The allure of the New York art season sees Nigerian artist Tony Nsofor visiting the city at a time the coronavirus pandemic has forced the bustling city into lockdown. Now, he is compelled to review his creative process to adapt to his current realities, writes Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
It’s such a cold, dreary Tuesday morning in Manhattan. A thunderstorm, according to the weather forecast, is threatening to unleash its ire sometime later in the day. But now, it’s still 7 a.m. and Tony Nsofor, though feeling groggy – having barely just woken up from a four-hour sleep –, assures his interlocutor at the other end of the line that the weather is usually this cold even when the sun is up. Indeed, he affirms that today (Tuesday, April 21) is particularly slower than usual.
This, for the dreadlocks-sporting Nigerian-born artist, would be the fourth visit to New York City. It is a visit, during which he seems to be witnessing the unravelling of his artistic dreams. This is as he helplessly watches things head south. He had come to this world-renowned vibrant city with the high hopes of leveraging on the art season to gain access to its local art community. “Most of the shows open around now in the over 1,500 art spaces in New York alone,” he says.
But then, COVID-19 happened. Something nobody could ever have imagined would happen. And New York like the rest of the world has shut down. Consequently, Nsofor is hunkering down like virtually the rest of humanity, hoping it would all soon blow over like a nightmare and things would return to what they used to be.
The 1997 University of Nigeria, Nsukka fine and applied arts graduate’s first time in New York was in April last year. He had been invited by Thought Pyramid Art Centre to participate in the New York art fair. A high point of his travelling life, he calls it. “I was ecstatic. Apart from the time difference and jet lag, I walked every day in a stunned state, gushing at the splendour of Manhattan. I had sold a few paintings before coming, so it was convenient to stay in Manhattan for 10 days.”
The enchanting dazzling lights of Times Square suited Nsofor’s restless and roving disposition so much that he had spent the first four hours after his arrival soaking in the impressions. Besides trying to visit as many art spaces as he could in less than two weeks, he felt this oneness with the bustling city. He was thrilled to be part of its multi-racial hordes of people in the streets. He marvelled at the workmanship of the impressive skyscrapers. Like the typical travellers, he snapped away with his camera, storing away these priceless memories for another day when he could wring coherence from out of them in quietness.
“I felt at one with Manhattan,” he muses. “Something about the ambitions that drive the city resonated with me. My Nigerian friend, Chisimbili who now lived here with his wife and kids, said it: I belonged here. I started dreaming of perfect bliss. It was to own an apartment in the centre of Manhattan surrounded by all the art spaces. That was the dream. Now, I am living it. Unfortunately, it is as they say, ‘Be careful what you wish for’.”
So, he is back – a year later – in Manhattan, staying in a friend’s apartment in Greenwich Village. Indeed, some elements of his dream did come true. But, there are things he wouldn’t have factored into this dream. Sure, the looming skyscrapers are still very much around. And there are hints of life: cars parked on the streets, flashing lights of the display windows of the neighbourhood shops, some homeless people trudging on and lugging along their luggage on the streets and some people with cameras snapping away. Besides these, a haunting silence reigns in the city.
Like in every city in lockdown, New Yorkers are advised to wear masks, regularly wash their hands and maintain social distancing if they must come out to exercise or buy groceries. Ideally, the authorities would be happier if everyone (except front-line workers) stayed home.
“Here I am in my dream apartment in the heart of New York City and the silence is stifling,” the artist moans. Of course, he would occasionally stroll by Chelsea and pass by shops with their glittering displays. “The neon lights still flashed in the city, only that this time it was broken by the flickering red lights of ambulances dashing through empty roads to somewhere. The buildings advertised the art events that had started a few months earlier. One could peep through barred glass windows at the exhibits inside some of the buildings. Like a dream turning into a nightmare, New York seemed to be falling asleep on everyone…”
So, here goes his plan to visit friends and relatives in five different states during his current visit to America. “I planned to paint some family portraits also, to keep busy. I came with some art materials because I was preparing for a solo show at the National Museum [Lagos] sometime in July.”
Now, here is an artist whose creative process thrives in crowded, noisy spaces. He files away his experiences from visits and journeys to crowded markets and malls, live band events, bars and densely-populated streets of Abidjan, Johannesburg, Lagos, Istanbul, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Broadway as his invaluable raw materials. “The experiences usually lead me to isolation in my studio where I reenact all the energy of the rat race, relocating them into my work.”
The prospect of sitting around the apartment twiddling his thumbs was appalling. The loneliness weighed down on his sensibilities. He had, upon arrival in New York, ordered more art materials from Blicks. But, even their arrival a few days later did nothing to put him in work mode. Walking around Washington Square Park to watch the street performers, the people exercising and walking their dogs helped. “I also played chess at one end of the park on some days if I wasn’t taking pictures. I met Sufi, David, JP and Cornbread (I wonder the story behind that unusual name). Sufi is a Muslim immigrant, who lives in the basement of a Catholic church. The first thing he did when they gave him space was to ask that the crucifix on the wall of his room be removed. David seems to have no story. He floats through the park and would disappear for days. JP is an elderly ex-military man who had fought in Vietnam. He is a ranked chess player. Cornbread is the rough-and-tumble brother who loudmouths everyone and enjoys provoking JP the alpha male of this group of chess players, who gives lessons for a donation. It is all love. People just have a different way of living it.”
But the difficulty in working in the quiet apartment persisted. So, he volunteered to walk fellow tenants’ dogs by joining a group formed to help people to deal with the solitude. “It was after several conversations with friends and a mental health worker that it finally dawned on me how to rejig my creative process,” he says. “For in these strange times, the silence became a disruptive, loud noise. That was how I started to work again. I started ‘populating’ the apartment with ‘people’. [This was] through seeing them in the lifestyle magazines that a friend sent me…”
Now, Nsofor has started producing art again. He finds himself working simultaneously on different things: writing a poem as well as an essay about his experiences during the residency in Singapore, producing collages on watercolour paper and canvas. “I usually don’t work with a sketch, so the work kind of growing out daily. Its end is a process of erasing, layering and acceptance. I try to work with the most malleable materials from pigments and watercolour to pasting magazine cuttings (chosen sometimes for the subtle colours). It is amazing the number of whites one can see in one magazine. Or, it’s for their colour nuances torn out of clothes, and parts of human bodies placed beside other body parts like a jigsaw puzzle. I am always thinking of motion as a character of living, a liveliness similar to the scene sets of a movie. I also want to integrate subsets to every theme that allows the audience the participation that may wander away from the crowd, thus making the interpretation of the work personal.”
Meanwhile, news filtering in from Nigeria is unsettling. “Through the deafening silence, I can actually hear myself walk through the past, evaluating all those relationships that are disappearing into coloured memory remakes. I anxiously await the news that maybe one of my paintings has been sold and I will get paid. I mainly worry daily about meals. I also worry whether I will remain constant in paying for my son’s upkeep and some other bills. I already told my manager to inform the landlord of my apartment in Abidjan, that all payments for rent will be suspended until further notice.”