AT HOME IN ANTWERP AND SURVIVING THE TROUBLED TIMES

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A sudden announcement of a lockdown by the Belgian government to stop the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic disrupts Godfrey Williams-Okorodus planned projects for this year, which include exhibitions in Lagos and Cotonou. Weeks into the lockdown, he discovers new ways of keeping himself busy and productive. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

VISUAL ARTS
Nigeria beckoned. For Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, it was just another one of those trips that had become an annual ritual. “Every year,” he explains. “I am in Africa several times to see my family, friends and collectors, and also arrange workshops as well as continue plans with my collaborators on my proposed plan to build a museum to house my Ifa divination objects collection.”

All was set for this trip. His flight ticket had been bought and his bags, almost packed. Then, on Wednesday, March 18, the Belgian government announced a six-week lockdown and upset his plans. “All my plans were in disarray, I had to call off all the meetings I had arranged in Cotonou and Lagos,” the 1992 University of Benin graduate of fine and applied arts laments.

Well, he hasn’t fared so badly during the six weeks of the lockdown, which has now been extended into the seventh week. At first, he was miffed by the level of paranoia among the people. This expressed itself in the initial panic buying and the inane information shared on many social media platforms.

Just before the lockdown, Williams-Okorodus had sold two paintings to a London-based collector. This collector graciously paid him even before collecting the works, because he had said that he would bring them over to him. Equally helpful was the fact that the Belgian government paid businesses that had to close down for the lockdown.

So, while financial stability was not a problem, it hadn’t been a productive period for him, artistically speaking. “In my gallery cum studio, I had several paintings I was busy with before the lockdown. So, not being able to work on them was torture for me. At home, I have a not-so-big studio space, but it was cluttered since I rarely work there except when I do delicate sculptures, bead paintings or watercolours. The first task was to try to clear up space a bit, which pleased my wife. But then, even though I had brought out several unfinished watercolour paintings so I could complete them, I still didn’t have the mental push to start the creative juices flowing. My wife makes beaded jewellery so we have a large stock of materials in the house. To keep myself occupied I started stringing beads to make necklaces and bracelets.”

Again, because Williams-Okorodus lives in a fairly large house with a garden and pond that needed tending, he had devoted a lot of the past days to clean it up. As luck would have it, there had been several sunny days lately and he made good use of them. “The beadwork is done usually early in the morning, it mentally helps me get my mind away from the constant barrage of pessimism poured out over the coronavirus.”

Still on the lockdown, the artist, who once had a stint with a national newspaper (not THISDAY as a cartoonist and illustrator), commends the Belgian government’s prompt fulfilment of its promise of a monetary relief for businesses affected by the lockdown. But, he thinks the Nigerian government went about it all the wrong way. “That countries like Belgium with a population less than that of Lagos plan a lockdown is because they have enough information and resources to make it work,” he argues.

So, what would he have the Nigerian government do under the circumstances? “This would have been the time to sensitise the populace on the need to make sanitation, both private and public, a priority,” he says. “This is the time when they should look into improving the health sector. Public amenities like pipe-borne water and electricity are still a luxury in our country. The way things are with this coronavirus incidence it’s as if all the other diseases plaguing our society – like malaria, cholera, meningitis, typhoid, Lassa fever and a host of others – have taken the back seat. Locking people in homes without adequate amenities to make them mentally and physically healthy is not the solution. Most Nigerians are daily earners, which barely meet their survival needs. So a day without income is a day without food. How are they supposed to cope? Those of us in the diaspora are the main sources of income for our families. I am stretched thin with the barrage of requests I get daily for monetary assistance from my family, friends and even people I barely know.”

Weeks into the lockdown, the artist who relocated to the Belgian town, Antwerp in 2002 suddenly that besides his gallery and studio practice, there isn’t much he is missing out there. “I am also a collector of ethnic arts and with the lockdown, I was able to make some purchases in an auction, I have all the objects with me and I spend several happy hours looking at them and cleaning them.”
Antwerp, a normally scantily-populated small city by Nigerian standards, has predictably turned into a ghost town during the lockdown. The few people still out on the streets are compelled to wear face masks and rubber gloves. And the police are strictly enforcing the maintenance of the prescribed social distance among those they find on the streets.
“I go to the gallery once a week for some hours and I also use the opportunity to stock up on essential foodstuffs from the African shops,” he says. “Shops that sell food were allowed to stay open.”

Normally, his gallery – which is known as Labalaba – would open between 2 pm and 6 pm from Wednesdays to Sundays while the artist preferred to stay at home on Monday and Tuesday. “I am not a very social person. I prefer my own company and that of my very close friends. We also do a lot of travelling when time and budget permits.”

For now, these trips have to be put on hold. This is even when he affirms that he is constantly mentally “working” on his art. “I have several plans for new works and I am still busy with sourcing venues for exhibitions I intend to hold in Cotonou and Lagos, which with all the disarray caused by the lockdowns will be shifted to next year.”

On the brighter side, the restrictions in Belgium seem to be beginning to ease off, as more people are beginning to come out in the streets and more shops reopening. “But, if the lockdown continues, I have a lot of work that needed finishing so I am sure my time would have been well occupied.”