The Katsina State-born artist became attracted to art early in life. “I just realised I could draw things on paper or on walls and this fascinated me,” he enthuses. Sani’s young and restless creative mind found the illustrations contained in a popular dictionary in use at the time a ready inspiration. He would copy the Michael West Dictionary illustrations on pieces of paper.
“I was enjoying myself,” says the 1983 First Class graduate of Fine Arts (Zaria Art School), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
By the time young Sani gained admission to Government Secondary School Zaria (Now Alhudahuda College), his vision of art metamorphosed with the contacts he had with his first art teacher popularly called Shehu Artist. “He inspired us by allowing us to see his portrait works. Soon I was doing my own portraits through his tutelage and encouragement,” says Mu’azu whose earliest works were portraits of family members, friends and notable members of the society.
Mu’azu’s creativity began to flower during his undergraduate days in the early 80s. In 1982, he discovered a unique style of painting which involved splashing of colours. This technique well explored by Mu’azu enabled his quest for self-expression find definition. The simple aesthetics the splashing technique provided offered him the vehicle to communicate essences. Did Jackson Pollock’s style of action painting provide a spark for Sani? He says “I didn’t even know about the existence of a Jackson Pollock at the time. It was later that I began to know about him and I realised that we share similar technique of execution though with our own individual differences in voices and bias.”
The quest to find meanings in the happenings around him led to the interrogation of the social situations around Northern Nigeria in the 90’s resulting in the production of some of his most insightful and perhaps controversial works. The recurrent ethno-religious crisis in the 90’s provided the stimuli for the collages that became the artist’s offering to mitigate the volatility of the time.
“In 1994, there was this episode of religious crisis in Zaria, when it subsided, I took my car and went round the whole of the city and looking at the damages, most of the churches including one of the oldest churches in the northern part of the country in Wusasa were burnt down. So, I made a painting titled ‘The Cross Refuses to Burn’, The entire work was predominantly grey and black with so much smoke in the composition and the cross was captured in brilliant colours and most of them were tilting as if they will fall but they are not falling.
“In the late 80’s I made a commentary on the ‘Ango Must Go’ riot in Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. The police came in and there was shooting. A particular girl died in the process in front of her hostel, she was shot from the back. After the crisis died down, I went about collecting tear gas canisters and bullet shells which I used to create a work of art titled ‘The Black Friday’. What provoked that work of art was the girl’s innocence. She had been sick and did not know that there was riot. She had gone to use the toilet, and was even asking what was going on. As she made her way back to her hostel room, she was hit by the bullet from the back. It was an artwork that moved several people to tears.”
Once, Mu’azu’s painting had to be taken down from an exhibition over the vehemence that greeted the message. In another instance, the entire exhibition was suspended over an attack on his work. He recalls: “The work titled royal Evil” was a commentary on the way some traditional rulers were behaving at the time; they allowed corrupt politicians to have undue influence on them. They would dance to any regime just to secure their positions. Even if you have a terror as commander-in-Chief, they will support him”.
In 1994 Sani’s most controversial work titled “In the Grave” exploited the sometimes tense, precarious and gravely costly relationships between the two major religions in the country to make commentary on what seemed like peace of the graveyard. Created after the religious crisis of 1994 in Zaria, the work “In the Grave” sought to preach tolerance and understanding between adherents of Christianity and Islam constantly confronted by divisive religious fanaticism. The collage work is a composition accommodating the cross and the minaret with the symbolic messages of ‘I love Prophet Mohammed” and ‘I love Jesus Christ’ on pendants.
During the exhibition at the Kashim Ibrahim Library in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, “a fanatic entered the library and the work attracted him, so he started shouting and attacking the work. The venue was shut down because there was so much tension; it took some time for the controversy to be resolved.’ For Sani Mu’azu Moh., the subject of peaceful coexistence among religions in Nigeria has provided the impetus for the creation of some of his deepest and notable works of art ever.
The socio-religious themes in Mu’azu’s works are a part of his world which he reveals, “I am a very peaceful person, a proud Muslim and a liberal person. My wife was a Christian and she practiced her religion until the time she died. My conclusion is that despite our differences, we can still live peacefully.”
With the progression of his creative journey, Mu’azu’s latest body of work interrogates the rhythms of life through contrasting celebratory nuances of performance and colours registered on the canvas. Mu’azu takes us back again to his world of saying so much with so little. This time his canvas becomes an arena where footprints connect a series of fleeting ephemeral activities to a present bouquet of colours and life.
Assembling huge canvases, Mu’azu would invite Nigerian traditional and contemporary Nigerian dancers whose feet are stained with acrylic colours to leave imprints as paintings. The beauty of this style is the colourful courses the ephemeral performance leaves on the canvas which merge floatingly to form compositions representing interpretations of music. The visual and spatial movements of painting and performance intersect on the canvases to create a stimulating visual experience.
A major plank of Mu’azu’s recent suit is the Swange repertoire, defined by sensuous rhythmic movements. Swange dance of Nigeria’s Tiv tribe is one of the most iconic traditional dances in the country. Dressed in their achromatic costumes, the Swange dancers leave several hundreds of multi-coloured footprints as suspended symphonies of sounds that hang on after a dance performance. The canvases therefore become receptors and conservatory of rhythms and colours.
The refreshing thing about Mu’azu’s artistic commentaries is that they scratch the old skin that we have grown used to in other to reveal truths. Relieving these moments offers one the passport to Mu’azu’s guiding thoughts: “I do paint other subjects such as durbar, landscape, but when I look at such works, they don’t make serious statements, I don’t paint because I feel people want to buy my works.” For him, great works must be able to stir up conversations through which change can occur.
-Enekwachi writes from Enugu