“I’m an artist!” she replied to my “What do you do?” She raised her slender arms as she said it, like a magician doing a ‘Ta-da!’. Her bangles jangled as they slid down her hand to accommodate the gesture. There couldn’t have been less than six fat bangles on that hand; I wondered if they were heavy. Each one in a different colour, they stood stacked one upon the other when her hand lowered.
“And, what do you do?” She asked me, her full eyebrows raised slightly in expectation. She spoke with a drawl, drawing out each word in a way that irked me. “Writer.” I said simply and raised my glass to take another sip of my Baileys. “Wonderful,” then she laughed. Her head went back while she laughed, baring her slim throat adorned with dark red beads. I scanned her outfit again- those shorts were really short- an intricate patchwork of several Ankara patterns just above slim thighs. Her tank top was partially covered by the small jeans jacket on top of it. The gold Nigeria-shaped earrings swayed forward as she got over her laughing bout. I was still clueless about what was funny about ‘writer’.
“I guess we’re both artists then,” she said finally, throwing the transparent liquid in her short glass down her throat. “Not like it’s the same thing, you know? It’s just… everyone’s writing these days, you get? Not to knock your work or anything. Any works of yours I would know?” She blinked her heavily kohl-ed eyes at me. “No,” I said quietly and looked behind her to scan the assortment of faces in the gallery looking for my friend, Jite. “Oh, do come see my work!” And without waiting for my reply, she tugged at the arm clutching my purse and led me to the other side of the room. “Here!” she announced with another sweep of her arm. The bangles clinked in applause.
I turned to face a single painting, a big one by my standards. It was housed in a brown frame that imitated a braid. “So? What d’yu think? What’s it saying to you?” She began peering closely at me, so I in turn peered into the painting. I let my forehead wrinkle in the manner I had seen a lot of others do this evening while inspecting.
What did I see? I saw that her map of Nigeria was very well done! I had struggled through Geography classes repeating Nigeria’s map to the consternation of my teacher and teasing of my classmates. This painting had a very well-done map. The hollow of the map was painted black; and seeping from the bottom, where I figured Port-Harcourt would be, was a pool of blood. Except it looked more like clay- it lacked the liquid sheen.
I pursed my lips and let out a “Hmmmn.” Her red lips curved into a smile and her eyes lit up. Surrounding this map was a kaleidoscope of colours. It was an ugly, banal painting to my inexperienced eye. “Nigeria’s bleeding,” I said and hoped it had come out believable. “Yes!” she said and did a little jump on her wooden clogs. “Well, it’s abstract so it is open to diverse interpretations of..” “Oh! My friend’s looking for me. I’ll be right back.” I sidestepped her and waved at Jite, walking briskly over to him. He was a very tall man and with the full beard and ill-fitting clothes, I always teased him about looking like a hobo.
“Jite. Why have you brought me here?” I grumbled while I dug my elbow into his waist; I steered him so that we were in a corner, next to a life-size sculpture of a naked woman screaming at the sky… well, ceiling. “I’ve heard so many many accents here!” Jite laughed, attracting a few stares. “Oh yes! The pretentious gits! This, my darling is a necessary evil.” He pulled out his phone and squinted at the device that looked lost in his large hands.
I snorted and took a long gulp from my cup. “You know we are lesser artists, right?” Jite laughed again. “I see you’ve met Kandi.” “That’s her name?” I snorted again. “Everyone’s writing, you knooow?” I mimicked Kandi’s drawl in a high note that sounded nothing like her. “Not everyone’s writing; everyone’s a photographer, that’s what.”
Jite snickered and snapped his phone shut. “Aha.. So you do have to respect those who go further and actually pick up a paint brush.” “Wowie wow! She might be our next Kandinsky!” I said in a dry tone. Jite roared in laughter again, I elbowed him to shut up. The androgynous woman with the red and black dreadlocks was sending daggers our way. “Kandinsky?” Jite asked. “Neh. She’s not abstract enough. That Nigeria thing..” “Excellent! It was excellent.” I giggled then yawned. I was suddenly tired, the atmosphere felt oppressive to me. I had met too many people that had stared at me like I was out of place. I assumed because I wasn’t wearing a faded tee or some African print or because I had a weave on my head. I sighed. “When can we leave?” Jite shook his head then doubled over to peck my forehead. “Not yet, darling. The owner of Tarantuan Publishing is a friend of the house. He’s somewhere here,” he searched the crowd effortlessly thanks to his height. “I need to make a speech. My manuscript needs to be read by someone other than us, ey?”
I smiled weakly. “All the right friends in all the right places.” “More like: all the right moves in all the right places.” Jite patted my back and walked away.
I threw down the rest of my drink and nodded along to the Marley tune that was turned down low to compliment the tinkling of laughter and murmured conversations. My eyes roved over the colourful display of people and artworks. I did like some of the artworks; I just didn’t understand the air most of their owners and admirers seemed to have shrugged on like shawls. That they were a cosmopolitan bunch of globe-trotters with acquired tastes and haughty manners. Perhaps I would write about it in my column.
An archway to my left seemed to house a different set of paintings. I moved towards it slowly, so I wouldn’t be called back if it was prohibited. The space was free of people. Hanging on the opposite wall were several paintings done in only black, white and red. I counted sixteen of them. My eyes went wild trying to take everything in- I didn’t know much about moods or tones or painter’s intent but I loved those paintings. They had a recurring theme. A man and child in different scenes. The one directly in front of me had the man staring down at the girl who seemed to be unwrapping a gift.
I moved closer to them when I heard steps behind me. I whirled around to see Kandi. I turned my back to her and rolled my eyes. “I see you’ve found daddy’s work.” She was speaking slowly now and I noticed her drawl was gone. “Your father?” I asked stupidly, still backing her. “Yeah. The gallery was his.”
Was? But I said nothing. She had moved closer and was now standing to my left. We both continued to stare at the collision of blacks and reds; the faint buzz of chatter and music drifting to us. “What..” “Yeah, he died. Left the place to me.” She answered my unasked question. I heard a sniffle but refused to look at her. I wondered what it was about me that drew out the tears of others. The day before had me comforting my new hairdresser who broke down while telling me her life history of abuse over hair spray and rollers. I looked behind me, hoping Jite would appear.
“I’m trying, you know?” She sniffed again. I still refused to look at her. “He really wanted me to paint, yeah? Used to buy me all them supplies. Even let me use some of his when he was in a great mood.” She was silent again. I finally turned to her; letting my eyes trail from her tiny shorts, up her torso and ending at the crop of brown hair. She looked like a colourful African Barbie. She was blinking up at the ceiling, so the tears wouldn’t slip out.
I swallowed and embraced the clenching and unclenching of my intestines. I recognized it as guilt, for judging and mocking a little girl’s attempt to fit into the shoes of her father. I moved closer to her and nudged her. She turned to me. “You did good.”
Photo Credit: fabafriq.com _________________________________________________________________________________________________ ‘Pemi Aguda is an architect during the day; and a writer always. When she has finished a good book, she holds it to her chest and weeps. She writes a fiction column called Betty Tuesdays at thenakedconvos.com