Friday, September 30, 2005

Chasing Asiru Olatunde's Dreams

Chasing Asiru Olatunde’s Dreams
By Molara Wood

Crossing from the Ritz Hotel side of London’s Piccadilly into Albermarle Street, I arrive at the John Martin Gallery, venue of an exhibition of artworks by Asiru Olatunde, the old man of Osogbo Art.

I step into the sumptuous indigo space of the gallery, where walls are lined with ‘adire’ tie-and-dye fabrics. This is the background for copper and aluminium panels made by Olatunde, who died in 1992.

The Yoruba world rendered on the panels, though familiar, carries more than its fair share of mystery. It is my first time coming face to face with Asiru Olatunde’s pieces, and to have such a sizeable collection of his work on first viewing, is something of a blessing. Fortunately, the man who organised the exhibition, John Martin, is on hand to guide me through the works on display. Owner of two galleries and a specialist in British and Irish painting, Martin is an unlikely enthusiast for any kind of art from Africa, much less the works of a former blacksmith from Osogbo, the ancient Yoruba town on the Osun River.

Martin admits that this exhibition is something of a departure from his usual line; rather, it has come about purely because of his "private passion" for Asiru Olatunde’s art. The passion was sparked about five years ago, by his purchase of an artwork originally belonging to Ulli Beier. Much of Olatunde’s work went untitled by the artist himself, so that collectors have had to name many pieces. And so Martin’s first acquisition - three beaten aluminium panes joined up into a lyrical, rectangular whole - is now known as: ‘The Garden of Eden and the Expulsion From Paradise.’

Titles are therefore self-explanatory, and the Edenic trio shows God, the angels, Adam and Eve - all with African features. The clear mix of Christian religious symbols with elements of Yoruba mythology, for me, is crucial - and adds to the unexpectedness of the work. The snake tempting Eve with the apple, has a human head atop a long, riverine form. I inform Martin that this echoes the mythical snake thus described, in the classic, Igbo Olodumare, by D.O Fagunwa, the foremost novelist in the Yoruba language. It is Martin’s first time of hearing about Fagunwa, and he quickly notes down details of both author and book.

Martin has read Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, however, and marvels at the free-flowing narrative. An excerpt from the novel, accompanies an image of a panel, ‘Palm Wine Drinkers’, in the exhibition catalogue. Palm-wine references are plentiful, in the profusion of images on many panels. Hunters are present, with their distinctive clothing and floppy caps; animals - known and unknown species - abound in lush forested scenes; as are birds and insects which sometimes resemble one another, to the point that the viewer can never tell an owl from a locust. To see Asiru Olatunde’s art, is to peep into the magically real world of the Yoruba.

All manners of creatures jostle with humans for every available aluminium repousse space, as part of a wondrous cascade in ‘Land of Plenty’. It is one of many pieces loaned to the show by an English collector who worked as an architect in Nigeria for many years. He suggested the displaying of works on adire background, and made fabrics available for John Martin’s use. More adire linings came from Iwalewa Haus, at the Centre for African Studies established by Ulli Beier, in the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Iwalewa Haus also loaned five substantial Olatunde artworks to the exhibition.

Now living in Australia, Beier helped plan the show, and wrote the introduction to the exhibition catalogue. He recounts meeting Olatunde for the first time, on moving to Osogbo in 1958. The late artist was one of the craftsmen in a blacksmith’s workshop opposite Beier’s house. "When an important man walked past… they would use their anvils like talking drums to recite his ‘oriki’ (praise names / poetry) and the person so honoured would reward them with a few coins." But Asiru Olatunde was in decline. Ill from heart disease, he could no longer do the strenuous work required of a blacksmith.

Things changed when, three years after their meeting, Ulli Beier found a beautifully crafted copper brooch in the sand outside his house. It had been made by Olatunde, then 42-years-old. And so began the art-life of the blacksmith who - Martin tell me - was slightly apart from the other artists in the Osogbo Movement, as he was older than them. With Beier’s encouragement, Olatunde started making copper earrings for sale - moving gradually to larger, pieces.

The exhibition spans the whole of the artist’s career, from the early beaten copper panels to the later, more expressive, aluminium ones. "He had these beautiful, natural sense of design," Martin says of Olatunde. My attention is drawn to the textured background to one copper repousse, Olatunde’s way of "filling the space," I’m told. Though not from a drumming family, the late artist played the talking drum every four days at the shrine of Obatala in Osogbo. ’The Temple of Obatala‘, a work made circa 1985, is on display. I see the logic in a sculpting artist feeling some devotion to Obatala, who the Yorubas believe, moulded the first human beings. And Martin observes that, perhaps because of Olatunde’s skill with the talking drum, "There is a kind of rhythm in all his work."

