Leaving his base in Germany for a two-week visit to Nigeria, artist Jimmy Nwanne never reckoned that a pandemic, which had been in the news since late last year, would eventually lead to a lockdown that would prolong his stay. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
Sure, there is something that sounds odd about being stranded in one’s home country. But then, that exactly is Jimmy Nwanne’s experience. “Yeah, I’m afraid that’s what it is,” the dreadlocks-sporting artist says even as he acknowledges the absurdity of his predicament. “Nigeria is home and it is a good feeling to come spend some time here and connect with people… I came for a two-week break and to hold a few meetings. Unfortunately, my stay is now stretching longer than I’d imagined.”
Talking about the meetings, they did hold. Besides, he was able to hang out with a handful of his close friends and was already looking forward to returning to base in the German town of Kaiserslautern when the news of flight cancellations and the closure of the international airports for a month came like a bolt from the blue. “I had to rush to the airport several times on different days to see if could get a flight before the lockdown, but there wasn’t any. That meant that I would have to wait this out in Lagos, even though I planned to be here for two weeks.”
Since the lockdown began on Monday, March 30, he has been hunkering down in a fellow Germany-based colleague’s pied à terre, located somewhere in the outskirts of Lagos, so to speak, waiting for the metaphorical ill wind to blow over.
Held back in Nigeria against his wishes, he would have wanted to return to his family when he had planned to. But then, what could else he do? “I really miss my family first and foremost,” he discloses. “At this crucial time, I would have loved to be around my kids. I have been able to stay connected with them virtually via WhatsApp video calls.”
Then, there was also this exhibition, which he had initially planned to hold in Kaiserslautern last month. It had, for obvious reasons, been postponed until further notice. “Lately, the gallery has been discussing with me about plans to reschedule the opening to sometime in June 2020 and that requires my being there to help organise things.”
Previously not so well-known among the Lagos aficionados, the Nnamdi Azikiwe University graduate of painting had wormed his way into their consciousness when, in July 2017, he was featured in a six-man exhibition held at the Ikoyi-based Wheatbaker Hotel. The exhibition, titledWanderlust, also had Germany-based artists like Chidi Kwubiri, Emeka Udemba and Junkman from Afrika as well as Germany-linked mixed-race female artists like Numero Unoma and Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko as participants. Supported by Deutsche Bank, Still Earth Holding, the German Consulate in Lagos, ELALAN and Louis Guntrum Wines, it has stretched from its opening date on Monday, July 10 to Friday, September 15, 2017.
No doubt, Nwanne’s participation in Wanderlust did a lot to buoy up his self-confidence as an artist. For him, it was no mean feat being featured on the same platform alongside such internationally-renowned artists as Emeka Udemba and Chidi Kwubiri. Of course, he also owes so much to the SMO Gallery and Arthouse Contemporary Limited with its sister organisation, the Arthouse Foundation, for their recognition, which became the Open Sesame he needed to gain access into the talent-glutted Lagos art scene.
Indeed, Nwanne had not only, previously featured in two other local exhibitions, but also taken part in an Arthouse Foundation’s artist-in-residency programme from September 11 to December 8, 2017, which climaxed with an exhibition in January 2018. Besides, his works had attracted respectable hammer prices at the Arthouse Contemporary Limited’s past auctions held in Lagos.
“It is always a pleasure to get the chance to feature in Nigeria,” he enthuses. “In Igbo, we say ‘A na esi na uno amalu mma aputa ezi’, which roughly translates as: ‘Beauty begins at home’. Whatever I am and can do, it is a pleasure to show it here so that people here can have direct access to or contact with my creativity.”
Obviously, the amiable 31-year-old has come a long way. He had indeed metamorphosed from his childhood years’ fascination for visual artistic expressions, which included watching cartoons and reading comics, to studying at a course in a federal university and finally becoming a fast-rising Nigerian in the diaspora. Deeply moved by the music of Tupac, Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, he was inspired to communicate as they did through his paintings.
Even with his recent forays into the Lagos art scene, the scenic southwestern German city of Kaiserlautern remains home for the Anambra State-born artist. This city of 100,000 inhabitants, which is snugly nestled in the wooded hills of the Palatinate Forest offers him an ideal platform for exposure to a different cultural environment and an enhanced possibility of interaction with people from other parts of the world living outside their countries of origin.
On his schedule back home, he says it is somewhat flexible. His working hours would often stretch throughout the weekdays and spilling into the weekends. “I work at different times of the day,” he explains. “It could be from the sunrise till sundown into the darkest hours of the night. It could even stretch all through the night into the early hours of the next day. However, I still find time to spend with my family and friends.”
In the meantime, it is already more than a month since the first lockdown was announced by the Nigerian government. The longing to reunite with his family back in Germany understandably grows more and more intense.
Of course, he understands the need for travel restrictions. Nonetheless, he expects the government to somehow make some form of concessions for a lot of people in the same predicament as he is. This could be through arranging for a flight to enable them to rejoin their families abroad. It would be no different from the government’s evacuation of Nigerians stranded abroad.
Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent lockdowns announced by several countries had its lessons for mankind. Nwanne sees one of the lessons as the fact that one can never be too equipped for unforeseen challenges. “Our humanity and solidarity are always needed to overcome obstacles,” he adds.
He further buttresses his point with a quotation of a saying of the late former Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie I: “We also know that unity can be and has been attained among men of the most disparate origins, that differences of race, of religion, of culture, of tradition, are no insuperable obstacle to the coming together of peoples. History teaches us that unity is strength.”
Much as he is irked by the fact that he is away from the comfort of his home in Germany, he sympathises with people who, he believes, have found themselves in worse situations because of the pandemic.