‘I will love to reincarnate as artist’
US-based Nigerian scholar and artist Prof dele jegede turned 70 last April. He will be celebrated by his colleagues at the University of Lagos and Yaba College of Technology, Lagos from tomorrow. To him, good artists never die, never fade away, but simply become more vivified; a category which he belongs to at 70. Though disengaged from teaching, he sees the disengagement as an opportunity to re-engage himself with his studio practice, Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME reports.
With the marking of your 70th birthday, you have joined the elder statesmen’s club. How do you feel hitting the mark?
Where’s the King of Soul, James Brown, when you need him? “I feel good….pa para para para!” I am nothing but thankful. There are no two ways about that. The older you get, the more introspective you become. The more exposed you are to occurrences and developments, which humble you and cause you to be appreciative of the grace without which your very existence will be naught. When I was young—let me re-phrase that, because I am still young—when I was much younger, a 40-year-old man was old, very old; a 50-year-old was ancient; and a 70-year-old? That was simply antediluvian! I have since realised that your perspectives on things shift as a result of your age.
I remember in 1995 (when I was 50), a student of mine complained innocuously about the ways of her very old dad. And then I asked how old was her father. “50,” she responded. Of course I changed the topic. Hitting 70 (which, by the way, happened in April) was something that I had no control over. It was not as if I could choose how long I would live; no one has that power. I had been in a position that I wished that death had come for me instead of someone else. It is in that sense that I talked about grace and clemency. Ageing is one thing; ageing gracefully is another. And that is something that I aspire to do, especially in terms of the extent to which I inspire my peers and colleagues, and become a positive role model for the younger generation of citizens and artists. Living gracefully has nothing to do, in my estimation, with your sartorial taste anymore than does your height. Rather, it is your personhood: your moral probity, integrity, principles, forthrightness, professionalism, and commitment to enlightened citizenship. It has to do with using your professional and intellectual abilities to positively influence society. And that is one of my new mantras.
Retiring now at 70, how fulfilling is it to end your career outside your country?
Retirement ke! One point of correction, I have not ended my career. In actuality, I’ve just revved it up a notch. As a vocation, art is not a 9 to 5 job. Rather, it is an organic cocoon: something that you live; a life that you exude. How can you talk of retirement in that situation? The committed artist never thinks of retirement. You have heard of the maxim about old soldiers who never die; who simply fade away. Well, that is not so with old artists. The good ones never die; they never fade away; they simply become more vivified. Examples abound. Look around the Nigerian art scene today and you can construct a strong list of artists, living or departed, vertical or perpetually horizontalised, who are continually written about in the present tense. While it is true that I have disengaged from teaching, I construed that as an opportunity to re-engage with my studio practice. As to where I practice, the age of globalisation has shrunken the world so significantly that location is no longer an issue. While my primary residence will remain where I’ve been in the last two decades, I will also take advantage of the opportunities that my ancestry offers.
Looking back, how fulfilling has it been teaching in the US?
It has been both challenging and fulfilling. It has also been rewarding. Like all countries, the U.S. has its strengths and weaknesses. For everyone, who is career-oriented, motivated, and inspired, the opportunities are super-abundant. Indeed, the United States remains as perennially advertised: a land of opportunities. If you are so inclined, you can chart your own path, create new avenues for personal success, and intuit novel ideas. But, living in the U.S. can also signal perpetual misery for those who are interested in the dream but lack the capacity, willpower, or wherewithal to prepare their beds aright. For many, the U.S. is the proverbial El Dorado. Americanisms permeate the imagination of many young and not-so-young Nigerians, who are desirous of capitalising on life styles that Hollywood has so ingenuously marketed on a global scale. But one of the unwritten canons pertains to the power that culture exerts on many, who go to the U.S. but are ill-prepared for the inevitable culture shock that they will have to contend with. Before I retired from the University of Lagos in 1992, I had worked there as a faculty member for 15 years. It was from there that I went on a leave of absence to study at Indiana, where I obtained my doctorate in 1983. And in 1987, I had taught for one year and curated a major exhibition at Spelman College, Atlanta as Fulbright Professor.
Although exposure to American culture and the qualifications that I paraded certainly helped, they were not the primary reason for my eventual emigration, with my family, to the U.S. in 1993. Two of our children, who were born in the U.S. were asthmatic. In particular, our oldest son, Tolu, was chronically asthmatic. There was hardly a week that we did not make an emergency run from our place at Ikeja to Unilag Health Center for emergency health help, often in the middle of the night. Those were the nights when the parental adrenalin countered whatever dangers were posed by hoodlums and men of the night. Tolu became something of a recurring face at the Health Center, known to virtually all the medical personnel at that time. The situation was so dire that the sing-song by our children was that we needed to return to the U.S. Today, Tolu is professor at a college in Florida.
In retrospect, are there decisions you would have taken differently now concerning your career growth—studying art, media job, teaching at UNILAG—and checking out to US?
