My uncle, Eddy, lived in Leeds, UK for many years. He schooled and worked there before returning to Nigeria in the eighties. He didn’t burn his passport when he returned but, I suspect he vowed never to return to Leeds. He was sick of living in a foreign country where he didn’t belong.
He got a job at a University and settled in. He was smart, gregarious and energetic. He loved Nigeria. He soon became a titled man and loved to spend time at the village. He was successful and happy. And yet.
I spoke with him a year ago on his, I think, 75th birthday and we talked about Nigeria and the problem with Nigeria – as we all do. He said he loved living in Nigeria, but that after all these years, the craziness was still disheartening. And that the problem for many Nigerians would always be the leave or stay dilemma. You stay in Nigeria and you have a sense of belonging, a sense of being in control of your destiny, but then you become utterly frustrated by the avoidable difficulties. You live elsewhere and you may be rid of those difficulties, but then you are a foreigner, unmoored, restrained. What to do?
Onyis Martin was born in 1988, two years after my Uncle returned to Nigeria. He lives and works in Nairobi. His art explores some of these questions – the feeling of statelessness, a generation of Africans who find the visa to another country to be one of the most precious assets available; but who then discover that the satisfaction from that visa can be elusive.
His paintings, done in Indian ink, present men and, sometimes, women floating, unmoored; sometimes there’s a copy of a visa somewhere in the painting. A passport to something? An illusion? A decoy? The figures are delicate, austere, monochromatic. The wash of the ink gives them an ethereal quality as they float about on the paper.
The figures float, they rise and fall. Sometimes they seem steady, at other times they seem to crumble. Sometimes you can sense helplessness. There is a subtle range of reactions to external, unseen events.
How you view his artworks depends on your perspective. You could see the figures he presents as symbolising a new breed of stateless, mobile people with the visa as the key to this mobility.
Or you could see them as people, trapped in a transparent bubble, unable to find an anchor, lost between the here and there. Looking for something. Floating. Looking for these papers of freedom, but never finding true freedom.
African Stories Exhibition. Hourglass Gallery. 4 pm July 27.