Though he was a Moslem, biblical stories were a recurrent theme in the work of Olatunde, who was regularly commissioned by churches. The acceptance of many religions is not anathema to the Yoruba, and this reflects in Olatunde’s work. Osogbo and its sacred river and goddess - seep strongly into the work. ‘The Osun River Festival’ (c.1969) - a large aluminium panel - has features that are instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever been to the Osun Grove, recently declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Images of Osun shrine structures, including the ‘Aafin Akoko’ (the First Palace) are among the few dwelling-type shapes on the exhibited panels. I inform Martin that the annual Osun Festival (which takes place in the month of August) is virtually upon us.

Copper panels are warm and sensuous; aluminium ones catch the light and radiate the magic of departed and living worlds. John Martin has picked on the dreamlike quality of the images. Adding the metalwork term ‘chasing’, he came up with the exhibition title: ‘Asiru Olatunde - Chasing Dreams’.

The gallery owner now has many Asiru Olatunde pieces in his own private collection, but his first, showing the expulsion from paradise, remains special. "I live with it," Martin tells me, "every time I look at it, I see something new." He declares: "I’ll never part with it."

By the time I walk out of the gallery, I feel like I too, have been chasing dreams.

  • Part of Africa 05, Asiru Olatunde: Chasing Dreams, was at the John Martin Gallery, London, from 30 June to 30 July.

    Published in The Guardian, Lagos, 7 August 2005.

Uzo Egonu's Vision of London

Uzo Egonu's Vision of London
By Molara Wood

By the time of his death in 1996, the Onitsha-born artist, Uzo Egonu, had lived in London for 50 years. This long association proved to be an important one for both the artist and the city, and London was to emerge as a major presence in Egonu's works. Throughout a successful international career, he helped capture the many faces of London as seen through his unique artistic eye. And now, the city returns the compliment with the first major exhibition since his death, Uzo Egonu’s London. Currently on show at the Museum of London, the exhibition celebrates the artist's bold vision of his adopted city.

The Museum of London is located right in the heart of the city and provides the perfect setting for exhibiting an artist whose work draws an imaginative map of the city. Coming out of the Museum and heading towards one of the nearby tube stations, the historic St Paul’s Cathedral is prominent in the skyline, overlooking Greater London as it has done for centuries. From there, it is possible to embark on the ‘Egonu walk’ of London; a location map of the city as visualised by the artist accompanies the exhibition.

St Paul’s Cathedral, painted by the artist in 1965, was the first in a series of famous London landmarks given the Egonu treatment during the sixties. Westminster Abbey (1966) and Tower Bridge (1969) were to follow. His painting of Trafalgar Square (1968) shows the hallmarks of the world-famous site: the lion statues, fountains, and South Africa House. The piece also shows pigeons, once synonymous with the square, but now banished from the site by current Mayor Ken Livingstone.

The works are rendered in fresh, bold colours, blending representation and abstraction, caricature and photo-realism; incorporating varied traditions including cubism, Nigerian ornamentation and the contemporary British pop-art of the artist's time.

Uzo Egonu’s study of Piccadilly Circus, painted in 1966, combines of all these elements and marked the beginning of the style of painting for which the artist has become famous. Like others in the ‘landmark’ series, Piccadilly Circus symbolises both the spiritual and commercial aspects of London with pathos and humour. The statue of Eros which stands high above the busy Piccadilly Circus traffic, is shown in the cubist style, and represents the hub around which all else in the vicinity spins. Brand names, a red double-decker bus, advertising slogans and buildings - all revolve around Eros in a three-hue harmony of white, blue and red.

As displayed in the Museum of London exhibition, the landmark paintings show the sacred and profane aspects of the city in kaleidoscopic patterning, combining the symbolic and the playful. The European modernist elements of the series, with their bird’s eye view over London and the circular compositions, are in fact characteristic of Igbo artistic traditions. Egonu’s work merged European and Igbo traditions but more significantly, placed Africa as the touchstone of modernism. In combining the visual languages of Western and African art, he helped redefine the boundaries of modernism, thereby challenging the European myth of the naïve, primitive African artist.

Described as a master of metaphor, Egonu was a child prodigy whose artistic talent was spotted early by his father, who sent him to England at the age of thirteen in 1945. The early separation from his parents and homeland left the artist with a deep nostalgia for the land, the people and its folklore. A picture, taken in Egonu’s West Hampstead studio in 1964, shows him surrounded by works depicting images of his lost homeland.

