ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Nine)
Madam Ngu finally cornered me in the buka.
If I had any inkling she was coming to that buka that fateful day, I would rather have starved than be found dead there. She had been looking for me for weeks. And I had been evading her. I was trying to break free of her influence and she was trying her very best to ensure that she stamped herself into my art, my being, my style of creating, and my idioms of expression. She had studied at the Royal College in London and was trying to make me a master draughtsman who painted in the European fashion. And I was a radical looking for a way to break out of the western mold of painting.
For some months, I submitted myself fully to her influence. I did the drawings exactly as she wanted me to. I painted portraits and figures in the European academic style. I hated every moment of it, but Iya Ngu was happy with what I was doing, and she was showing my work off to her undergraduate students. The more she showed my work to the students as a perfect example of the European mastery of the genre, the more I hated myself.
One day, as I was painting, Rufus came to my studio. He took a look at my painting, and said, “This is really good. You captured the model perfectly. Even the psychological feelings of the model are on your canvas. You succeeded in—“
“Cut it, Papa Ru,” I said. “I hate the painting.”
“What don’t you like about it?”
“Everything,” I said.
“Truth be told,” Rufus said, “I don’t like it either.”
“Then why were you saying all that crap about—“
“What can I say,” Rufus responded, “I thought you like it. Madam Ngu and all the lecturers are saying you are such a good painter, and they talk about how good you are at the meetings of the lecturers.”
“This is so stupid,” I said. “I don’t want to paint like a white man.”
“Then don’t,” Rufus said.”
“But Madam Ngu will be mad at me,” I said gloomily.
“Who gives a fuck what Madam Ngu thinks,” he said. “Just paint as you want.”
“She will throw me out of the studio,” I said.
“Throw yourself out of the studio before she does,” Rufus countered. “Fuck her. Do what you feel like doing.”
“How do I get away with that?” I asked.
“Simple. Paint only when she is not around. She won’t come to the studio at night. She’s old. She lives in Ugbowo. She is not coming to Ekenwan after 6 pm.”
Since that time, I began to paint as I felt like painting, and doing it when she was not around. She soon had an arrest warrant on my head. Everybody said, “Iya Ngu is looking for you.” And I would respond exactly as Rufus said with “Fuck her.”
And they would gasp. “Did you say fuck Iya Ngu!”
“Yes, I did. And you can quote me too when you see her.” I knew nobody had the audacity to tell Iya Ngu what I said. I had successfully evaded her for several weeks until she cornered me at the buka that afternoon.
“Muyo,” Iya Ngu said, “I’ve been looking for you. Didn’t anybody tell you?”
I had no answer. “I know they told you I was looking for you,” she said. “They said you said, ‘Fuck her.’ That would be nice. You are a handsome young man.”
I wanted to enter the ground. Professor Wangboje laughed so loud, he had to hold on to her to keep from falling. “I heard you said that too,” Professor Wangboje said. “That’s very good. You are cultivating the language of an artist.”
“I would have been mad at you, Muyo,” but when I saw the paintings you are making, I thought they looked good. So, I forgive you.”
I looked up at her for the first time. “You know I’m old enough to be your grandmother, Muyo,” Iya Ngu continued. “If you knew my age, you would fall down.”
Professor Wangboje, changing the subject, said, “Where is the food I am hungry what is available to eat do they have any swallow like pounded yam or fufu I haven’t eaten out in ages Rufus have you tried the food here what do you think is it something we can eat?”
Iya Ngu surveyed the buka and pulled in her nose. “I can’t eat here. It smells dank.”
Professor Wangboje said, “It’s just a buka, madam, we can do it. Let them bring us some food and we can—“
“And the place reeks of marijuana,” Madam Ngu said. “Muyo, have you been smoking pot?”
Professor Wangboje quickly said, “Oh, they all do, these young people, when I was a student in California everybody tried it but I couldn’t do it because of the smell I tried cigarettes and couldn’t do it either and the others students—“
“Hey, Obaseki” Iya Ngu said, “what are you doing here? I was with your mother a week ago at the women’s meeting at the Oba Palace. She said you were out of the hospital.”
Obaseki was trembling. He said, “Yes, ye-ye-s ma-ma-madam, I am out out of the hos-hos-hos-pital.”
“Good for you,” Iya Ngu said. “Your mother is such a good woman. She was my junior at the teacher training college. I was the Senior Girl then and she was my ward. I was assigned to look after her. She was so bright. It was unfortunate she got pregnant in her second year. That was the end of her education. In those days, it was an unforgivable sin for a girl to get pregnant in school. And for an irresponsible man too. He didn’t marry her, poor girl.”
Professor Wangboje said, “Rufus, get us something to eat.”
“Obaseki, you and Muyo, come to my house this Sunday evening, unfailingly. Both of you should come together,” Madam Ngu continued. “What do they have to eat here?”
Rufus yelled, “Gina!”
“Yes, sir!” Gina responded from the counter area. She ran down and was looking at Rufus.
“Clear some tables and serve madam and professor,” Rufus said.
“Sorry, sir,” Gina said, “there is have no food left. We are washing up.”
“Then cook something!” Rufus ordered. “What do you want to eat madam?”
“What soup do they have?” Iya Ngu asked. “Oh my, you are so beautiful, Gina. Where are you from?”
“My mother is in Warri,” Gina answered.
“That’s not my question,” Iya Ngu said. “She is not too smart.”
“Gina,” Rufus said, “do you still have some soup left?”
“Yes, sir,” Gina said. “We have soup for tomorrow. We prepared soup for tomorrow today.”
“Make madam and prof pounded yam, quickly,” Rufus said. “Go and tell your madam that the Vice-Chancellor is here.”
Meanwhile, we began to clear the tables for the august visitors.
Madam Ngu said, “The seats are so dirty. Get us some napkin and water to clean the seats. And open wide the windows. It’s so dark in here.”
We all quickly went and began drawing the window curtains as Madam Ngu and Professor Wangboje moved toward the tables.
“Ha, Obaseki,” Madam Ngu said, “the smell of marijuana is coming from your body. Come over here.”
TO BE CONTINUED
A 1994 painting I discovered yesterday in my garage.