Day Two – Sunday
Artist – Abayomi Barber
Age – 84 years
‘Being old is a terrible thing,’ he sighed.
Then he turned to me with a smile. ‘Yet nobody wants to die young, eh?’
‘I know,’ I replied.
He grunted as he tried to sign the artwork.
I’d come to his house that morning to get him to re-sign an old artwork. We had to do it in the morning.
‘I can see enough in the morning to sign it,’ he advised. ‘After that it’s all a haze’.
So I was there 10 am, Sunday morning.
He fumbled with the keys to the studio for a while then finally got it into the key hole and opened the studio.
‘Please come in,’ he said to me as he stepped aside so I could walk in ahead of him.
Courteous as always, I thought to myself. I’d always admired a certain old school politeness about him.
The first time I met Mr Barber, I was a young art dealer setting up an exhibition on the history of Nigerian art. I was doing the rounds of the old artists with Duke Asidere, trying to get them to provide artworks for the exhibition. I was, as one would expect, getting mixed results. Some artists thought it was a great idea and wanted to help. A few thought I was a nuisance. When I met Mr. Barber in his home in University of Lagos, he shook my hands warmly, respectfully, almost diffidently. It was strange. I was the supplicant here. And I’d gotten used to being, at best, treated with tolerance. And here he was, this great artist – just incredibly courteous and polite. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
After all these years he still was. He still had that old-school civility about him. He was, I suppose, a really polite man. But beyond that, I thought – just a nice, nice man. Some people are probably born nice, I thought. Not a conscious decision just the outcome of genes;just as some people are probably just genetically engineered to be nasty. I made a mental note to be more tolerant of nasty people.
We walked into his studio. It was definitely dusty.
‘I haven’t been in here in years,’ he said, almost apologetically.
‘Can’t be,’ I replied, ‘We were here early last year.’
‘Maybe,’he said. ‘It must be a year, at least. It feels like a long time.’
We opened the windows together.
‘I can’t bear to be in here,’ he sighed. ‘I can’t do anything with my eyes. It’s painful to be here and not be able to paint.’
He sat down wearily. ‘It’s a terrible thing to not paint. I just sit down all day doing nothing.’
‘I’ve told my wife I shouldn’t get three meals,’ he said. ‘Since I can’t work anymore I only deserve two meals at the most.’
I laughed. He hadn’t lost his sense of humour.
He started to sign the artwork at the bottom right corner. It was one of his surrealistic landscapes –a dense mix of forest, river, and animal-shaped foliage.
‘I can’t tell when the brush has touched the canvas, you know,’ he muttered, as he tried to sign the work.
‘I can’t tell at all. That makes it very hard to sign this.’
We both peered at the canvas and the brush. I guess we were both worried the signature might look dubious if he wasn’t careful.
‘I’m going to have to take a picture of you with this work,’ I suggested.
He signed halfway then stopped and started to sketch out the signature on a white sheet of paper. It wasn’t a simple name and date as many artists would sign. It was a mix of two wavy lines at the top, a part of his name underneath done in a box-like font, the location where the artwork was done and the date.
‘I wasn’t thinking of old age when I chose to sign like this,’ he said with a smile. Then I was young and it seemed like such an interesting signature. Now I’m old and I can see it was not such a good idea.’
He returned to trying to sign the painting.
I hovered, hoping for the best.
I started to porter about the studio. There wasn’t much to see. Alarge unfinished canvas: one of his abstract myosso pieces. He’d abandoned that years ago. ‘Maybe someday I’ll finish this one,’ he’d always said about it. There were several unfinished portraits from the eighties – early, versions of some commissions he’d done at the time. He also had an early abstract work he’d done in the sixties in the UK.
He eventually finished with the signing. It was okay, sort of.
We talked a little, about his time in the UK, about taking up jazz again;he’d played the sax part-time for a jazz band in London in the sixties.
‘But I’m too old for that now,’ he said.
‘You should try to paint a little,’ I said.
He nodded. ‘I should visit here more in the morning. Maybe I’ll be able to do something for an hour or two.’
‘You know, my older brother is completely blind now.’
We sat quietly for a few minutes, pondering this indelicate intrusion of aging. It really was a nuisance.
I guess he was right. Everyone wanted to be able to get old. Only not just yet.
I looked at my watch and got up to leave.
It was a three and half hour drive back to my part of town. I wasn’t looking forward to the drive.