The condition of exile, alienation and the pain of displaced peoples would be a recurrent theme throughout Egonu’s career. His exploration of these themes was often overarching and universal, encompassing not only physical or geographical displacement, but societal displacement as well. Two works from 1988, Tears of Sorrow and Strangers in Their Own Land, can be seen in the exhibition and explore the human condition not just in relation to immigrants, but native Londoners as well. They are regarded as studies in social exclusion - a real experience for many who live in the urban setting but are alienated from it for reasons outside their control.

The impact of the Biafran War on Egonu also came through in his work. Exodus (1970) explored the consequences of global conflict, and reflected the artist’s agony over events in Nigeria. The exodus continues apace today and is evident in London's multi-cultural mix. The isolation of the dispossessed, whether as a result of migration or social exclusion, is also the subject of a series of screenprints including Lone Eater, on display in the exhibition. They are studies of Londoners relaxing in their own space, often depicted as lonely, alienated people. Among these, the award-winning A Cup of Coffee in Solitude, is one of Egonu’s most famous prints. It was adopted by the Charity Oxfam as the promotional image for its Art for a Fairer World Initiative.

Uzo Egonu studied at the Camberwell School of Fine Arts and Crafts, and St Martin’s School of Art in the 1950’s. Later, in 1970, he attended the Working Men’s College in London’s Camden Town to update his printmaking techniques. The Working Men’s College, as a community of artists, placed much importance on debating the social issues of the day, a concern that also reflected in Egonu’s work. He engaged with the burdens of urban living in Addictions, a series of lithographs exploring gambling, drug abuse, smoking and binge-eating. Three pieces from the series form part of Uzo Egonu’s London.

Another lithograph, Traffic, predicted the gridlocked London of the future, a crisis that has seen congestion charges instituted to discourage cars coming into the centre of the city during the day.

With failing health and encroaching blindness in the 1980s, Uzo Egonu compensated for his dimmed sight with an even bolder use of colour. His Landcape paintings from this period represent an almost surreal vision shot through with hidden meanings. He also took on celebratory, epic themes, with pieces like Record Breakers (1993), commenting on British technological advancement in transport.

Whether focussing on its landmarks, people or issues, Uzo Egonu gave visual life to London in all its hope, decline, and grandeur. For this, he is remembered as an artist who helped reinterpret the city as a truly international centre, capturing its true essence whilst giving it an African flavour.

Egonu’s work is on display in public collections all over the world. The International Association of Art admitted him into the league of life counsellors in 1983; an honour that placed him in the same league as Western artists like John Miro and Pablo Picasso.

Curated by Susan Okokon, Uzo Egonu’s London opened on September 23 as part of ongoing black history events at the Museum of London. The exhibition is on display until January 9.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Sky High Flames - a new novel by Unoma Azuah

I am really excited about a new book - Sky High Flames - by Unoma Azuah, a Nigerian writer based in the US. Brought to you by Publish America, Sky High Flames is Azuah's debut novel and is available from Amazon.Com. You can read some of Unoma's poems online. She is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Songs (Oracle Books, Lagos, Nigeria, 2001).

So here's wishing Unoma sky high success with Sky High Flames!

The Lost Seed

Mournful, the moon lights
hallowed paths of pilgrims.
They leave their lands to trek
the trail of gold.

Wistful, the wind fans
sand onto faltering feet.
They drag north of the Sahara,
lured by a pitiless mirage.

Somber, the stars blink feebly
down on Africa's seed flailing
in torrents that lash
with liquid fury, drowning dreams.

Weary, a tree broods at the root,
clutching at its hollowed womb
its seed driven in gales to seek
faraway lands.

Mournful is the moon
wistful is the wind
somber are the stars.

Few of the seed will return.
The mother tree weeps.

Molara Wood

Archive: London Log - Falling & Falling

My log of the momentous week in November 2003 during which, amongst other things, the Dubya roadshow came to London

London Log: Falling and Falling
Molara Wood

American icon
Saturday November 22 was exactly 40 years since American President John F Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas. The killing brought the curtain down on the age of Camelot and was the first of four assassinations (others being Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) that shaped the turbulent sixties in America.

Fortress London
JFK’s slaying created in American minds a paranoia that resulted in the obsessive closeting of the persons of US Presidents. That paranoia, coupled with the depth of anti-Bush feeling in Britain, led to a suffocating fortress atmosphere in London in the week beginning November 17. George W Bush was due in town on the first full state visit by an American President since Woodrow Wilson in 1918. The huge security operation cost some £5.5m, a no-fly zone was in place over central London, and 14,000 policemen were on stand-by. A concrete barrier was placed around key central London locations, most of which were cordoned off to keep people at bay.

