Out of the Darkness
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Your husband, Obiora, is a bit older than you, and he actually was involved in the war. What has he told you about that time?
He was there in Biafra throughout the war and witnessed atrocities and other things that went on. He didn’t fight, but he was involved in the propaganda units, and it actually ended up being a very crucial time for his work as an artist. He helped to form a group of artists who wrote plays collectively and did their own work—their painting or their writing -- in the name of the Biafran cause. The group is still very friendly today, although they haven’t collaborated lately.
How did the two of you meet?
Is it difficult or inspiring being married to a fellow artist, especially one who is so well known?
It’s inspiring, and it’s also difficult! But I would say the inspiring part overwhelms the difficulty because we have a very good relationship.
Are your children also interested in art?
I have a daughter and a son, and both of them are, in different ways. My daughter, Ijeanuli, is 23, and she’s thinking of a graduate degree in film. My son, Nwora, is 19. He’s just going to start college, and he’s planning to major in art.
You and Obiora are both known for exploring a style of traditional Igbo art called uli. What attracted you to this form?
When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Nigeria, I felt a lot of affinity for this spare, lyrical art form. Traditionally, uli was a method of wall painting and body painting. When I first started, I was a textile designer, and I incorporated uli symbols into my designs. And when I started doing more work on paper, I began looking to uli for its basic aesthetic of space and line.
In the past, uli was generally practiced by women. But these days, it seems that the most famous uli artists are men. Has that male influence changed the medium at all?
Uli as it’s traditionally practiced continues to be a female art form. In villages around Nigeria, uli is a dying art form. But there’s a collective that was set up where they had women come together to paint on walls and also do work on paper, and then these works were exhibited, mostly in Germany. So in that case it was taken to a new level. But that’s the only case I know of where uli was exhibited internationally.
In terms of contemporary Nigerian art, when they talk about the “Uli School,” that’s a bit different. At the time my husband was studying at the University of Nigeria, there was a conscious effort to have students go back and research uli. My husband and his teacher, Uche Okeke, are some of the major figures in terms of bringing uli to international attention. So people like myself who use uli in our work, you can say our work is influenced by it, but you wouldn’t call us uli artists in the same way you’d call the women who practice it traditionally.
You’ve said that your exploration of uli has influenced your use of language. Can you explain how?
About three years ago, I started an MFA program through the Bennington Writing Seminars. I decided to go in for fiction. Prior to that, I hadn’t written any fiction as such, and I struggled with it a lot in the beginning. I’d written poetry, but my poems were very brief and spare, and I found I couldn’t really translate that into fiction. I had to find a way to create narrative.
Halfway through the program I came to the poetry of Jane Kenyon. She drew on a lot of visual imagery in her work, and when I saw that, something just clicked for me. I began drawing on my own work as a visual artist to help me to navigate my way through fiction.
It’s interesting that you say that, because uli seems to be very abstract—based on shapes and symbols rather than the kinds of recognizable figures that would show up in a story.
That’s why it was so helpful to me. I was looking for a way to speak to emotions and situations without trying to verbalize everything—by relying on the image.
Can you give an example of this from “Night Bus”?
I’m interested very much in relationships between men and women and in the dynamics of those different relationships. My art is all about relationships. With “Night Bus,” I think I started with a relationship, a situation, and the story developed out of that. The influence of uli art might perhaps come through most strongly in the way I chose to end the story. I created an image without necessarily spelling out what was happening or what was going to happen.
How do you decide to translate a particular impulse into a work of fiction rather than into a painting or a poem?
There are times when one medium lends itself to what I want to say. It’s not necessarily that I make a choice. It’s just that I can say it better or I have the room to express myself in, say, a story rather than a painting. I would say, though, that looking at relationships between men and women, and among human beings in general, is a thread that runs through both my visual work and my literary work.
Unlike your art, which draws so heavily on Igbo tradition, your fiction has a very modern feel to it. You don’t, for instance, incorporate African folktales into your narrative the way authors like Chinua Achebe have done.
This is perhaps directly related to having this kind of multifaceted heritage. I’m very open to all cultures, and I embrace all people. I always have. I read very widely. There’s no doubt that being a person who straddles two cultures is very central to my creativity.
In some ways, though, I wonder whether living outside your homeland—building a reputation as an “African artist” in America—has made you more conscious than ever of your Igbo background.
I think so. You become really conscious of your cultural identity when you’re living abroad. In my own case, for as long as I can remember, I’ve really grappled with what I feel is my dual heritage. At various points in my life, when I was a teenager, for instance, it was a very problematic relationship. But growing and maturing as a person has helped me come to terms with it. So there’s a little less conflict. I’ve learned to appreciate the heritage, the wealth of what I’ve been given.
Just before you left Nigeria, the government executed one of the country’s best-known novelists and environmentalists, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Nigeria was expelled from the Commonwealth of Nations for that incident. How did it affect the psychology of artists and writers living inside the country?
I think it epitomized the uncertainty that comes along with living under military dictatorship in Nigeria. No one really is immune, and that incident made it very graphic just how far the reach is for anybody. But I don’t think it kept artists and writers from expressing themselves. Even at the height of the military dictatorship, the artists were still creating freely.
Are most of your stories set in Nigeria?
A lot of them are. Also, some of my stories look at the Nigerian experience here, the immigrant experience. What especially interests me is something that one doesn’t always hear about as much as the other aspects and casualties of war: What does war do to families? And what does war actually do to the common person, to the human being?
Do you find it easier to paint and write when you’re living in the United States or in Nigeria?
It is our eventual desire to return to Nigeria. But living here, I feel that my art is evolving in a way it might not have if I’d remained in Nigeria. I often wonder whether I would have had the opportunity to do my MFA or even have thought of doing it if I hadn’t come to America. Living here has changed me as a person, and that’s certainly been reflected in the content of my work. Every experience plays into what one creates.