The Keys Of Manhood by Muyis Adepoju
The painting is actually an original by an old and late hand in the industry, Wassily Kandisky (1866- 1944). It consists of three rows and four columns of concentric circles beautifully done in a watercolour wash and pencil with a dimension of 28.3 by 31.5cm. It is aptly titled ‘Colour Study: Square and Concentric Circles’ 1913. The glass frame is almost two inches thick and makes the painting weighs about ten times its original lean weight. I had got my hands on it on one of my solicitous visits to Ibanga’s gallery in the Garden City of Port-Harcourt. Although I live in Lagos, Port-Harcourt is my second home because I had schooled there and had made a considerable amount of friends that would warrant me to still go back and check on from time to time. One of these friends is Ibanga. Ibanga is a painter as well as a collector of art.
Ibanga’s generosity was induced by my awe at the simplicity of the painting; that someone can actually do a study on circles and square; make a big show out of it and take time just to paint circles. Circles done and painted in watercolours in a manner a toddler would normally in art class. I had told him that the painting was too simple. He had replied that it was an abstract painting.
“What could be abstract about circles?” I had asked with an ‘I bet you don’t know’ look and a ‘got you this time cockiness in my stance.’
He had smiled back in reply. I have always wanted to impress this enigmatic friend of mine ever since we were introduced to each other. I want him to consider me worthy of his friendship for two obvious reasons. He is older than me by at least ten years and a master in what he does while I am a novice. I think I fall short of being called his friend, so I try to make an impression on him every time we are alone together. The best way to do that is by picking unnecessary arguments with him and nit-picking at every tiny detail in his works or collection of arts. And so I became an arm-chair critic of his works even though I know that he is a natural and am just a green-horn in art.
I had met Ibanga at his solo exhibition some two years back in Port-Harcourt. He had given four invitations to a bookshop I usually frequent and the owner of the bookshop, Mercy; a good friend of Ibanga gave me one invitation. Mercy and I had attended the exhibition together and she had introduced me to Ibanga. Ibanga is by far one of the best indigenous artists I have ever seen; both in character and in his works. He prides himself in the fact that he didn’t go to school to study art. He would tell anyone who cared to listen that his illiterate late grandfather taught him how to paint. He is a medical doctor by profession but his veins flow with the pure blood of a natural impressionist. He later told me that he had failed his final medical exams twice before finally making it the third time; only after he had taken a forced one-year break from medicine to take his final art exam with his dying grandfather. That art exam was more important to him, he had confided in me.
During the last years of his late tutor, Ibanga had learnt all he needed to know in art to convince himself that his hands were made to touch paints. Apart from his own works which totalled an impressive amount, he has in his collection an amount of artworks and paintings from renowned masters. Some of these paintings like ‘Colour Study: Squares and Concentric Circles’ are actually original prints. He refuses to tell me how he got his hands on them.
“It is because of its simplicity.” I remembered him telling me after he had finished smiling at me. “You can make anything out of it. That is why it is abstract. You find it simple because you think you can ascribe no serious meanings to it. Think of it like this. What could be going on in the mind of an artist when he painted this about ninety-five year ago? Do you think the same thing is going on now in your mind when you look at the painting?”
He had then showed me another painting. This one was made by him and it consisted only of a bunch of metallic keys with a very bright background.
“This titled ‘Keys to Manhood.’ one of my first paintings. To you, it is just a bunch of keys that anybody can paint. It is really. But look at it closely and count the number of keys.”
I did. They were three.
He continued his lecture. “When my father died, I became a man. I took stock of the few things I had in my life as a man. I had a job, a flat and a car. I represented these things with keys in this simple painting. “The bright background represents a bright future when a man has these keys. Yes the painting is simple. I couldn’t agree more. But what was going on in my mind then was anything but simplicity. I was scared. I had lost the closest person to me in life and in panic had asked myself if I could go on without him. You know I lost my parents at a very tender age and my grandfather had raised me. I was devastated when he died. But I had a job in what he taught me, I had a roof over my head which he willed to me and his car, which though he didn’t will to me, I took by right. With a firm resolve to forget him and move on and still remember him by what I had inherited from him, I painted ‘Keys to Manhood.’”
I understood then that his grandfather had given him all he needed to go on in life and achieve whatever it is he wanted to achieve. He was well equipped to face the future alone.
He had then told me I could have the ‘Colour Study: Squares and Concentric Circles.’ He asked for only one simple thing in return for the original painting. He set me the task of figuring out what was going on in the mind Wassily Kandisky at that time that he painted his circles. I had replied that it was not too much to ask for in return for an original painting. I had never owned a painting before, there was nearly nothing I wouldn’t have done to own this and this was another opportunity for me to prove my worthiness to him. We laughed over some bottles of beer and I had been just sober enough to take home my priceless ninety-five year old painting in one piece. It is the oldest thing I have ever owned.