War and no peace
Bush and his wife, Laura, were to be guests of the Queen in Buckingham Palace. The most unpopular American President in living memory looked forward to hob-nobbing with the Queen, with the attendant monarchist pageantry - and he wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder once more with his fellow Iraq war-monger, British Premier Tony Blair. The visit would give Bush plenty of triumphalist images to beam to his people on the television networks back home. He hopes such images will help boost his chances in next year’s Presidential elections because, as one Pentagon insider put it, “Americans don’t know shit”, but they know the Queen and Tony Blair. The visit would also allow the belligerent Bush to drive home his message of war and even more war for an increasingly elusive peace. Quite what Tony Blair stood to gain from hosting Bush was not altogether clear.

I’ll be back
The enduring mystique of JFK was on display on Monday 17th. Austrian immigrant and epitome of the American dream, Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn in as Governor of the US state of California. He became a global megastar through a blockbuster film career marked by its complete lack of soul. His films are shoot ‘em up affairs with huge body counts; he cannot act and can barely speak. His signature line in the hugely successful Terminator films is “I’ll be back”. And in California, the cinematic promise was fulfilled. The Schwarzenegger election train was unstoppable in spite of claims he was a Nazi sympathiser who admired Hitler, and a serial groper of women. He had going for him a huge fortune, the power of celebrity and a wife who is one of the Kennedys.

The Kennedys are Democrats and JFK’s widow, Jackie Onassis, had not cared much for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s right-wing politics. But with JFK’s niece by his side, he coasted to victory on the platform of Bush’s Republican Party. The youngest of the new Governor’s four children looked dead bored as his father gave his inaugural address, and I don’t blame the boy. Schwarzenegger was an oratorical corpse, and words which were meant to inspire fell to earth as soon as they issued from his lips. The moral of the story? The Kennedy magic can get you there but then you will have to speak for yourself.

Toxic Texan
Here in London, as Buckingham Palace and No.10 Downing Street prepared for George W Bush, so did the Stop-the-War Coalition who were organising huge rallies to protest against his presence. He was to be moved around London in a security bubble, including a £2m Cadillac with doors 6 inches thick. Over 250 fully armed US secret service agents had arrived ahead of the President and wanted shoot-to-kill powers. The British government did not dare grant such. We held our breaths and waited.

Tuesday 18th was the day of one thousand sirens in London. Police vans formed a vehicular wall outside Victoria Station, the air was oppressive. London Mayor Ken Livingstone opposed the visit, calling Bush the “greatest threat to life on this planet”. He said the American President’s policies would “doom us all into extinction”. Speakers at a televised Stop-the-War meeting that evening included the playwright Harold Pinter and the Vietnam war veteran turned peace activist, Ron Kovic. Then the Bush wagon rolled in with the President’s arrival on Air Force One. Even as I settled into bed that night the police sirens could still be heard from the road. It was going to be a long week.

What the footman saw
Wednesday 19th, and a tabloid newspaper, Daily Mirror, published photos of never before seen parts of Buckingham Palace - taken by a reporter who conned his way into a two month job as a footman. Style gurus had a field day with the photos, ridiculing the royals’ taste in furnishings. So when the Queen got an injunction preventing the paper making further revelations, observers said she acted more out of wounded vanity than genuine security concerns. She held a state banquet that night in honour of the President. Condoleeza Rice looked lovely in a burgundy evening gown. Ms Rice is 48 years old, single and doesn’t date, her parents are dead and her friends have moved away. It is said that she eats takeaways alone in her Washington apartment. Not such an enviable life afterall.

Saved by the girl
Prince Charles was seated next to Mrs Bush at the banquet. The week before he had been in danger of being buried under an avalanche of rumours of homosexuality. The lurid details had been published in Australia and other parts of Europe but we in Britain were prevented from knowing the facts by an injunction gagging the press. Still the secrets threatened to spill out any minute, but then a daughter was born in dramatic circumstances to Charles’ brother, Prince Edward. The press latched onto the birth of a new royal princess, leaving Charles alone. So, saved by the girl, he sat down at the state banquet, relieved.

Falling, Saddam style
Over 100,000 protesters descended on London on Thursday 20th in the biggest weekday march ever seen in Britain. The highlight was the pulling down of a giant papier-mache statue of George W Bush in Trafalgar Square. Gleeful protesters jumped all over the fallen statue, in a symbolic re-enactment of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s homage to himself in Baghdad during the Iraq war. In Istanbul, Turkey, terrorists sent Bush and Blair a more deadly message, with two bombs on UK interests - the British Consulate and the HSBC Bank. Altogether there were four bombings in Istanbul in under a week, killing more than 50 people - including the British Consul General. With the terrible news from Turkey, Bush and Blair were grim-faced as they posed for the press outside 10 Downing Street. The protesters saw to it that when Bush left No.10, it was through the back exit.