With full 20-20 hindsight, it is very easy to second-guess decisions that I took in the past, which have obviously inflected the trajectory of my professional growth and personal development. I have no reason to do that. As one, who has continually advocated the application of contextualism in analyses, I could not envision reversing any of the major decisions that I took in the past without asking for corresponding reversal of the context within which such decisions were taken. On the contrary, I took these decisions with deliberation and embraced the outcomes with pride and enthusiasm. My studentship at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, was the culmination of sheer determination of a young lad, who single-handedly set and attained the loftiest dream of attaining a university degree in the face of adversity. That decision was significant and momentous in my life. In terms of my career, I coveted the opportunity to work at the Daily Times when I was a third-year student at Ahmadu Bello University and worked assiduously towards that end. I was giddy with excitement when I interned at the Daily Times in the summer of 1972. At the end of my NYSC in 1974 (as a pioneer corps member), my career as a cartoonist had been launched with a series of cartoons in Lagos Weekend and Sunday Times. You could not have enticed me with anything not to accept the offer, which the Daily Times gave me, as Art Editor in July 1974.
As students in Zaria, some of us had determined to spruce up the exhibition scene in Lagos after graduation. Kolade Oshinowo, Shina Yussuff of blessed memory, David Dale, and my humble self became quite active in the exhibition circuit. I also took up critical reviews in the Daily Times during this period. I left the Daily Times because I was simply enamored of academic life. Besides, I figured I could continue to do my cartoons from anywhere without being in the employ of the Daily Times. I joined the University of Lagos as Junior Research Fellow in January 1977 and was thrilled to be directly involved in organising certain aspects of Unilag’s FESTAC 77, which the Center for Cultural Studies undertook under the directorship of Prof Joe Alagoa. Hankering after additional degrees was something that you would do as an aspiring young man. So, by 1979, I was on my way to Bloomington.
I should note, with extreme pride, the stable and blessed marriage that I have had. This, indeed, ranks as perhaps the best decision that I ever took. Of course, Joke, my wife of 40 years, took all evasive actions way back in 1972 when I first laid eyes on her and embarked upon the customary pursuit of a love that made itself elusive. But the more unconcerned she appeared the more determined I was to prove that I was worthy of her hand. Although she always contests my claim that it was my cooking that eventually sealed the deal, it seemed that she ultimately took pity on me, especially after learning of the day that I almost got crushed by a “tipper” as I made a dash across Ikorodu Road trying to catch a Somolu-bound danfo to her place at Akoka. No matter. Joke remains my adorable friend, partner, wife, and counsellor. She is a woman of unparalleled strength, something that I became even more appreciative and respectful of in the wake of the cataclysmic shock that the loss of our son, Ayo, unleashed on us in 2011. Without Joke (who was herself grief-stricken), my story would have taken a tragic turn.
Are there any memorable experiences at the early stage of your stay in US?
I learned pretty quickly that the United States is at once opened and closed. It is through its openness and transparency that I was able to secure a job based solely on my academic and professional pedigree. It was the same system, one that places premium on excellence and healthy competition, that ensured my rise within the academic system. I became, at two different times and in two states, chair of two art departments. This could have been achieved only through a transparent academic culture. But I also learned that if you were, like me, thoroughly immersed in your cultural heritage, you would have a steep culture shock to contend with. Thankfully, my immediate family provided the succor that I needed. It could get easily dreadful and lonely for those who do not have that kind of support. I learned that racism, both overt and covert, is alive in this country. I learned that a considerable degree of naiveté permeates the American social fabric with particular regard to how people from Africa are generally perceived or related to. I once ran into an American couple at the mall. Once I confirmed my African pedigree, the next question by my new mall friend was whether I knew his wife’s boss, a certain Stephen who is also an African, from Tanzania! But my overall experience has been nothing but positive.
What are the post-retirement plans?
There is a caveat to this retirement thing: it pertains only to my job as professor. The plan, thus, is to roam; to produce, explore, and become creatively pontifical. This I will do without being bound by geographic demarcations. A two-day conference (July 23 and 24), which Kunle Filani and his team organised, comes under the aegis of the Society of Nigerian Artists. It is gratifying to be accorded this honour and I am beholden to all who are involved in this gesture. In July 2016, I will be having a solo exhibition at Terra Kulture. This is the immediate project. Along the side, I will, where practicable, participate in a few group exhibitions across continental divides. The primary goal is to immerse myself in my studio life and savour the pleasure of professing my art. Of course, opportunities to contribute essays, deliver lectures, and consult for a diverse array of organisations, abound both in Nigeria and the U.S.
Having lived and studied in US for so long, what is the performance level of African artists in Diaspora on the global scene?
Laudable. So much has happened in the last two decades that has catapulted artists of the African Diaspora to the stratosphere. It is probably not that helpful to adhere to the old, rigid idea of compartmentalising artists on the basis of media singularities or geographic location. In the 21st Century, the boundaries have become so pulverised that what emerges, at times, is essentialised more by notional specificities or idiosyncratic givens than by traditional media. From Southern Africa to the Maghreb, from West Africa to East Africa, there is a catholicity of creative expressions that was either not fully made manifest or was simply non-existent a mere two decades ago. As part of this robust emergence of African art on a global scale, we should recognise the origination of vibrant, collateral fields that have quickly become formidable in the curating, analysis, and historicisation of the artists and the various genres that exist. Auction Houses such as Bonhams and Arthouse Contemporary, for example, have broadened access on a global scale. A cursory look at the list of Diasporic scholars of African art reveals the dominance of some of Nigeria’s best scholars.
If you were to come to this world again, would you be an artist?
My answer is unequivocally yes. Additionally, I would, with the benefit of hindsight, amplify my interest and talents in theater and music. But I would still marry Joke.