A planned retrospective solo exhibition is just one of the many activities that keep the exploits of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka-based artist and lecturer Krydz Ikwuemesi fresh in the industry’s consciousness, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Decades after, Krydz Ikwuemesi still smarts from the unpleasant consequences of an academic staff union strike in 1996. Then a graduate assistant of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s Fine and Applied Arts Department, he was among the lecturers sacked by the authorities in response to the strike.

Before his eventual recall, in December 1998, along with 11 others after 32 months out in the cold, many among the approximately 200 lecturers sacked by the then Sole Administrator of the university, Professor Umaru Gomwalk, had caved in to pressure and either apologised or even begged to be reabsorbed.

“Eleven of us, including the then ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities) President, Professor Assisi Asobie refused to apologise and, thus, were left in the cold until an untimely death snatched Abacha away from Aso Rock,” he recalled in an interview with Femi Oloidi. “General [Abdulsalami] Abubakar ordered that all lecturers sacked in Nigerian universities over the strike should be recalled, and so we were recalled paid all our entitlements. Those 32 months was the period I tagged ‘the Golgotha Years’, because I actually went through Golgotha in a figurative sense…”

Those “Golgotha” years would inspire exhibitions like the one he held at the National Museum in Enugu, which he titled, Take these Chains from Heart, after a song by the late blind African-American singer Ray Charles Jr. as well another exhibition, he titled On the Road to Golgotha, which he held in both Enugu and Lagos.
Born in 1967, shortly after the 30-month-long Nigerian Civil War had started, Ikwuemesi saw conflict and sorrow. “I have seen people suffer, I have also suffered,” he said, alluding to his immediate post-war experiences. “I know what it is for people to bite sand.”

Losing his mother, years later, at the tender age of 12 further intensified his path of suffering and helped him develop a sense of justice. “I am not saying that I am a saint,” he told him. “But I try as much as possible to recognise right when I see it and wrong when I see it. And I want as much as possible to see that things are done the way they should. We must recognise that we live in an imperfect world and that indeed we are all conditioned souls seeking to attain perfection through the imperfect means available to the ordinary person in the material world. So things will always go wrong, but how we resolve issues at the end is what really matters. What actions we take at the point we find ourselves at particular times is very important.”

Living in a dysfunctional society like Nigeria does something to the sensibilities of any committed artist. For Ikwuemesi, it sustains his interest in resistance art. This, in his opinion, is what should be expected of any sensitive artist. For indeed, it would be hard, if not impossible, for artists not to respond to the trending issues in the society.

Yet, the artist does not want to leave anyone with the impression that his art is just about resistance. “At times, I look at other issues. There is so much for one to play with in terms of creative resources. The only thing I am saying is that you cannot continue to chase rat all the time while your house burns. So, from time to time, I try to listen to the rhythms of the land, and to capture those rhythms through the images and imageries that make up my work; but that does not mean that I am a totally unhappy or pessimistic artist.”

Once likened in a review by Peter Ezeh to the Angry Young Men of Britain, Ikwuemesi had argued that his mood oscillated between being happy and being angry. This was while acknowledging that the tendency to be angry “may be more frequent here, given the social reality of our country”. A “kind of bitter-sweet trajectory”, he called it, “a kind of bitter-sweet experience that defines the kind of themes that I paint or write about”.

True, the exhibition, On the Road to Golgotha – held at the Alliance Française, Enugu from November 29 to December 3, 2005 and at the Protea Hotel, Enugu from December 17 to 26, 2005 as well as in Lagos from February 11 to 18, the following year at the Pendulum Art Centre in Lekki – defined the theme song of his artistic odyssey. Yet, it was just one among several solo exhibitions he has held so far. It featured works, most of which were rendered in pastel, ink, water colour or oil and had titles like “On Oracles and Dictators”, “To Steal and Persecute with Impunity”, “So Help Us God”, “A Parliament of Vultures”, “In the Heart of Golgotha” and “And the Elephants Pounded the Earth”, among others. On that exhibition, Okey Nwafor – then, a lecturer at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University’s Fine and Applied Arts Department – wrote: “What evolve as titles of Ikwuemesi’s paintings are corrosive testimonies of phrases that sound like Golgotha itself. We see words that have macabre sounds of apocalypse. No mellifluous sounds.”

Ikwuemesi, whose last-known solo exhibition The Village Square, from May 7 to May 27, 2015, lit up the International Institute for Creative Development in Abuja, has not only initiated, but also participated in several group and joint exhibition since January 1990 when he first featured in the group show, Visual Orchestra Inaugural Exhibition, at the French Centre, Enugu. Perhaps, most memorable among these group exhibitions are the Pan-African Circle of Artists biennial and commemorative exhibitions, which have drawn participants mainly from the French-speaking and English-speaking African countries and have been held in several venues in Nigeria. Another memorable group show was the Nsukka at 50 commemorative exhibition, titled Nkolika, which held in Nsukka, Abuja and Lagos.
In addition to the group shows, he has organised several conferences and symposia under different platforms. Indeed, his numerous activities have impacted on the art scene like a catalyst.

Meanwhile, a retrospective show scheduled for sometime later this year promises a lean, compact recap of his creative credo. But there is more to this credo than his anti-establishment posturing. There is also his lyrical appropriation of the Igbo traditional uli motifs, which has not only distinguished his creative style but has also inspired workshops, symposia, conferences and publications.

Unarguably one of the most energetic artists of the Nsukka Art School, Ikwuemesi’s creative future gleams before him with promise. “I do not hope to retire as an artist,” Krydz Ikwuemesi once told Femi Oloidi. “Does an artist retire? I do not think that an artist retires. When you are an artist it is like you are married to art, the same way you are married to your real wife. You do not retire from your wife until ‘death do us part,’ as they say. So, I hope to continue to be an artist until the very last day of my life. That is just the way it is.”