Wiwa are in this society.
I’m looking really forward to it.”
Your commissioned work THE POWER OF NINE, documented the valiant Niger Delta spirit and activism of the Ogoni Nine and their judicial murders with the use of potent Ogoni struggle images and words from iconic Ken Saro-Wiwa quotes.
HOW AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE ON THE ICONOGRAPHY AND QUOTATIONS INTEGRATED INTO THE PIECE?
“Doing my work is always spiritual in essence.
Sometimes you know my gestation period drags on and on, but any client that is discerning will just let me be.
I take time to decide on what is important, to reflect.
Because, like the saying goes “the picture is worth a thousand words” , but the role of the illustrator like me is: “which words do you picture?“
Which particular words do you picture to become that picture?
I vibe, I do research, I do that, but every time the universe always provides me the right materials.
Sometimes materials will just fall on my lap, just – ah-ha! – coincidentally and my spirit will say okay “this one, this one”.
Sometimes I have too many, I start to shuffle round, edit, I get a bit confused sometimes and then I follow my instinct.
And that’s the way I came up with those items that I used eventually, even the one that had the Ken Saro-Wiwa quotes.
He has so many quotes, I just instinctively decide and that’s it, I don’t question it any more.
Sometimes, I don’t even want to explain it.”
THE BRIEF HAD A VERY SPIRITUAL ASPECT, PARTICULARLY IN REFERENCE TO THE NUMBER NINE – IN ESOTERIC NUMEROLOGY, 9 IS ASSOCIATED with intellectual power, inventiveness, influence over situations and things.
Lemi interjected: “Yeah, the negative side could be mental health problems! Number nine, sometimes its like a mad man!”
The number beseeches us to recognise our own internal attributes, and extend these abilities out into the world to make a positive, influential difference.
I DIRECTED YOU TO: “HARNESS THE METAPHYSICAL POWER OF THE POTENT NUMBER NINE as YOU see fit – Be it Nine’s representational denotation; via geometric resonance and possible shape formations and motif inspirations: 3,6,9 / 360 degree permutations etc or its connection to universal principles: Destiny, Love, Eternity, Generosity and Faith. Service to Humanity.
The Nine Energy within the material existence: The Karma Concept, Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment, Destiny, Life Purpose and Soul Mission or manifestations within humanity: Lightworking and Lightworkers; Humanitarianism, Philanthropy, Selflessness and Self-sacrifice.”
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE INFLUENCE AND IMPACT OF THE NUMBER NINE IN YOUR MANIFESTATION OF THE ARTWORK AND ALIGNMENT WITH THE OGONI AND NIGER DELTA CAUSE?
“Okay, you see, by those beastly people choosing to execute the nine people, the nine Ogoni warriors, they made a very – how do I say? – a very vital esoteric mistake.
Because people like me, I’m eternally optimistic about this journey in life, about this mission, I always believe and forever believe that the victory of Good over Evil must come.
Nemesis will take care of it one day and those evil-doers will get their Waterloo someday.
So now figuratively “Nine”, nine is very powerful, esoteric, all that you just mentioned.
Now nine people were executed, so karma is going to use that against those executors, no matter how many there are, but we know the figurehead is Abacha.
There are many Abachas all over the world, so pay day, the day of recompense, they will meet their comeuppance soon enough in eternity.
Because universal time is not the time we use here, so a million years here could be a split second.
So I still believe that Saro-Wiwa has played his role, he has lived his destiny.
That was his destiny and he fulfilled that.
All of them, the nine of them, are children or child of Destiny individually, they came and they conquered, because they were sent on a mission and they succeeded.
It’s like a parent sends a child on an errand and the child delivers the errand effectively and comes back, the child rubbed on the head, the parent says “oh, good boy, good girl, thank you.”
So, Saro-Wiwa and Co have received that already, so that’s the way I see it: the victory of Good over Evil.”
The previous weekend, Lemi and Winifred spoke about the fact that Ogoniland seems akin to the vision of hell illustrated throughout diverse ancient civilizations, holy books and classical European art.
The Niger Delta is brightly illuminated in NASA images of the Earth at night.
On the ground photographers capture the gas flares, biologists identify the myriad poisons within the noxious fumes and farmers lament the greasy moonscape that was once rich, arable land.
