SAVED BY THE LAST FLIGHT TO FRANKFURT

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Hours just before the Nigeria and Germany closed their international borders because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany-based Nigerian artist Chidi Kwubiri came within a hair’s breadth of being trapped in his homeland during the lockdown. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

VISUAL ARTS
Never in living memory has Frankfurt am Main Airport looked this empty. And who could have envisaged the now-deserted streets and highways of this Germany’s fifth-largest city? For Chidi Kwubiri, this spooky scene might just as well have been right out of a Sci-Fi movie. “It was such a shock to see how this Germany’s busiest airport has transformed into a ghost town,” he confesses. “The city’s streets were empty and the highways all deserted. This was the same city that was bubbling with life 14 days earlier, just before I jetted out to Nigeria. I was scared to my bones. It felt like I had landed on the wrong planet.”

Perhaps, a scarier scenario would have been finding himself trapped in Nigeria, had he not escaped hours before the lockdown. Yes, the Cologne-based artist had travelled to Nigeria sometime in mid-March to visit his relatives in his hometown, to hold a meeting with a collector and also discuss plans for an upcoming exhibition with a gallery-owner he met in Lagos.

On the planned exhibition, he says: “We couldn’t really finalise, as she was traveling out of the country the next day. The plan was to meet again in about 10 days when she had hoped to return. So, instead of spending the whole time in Lagos, I decided to make a quick trip to the southeast to see my people while waiting for the gallery-owner to come back.”

He had just spent three days in his hometown in the southeastern part of Nigeria when the news of an imminent closure of both Nigeria’s and Germany’s international borders in a matter of hours jolted him into a action. Needless heading back to Lagos under the circumstances. The last Frankfurt-bound Lufthansa flight from Lagos was already overbooked. So, that left the Port Harcourt International Airport as his only option. There, he had managed to board the last Port Harcourt-Abuja-Frankfurt flight. “It was only through God’s grace that I managed to get that flight.”

Thus, the artist came within a hair’s breadth of finding himself trapped in Nigeria during the lockdown. Everything looked so surreal to him as he made his way out of the Frankfurt Am Main Airport. One thing was a certainty to him: his planned projects and exhibitions for the year were either going to be cancelled or postponed. The first to be cancelled was a solo exhibition he had planned to open by the end of this month (May) in Germany’s seventh-largest city, Düsseldorf. And then, there was this art fair that he was nominated to attend: FIABCN (Barcelona Art Fair) in Spain. This too was supposed to open by the end of May but had to be postponed to February 2021.

In any case, artistic activities – like other activities – have currently ground to a virtual halt. The COVID-19 pandemic scare, which has sent most Germans scampering to the safety of their homes, has seen to that. “Over here, people really take this pandemic so seriously that all you have are deserted streets with museums, galleries and theatres, among other public places, locked up,” Kwubiri narrates.

“It’s been like a ghost town here since the past weeks,” he adds. “But fortunately, the city seems to be stirring back to life for a week now.”
On a brighter note, the dreadlocks-sporting artist notes that the pandemic has enriched the local artistic lexicon, albeit modestly. Prior to the pandemic, he had never heard of “drive-through exhibitions”, until he was recently invited to participate in one. “Honestly, I’m not yet convinced that I would want to join this. This is because I can’t really figure out how this is going to work. But, on the other hand, I am seriously considering going for it, albeit just to support the notion that nothing can stop art, artists and the art-loving public. Yeah, not even a stupid, devilish virus. Medical or social conditions cannot lock down creative ambitions.”

This was how what used to be his “normal” typical days in Cologne before the lockdown looked like. He would begin his day with a prayer. If he was already working on a painting, he would brainstorm while having his breakfast on how far he would want to go with the work that day. Subsequently, he would head off to the studio to crystallise his thoughts into action. Sometimes, he would hit his target or even achieve much more. Sometimes, he would find himself stuck in a slow-motion and shrug it all off with the reminder that the sun doesn’t shine bright every day.

So far, the German government has been supportive of its citizenry. “The government has been reassuring the people that it is in control,” Kwubiri says. “So, they need not panic. They have made the necessary arrangements with industries and institutions to make sure there are enough essential commodities for all. That means that there is no need to hoard or loot. Their continual reassurance instilled everybody with hope and a common sense of understanding that the government is fighting for them and in return, law and order were assured.”

Professionals in financial difficulty – this naturally included artists, musicians, engineers, traders, labourers as well as sportsmen and women, among others – were availed of financial support, he continues. The German government also offered one-off grants or quick loans to companies depending on their size or their particular circumstances to stave off a potential economical crisis. “It’s simply amazing, and this is what leadership should be all about,” he says.

“A government is there first and foremost to protect its people and to give the people ‘authentic hope’ in time of war or crisis,” he adds. “This is the feeling the majority of people got here from the German government during this crisis.”

Professionally speaking, the 2002 Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf graduate has paid his dues in the Germany’s art circles. His works elicit positive comments from the local aficionados wherever they are shown in the central European country. “The interest in my works have been evident,” he discloses. “But I have only held a few exhibitions here in years.”

Perhaps, one of the brightest post in his luminous career was his nomination to design the prestigious traditional MISEREOR-Lenten veil for 2017/2018. For the artist, it was a great honour to fly the flag of this well-known, highly-respected German Catholic humanitarian agency as their Art and Goodwill Ambassador for two years. That work then titled “I Am – Because You Are” seems to have in recent times morphed into a second phase of perception, because the motif and technique of that artwork might as well have been a metaphor for the current pandemic-conditioned form of social interaction.
Nonetheless, the artist’s focus seems to have in the past 15 years shifted towards Africa, USA, United Kingdom, India and the Middle East in response to the high demand for his works among their aficionados.

So, what if the pandemic lingers longer than die-hard optimists hope it would? “I pray this comes to an end very soon so that general life could return to normal again,” he says. “But if not, I would try to use this relatively calm period to continue to seek inspiration, to meditate and create the more works in the studio. This will continue as long as I am alive and fit, and am able find the most necessary materials to work. Fortunately, I have several collectors abroad who are already used to ‘remote collection’ via digital images and courier delivery. So, hopefully, I can keep my head above water for a while without public exhibitions. But anyhow, it is very likely, that after the corona crisis and the accelerated usage of digital working practices, the art scene and the art market would enter a new phase of digitalisation. Public ‘big bang’-exhibition openings might be replaced by smaller exclusive shows with invited guests only and mandatory masks for the public gallery hours.
“In any case, we must prevent art from degenerating into a simple commodity through excessive digitalisation of the distribution channels.”

He is particularly concerned about a possible loss of connectedness associated with art exhibitions should distancing and digital art become the new normal for long.
“However, I have always believed that ‘come rain, come shine’. Our world is still going to be vibrant and colourful again when all these come to pass. We have to remain strong and keep moving.”

He fears that the current are detrimental to the thriving of artistic activities. “Art cannot gain under this present condition, because it’s a healthy heart and a healthy pocket that can truly appreciate art,” he argues.

Yet, he sees a few possible positive sides to this bleak scenario. He imagines a general public, hitherto used to taking the artists’ work for granted, now realising how vulnerable the art and cultural business could be. He also believes that they would sorely miss the artists’ contributions to the cultural and intellectual interaction with the society at large.