About two decades ago, ten artists from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s Fine and Applied Arts Department, who were mentored by Professor El Anatsui, came peddling their alternative aesthetic canons to the Lagos art community. Their group exhibition — titled New Energies and held concurrently at two Southwest Ikoyi-based galleries (Mydrim Gallery and Nimbus Art Centre) from Wednesday, May 16 to Saturday, May 26, 2001 — concerned itself less with the artworks’ commercial viability and rather focused on their conceptual values. For a clearer picture of what these artists were offering, imagine, for instance, a cigarette cup measure of garri labelled N500 being displayed as an artwork! Or, try looking for artistic expression in haphazardly-arranged ceramic pieces!

So, who were these starry-eyed artistic young Turks from the Nsukka Art School? They were Ozioma Onuzulike, Joseph Eze, Chika Aneke, Chiamaka Ezeani, Chikaogwu Kanu, Martin Iorliam, Chidi Nnadi, Erasmus Onyishi, Uchechukwu Onyishi, and Nnenna Okore. Even though many believed that they disguised subterfuge as artistic license, their ideas had some merit. Many viewers must have gained a thing or two about the pliability of creative boundaries during their ten-day show.

Mydrim Gallery’s interior

A quick rewind to the previous year, which was the magical, much-hyped, and heralded year 2000. The scene opens on Gorée Island, precisely at the Maison des Esclaves (the Slave House in English). A young American acquaintance, Larry Torres, and I were frantically scouring the different recesses of this slavery museum for a Dakar Biennale off-exhibition, which we heard was opening there. Being one of the pioneer editors of the biennale’s official bi-lingual newspaper —homonymously titled Dak’ Art — I was on the constant lookout for such events wherever they were held in the Senegalese capital city of Dakar. And here was one exhibition held on Gorée Island, which was the operations base for us Dak’Art newspaper journalists!

After giving up our “fruitless” search for this exhibition at the Gorée Island jetty, we bumped into Professor Anatsui, who was among the passengers, largely tourists, who had just been disgorged by a ferry. It was only after he confirmed that he was visiting the island to view the same exhibition we were seeking that the penny dropped, after a quick exchange of niceties.

Maison des Esclaves, Gorée Island

Of course, the so-called exhibition that we had been searching for was that huge heap of granulated sugar, which was dotted with miniature plastic figurines of cowboys and Indians, we saw in one of the rooms of the Slave House!

Did the artist really expect us to call that art? Professor Anatsui smiled indulgently at my indignation. I should have known that we could not have been on the same page as far as this matter was concerned. He is, after all, the same man who I would later call a “high priest of conceptual art.” His silence reminded me, more than words could have, that the artist only exercised his artistic freedom.

A view of Gorée Island

This brings us to the topic of this discussion, which emphasises the phrases “freedom” and “expression,” as well as, to a lesser extent, “self-restriction” and “artists.” Talking about “freedom”, most people’s concept of the word aligns with the Wikipedia definition, which states: “Freedom is understood as either having the ability to act or change without constraint or to possess the power and resources to fulfil one’s purposes unhindered.” This definition seems to agree with the online Cambridge Dictionary’s meaning of freedom as “the condition or right of being able or allowed to do, say, think, etc. whatever you want to, without being controlled or limited.” 

Indeed, do we not associate the concept of freedom with the ability to express ourselves without external constraints and deterrents? Sometimes, the fact that we live in a society that guarantees our fundamental rights makes us assume that we are free.

However, André Breton—one of the founders of surrealism and a well-known French author and artist—was known to have advocated a more extreme interpretation of the term freedom. Breton popularised the concept of automatism, which is the spontaneous act of writing, drawing, or painting to clarify thinking. In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, he advocated for an unrestrained mode of expression that derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and urged the exploration of the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms.

Ironically, this same artist—known for a core philosophy that advocated deploying art for anti-war ends—was credited with saying: “The simplest act of surrealism is to walk out into the street, gun in hand, and shoot at random.”

André Breton

Having come this far, we cannot help but agree that some acceptable constraints on this understanding of freedom are required for our safety. Of course, while uncontrolled imagination and fantasy provide escape routes, it should be recognised that they can also open doors to previously unanticipated and undiscovered dangers.

What exactly is “freedom of expression” then? Or, if you want to consider the two terms independently, what do “freedom” and “expression” mean? From the foregoing, it is clear that freedom is a concept that embraces a wider meaning than what we have hitherto assumed about it. This should explain the many nebulous definitions of freedom so far advanced, along with the ensuing debates bordering on the meaning of the word.

What exactly is “freedom of expression” then? Or, if you want to consider the two terms independently, what do “freedom” and “expression” mean? From the foregoing, it is clear that freedom is a concept that embraces a wider meaning than what we have hitherto assumed about it. This should explain the many nebulous definitions of freedom so far advanced, along with the ensuing debates bordering on the meaning of the word.

As a further reminder about the limitations of what is generally believed to be freedom, let’s revisit a statement first attributed to John B. Finch, the Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee in the US for several years in the 1880s. It goes thusly: “Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

Again, let’s revisit the popular saying, which originated from the 17th-century English poet, John Donne: “No man is an island.” We, in other words, do not exist in a vacuum. We are strongly influenced by the preformed thoughts floating out there—partly originating from us and partly originating from others—as well as by our social surroundings. Indeed, our cultural background, religious beliefs, everyday contacts, and upbringing all have a significant impact on how we express ourselves through our thoughts, words, and visible actions.