Rivers are oil-clogged, depleted of aquatic life and as foul as the mythological Styx.
Many Niger Delta villages and towns have no sanitation, piped water or electricity.
The people who should be richer and perhaps as technologically advanced as the fictional Wakandans of the blockbuster movie Black Panther – or at least have as high a quality of life and standard of living as people in oil-producing nations such as Norway (less proven reserves than Nigeria) or the United Arab Emirates – receive no benefit from their natural resources.
They frequently live as if in a science fiction holocaust.
The vision is not a bleak Afro-futurism daydream, but a macabre fact of an unethical Nigerian present.
Genetic mutations caused by lead pollution cause women to self-abort, birth babies that are dead or only take one breath before expiring.
Many give birth to children with major congenital abnormalities.
Ken Saro-Wiwa said: “The writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely x-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.”
AS A GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATOR & VISUAL ARTIST, HOW WILL YOU BE ACTIVELY INVOLVED IN SHAPING NIGERIA’S PRESENT & FUTURE IN REGARD TO THE OGONI SITUATION, NIGER DELTA MATTERS & THE SOCIAL RESET THAT MOVEMENTS SUCH AS #ENDSARS & #BLM DEMAND?
“If you see my antecedent, you will see that I have always collaborated with the warriors, the revolutionaries, because I believe in that cause wherever it rears its ugly head.
Wherever there is oppression, brutalisation and injustice I always love to use my art as a tool for social re-engineering and also to offer possibilities.
You know, it is easy for us to see the problems but we need to offer solutions too, that is what I have been doing all my life in my own little corner and that is what I will do until my dying day.
I will want to leave that legacy as someone who had collaborated with the progressives so to speak, people who are [progressive]. – I am not into politics, I don’t like partisan politics in any form, but human beings are political animals because we need to be able to take a stand.
I believe if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything, so I believe that I need to stand up and be counted with the people who are clamouring for change, people who are raising their voices showing concerns about the society being adrift, showing concerns about [a] society that is not being progressive, showing concerns about society that is brutalising the citizenry, showing concerns about a society that is not forthcoming about ideas that will move the nation forward.
So be it the destruction of Ogoni, the injustice in Ogoniland, in Northern Nigeria, the kind of insecurity that is going on there, South-West, South-South Nigeria injustices going on also.
You know injustices come in many forms and guise, but injustice is injustice. Poverty is poverty, hunger is hunger, neglect is neglect, anywhere it is happening in the world.
I love to be in solidarity with people who are clamouring for change, productive, progressive, positive change: I will be there in my own little way.“
The Nigerian poet and novelist Chris Abani, who was a political prisoner of Nigeria’s military regime during the late 1980s noted that: “The alchemy of transforming terrible tragedies of human experience into art, into music, poetry, dance, sculpture and film can be an unforgiving vocation.”
You were very close to FELA KUTI and worked with him throughout his musical career and Nigeria’s period of military dictatorships.
As well being a the pioneer of Afrobeat music, a multi-instrumentalist composer and band leader, Fela’s vocation was that of a political activist and strongly rooted in a foundation of generational Pan-Africanism within his direct family lineage.
ARE YOU AWARE OF FELA’S VIEW ON THE OGONI & WIDER NIGER DELTA STRUGGLE & HIS RESPONSE TO THE OGONI NINE EXECUTIONS?
“I wasn’t close to him at that particular period, so I didn’t sit with him face-to-face, but definitely I know he would have felt exactly the way I felt.
I know that definitely he would never support such a thing and he would never be happy about that.
I know he would gingerly point to that as one more example of what he had been talking about and what he has been fighting against.
Definitely I know that about him.”
My brief observed: “Dehumanisation and economic contraction causes many psychic wounds and social dysfunctions: without livelihood what becomes of manhood, family structure and holistic community culture?”
When I envisaged the work SPIRIT OF THE OGONI, I asked you to capture: “the determination of mind and mission, irrepressible body politic; the Ogoni considered collectively as an organised group of committed citizens dedicated to ancestral will and survival of their lineage to ensure birth of future generations.
Project their strong unified spirit and the indestructible soul of the people that transcends their physical struggle.”
