‘Oh, I think I’ve missed the turn again’, Agorsor said to me, quite calmly considering.
He started to turn his car in the middle of the road. Very slowly. We were holding up taxis on both sides of the road. I waited for the torrent of honks and abuse from the taxis. Nothing. They just waited patiently. This was Accra, I remembered. The Lagos taxi driver would have honked us to near deafness, hurled curses at us and probably had an apoplectic fit by now.
Finally he made the U-turn and we headed back in the direction we had come.
‘Once I start talking about art I forget myself. Oh, I just forget everything’, he said with a smile.
He rubbed his palm across his grey, shaggy brow as if to wake himself up.
‘When I’m in the middle of creating an artwork it’s even worse’, he confided.
‘Once I went with a taxi to pick up my children from school. I got there and they were asking me why I came with a taxi and not my car. I didn’t know why, myself. I had gone somewhere, forgot I came with my car and took a taxi. But I couldn’t remember where’.
‘Very strange’, I said with a smile.
‘I had to call my wife to find out all the places I had told her I would go to that day’, he continued. I found the car in a hotel car park. I packed it there and forgot.’
‘Your wife is the organised one’, I said.
‘Yes, yes, I don’t know how she does it’, he replied enthusiastically.
We were back on the right track now; we were going to the artist, Wiz Kudowor’s, studio.
He stopped at an entry unto a major road and waited to join the road.
‘Go! Go!’, I thought, as he waited patiently. But I didn’t say anything.
I figured the nearest car was so far away that we could comfortably join the road.
Still he waited.
Eventually he joined the road.
‘Oh, I didn’t like the workshop at all’, he said to me.
We had started to talk about a foreign-sponsored art workshop that had just held in Accra.
‘What they were teaching wasn’t good for our growing artists’, he said.
‘What were they teaching?’, I asked.
‘Mostly installation art’ he replied.
‘There’s really nothing wrong with installation art’, I said.
‘There’s nothing wrong with at all’, he agreed. ‘But sitting there looking at videos of foreign artists doing installations, some of our young artists will get lazy’.
‘In the West they have grants for artists’, he continued. ‘Their artists can do what they like. Here the artist has to sell his work to someone. He has to do art people can use or he will starve. We have to teach the artists here to create good art but also art they can live on. That’s the truth.’
‘And the installations they’re showing are western installations. Our growing artists will just use that as an easy way out.’
‘I know what you mean’, I conceded. ‘Sometimes when I see African artists do installations, it almost feels as if it’s not an original thought. Like there’s something artificial about it.’
‘Yes! It’s the way it’s done, Dozie’, He said. ‘That’s the problem. We have a long tradition of installations. Our shrines are installations you know.’
‘Oh I agree.’ I said. ‘Everything about them – the objects, the cloth, the chalk, the arrangement. It’s all installation art isn’t it?’
‘That’s it. We’ve always had installations, but when we do installations now we don’t think of our traditions we only think of what we see in Western galleries so it’s not really our installation.’
‘I guess’, I said. I could see what he meant but I also knew the other side of that argument. An artist had the right to take his inspiration from any source – traditional, foreign. Anywhere. Agorsor knew this too. His art for me was a mix of traditional forms and Western sensibilities. I felt he somehow managed to meld both worlds. His abstract canvases and his elegant, sitting women in those bold red backgrounds seemed to me like they’d be at home anywhere in the world. I knew his problem wasn’t where the idea came from as much as the fear of using the idea of installation art as a crutch of some sort.
‘Artists should learn to draw first before doing these installations’, he continued. When I started, I had to draw all the time. I did thousands of drawings. I lost most of them but I learnt.’
‘And then I worked at a shrine and I had to do carvings all the time for people. I worked on these carvings for weeks. Then I delivered them and the owners would give me two cubes of sugar or some honey as payment. We couldn’t take money. So we got two cubes of sugar for our effort.’
I couldn’t imagine getting two cubes of sugar as payment for anything.
‘But, you know, I learnt from all the work’, he continued.
I shook my head. ‘Two cubes of sugar?’
‘We took the sugar after delivering the sculptures’, he continued, ‘and we still had to trek back home. But I learnt to carve really well’.
‘But, two cubes of sugar?’ I was still having a hard time grasping that.
‘Have we lost our way again?’ I asked.
He was about to make another U-turn. Maybe the fourth in an hour.
‘I think so’, he offered. ‘I go to his studio all the time and I still lose my way.’
He turned the wheels gently.
I taxi honked behind us impatiently.
I smiled and felt more at home. That cab driver might be a Lagosian, I thought.