Memories of Christopher St Aubyn Iron’s sojourn in Nigeria remain vivid even after almost two decades after he had returned to his native Jamaica. Art, he tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke, has remained the theme song of his life from his early beginnings till date
Before Christopher St Aubyn Iron’s eyes, the veneer coating Nigeria’s grim realities gradually wore off. How long it took for this to happen must have receded far into oblivion. Starry-eyed and full of high expectations, he had welcomed with open arms the prospects of living in Nigeria for one year, thanks to a Commonwealth Scholarship Award. Yet, relocating from his native Jamaica, in the year 2002, to Lagos, a city whose population was almost ten times that of his country, ought to have filled him dread. Even so, curiosity was bound to gain the upper hand and elbow out the gnawing feeling of trepidation that was almost beginning to overwhelm him. So, here he was in Nigeria, the country he had not only heard so much about but also looked forward to visiting…
Then, there were the aha moments. Nothing had prepared him, even as an artist, for the treasure trove artworks he would discover at his host institution Yaba College of Technology in a Lagos mainland neighbourhood and later at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, a two hours 29 minutes drive from Lagos. While in Lagos, he also met a lot of talented artists. Among them were Olu Amoda and the Junkman from Afrika. “I had never seen artists like these men,” he says. “They were free and passionate. They shared all they knew.”
To these artists, he adds Mike Omoighe, whom he describes as “an artist, who was always smiling” and one of his connections to Nigeria.
“I saw first-hand how Nigerians robbed themselves of their rightful place in the world because they are never together,” he laments. “The standard of the craftwork in Nigeria is much higher than the standard artwork in the Caribbean. They are light-years away from us.
“When I was there in 2002, my overall view was that there was a lack of proper maintenance of both public and private infrastructures. I also made some good friends with whom I still communicate. There were students, who tried to make my experience pleasant in their own little ways. It was very difficult for me in Nigeria, especially when I had to pay to protect my passport. The corruption was up in my face. I met some other Africans who were not Nigerians and the experience was good. I could not deal with shootings and crimes. Even the police, I saw, took money from persons who were in distress. I lost contact with some great Nigerians and I hope to see them again and invite them to Jamaica… Just to say thanks.”
Back to the present, Irons lives in the Jamaican capital city Kingston and dreams daily about owning an art gallery. But, he enthuses so much about Buff Bay, a settlement in the Portland Parish in Jamaica. “Kingston is overpopulated. Name anything in America and you may see it Jamaica. Kingston is a busy and fast-moving place. Beautiful houses, many schools which are very competitive (academically and otherwise). Roads are better in some places than others. Any day, one can see long lines of traffic, private taxis and buses driving recklessly on the roads.”
The first steps towards becoming an artist, he recalls, was with his grandmother – who had noticed his interest in art – enrolling him for extra lessons with a teacher at Buff Bay High School in Western Portland. “His name was Desmond Wright. I was 11 years old and was attending the Buff Bay Primary School. He was more than a teacher. He was like a father and a very good friend. I later attended the school where he taught.”
But the real urge to express himself through drawing came during his basic school years in Annotto Bay, a port city in St. Mary Parish, where he remembered watching ships sail by now and then. “My father worked near the banana plantation and I remember seeing a plane fly over, spraying the fields. I was fascinated by these moments. It was in trying to remember those moments, that I started to draw. As a young boy growing up in Annotto Bay, I had a great interest in the different means of transportation, and I found that one of my favourite pastimes was spent drawing cars, planes, and ships. At Buff Bay Primary in Portland, I became interested in horses. In those days, there used to be many cowboy movies on TV, and I grew to love and admire the horses featured in them.”
Curiously, it was while he was still at the Buff Bay Primary School that he realised that art was going to become an integral part of his life. At the school, there was this teacher called Ms Mattocks, who tried unsuccessfully to get him to enter an art competition. “Many years later, I saw her in Kingston, and she told me she was trying to get leave to study art and it never happened. I did all her charts at school. I could see the love, warmth and how the other children responded to me. I felt important, as I was always asked to draw for someone. She would have me stay back after school to read and write. She was very patient with me to the point where I spent years looking for a wife like her. Desmond Wright at Buff Bay High School also contributed immensely to my involvement in art. I guess he saw my talent and included me in numerous art competitions. I did very well in my external art exams as well. He and the vice-principal, Mr Harris, at the time, got me into the Titchfield High School, [which was] located in Port Antonio (capital of Portland). Then, there was the principal Mr Chin, who visited me at my class to see how I was coping. I got into the school because Mr Chin was impressed with my artworks.”
Years later, while studying at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Irons once found himself not having the materials he needed to produce the artworks. That was when it occurred to him that he could appropriate unconventional objects as mediums. “I knew how to use [these] objects because of my exposure to some of the art concepts taught by Mr Wright. Besides, there were shreds of evidence of contemporary art practices at the school,” he reminisces.
Though the 47-year-old does not, strictly speaking, consider himself a musician, he writes and sings songs besides owning two guitars. He was a member of a musical band called Assesimba, who performed throughout Portland and St. Mary.
And talking about his musical skills, they came to light when he won a competition two years in a row while he was at Buff Bay Secondary School. He also made it into the semi-finals in a music competition, besides being placed second in another competition years back. Thus, he launched himself into the path of musical self-discovery with the people in his community rooting for him and generally being very supportive. This was even when others around him had their fears and doubts. “Many do not see my songs as Jamaican music and believe it be would too difficult to get it the market here. But, I am in good company because Bob Marley’s songs were first successful overseas before Jamaicans accepted them.”
Even as he declares himself to be nowhere close to where he would have liked to be in music, Irons, who looks up to such musical icons as Lionel Richie and Tina Turner as role models, has been widely publicised in both the print and electronic media in addition to featuring in competitions. To his uncle Rupert Irons, he owes the airplay his music currently enjoys all over Georgia in the US.
Back to the visual arts, the 2018 Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts Bachelor of Art Education degree holder refuses to be limited to any particular medium, asserting: “I love different things at different times.”
His metal sculpture, “Men at Risk”, which currently adorns the University of West Indies in Jamaica, was actually sold to the internationally-respected tertiary institution. Meanwhile, as his profile in the Jamaican art scene continues to rise, his artworks have already caught the interest of an eminent and influential art scholar as well as artist and collector in the Caribbean, Dr David Boxer of the National Gallery of Jamaica.
On the philosophy that guides his practice, he says: “I just go with my feelings. Life is like the wind, ever-changing. You eat what you feel for. It’s an emotion and drive that separates us individually. Just like the crazy Junkman in Nigeria, many never liked his works. But, look at him now: larger than life.”
A highly accomplished artist, Irons has won several prestigious local awards and has held exhibitions not only in Jamaica but also in Nigeria, Trinidad, Cayman Islands and the US. As for his inspirations, he attributes them mostly to nature and relationships. Talking about the latter, he extols certain individuals who play a big role in his life. “Some people just make you want to live forever,” he muses. “They polish you with love. My lady Aisha Mulendwe, we are spontaneous. I have a friend who lives in Canada. Her name is Cassandra Beckford. We talk almost every day. Today, we are the most loving. Tomorrow, we argue, but we understand each other. Also, my good artist friend Brian Duncan, who also won the Commonwealth Scholarship.”