Having established that none of us, including artists, can exist in a vacuum, we can move on to the discussion of what is expected of the artist. The artist has been tasked with assisting us in comprehending the messages received through inspiration from dimensions of reality that our physical senses are unable to perceive. In other words, he draws his impressions from these hidden worlds and manifests or condenses them into physically accessible forms.

Auchi Market by Sam Ovraiti

What can we infer from this? That inspiration—by extension, art—is something received by the artist and does not originate from him, even when his inner nature leaves its own imprint on it. For inspiration to happen, the artist first has to initiate the process by directing his energies towards the direction needed for inspiration. This is similar to a farmer sowing a seed and leaving this seed to the lawfulness of nature to germinate and grow. Just as the farmer cannot predict exactly what the expected plant will look like, the artist cannot predict exactly what the end-product he initiated will look like.

Indeed, art is an expression of life, and it is the artist’s attitude that connects him with that sphere from which what he is seeking can be offered. If his seeking is really fervent, he will surely find it. It is just as Christ once promised while alluding to this inherent lawfulness that is evident in Creation. Isn’t this one good reason why these inspirations should be faithfully expressed? When this happens, their positive impact on society cannot help but be felt. Clearly, we can discern from this that the artist is only a mediator – a messenger if you wish – and never the originator of a work of art.

According to this concept, objectives such as achieving some level of professional standing, earning awards, or garnering patronage fall into insignificance and should not be the final goal. This is especially true when art—and, by extension, its practice—is ultimately related to manifestations of the Creator’s Will.

Then, talking about expression, the word only becomes appropriate when the artist has drawn his inspiration from a higher source. And before we can talk about this “expression,” we must first familiarise ourselves with “freedom.” Freedom is a state that can only be achieved by an individual who abides by the laws that regulate his existence. Only in this way can he be unburdened from the pressure of the dark forces, unrestricted by unfavourable threads of fate. Thus, inwardly clarified, his inner vision will gain access to more luminous and purer realms. And whatever he receives from these sources, he will strive to protect it even from himself. It is his responsibility to ensure that such expressions of what has been received are not distorted by his desire to pander to established whims. Imagine the effect of adding your own ideas to a message that you have been asked to deliver to someone else!

While the onus is on the artist to find a suitable way or form to express his streams of inspiration, he should restrict himself to what has been mediated to him by truly expressing himself intuitively and sticking to what is true about it. Can the artist who displayed a cup of garri as an artwork or the one who shows a heap of sugar claim to have used the appropriate medium to express his inspiration? By expressing his message through this form, has he faithfully mediated the message that he was charged to express? Has he given his best? These are questions that the artist should truthfully answer for himself. In many, if not all cases, it is the artist’s desire to be sensational or gain recognition that leads him to express himself in dubious ways, silencing any remonstration with the specious assertion of his right to freedom of expression.

Surely, he has the right to freely decide on how to express his creativity, for it is an intrinsic part of his spiritual essence. But he cannot deflect the consequences of his decision, whether or not they are pleasant. Besides, he should also see himself as a tool for the advancement of his noble profession and the contribution it makes to society as a whole. 

A work by Bruce Onobrakpeya

Once he has faithfully discharged his duties by not adding his own ideas to what he has received or even fragmenting it, he should be the first to be enlightened by what he has expressed. Nothing in this creation, even the tiniest grain of sand, is without purpose. Biology, for instance, reminds us that everything in creation has a structure that is meant to aid its function. That is, the way something is arranged enables it to play its role and fulfil its purpose within an organism. Creation does not give you a duty without equipping you with a structure that you can use to fulfil the duty. In the case of the artist, he has been equipped with the gift, which in this case is the structure, to fulfil a function in society. This duty is to kindle a blazing fire of enthusiasm for what is good, noble, and sublime. It is not to initiate something that is not even true or devalue what he has received.

So, art cannot be without purpose. It aligns with the entire purpose of human development, which is to gain access to higher inspiration or vibrations from higher levels. This is, therefore, all about an existential question.

If every expression – be it through words or visible physical forms – is firmly anchored in the perfectly-ordered mechanism of creation, it follows that any deviation from its intended purpose is bound to cause harm. 

A fleeting glance through the contemporary art scene attests to the preponderance of artworks flaunting grotesque or misshapen figures, some of which hint at the nature of the artist’s true inner life and realities. It is a little-known fact that in the subtle realms of our material world, every expression of our inner lives—whether thoughts or intuitive volition—is embodied and expressed in a form that is identical to its essential meaning. So, it is possible that even the hideous forms of many artworks truly reflect what the artist senses around him. But this does not apply to artworks, which can be described as end-products of deliberate distortions. Because they are produced through the artist’s unwillingness to adhere to laid-down rules and the arbitrary insertion of his own ideas, they do not speak to the viewer’s inner core. And truth be told, the artist has interfered too much in the process. Is it any surprise, then, that the contemporary art scene has become a sort of free territory in which every artist churns out every imaginable and unimaginable form of expression with impunity?

In addition, there are many artworks—especially the less figurative and more conceptual ones—whose forms seem to leave a lot more to conjecture.

Sadly, the artist—even if he is correctly standing at his duty post, which can be likened to that of a prophet—seems to forget that he, like all creatures, is subject to the same laws governing this creation and must not be complicit in poisoning his environment.

Those artists who, through their works, rail against the ills of society should be guided by the time-honoured Socratic dictum, which says that the secret of change lies in focusing all one’s energy on building the new rather than on fighting the old. While they may faithfully represent terrible conditions, it is also their duty to show their audience a possible way out or the light at the end of the tunnel.

And this is yet another reason why the artist must strive for truth in all that he does. He must have knowledge about the place of art in the life of the human being, who cannot thoroughly fulfil his purpose without art.

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