If the direction of one’s life is shaped by the circumstances of memories they retain, then the eventualities of mine were defined by these earliest and most vivid of memories: clinging tightly to my father on a midnight motorcycle journey along a narrow mountain road, under a sky filled with brilliant stars; the sounds of wailing children, and of pots and pans; a deafeningly loud plane that flew so low I saw the face of its pilot, and in my memory we stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity; standing at the side of a dusty road with many other children dressed in neat green shorts and pressed white shirts, waving small paper flags in Nigerian colors at a miles-long column of tanks and armed soldiers passing by -- the vanquished saluting the conquerors. But for these memories that time has not diminished, everything else I know of my first years of life was told to me by others. I was the youngest of four small children and we were refugees of Biafra.
I have drawn pictures since I could hold a pencil. In the beginning I copied images from the family bible and made repeated drawings of men with guns, and of that Soviet-made fighter plane I saw that morning in 1970. I discovered painting when I left Nigeria at the age of seventeen to study computer science at university in America, in a book of impressionist paintings that were magical and unlike anything I knew existed. I was committed to fulfilling the wishes of my family but knew then that nothing else would do for my life than to spend it making pictures. I went to school in the day, worked a job after, and taught myself to paint at night – as much as I could learn from picture books of my heroes Monet, Degas, Manet, Sisely, Morisot, Pissarro, but especially van Gogh for his manic expression of intense emotions. Painting was me, nothing else would do. And in time I became competent enough to find buyers for my work.
Yet I felt a sense of pointlessness at the idea of a lifetime spent painting fields and agreeable floral arrangements, however grand or affecting such pictures may be.
In the spring of 1999 I traveled to Madrid to visit the Prado. On the morning of my arrival I entered the museum and saw for the first time pictures by Velazquez I had admired in books, and I heard his name as if spoken for the first time. I fell seriously ill on that first day and was not able to return to the Prado for the remainder of my fifteen days in Spain, but those initial few hours was time enough to redefine painting for me. Everything I had done up to the moment I stood before Diego’s Las Meninas seemed infantile and meaningless. The manner of the Impressionists at once became bubble-gum art incapable of supporting the depth of human expression I saw in Velazquez’s faces, and pictures by Rubens and Goya. Impressionism and everything it embodied in art died.
On that the thirty-third anniversary of my birth, I was alone, vomiting when I was not in bed contemplating the hollowness of my life and the possibility of dying in a cheap hotel room in Madrid. I wrote many things in my sketchbook, among them a persistent memory from when I was fourteen years old and living in a boarding school in eastern Nigeria.
“He lived for two weeks in a gatehouse, a concrete hut with a rusty tin roof; ten feet wide and ten feet deep with no door and two large holes for windows. When he died his body remained were he lay for three more days, until the flies that buzzed around him and crawled on his parched and parted lips made it plain that something had to be done before long. I do not know who took his corpse, we awoke on the fourth morning and it was simply gone. Rumor had it that night soil men were paid well to collect him on their midnight rounds, this I do not know as fact. Whoever took him left evidence of his stay, smears and things that brought even more flies, things that were not remains of food we tossed him as we passed by each day or stood to gaze upon that dying man. I was one of the luckless boys tasked with cleaning out the hut as punishment for some insignificant offense I no longer remember, the gatehouse which he had made his home in the final days of his life.
“Many years have passed since he died; that nameless, homeless, forgotten creature. I do not remember what his face was while he could still look back; I know he was gaunt with terribly sunken eyes, and he was tall although I never saw him stand. He was naked in the day for the stifling heat, and he wrapped himself in a blanket to keep out the cold of night. I remember he did not appear to notice the flies that relentlessly assaulted him, or maybe he knew chasing them was a battle not worth fighting. I remember the impressions his bones made from underneath his ashen and disease-ridden skin, and I remember well his face after he had died for I looked upon him long enough. And I wondered then as I still do if anyone he may have known knew he was no more.”
I returned home from Spain, recovered from my illness and destroyed all my unsold pictures – about 30 canvases. I began teaching myself how to paint pain, abandonment, loneliness, images and emotions that have haunted me all my life; the expression of helplessness at injustices I could not prevent or forget. That man at the gatehouse gave me clarity of purpose and is the single catalyst for the direction of my work – to express human suffering in its most basic form, and to celebrate the life of the forgotten person in pictures and in words. Velazquez, Goya, and Rembrandt showed me how to to speak in a manner that is direct.