Emmanuel Isiuwe and his wife, Angela, return to the Lagos exhibition circuit with works that proclaim their differences and complementarities. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Here they were at last! The two men – Olasehinde Odimayo and his journalist guest – conversing in the midst of traditional Nigerian sculptures in a leafy veranda turned to watch the couple approach. Instant recognition of the journalist and a hail-fellow-well-met smile lit up Emmanuel Isiuwe’s face. But if his wife, Angela, recognised the journalist, she hardly showed it.
Recognition eventually crept into her eyes, which were fixed on the journalist. Surprise, if not awe, later edged it out from her eyes when the journalist affirmed that he not only knew her fairly well but also last met her at a female art critic’s residence along Bourdillon Road in the upscale Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos.
“That must have been a long time ago!” The awe had by then crept into her voice. Her eyes widened with surprise. “That must have been around 2001! But you do have a good memory.”
The journalist smiled at the compliment. He doubted it was that far back. A quick scan of his memory confirmed she couldn’t have been far off the mark...
Flashback. He recalled her telling the female critic: “Just being married alone is a limitation. Then, you add having children to that! I’m the kind of woman that wants to know what my children are up to. I have to be with my children.”
It was an informal chat bordering on the challenges faced by married female artists. The journalist also recalled meeting the two women already engaged in an intellectual colloquy in the critic’s large and well-furnished living-room. The critic had argued that it was about striking a balance between work and family. She had allotted 40 percent of the time at the female artist’s disposal to the family and the remaining 60 to studio work. “Women can have it all if they are organised,” she was saying. “A few really are. But very few.”
Angela thought there was time for everything. She was conscious of her responsibility as woman to raise well-mannered children.
A quick dissolve to the present... Angela’s facial expression seemed to say, “How could you have remembered all that?” But she could only repeat: “Your memory is good!” “Have you forgotten he’s a journalist?” Emmanuel asked his wife.
The journalist reminded him of the last time they met. “It was at my former place.” The artist smiled in assent.
“Your former place? You’ve relocated?”
The journalist nodded. “Yeah, but to a bigger place in the same neighbourhood...” The conversation soon dovetailed into the reason for the meeting. The couple was planning a joint exhibition, which should have opened yesterday at Didi Museum, along Akin Adesola Street in Victoria Island, Lagos. Odimayo said that he was fascinated enough about their works to temporarily lift his self-imposed moratorium on art collection in favour of design.
Back in 2010, he had featured the couple in a group salon show at the Protea Hotel along Awolowo Road in Ikoyi.
So the journalist was right to call the Didi Museum show a comeback show. The couple nodded their agreement. The last joint show they held was in 2004 and it was titled, Essence of Life.
And this current show? They titled it, Our World- Human and Equestrian Life.
“We’ve always been interested in human and animal forms,” Emmanuel was saying in response to the journalist’s obvious question: why?
Life had always fascinated him. It has been the theme song of his studio practice since his graduation from the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi in 1992. “I wanted to do something different,” he added. “So, I zeroed in on horses and painted them for their sake, not with people riding them.”
For this exhibition, Angela’s interest seemed riveted exclusively on the female figure. Previously, she had painted both women and children. She has even ventured a step further to bare the female figure for viewers. No, she was not trying to idealise the forms. “The truth is that I’ve always been painting nude female figures even when male artists are shying away from painting them. I see nothing wrong with painting them.”
Painting female figures, she continued, is easier than painting the male figures. Really? “There are all basic shapes inside the female figure. Male figures are mostly defined...”
Whatever. The journalist still didn’t see what made the female figure easier to paint than the male figures. But he opted to file that information away somewhere in his memory for further contemplation. He was content for the moment to note that Emmanuel also painted female figures for the show.
A photograph of one of Angela’s paintings caught his attention. He was particularly fascinated by what looked like a zigzag horizontal brushstroke done with a red paint. But this was a prostrate female form in what could pass for a foetal pose.
“This is minimalist,” the journalist observed. “Why is this so?” “Basically, I’d like my viewers to form their own opinions of the work. I prefer to say so little to give the viewers the opportunity to see much more than the obvious...
It could also be seen as my signature style.” Talking about signature styles, the two artists express themselves so differently that it is difficult to imagine that they spent much of their career working in the same studio.
The year was 1990. Emmanuel had resumed late for his Higher National Diploma. “I was supposed to have been back for my HND in 1989 but LTC would let me go.”
LTC was the advertising agency, where he worked during the gap year between the Ordinary National Diploma and the Higher National Diploma. Fate was up to something and was weaving some designs on his future. On how he met Angela, Emmanuel recalled that he had always admired her from a distance even when he was still a second-year OND student and she was in the first year of the same programme. Fate had contrived to have them together in the same class at the HND level. As the only female in that class, she was the cynosure of all the 17 admiring male eyes.
“A friend told me to come and see this girl in our class. Out of curiosity, I had followed him only to discover that it was her.”
“I was in my room,” Angela resumed from where he stopped. “This guy brought him along and introduced him. Of course, he eventually asked me out. But when you are in the same studio with 17 boys, romance is not the first thing on your mind.”
An illness – a welcome one – struck Emmanuel and mercifully hastened the coming together of the two souls. “He was ill when I paid him a visit for the first time. I tidied his room. That was how we became friends.” Their friendship remained platonic even when Cupid had pierced their hearts severally with his arrows. Perhaps, words were no longer necessary at that point for them to realise that they would eventually tie the nuptials...
Of course, working together in the same studios implied exchange of ideas but could also mean osmoses of influences. Curiously, both artists had kept within their signature styles. “Emmanuel has a very strong personality,” Angela said. “So do I. We are not so easily influenced. We are two heady people. I do what I like, not because someone suggests it. He has never suggested to me what his woman should look like. He has left me the way he met me.”
She obviously returned the favour. Emmanuel corroborated the fact that they have, as a couple, come to terms with their divergent personalities and have agreed to coexist with them.
The conversation drifted back to their studio practice. Angela explained her minimalist paintings captured the essence of the forms. The one that first caught the journalist’s attention, she said, was inspired by the prostrate form of her 17-year-old daughter. Her compositions had always been spontaneous. She would let her brushstrokes coax out the forms from their inaccessible redoubts and let the titles suggest themselves.
As for Emmanuel, he had always painted horses. Horses, it seemed, had always been a part of his life. As the son of a policeman growing up in the south-western Nigerian town of Ibadan, he saw policemen on horses. In Lagos, he saw the animals in beeches. During his one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in the northern Nigerian city of Katsina, he watched colourfully-attired men on horses during the durbars. More recently in 2007, during his visit to the US, he saw a few horse shows.
This artistic couple have five children – two boys and three girls. While the first boy, as the second eldest child, seems to be of a calm disposition, the younger boy, who is their lastborn, is his polar opposite. “We have our studio in our home but we can paint anywhere including the living room,” Angela told the journalist.
“The children are used to it.”
Both artists have participated in several exhibitions both within and outside Nigeria.