You captured this with a potency that is visceral and evocative, transporting the audience into various times and places within Ogoniland, since oil was discovered and into an uncertain future.
WHAT METHOD, INSPIRATION, POWER OR PROCESS DID YOU HARNESS TO BRING ABOUT SUCH A TRANSCENDENTAL IMAGE THAT CELEBRATES LIFE AND CONDEMNS CORPORATE MALFEASANCE WITHIN THE SAME VISION, MOMENT AND PICTURE FRAME?
“It’s the same method, vibration and energy from deep within my soul because I work from my heart.
I work from my heart.
The same that I used when I reflected all of those Fela lyrics into vison form, the same method I used from reading your brief and my little experience with the scenario at that particular time.
I just delved into my spirit and came about that process.
Sometimes its not predetermined by me, that’s why my covers for Fela, 26 in all, one journalist in Paris, Helen Lee had mentioned that if she did not meet me she would have believed that six different artists , or designers did those my 26 covers.
Because they had like six different styles. [Lemi chuckles] But I worked on each one according to the vibe, their energy and the spirituality that came with it.
So some times I feel like I’m going to do a montage, sometimes, I feel like I’m going to use oil to paint, make a painting, sometimes poster colour, photo collage, sometimes I feel it should be minimalist, sometimes I feel it has to be congested with so many issues, so it’s the same way that I came about those album covers related to the Ogoni.”
Ken Saro-Wiwa believed that the African artist has a “much more worthy role to the artist in the West.”
This sentiment is in perfect synergy with the perspective of my great grandfather Dr John Randle.
He was a co-founder and later President of the People’s Union [formed in 1908 to promote the welfare of the Lagos residents regardless of their race or religion] and from childhood, served as the patron, benefactor and “spiritual father” of Nigeria’s first modern and Western trained artist Aina Onabolu.
When Aina was around twelve years old he has been documented as reading a foreign newspaper with my great grandpa.
They both became extremely upset by the racist denigration of the ability of Africans to create Fine Art.
My great grandpa is well known for his political and social observations and battles with the British colonial administration.
Discrimination and systemic racism were actively deployed against him and other British trained physicians practicing in the Southern Nigerian Proctectorate.
My great grandpa’s inability to stomach injustice or accept inferiority as his portion in life, is surely an inheritance I have received.
Dr Randle supported Aina Onabolu’s talent and training in drawing.
He enabled him to study Fine Art in Paris and London.
In 1922 Aina was awarded a Diploma in Fine Arts and a Teacher’s Certificate from St. John’s Wood College in London.
He went on to confound prejudice and successfully practice Fine Art in both the Western sense.
True to his culture and reverent of his ancestry, Aina Onabolu engaged African approaches to his work whilst pioneering Contemporary Nigerian Art.
He described his foreign education as “decorative”, its purpose to bestow the diploma that would empower his struggle against the colonial authorities as he fought for the introduction of art classes to Lagos schools.
Aina Onabolu’s accomplishments and successes as a draughtsman, art teacher and Lagos society portraitist are well established and renowned.
DO YOU AGREE THAT THE MESSAGE YOU TRANSMIT WITH YOUR WORK SERVES A DIFFERENT PURPOSE OR IT IS RECEIVED DIFFERENTLY TO THAT OF COMPARABLE ARTISTS IN THE WESTERN WORLD?
“Yes, I totally agree, the purpose that we have as African artists is different from the purpose that the artists in the West have.
The disparities coming from the kind of background or historical experience – the historical experiences that our race has been through vis a vis the Western race, so there is a difference.
Artists I believe – creatives – need to work from inspiration from their immediate environment. It is very, very important.
That is why sometimes you see some creatives are doing superficial things because they are just copying things from elsewhere which is not very relative to their own environment.
So, I totally agree with your great grandfather and Aina Onabolu.
I agree with them.
I will never feel inferior to any human being on Earth.
I was made too confident, too spiritual to be inferior and what I do, I do it and it can stand anywhere.
I always refused to be put in a box, I don’t want to be classified as [an] “African artist” in that regard.
I am a Contemporary Artist, so I am as good as a Picasso, a Michelangelo or whoever, because this is my environment so what I do reflects inspiration from my environment.
So I am serving a purpose and that is very purposeful.
