With his hopes of participating in a couple of exhibitions suddenly dashed because of a government-imposed lockdown, Germany-based Nigerian artist Emeka Udemba is seeking new ways of adjusting to life while the pandemic lasts. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
This should be over in a few weeks. Obviously, Emeka Udemba – like many people – had underestimated the Coronavirus – a. k. a. COVID-19. This was despite the fact that the pandemic had already begun to stir up global concern. The palpable fear of the virus that clung to the air that Friday, March 13 soon after his return with his family to Germany, after a visit to Nigeria, should have warned him. But no. Rather, he was certain that things would soon afterwards return to normal. And, “normal” – for him and for so many others – meant nothing more than things continuing in the same old way as they had for centuries and even for millennia. Indeed, hasn’t the history of mankind always been littered with natural and man-made disasters? So, this too shall go the way of others, he had reasoned.
On the contrary, the pandemic hasn’t yet gone away. Nor has life returned to what he calls “normal”. Rather, the southwestern German city of Freiburg – where he resides with his German-born wife and daughter – joined most cities in the country and in the world to impose a cocktail of safety measures, which included social distancing, to contain the spread of the virus. Life in this pleasant city of approximately 230, 000 inhabitants seemed all of a sudden to have come under Orwellian scrutiny.
Now, this is a city that, under normal circumstances, plumes itself on its multicultural population as well as on its many public and private specialised cultural institutions ranging from the historical to the contemporary. Its artist-run spaces, which exist alongside these institutions, further lends the city its mystique of “unselfconsciousness” and a reputation for experimentation. Then, there is, of course, the additional fact that this city straddling the Dreisam river at the foot of Schlossberg leverages on its proximity to the Swiss city of the border town of Basel, one of the host cities of the annual Art Basel.
“The consequence is that we live presently in a historic time when all the facets of our
lives seem to be fundamentally put under scrutiny,” the 52-year-old University of Lagos graduate muses. “Suddenly, we are confronted with how fragile and uncertain human existence could be, regardless of society’s industrial and technological advancements.”
He was billed to participate in a couple of exhibitions. One was scheduled to hold in April in Freiburg and the other was to hold in May at the 1-54 New York, a contemporary African art fair. While the Freiburg exhibition was cancelled, the 1-54 New York has now been postponed until May next year. “Consequently, I am creatively self-isolating most of the time in my studio,” Udemba says with a hint of humour.
Expectedly, the pandemic has taken its toll in his studio practice and in his personal life. But, he would rather see the silver lining in this ominous cloud. This period, in his opinion, should be the time for the right self-assessment and forbearance. This should also be the time to understand the sufferings and weaknesses of one’s neighbour.
He also quotes the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as once saying in an interview that “ it is dangerous for a person if he simply rushes from goal to goal and goes through with praise everywhere. It is better that he recognises his own limits.”
“With this in mind, this lockdown is not just a time of production in my studio, but a time of deep reflection on various issues that have been laid bare,” he resumes. “A tiny virus has made us realise that irrespective of our sophistication in all spheres of life, we can control many things, but by far not everything. The inequalities in our society have also been laid bare. The privileged in society have no difficulty self-isolating. But the poor, who must go to work to earn a living, are confronted with the stark choice between imminent hunger if they do not go out to work or going to work and possibly getting infected. Globalisation is receiving a backlash. An event in one part of the world can easily affect the rest of the world. The flow of people across borders have either plummeted or stopped entirely…”
Work, for him, never stopped. With his sights set on new projects, he muses about how he and his fellow artists would remain physically connected to the rest of the art community, especially now that the galleries and museums still remain closed. So far, he had conceived the idea of making postcards, which he hopes to produce with images from some of the paintings he had produced during the lockdown.
“I will send these postcards to all homes in Freiburg,” he says. “I hope to replicate this project in Lagos. The idea is to spread hope, show solidarity and share something beautiful and cheerful with people in our communities in this uncertain and difficult time. We are all together!”
Indeed, he might not have produced works about the lockdown. But, the lockdown gave the inspiration for a new project. This reechoes the following statement credited to Pablo Picasso after the liberation of France during the World War II: “I didn’t paint the war, but there’s no doubt the war was in my pictures.”
Udemba’s works, in any case, tend to reflect his status as a person of colour living and working both in Nigeria and in the diaspora. These works have always swirled around issues that evoke streams of consciousness bordering on identity, stereotypes, clichés, inequalities and solidarity. “This lockdown has further sharpened my sensibilities on these issues and they flow undoubtedly into the works and projects which I am currently developing. Essentially, in times of social trauma, it is to the beauty that we turn to. We listen to music, tell stories, read and look at images.”
Looking back to the pre-COVID-19 period, he discerns a more or less carefree lifestyle of physical connection and mobility in the art world. “Today, like many artists, I am trying to find ways to explore ways of remaining connected with the creative community. The digital space and its platforms are offering an interesting platform to remain engaged. Like in other sectors of the economy, cash flow is also down. Lots of income is no longer forthcoming due to stalled commissions, art fairs and related activities. To all art supporters and patrons out there, now is the time when you could make a real difference by supporting artists and cultural institutions.”
The German government indeed has support programmes for cultural institutions just as it has for other sectors of the economy. That means that these institutions can apply for subventions to pay their staff to avoid layoffs. The possibility of applying for a subvention to help pay the cost of the studio rent also exists for independent artists like Udemba. But, the trouble is the bureaucratic paperwork, which makes getting some of these subventions very cumbersome.
Now coming to terms with the fact that the pandemic could linger longer than expected, Udemba is pivoting his attitude towards a new normal. In adapting to this new normal, he already sees a realm of creativity and opportunities.