11 Dec I’d like to die an artist

by Dozie Igweze

I met a man recently. He’d just turned 80. A nice, urbane man. He’d recently retired and was immensely wealthy. He seemed to have everything. He was healthy, wealthy and at peace with life. We got talking about, amongst other things, art and he told me he’d started life as an artist. This was ages ago. He’d moved back from the UK in the late 60s ready to change art in Nigeria, full of enthusiasm. He’d exhibited for a few years and seemed to be making progress. But then one day, he says , he spoke with a bunch of his collectors who basically told him that while they liked art and his art they didn’t think it important and were willing to pay only so much for his works. As he saw it they were saying to him ‘ what you’re doing is an amusing hobby and isn’t really that important to us or to anybody’.

Heartbroken, he left the meeting, packed up his studio and went into business. An artist died. A businessman was born. As it turns out, a very successful business man. 50 or so years later, I could sense he regretted this decision. It seemed almost as if towards the end of his life he’d started to ask himself the question many of us ask if we’re lucky to get to that age ” What was my life all about?” And he’d started to think it shouldn’t have been just about money. Maybe there was something else he could have done and he hadn’t done it. Maybe he’d have been happier dying as an artist.

To live for money or for art? I suppose it’s not just art really. It’s money or something one is passionate about. Art just seems like the perfect example. I’d like to think anybody who’s practicing art truly believes in it. You’d be totally mad if you didn’t. (Having said that most people in the business are probably mad. Even those who came in seemingly sane, like I think I did, end up mad.) You’d have to be really dedicated to be practicing art. There all sorts of other more financially rewarding things to do. If a young man came up to me and said ” I’m going into art so I can make billions” I’d have to say to him ” Son, get a bank job if you want billions, and while you’re at it get your head checked.”

The question is ever present – do something you’re passionate about or get paid. That’s assuming you can’t do both. Some people are lucky and can get the same in one job. For the rest of us, it’s a life long dilemma. My 80-year old friend had chosen to get a financially rewarding life. And he kept saying to me ” Don’t go down that road. It only leads to regret” I kept wondering if it was just a case of the grass being greener on the other side. Maybe if he’d stayed with art he may have looked back and thought “Maybe I should have just made money so I won’t have these crazy collectors driving me nuts” Who knows. But then he’s 80 and from what I can tell really wise – at least he has a wise look about him. So I have to listen to what he says and try to make some sense of it.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe life is more than financial rewards. It’s hard for many artists to believe this though. Art is tough in Nigeria. Yes, there are people who really do like art, and you may be one of them. But then there are all the other people who just don’t get it. And then the lots of other people who have other really pressing daily problems to deal with. If I stood on the road and offered to give free artworks, I imagine I’d get a number of people looking at me and wondering what on earth they’re supposed to do with something that can’t be eaten, sat on or driven. The good side is I don’t stay up at night worrying if my artworks are going to get stolen.

Even with people who truly like art, I get the feeling sometimes that they think art is a hobby of sorts. I have to keep reminding them that no, it’s not a hobby, it’s the artist’s profession. Which means that’s how he pays his bills. It’s serious business for him and you’d better take it seriously and pay up promptly.

More often than I’d like, I meet an artist who’s at the end of his tether. The question he’ll ask me is: shouldn’t I be doing something else? Something that pays the bills all the time, keeps the wife happy, keeps the children in school. Should I be suffering with art? I never know what to answer. In any case It’s not in my place to answer. But I understand and I share the pain and frustration. It can be a tough journey.

Maybe it’s always been that way. Some of the best art in history have been forged in the crucible of pain and hardship. Would Van Gogh’s art have been the same without his suffering? Maybe the pain brings a raw trueness to the process of creation and makes the artist’s consciousness more acute. Not that this offers solace to the artist who is suffering.

There have been others who have been ‘lucky’ enough to get immense creativity and financial success. Who wouldn’t want to be like Picasso – talented, pop star-famous and immensely wealthy. Or the British artist Damien Hirst – young, famous and wealthy. But that’s not the reality for many Nigerian artists. Maybe fame. And for a few wealth of some sort. But for many – bills and bills and bills… But, it’s not all bad. I was talking to the revered Nigerian artist Abayomi Barber recently. He’s 80 as well. And he was talking about living for art and not knowing what he would do with himself if he couldn’t paint anymore. I realised. This wasn’t a job for him. This was his life. Like breathing. He had done this all his life and would probably keep trying to do this till the day he dropped dead. How many 80-year olds have the same zeal about their work? He must have gone through some major hurdles but at the end of it, he was still there – as in love with art as ever. He had the sense of a man who had done what he was born to do. No regrets.

Maybe that’s the payback the artist gets. Knowing he’s done the true thing at the end of his life. Dying fulfilled. And strangely, living on after death. Ben Enwonwu died years ago but it almost feels like he is here. His works carry his essence. That essence remains with us, almost as if he were here. That ‘almost’ immortality is rare, but it is the gift the artist gets. The chance to live in our minds forever. But still when I get asked ” Should I give up?” I never know for sure what to say. Maybe the answer should be ” only if you don’t believe in love”. Because art is love. With its pain, heartache and elation. It is a profound kind of love. Like the song says ‘it’s only love that’ll get you though the day’ And maybe that’s the way it works. The love , if it is true, gets one through the pain and the suffering and delivers purity and purpose to life. I’d like to be 80 and still in love with my life and my work. I’m still not bold enough to say I’d like to live like an artist – except the well-off kind. But I do know that I’d certainly like to die like an artist.


Dozie Igweze