It was a week of great falls. That same Thursday the legendary record producer, Phil Spector, who once steered the careers of The Beatles and The Ronettes, was charged with murder. The victim, Lana Clarkson, had been found dead in his Hollywood home in February - shot in the face with Spector’s gun. He claimed she had shot herself, prosecutors beg to differ. Earlier in the week, the media mogul, Conrad Black, had also taken a tumble in the boardroom - forced out for questionable financial dealings.

Man in the mirror
The other news of the 20th (one which knocked Bush off the No.1 spot on US news networks) was the arrest and handcuffing of Michael Jackson on child sex abuse charges. There can be no greater height from which a man could fall. Sky News followed images of the arrest with clips of the Billie Jean video, reminding us of the musical genius that was Jackson. The searing brilliance of the young black man who danced as though propelled by meteors was hard to reconcile with the pathetic phantom whose whiter-than-white face was captured in the mugshot photo released by police.

Velvet or Damask?
In the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, a people’s uprising - a Velvet Revolution - led to the fall of strongman Eduard Shevardnadze. There was no violence, not a single shot fired. The opposition leader declared himself proud, and so was I. My thoughts turned to Nigeria. Could it happen in our country, could the people rise up as one to triumph over a corrupt government? Without wishing to be labelled a “pessimist” by our President, I would have to say no. A Velvet Revolution - or a Damask one for that matter - cannot take place in Nigeria in this generation. But I would love to be proved wrong.

A grave new world
Bush took his leave on Friday 21st and London breathed again. On Saturday 22nd, the media remembered the abbreviated life of John F Kennedy, re-examining the legacy of the man for whom an eternal flame burns in Arlington Cemetery. Four decades of historical revisionism have not diminished the perception that the dynamic JFK inspired and led his people by natural force. I wonder what will be George W Bush’s legacy, what will be said of him in 40 years’ time? 185 US soldiers have died since he declared the Iraq war over. Thousands of Iraqis have had their lives taken from them, no one bothers to count them anymore. And who knows where the next bomb will hit? It is a grave new world, that has George W Bush as the most powerful man in it.

  • Published on Nigeria2Day Online, December 1, 2003

Archive: Goodbye to All That

A kind of 'goodbye' to the year 2003 - in which I run through some of what constituted that year in the news.

Goodbye to All That
By Molara Wood
Goodbye 2003, year of the 419 elections, during which EU observers reportedly witnessed and obtained evidence of widespread election fraud in many states. The “winners” claimed the moral high ground nonetheless. At his inauguration, Obasanjo declared himself a brand new president. Pity then, that in almost every sphere of life in Nigeria, it was pretty much same old, same old - with extra sting.

Our brand new president had a brand new approach to the country’s problems - solving sticky situations everywhere else. Obasanjo left the house fires burning to put out flames elsewhere. He took his African Big-Brotherism to Sao Tome and Principe and, thanks to his intervention in Liberia, Charles Taylor now sits uneasily in faux colonial splendour in Calabar. Millions and millions of dollars spent on COJA and CHOGM while the average Joe could not find enough naira notes to rub together. Goodbye to all that.

Goodbye to the fuel strike which along with the word Deregulation, made 2003 seem like an ever recurring day - like the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day. And the more we resisted deregulation, the more OO hammered us over the head with it, readjusting fuel prices without warning, consultation or announcement. The president got his comeuppance in a very public spat with Professor Wole Soyinka in which the national treasure gave the Otta farmer a sound ticking off: “OO, you simply do not know me! You lack the depth to ever fathom who I am!” It was fabulous!

It was a year of make-believe. Michael Moore stood at the Oscar ceremony just before the Iraq war and declared that these are fictitious times. He said fictitious election results in the US had produced a fictitious president who was taking the American nation to war “for fictitious reasons”. Moore was booed but had the last laugh, as he was proved right. WMDs were the great fiction of the year, thousands were killed when George W Bush unleashed Operation Shock and Awe. But try as he might, WMDs could not be made real. In keeping with the fictitious theme, the Iraqi Information Minister, Comical Ali, displayed a pathological sense of unreality. “Those invaders, their tombs will be here in Iraq”, he said, even as Baghdad was falling. Comical Ali was a WMD in himself, the most important propaganda tool for the US-led coalition. After the war, he re-emerged as an inoffensive Uncle-type with white hair. You couldn’t make it up.

