Anthony Azekwoh's “There Is a Country” revisits Nigeria's history of trauma

There Is a Country, Anthony Azekwoh's second solo exhibition, spanning two volumes delves into the complex essence of the past and present-day Nigeria, a nation grappling with corruption, yet pulsating with optimism.
Art & Design
December 31, 2023
Written By
Michael Kolawole
In this Article

There Is a Country, Anthony Azekwoh's second solo exhibition, spanning two volumes delves into the complex essence of the past and present-day Nigeria, a nation grappling with corruption, yet pulsating with optimism. The exhibition, curated by Ugonna Ibe and shown at Yenwa Gallery in Lagos, breathes new life into Chinua Achebe's legacy.

The collection is Azekwoh's attempt at reawakening the late Chinua Achebe's book, There Was a Country through the portrayal of an optimistic mood among the country's teeming and vibrant youths in an era marked by massive governmental corruption and youth emigration in search of better living conditions. To perfectly display the theme of the collection, Azekwoh combines paintings with historical remembrances and existing realities of the country and proclaims that There Is a Country.

"It bears mentioning that Achebe and I are talking about two different things, separate entities when we say “country” and this is also due to our backgrounds," Azekwoh wrote in his artist's statement.

Like Achebe, Azekwoh is of Igbo descent but was born and raised in Lagos, a largely Yorùbá-speaking state with its distinct culture and way of life. Achebe had a closer upbringing to his roots; Azekwoh's home is wholly distinct from his place of origin. Nevertheless, this doesn't diminish or devalue his heritage; he still proudly identifies as an Igbo man. Azekwoh believes that the country, and what we consider it to be, has culturally, religiously, and ethnically evolved into an imperceptibly new era of intersection, not just within Nigeria, but all around the world. He feels the younger generation needs to define what Nigeria is and what it means to be a Nigerian. "And that is what I mean when I say There Is A Country," Azekwoh continues, "I am saying that despite the corruption, the maiming, the killing, woeful ineptitude of our leaders, despite it all, there is still a story that must be told, for all the people of Nigeria and those from all the nations of the world. It is a story of us, my people, and the place we call home. There Is a Country, truly, and it is here and now."

Anthony Azekwoh is a contemporary artist and author based in Lagos, Nigeria. His work primarily focuses on African folklore and mythology, using these themes and figures to tell stories of his country, transformation, and change. He taught himself how to draw as a child after solely being a writer. He dropped out of school to pursue his art career and worked between digital and traditional painting and sculpting, blurring the boundary between both by producing physical and corporeal embodiments of his work. His work explores fantastical realms that draw from a childhood immersed in folklore. With his writing and painting, and telling stories he believes have been greatly removed from the global discussion, he aims to condense shared aspects of the African experience into his work in a way that connects with people around the world. Azekwoh was the recipient of the Awele Trust Prize in 2017 and the Loose Convo grant in 2018. His art has been seen by millions around the world. The gallery is painted in white and flooded by luminous lighting. Soft jazz ambient music by Yinka Bernie seeps from the tiny speakers on the wall, creating an ethereal mood. But the paintings, whose images range from bloodshed to death to exploitation and remembrances are in sharp contrast to the soothing ambience of the gallery.

No Victor No Vanquished/The Last Day of Biafra

No Victor No Vanquished/The Last Day of Biafra, the largest painting of the exhibition, is an apocalyptic imagery of the evil of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War. The war began on 6 July 1967 and ended on 15 January 1970 and cost the Igbos a lot in terms of lives, money, and infrastructure. Like Chinua Achebe's last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Azekwoh tries to resuscitate the discussion of the war through the grim impressions of the painting. The digital painting on canvas (56 x 75 inches), which displays immense burning and chaos is an insignia of loss, confusion, and remembrance. There is the nation's flag almost engulfed with smoke at the top right corner, a burning man and Nsibidi beneath the flag, weary and hopeless people in the background, and a well-elaborated Biafran Soldier stands in the middle of the chaos, gazing blankly at something in the sky.

Flag

A blood-stained portrait of the Nigerian flag, aptly titled "Flag", is another painting that examinesthe country's bloodletting past perpetrated by the government. The digital painting on canvas (46 x 52 inches), with the lower part smudged in red paint, is a simple but evoking examination of the significant event in Nigeria on the 20th of October 2020: The Lekki Tollgate Shooting, where peaceful protesters waving the country's flag and chanting the nation's anthem were brutally massacred by the Nigerian soldiers while their blood stained the flags they carried. The period stands as a representation of a moment of awakening and shared trauma in the country's history, a deeper wound, and a stain on the country's conscience. "This is a painting of pride and sorrow. Of green, white, and red,” Azekwoh wrote in a note that accompanied the painting.

Child of Oil

Inspired by Daniel LaRue Johnson's Freedom Now, "Child of Oil" (46 x 34 inches) digital painting on canvas, shows a disturbing image of an angry and frustrated boy with crude oil smeared on his head to his chest. The image symbolizes Nigeria as a young country drowning in crude oil. When the Nigerian government first discovered oil in Bayelsa State in 1956, it was a blessing to the then-British Colony. But now it is more like a curse because it poisoned the minds of Nigerian government officials who embezzled the nation's treasury and retard its growth. "Child of Oil'' is poetic, maybe, that what we once swam in, is exactly what is now drowning us,” Azekwoh wrote in a note by the painting.

Soldier

What do soldiers fight for? Could it be for the love of their country or the guns they use in killing? This is a difficult question to answer. For countless centuries, this seemingly simple question has perplexed us, encapsulating a fundamental mystery of human behavior. Whether they know or believe what they are fighting for, soldiers always risk their lives on the battlefield. After the brushes with death and traumatic experiences on the battlefield, soldiers always looked the same: haggard, lost, and mentally broken. This is well illustrated in a digital painting titled "Soldier" (oil on canvas, 46 x 34 inches), a portrait of a pale and haggard man with a burning cigarette in his mouth. The soldier is set against a red background, a symbol of blood and destruction. There is a bullet hole on the left side of the frame, a bomb projectile on the right, and an explosion image displayed on his clothes. The portrait represents an odd mix of resignation and despair.

Animal Talk Series

The "Animal Talk" series, motivated by Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s single ‘Beast Of No Nation, and also utilizing metaphors drawn from Orwell's beast fable, Animal Farm, is a satirical allegory of particular cadre in the Nigerian society: The Politician (Baboon), the Police (Vulture), the Pastor (pig), and a Person (the artist himself: Pig). Created in 2022, the digital paintings question and criticize the Nigerian Politician as a cruel, wizened bespectacled baboon who uses brute to force their way into power and money; the Police as a vulture, a dysfunctional entity borne out of the country's systemic problems; the gold wearing pig is a Pastor (rich in gold, poor in the heart) who harasses and exploits his congregation; and the Person is a retrospective look at the artist, a sheep with closed eyes, "living in a false reality. Docile, tamed. Unaware of the tyranny. Uncaring".

There Is a Country is not merely a reflection of a troubled past, but a beacon of hope for abrighter future. By bringing these narratives to light, Azekwoh empowers us all to confront thewounds of history and chart a new course for Nigeria.

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