I checked the glass for the hundredth time in my bus seat headed for Lagos, petrified of breaking it. As far as am concerned, the glass frame is an original too and changing it would somehow diminish the original thoughts of Kandinsky. A journey on our roads can be likened to mountaineering. The only difference is that while mountaineering can be defined with time, travelling on our roads cannot. With the pathetic state of the roads and the unreliability of the transport system, you dare not define your journey by time. You are lucky enough just to get to your destination. You will be greatly pushing your luck if you want to get there on time. A journey that started at seven in the morning ended at nine in the evening and we were lucky we- my painting and I- got there in one piece.
My mum had been ill for some weeks now and was beginning to lose grip on her zeal for life. A ounce feisty woman, she looked lean and pale when I got to the hospital a day after I got back from Port-Harcourt. She was a tireless woman. We would pick fights that centred on her restlessness when she was still healthy. She was concerned about her seven children who were all married with kids and one of her grand-daughter had already given her a great-grand son. When would she stop worrying about people who obviously don’t have much to worry about? Albeit she religiously ate only what her doctors had recommended for her, her condition nonetheless deteriorated mysteriously. High blood pressure, the doctors said. A devout Muslim, she would attend all of the prayer-meetings her numerous religious groups organised even when she was ill. I looked at my ounce feisty mother lying powerless on the hospital bed and cried. The doctor told us that she worried too much; her blood pressure was getting too high and that somehow her heart was failing.
My three elder sisters, Khadija, Hafiza and Maria with my two younger sisters, Kemi and Sumbo and my immediate elder brother, Jaffar and I gathered at her bedside. We had planned to meet there and discuss with the doctors whether we should take her to another hospital. Surely high blood pressure was not that hard to take care of, we had assured ourselves. She could barely recognise us as we all jostled for her attention to announce our presence in a bid to cheer her up. Of course, her current doctors had reassured us that we needn’t take her to another hospital. She kept looking at us with a weak knowing smile on her face. It was as if she knew something we didn’t know.
“Alhaja, emi ni, Tunde.” I announced my presence to her in our native language, Yoruba, meaning ‘It is me,Tunde.’ She turned her face with difficulty at me and tried to call my name in reply in what took her like eternity.
“Tunnndeeee…” She said at me. And I wept. I wept because at that point I could almost feel her slipping out of this world into the other unknown world. Her voice sounded way out of this life. She was slipping out of this world and there was nothing we could do to stop her. Each one of her children had a go at the name-calling trick but she responded like she was just then learning to talk. I told Jaffar later that night as we left the hospital that our mother was dying but he wouldn’t buy into it, denial written clear on his face. Being our mother’s first son after three daughters, he was clearly her favourite and the closest to her. To Jaffar, to accept that fact would mean betrayal.
She died in her sleep that very night and we returned to the hospital the next morning to claim her corpse. I hoped she died peacefully. She was buried that same day at about 2pm according to Islamic rites besides her husband. I prayed that Allah reunite them even in death and grant them paradise. I kept wondering what could have been her major concern in life. She worried too much, that was what the doctors said. All of her children were grown, married and had children. She had led a life of piety as much as she could, lived in peace with all and died at the tender age of 65.
After the burial, I asked the presiding Imam who had led the prayer we did for her as was customary in Islam what could have been her worry. He was the Chief Imam of the mosque she prayed at when she was alive and they had been good friends. He told me that it was normal for parents, especially mothers to worry about the ones they are leaving behind even if they are strong enough to look after themselves and are probably doing well.
“They are usually worried about the cycles of life. They are worried that the ones they are leaving behind might not be strong or wise enough to carry on without them. It is imperative that the cycle continues. That could have been her major worry. You know mothers never stop worrying about their children. To them, they will always be kids in their eyes even when these children are fully grown.” Thus the Chief Imam answered my question in a way that made have gone me realise why mum kept fretting over us even when it seemed there was no need. We were babies to her until she died and she had protected us like a mother hen would her chicks. She worried about us when we should have been the ones worried about her. She was a true mother.
When I went upstairs to my room that night after all our sympathisers have gone, my favourite niece, Mariam, was already there, waiting for me. She was barely three years old, and one look at her pretty face now crumpled in a mask of sadness told me she had done something wrong. I bent down and scooped her up into my arms. She and the other kids in the house had been forgotten since morning because of the burial.
“It fell from my hands. It fell from my hands.” She said twice in her tiny voice laced with fear. I looked down at what fell from her hands. Shattered on the floor was the thick glass that had housed Kandisky’s Colour Study. The painting itself had been carefully removed from the debris of shattered glass. My pretty niece had salvaged the only thing she could from the accident and had placed the bare painting on my reading table. I put her down gently on the table and picked up the painting. Then it came to me, I saw the cycles of life within it as clearly as if I was seeing the painting for the first time and the words of the Imam came back to me. I looked at my niece with a smile on my face and she opened her mouth in laughter.
“Do you know what these are?” I asked her with a smile, pointing at the painting and running my fingers over it.
“Circles!” She shouted in her tiny voice now laced with joy.
“Yes, you are right. They are cycles of life.” I kissed her on the cheeks, though I prayed she wouldn’t go about breaking glass frames of paintings thinking she would be kissed for it.
My favourite niece, Mariam, helped me find out what was going on in the mind of Kandinsky on the day we buried my mum.
I think I am now a man albeit my keys are not complete yet.
About Muyis Adepoju