When the American RnB band, Color Me Badd, sang “I Wanna Sex You Up” in the early 90s, they had grannies and toddlers singing along all over the world to the catchy tune, in effect uttering the word ‘sex’ without apology or embarrassment. The BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan went one better in 2003, alleging that the British government had “sexed up” the so-called dodgy dossier which made a case for the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. In the controversy that followed, The Man Died. The man being scientist David Kelly who, exposed to the glare of the whole world as the source of Gilligan’s story, took his own life. In the Hutton Inquiry into events leading to Kelly’s death, major UK government figures right up to Premier Tony Blair appeared, each denying responsibility. They gave the impression they’d been listening to the Shaggy song, “It Wasn’t Me”.

Asked about Tony Blair’s religious beliefs by American journalists, the former spin-doctor, Alistair Campbell said: “We don’t do God. I am sorry. We don’t do God”. Nigerian politicians do God to the extent that, if He above had a lawyer, he would sue. Adolphus Wabara rose from murky electoral waters to become Senate President - and said it was God’s will. OBJ made an art out of keeping silent on pressing national issues. Why talk to man, when you have a hotline to God. Then in a classic case of kettle calling the pot black, the president had the gall to lecture church leaders about corruption. True, many of Nigeria’s church leaders need a talking to, but to be lectured by OBJ, well, that took the biscuit.

My villain of 2003 was the Mad Max of Anambra, Chris Uba. He did and undid, perpetrating every atrocity imaginable upon the person of Governor Chris Ngige - and got away with it. The saga rolled on, gathering other side-shows along the way. The Holy Ghost even came to play, invoked by Josephine Anenih. Not that Uba cared. Who needs God, when you’ve got Aso Rock looking the other way.

Lacking a demented character like Chris Uba, the Ladoja/Adedibu situation was never going to get as ugly as Anambra. It was Curses, Shock Absorbers and Videotape as The Godfather met The Village Headmaster in Oyo State. Chief Lamidi Adedibu, the Godfather of Molete, exponent of so-called amala politics, called Governor Ladoja “an ingrate” who’d given all the plum positions to his kinsmen and mistresses. “Yes, we are fighting”, the old man said. It was hilarious, like a scene in a Lere Paimo play.

Goodbye to the great irony of 2003, which saw justice denied to the Justice Minister, sending his wife to her grave, dead from a broken heart. Oba Adeyinka Oyekan exited and Oba Rilwan Akiolu ascended the throne of Lagos with much pageantry in a display of aweful majesty - reminding us of the glory of our culture. Professor Akinwunmi Isola was my most beautifully dressed man of the year, attending Akiolu’s coronation wearing traditional etu. Chuba Okadigbo started the year as Buhari’s running mate in the April polls. By September he was dead, days after being tear-gassed at a Kano rally. Some said Okadigbo was a great man, others called him a tarnished politician. I simply mourned the passing of a figure who was perfectly leonine.

And so to the great exits of 2003: folk hero extraordinaire, Gbenga Adeboye - the good die young; the indomitable lion who fell in line of duty, Marc Vivien-Foe; the quintessential matinee idol and good guy, Gregory Peck; the Walrus of Lurve, Barry White. Katharine Hepburn also went, finally. Dorothy Parker had once dismissed a theatre performance by Hepburn with the words: “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”. Hepburn rose above it and went on to win a record four acting oscars. Robert Palmer, whose 80s video of “Addicted to Love” spawned a thousand imitations, went to the great cooldom in the sky. Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees also departed. He and his brothers provided the falsettos for the soundtrack to John Travolta’s iconic role in Saturday Night Fever - making it the most unforgettable dance movie ever. Jazz and blues singer Nina Simone also took her last bow, as did the blood-thirty despot, Idi Amin.

In keeping with the theme of make-believe, President Bush made a trip to Africa with Nigeria as the last stop. He didn’t want to see real Africans so they were kept away. He got a taste of his own medicine in the UK where thousands shouted loud and clear that they didn’t want to see him either. The Queen came to Nigeria and, so as not to offend her royal sensibility, she only saw make-believe Nigerians - actors - in a make-believe village. Goodbye to all that.

December, and we saw the hole at the end of Saddam Hussein’s world. I had often wondered about the lair of the fox, not even my imagination could stretch as far as the cubby hole. Saddam’s statue that was pulled down during the war proved to be a talisman, and the real thing was captured, disoriented, feeling for his beard as one feels for a comfort blanket. One does not feel sorry for Saddam. It is in the nature of tyrannies to fall, the saying goes - let all the tyrants of Africa take note - the day of the people shall come like a thief in the night. The sad thing is that in Iraq, the tyranny merely fell to an even greater tyranny - the neo-colonialism of America’s neo-conservatives.