So in the West, okay, they have achieved basic infrastructure, basic amenities, so they can afford to be very romantic with their creativity.
Yeah, that is lovely, that is beautiful for them, but right here in Africa we cannot afford to be too romantic right now.
Because we have a lot of issues that have not been attended to through the centuries.
It’s been 500 years of being subjugated, down-pressed and we feel inferior – for 500 years we allowed our environment to be denigrated, we allow our brain to be – how do I say – to be pummeled or inoculated with low self esteem, so that’s a BIG problem it needs to be solved and it has to be solved by creatives here.
We cannot afford romanticising.
We cannot afford Art for Art’s sake.
Seriously, we have our art be it visual, be it drama, be it musical, be it whatever form – writing, it has to have a purpose.
It has to serve a purpose towards our mental liberation.
Because that’s the issue here.
The West don’t have that problem.
So our purpose yes is different from theirs.
So I am totally for this purpose and no apology.
No apology to anyone.”
In the brief I mused: “The sacred Ogoni land has been desecrated by petroleum production, its associated pollution and the moral decay of corruption and social malaise. The environment awaits clean-up and the people their awarded compensation – corruption continues to corrode as oil spills and gas flares continue and cancers and birth defects thrive.
A representation within the work of a mother breast-feeding a child in relevance to how the land nurtures humanity could be an ideal.
The babe might be very sick – perhaps it is Nigerian society suckling? A poisoned chalice of the oil – what could have blessed has instead cursed – could be ideas or motifs you might wish to explore.
The end decision of what to include is yours!”
You did not include the representation, but in a way this message was conveyed at the vigil outside The Shell Centre on 10th November 2015 to commemorate 20 years since the Ogoni Nine executions which the multinational company had commissioned via the Nigerian state.
What did you think of ASH’s TestamentART™ CRUDE MADONNA – a portent of the Ogoni extinction Ken Saro-Wiwa was fighting to stop and performance piece documenting the struggle of the Ogoni women, children and Niger Delta ethnic genomes?
“I don’t why you use the word “crude”?”
WA: I use “crude” because of the crude oil and because it is just [aesthetically] raw and unfiltered.
I always look at the divine aspect of things because I grew up Roman Catholic [though of a paternal Ifa bloodline] so look at the Black Madonna as the ultimate [iconographic] divinity.
Isis and Horus were a precursor to and at the nucleus of the Jesus and Mary representation.
I thought “crude”, it’s unfiltered and raw, so I call her that rather than being a Black Madonna of our time.
It is a piece of performance art [programmed to denounce corporate cannibalism of the Niger Deltans] so I call it the Crude Madonna.
I may have to wear it again…
So what do you think of it?
“I don’t have to think!
I just love it.
I feel the essence.
It is very, very symbolic and by the same token it is spiritual, by the same token it is esoteric, so it is very deep.
It’s not for little minds.
So, I didn’t have to think about it.
No, no, no, I am totally inside it, the essence of it all.
So it is great.
It is great symbolism.
Very great symbolism and I hope there will be opportunities also to showcase it all over again.
Generations come and go, so since you did that, new generations have grown up, millions of young people are turning 18 every day so we need to expose our history, our legacy clearly to this new generation.
This new generation that is so fortunate in the sense that communication is so easy like breathing.
It is like breathing in fresh air.
Communication is so easy now, so information in the twinkle of an eye goes around the world so easily so billions of people can access information, so why not African people, why not offer them possibilities, opportunities to learn and relearn and unlearn about themselves, so things like this in that line of that mission, it is lovely, very lovely and apt, so may the Universe bless you more my sister for what you are doing.”
KNOW THY SELF and be inspired to become your best by Lemi Ghariokwu.
DISCOVER: More about Lemi Ghariokwu‘s great work for FELA KUTI, career and the role an artist should have in their community, nation, continent and the world at large.
LEARN: About MOSOP‘s fight for freedom, human rights and environmental remediation since 1990.
HEAR: Shell Oil workers in Nigeria: “We have been enslaved in a modernised form.”
REFLECT: In the Niger Delta nations, “Every man, woman and child is a target…” of the Corporate Cannibal, Shell Oil.
CONSIDER: The merits of music as a weapon in global activism:
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