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The Arts, the artist, and surviving corona times

The list of essential workers and services were listed but the arts were excluded. The rhetoric, ‘art is luxury’ is amplified as the urgency to stay alive in these precarious times exaggerates our vulnerability. Our survival instincts respond with hoarding food and locking our doors like animals that hideaway in holes to hibernate. For an unfortunate percentage of Nigerians, food and doors are luxury too. Yes, we are animals acting on self-preservation but what separates us from reptiles and baboons is our humanity. Humanity is shaped by Arts. We forget that what kept us sane during the isolation were external influences of music, movies, literature, etc. Please do not mention Netflix and Echo as luxury. I’m talking about the simple ways, like children singing, a parent telling kids folktales, and people dancing. These simple acts that those among us who find doors to be luxury still engage in.

We forget that the proudest achievements of any advanced culture lies in its capacity to cultivate individuals with an understanding of life and the world that is both deep and broad. This is not achieved accidentally. The understanding of our history, the insights into which the heart and soul of man and an understanding of the natural world, the Art, encompasses all these. How is this not essential to our survival? For many artists all over the world, this unprecedented lockdown of states, borders and homes has been the most productive they will ever be in their lifetime.

The painting, “Guernica” by Picasso, his most powerful political statement, painted as an immediate reaction to the Nazi’s devastating casual bombing on the Basque town of Guernica; gives us insight into the Spanish civil war.

Wole Soyinka’s award-winning book ‘The Man Died’ are prison notes from his incarceration chronicling the Nigerian civil war. In this book that details the brutality of prison officials on inmates, he describes a haunting night when all the inmates break into song that reverberates all through the prison walls. The next morning of the eerily incident, the prison wardens treated the inmates with kindness.

Bob Nesta Marley’s song ‘One Love” has for many years, been used to promote reconciliation during racial and other divisive unrest, reminding us of the truth of ONE race! The human race.

The Artist is the healer, the teacher, the historian, the invisible essential worker that keeps our humanity safe from losing itself. We look forward to the genius that will be unleashed for many years to come, how will we be influenced and guided by these geniuses, whether consciously or unconsciously?

Having laid the above statement as the introduction to my short essay, I shall introduce myself now. My name is Peju Alatise, visual artist, architect, storyteller; but, I do not consider myself an essential worker.

This lockdown has been a most irritable interruption and I’m too petulant to think of it as a ‘time for self-reflection’ as many wise gurus preach. I have the patience of a gnat and I do not wish to tell you about my journey in the arts. It is a story I have told too often, and I find it boring myself. I do not wish to dwell on the past achievements and milestone crossings; so, let’s skip the last 44 years and 10 months, to the last 3 months of my journey in the Arts.

I have just learned that the Venice Biennale Architecture 2020 of which I am so excited to be a participant has been postponed to 2021. My presentation for Biennale is now completed and crated, ready for delivery but will wait 9 months in my studio before it starts its journey to the Venetian ports.

Many artists (myself included) are concerned about how the ailing economy will affect the arts. The whole world is experiencing a financial crisis and the artists know that our industry, although it remains active and relevant as ever, we are often scapegoats for financiers. I am studying how artists remained in practice after the Second World War and artworks produced during and after this period. To be a great artist, it is not nearly enough to be skillful. An artist has to understand what is happening around them and the world at large. The artist has to remain informed on world issues, from politics to current technological innovations; this is the key to creating relevant works. This is why Fela can sing “Unknown Soldier” to a concert hall of Europeans and the audience can sing along with him, feverishly chanting his lyrics. If the job of an artist, as Nina Simone says, is to reflect the times, the artists can neither be blind nor deaf to the signs of our times.

The artist teaches how to see and how to listen. In my state of anxiety and frustration from the lockdown, I am listening and observing. A secret to the survival of many artists I have studied is diversification. I am learning that to diversify, is to increase one’s chances of sustainability. 

I am also excited (but in a nervous way) to see the results of this lockdown that felt torturous to me, in my work. I have spent my time reading and studying works of great artists, having no access to work in my studio. I am excited that the end of our battle with the virus is the unfolding of more creative innovation. I am concerned that I have used ‘I’ more than a dozen times in this essay.

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