A survey in 2003 found that Nigerians were the happiest people in the world, and Nigerians said: “What?” Our president berated us for being pessimists and, before the year was over, Robert Mugabe had cottoned on to the idea - telling Zimbabweans to be happy. A UK newspaper offered contestants on British Big Brother £50,000 to have sex on TV - none of them did. In Big Brother Africa, two of the housemates went all the way - for free.

It was the year of the political marriage - Aishat and Basheer, Jemila and Atiku. Jemila started the year as Jennifer, determined to be a WMD to Titi Abubakar. The current issue of Ovation shows Jemila sitting next to her fairy-godmother and fellow Titi hater, Stella Obasanjo. Faced with a blatant challenge by a woman young enough to be her daughter, Titi Abubakar dusted herself down and soldiered on. And by the end of the year, the wind had gone from Jemila’s sail somewhat. I am not a fan of Nigeria’s many first ladies as they are part of what is wrong with our society. But Titi Abubakar wins my vote as the political wife of 2003. It can’t be easy keeping your head high when your husband’s wifelets are running amok calling themselves “Her Excellency”.

2003 was a mad year. Ritual killings reached epidemic proportions in Nigeria. The worldwide Anglican Church tore itself apart over a gay bishop, and Britain’s Prince Charles publicly denied an allegation that could not be spoken. A little-known singer, Gary Jules, beat all the over-hyped pop acts to claim the much-coveted Christmas no.1 on the UK singles chart. Jules pulled it off with the reflective song “Mad World”. A fitting indictment of the world in 2003.

  • Originally published on Nigeria2Day Online.

Archive: On Big Brother Africa... and the UK One

Here's another dated piece of mine. Basically, my thoughts on Big Brother Africa - as seen on Nigerian TV in 2003 - yeah, that long ago! I also talk some of the UK editions of show.

By Molara Wood

I have just returned to London after a brief spell in Nigeria to discover that some bloke called Cameron won the fourth series of Big Brother UK. Although BBUK was in full swing long before I departed London, I did not even know who Cameron was. Such was my complete lack of interest in the show, all the more surprising because I was an almost obsessive follower of the three previous series and knew every detail about every housemate.

I would watch daily highlights and reviews on UK's terrestrial Channel 4; live and interactive feeds on satellite TV; participate on the message boards of fan websites; and engage in endless discussions with colleagues at work about the programme. I would suffer withdrawal symptoms at the end of each series, saying: what do I do with myself now? And there would always be a Smart Alec nearby, telling me to get a life. I make no apologies for my BB addiction. I recognised the show for what it was, low-brow drivel, but loved it all the same - no tragedy therefore.

So this was the summer during which I finally got a life, or so I thought. I found I never got into the fourth series of BBUK; not even when Gaetano came briefly from BBA to the BBUK house. I was free at last. Before I could proclaim my independence, however, I found myself in Lagos amidst people in the grip of that all too familiar obsession. Visiting a friend on Lagos Island, I asked for the DSTV to be put on CNN and her face fell. Why, I asked, and she replied that Big Brother was about to start. And so it was that, having escaped BBUK series 4, I sat down to watch Big Brother Africa.

It turned out to be the episode in which Alex was evicted - he of the gladiatorial physique, obviously selected by the producers as eye-candy for the females. Alex also had the required exhibitionist streak and could be quite funny, giving us his own inimitable rendition of Frank Sinatra's My Way. Like a good mummy's boy, he didnt know where to look when he saw a near-naked female housemate - his unease was comical TV for us. It was also clear that a large section of the viewing public could no longer stand him being in the house, and out he went.

Alex's eviction show afforded me a glimpse of Nigeria's representative in the house. Despite his Hip Hop Hooray machismo, Bayo turned to jelly on seeing his girlfriend on the screen. For a young Nigerian Def Jam follower not to care if the whole of Africa knows that he adores his shorty was very heartening indeed. It was only a glimpse but I, for one, was won over by Bayo. There was also a moment during the show for hanging one's head in shame at the cesspit that Lagos has become. Interviews conducted in Ghana had the clean streets of Accra as backdrop, a timely reminder of how the streets of Lagos ought to be.

The future as predicted by Andy Warhol is here, in which everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes; and the unthinkable vision of George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four manifests itself in an unexpected way, as entertainment. The Orwellian thought police is reduced in a TV show to the disembodied voice of Big Brother, round the clock cameras, and a participating audience of millions worldwide.

Calls are now growing in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa for BBA to be banned, especially as two of the housemates have gotten to know each other rather too well under the sheets. It must be said that in four years, BBUK contestants have not crossed this line - although the obnoxious Jade in series 3 almost certainly performed a Monica Lewinsky on one of her male housemates. And since we never bought Bill Clinton's definition of sexual relations, it is safe to say that sex is sex. There is no denying, therefore, that Big Brother marks a new low in television programming.

