My mother has never met the artist, Ablade Glover. She likes a few of his artworks on my wall but, I suspect, not enough to want to know too much about the man and his art. Yet, I’ve always thought that there’s a strong link between Glover and my mother. And every other African woman, actually.
I think his paintings of African women are such an elegant ideal of a certain kind of African femininity. I’ve seen lots of his paintings over the years, yet each, for me, is fascinating in a way that is familiar yet totally new. I’ve always liked the energy of his canvas. There’s a sense of a vigourous attack of the canvas … but not quite. It’s something defter. It’s an energetic, yet controlled movement that creates tension yet is unified – a sort of barely-chained energy, I suppose.
The women are elegant, unbowed and proud. They are not frail, yet they don’t dominate their space aggressively. They are at one with their space, rising above the peculiar difficulties of Africa. They’re all different in subtle ways. Some are assertive. Some are bold. Some are tactful, serene. They’re all similar too. They are strong African women. Like my mother. I’ll tell you about my mother.
My mother met my father during the Nigerian civil war – Google might be useful if you don’t know about the war. My father was a Biafran officer. He had been injured in combat and was in a hospital. My mother was a red cross volunteer working in the hospital. They realised they had met before through a mutual friend and they struck up a friendship. She seems to have taken really good care of him in the hospital. They got married shortly afterwards.
I remember these old photographs of my mother. Wearing fashionable short-ish skirts; with her nerdy glasses. Pretty but also fragile. She’s never been a tiny woman; but she’s never been a big woman either. Wearing her serious glasses, she looked somewhat delicate. The pictures were from the early 70s. The war was over; she was working as a secretary in the ministry. But her husband, my father, was in detention. I should ask him why they specifically referred to it as detention rather than prison. I suppose to differentiate them from everyday criminals in the prison. And also, I imagine, because they had not been tried and would never be tried. He was detained for four years for being part of a coup before the civil war. The federal government didn’t forget, and promptly rounded up all the conspirators after the war.
He was in the Old Broad Street Prison for a while and was eventually transferred to Nguru prison in the North.
When he was in Broad Street Prison in Lagos, my mother would visit from Enugu where she worked. Not an easy journey, but she would go diligently. She thought it was difficult. She really didn’t understand difficult till he was moved to Nguru prison. To visit him in Nguru, she had to go to the army headquarters in Lagos to get a visit pass. That was a one-day journey to Lagos. The next day would be spent at the army headquarters getting the pass. Then another day’s journey back to Enugu to prepare for the trip to Nguru. She’d buy the provisions, books and magazines and things and get on the early train from Enugu to Kano. The train journey took two days. She’s get to Kano the next evening, spend the night at a family friend’s place in Kano; then first thing the next morning get the train from Kano to Nguru. She’d get to Nguru in the evening. The pass from Army Headquarters was to see my father for one hour. So that was it – eight days in all of travelling for a one-hour visit. She’d plead with the wardens and they’d let her come back to see him the next day on the same pass. Then she’d head back to Enugu. On one of her train rides back to Kano from Nguru, she recalls going into the 2nd class cabin she had paid for to find that it was filled with soldiers. There was absolutely no space so she was sent to the driver’s compartment. The noise and heat was unbearable. She thought the journey would never end. She would return to Enugu, rest for a while, save some money and start the travelling again.
I ask her now why she did it. It must have been brutal. ‘Love’, she says to me. ‘And optimism’. She pauses, ‘I was also young and my body was stronger.’
I still look at those old photographs and I can’t imagine the slight, young lady dealing with so much - while raising a child.
I see some of Glover’s paintings and I see her, my mother. Wife, mother, woman; optimistic and unbowed. I see her and I see many other African women like her. The same yet different.