However, while the producers could definitely exercise a bit more responsibility in bringing us the show, I am in no doubt as to the social import of Big Brother. The Big Brother house is a microcosm of the larger world and the ills displayed therein are merely symptomatic of the greater ills in society as a whole. It has been alleged that Nigerian children prefer watching BBA to reading, but the culture of reading was eroded long before the advent of Big Brother. I spent many years of my Nigerian childhood in a house with a generous supply of books and read every work of literature I could find in English and in Yoruba. My children now live in a London flat overrun with books and yet cannot be bothered to read, preferring instead the illusory but instant gratification of satellite TV, Gameboy and Playstation - much to my heartbreak.

The hold that BBA now exerts on the Nigerian audience only mirrors our society's ever-willing embrace of all things Western. The UK version of the show is an invaluable learning experience (for those of us from elsewhere) on the varied peoples and accents to be found on the British Isles: the Geordie; the Scouse; Welsh; Irish... The Scottish would never want to be thought of as English, and an Essex girl would celebrate her essexness, never mind what anybody thinks of it. The few blacks that have graced the show, however, play down their cultural identity, sheltering under the blanket cover of the catch-all label; I am British. Perhaps there is a lesson there for us, about things that cry out for change in ourselves.

As British as they are, BBUK's Black and Asian contestants have not stood a chance of winning. In series one, black Darren helped prove beyond doubt that the machiavellian Nick was cheating. Nick got his just deserts and was sent packing but Darren became the fall guy and caucasian Craig - who spent most of the series in blissful sleep - won. That same year we had mixed race Mel, a graduate of Psychology and arguably the most intelligent girl ever in BBUK. She was entertaining and stayed true to herself, only to be derided by the great British public as a slut. True enough, she inspired the first erection ever on terrestrial TV in the UK, albeit seen only through the veneer of a pair of shorts. Mel, nevertheless, was no more sluttish than many of the other girls in the house.

It is therefore difficult not to detect a covert racism at work in the UK show. Then there was America, where the race issue blew up in an explosive way during the first series. Big Brother Africa therefore has the possible advantage of a level playing field where race will not be too negative a factor.

BBUK has helped highlight how British society worships the mediocre and rewards stupidity. British newspapers and magazines are full of celebrities who are startling in their ordinariness; exemplified by the vacuous Victoria Beckham who, despite being the most devoid of talent in the now defunct Spice Girls, has become a superstar. The shambolic state of British education is also laid open in BBUK, most notably by Jade in the third series. The daughter of a one-armed lesbian and a father behind bars, Jade passed through the British school system knowing nothing, but came on Big Brother thinking she was the bees knees. Try getting your head round the fact that she has made more money out of the show than that year's winner.

While the ordinary is too highly regarded in Britain, the sad fact is that it is not celebrated enough in Nigeria, or the rest of Africa for that matter. The $100,000 prize money on offer in BBA compares favourably with the UK's £70,000, and represents the kind of extreme good luck that the ordinary African does not normally come across. Part of the lure of the West for Africa's youth is the possibility it affords the individual to seize upon the dream chance. Big Brother offers such a chance, within reach, on African soil. This big break, fostered neither by power nor privilege, is long overdue.

BBUK series 2 has been the most satisfying so far. Its winner was the mass of contradictions that was Brian: sensitive, gay, catholic, childlike and insecure - with a god-given talent for making people laugh. Then there was Helen, a blonde hairdresser unencumbered with much by way of brain matter. A Welsh Marilyn Monroe, she was guileless and adorable, prompting one of her housemates to tell Big Brother memorably: Helen is full of uncomplicated goodness.

Helen came into the house talking of her boyfriend on the outside, Big G, but gradually became drawn to another housemate, Paul - in a romance that gripped the nation. It was love and it happened in front of our very eyes. Two years on, Helen and Paul are still together. The last word goes to the unwanted Big G who observed pathetically: I have been shat upon!

The finale was a nail-biting finish between the two babies of the house, the runaway favourites, Helen and Brian. We watched live as they held hands and told each other how lucky they were to get this chance, and how it didnt matter anymore which of them won. It was beautiful television, as only Big Brother knows how.

Who knows what moments of transcendence may yet come out of Big Brother Africa? Who knows what the mirror it holds up to our society will reveal? We may not like what we see but much of it will be the truth. A great hue and cry greeted the first series of BBUK, most of the sceptics have since joined up with Big Brother's happy band. Come next year, the Big Brother fever will spread again. I cannot promise that I will not succumb.

  • Published on Nigeria2Day Online, 5th August 2003