Elubor is Ghana’s border town on the road to Ivory Coast. It is about two hundred kilometers from Cape Coast. By the time we got there around 7.30pm, both the Ghanaian and Ivorian border posts had closed for the day. We had no other option than to check into a hotel nearby and wait for daybreak.
Hotel Cocoville was noisy and rowdy with a disco party and a throng of debs with their equally unsure young male consorts. But it was cast in a strange charm in the morning. We discovered it was set close to the bank of a stream. There were children playing and swimming in the water, while some young men and women busied themselves with laundry.
At 7.00am we were already at the border. As usual, the Ghanaian officials were polite. We went through the normal process and were on our way to the Ivorian side. One of the Ghanaian police officers proffered an advice as we were about to leave. ‘Be careful with the officers over there,’ he said, waving his left hand prosaically in the direction of the Ivorian border post. ‘Those francophone people can be very unfriendly at times.’
Those words turned out to be a prophecy because we were eventually delayed for six hours at the Ivorian side. After paying the so-called ‘entry fee’ of 6000cfa to the customs, the police demanded for all sorts of papers including government release paper, list of the travelling contingent, letter of invitation from Ivory Coast, international insurance, and several other impossible documents. After a prolonged argument into which they did not fail to inject one or two insults, they zeroed in on the ECOWAS insurance which our driver had failed to obtain. When we assured them that we would take care of that in Ivory Coast on Monday since it was Saturday, they suggested that we should abandon the bus and walk down to Abidjan (about one hundred kilometres from there) and send the bus back to Ghana or Nigeria!
When we were finally wearied, they got somebody, probably one of their companions in corruption, to help us procure ECOWAS insurance for 32,000cfa (roughly N6,500.00). We refused and were asked to stand apart.
I called Professor Yacouba Konate, our host in Ivory Coast. Sounding as helpless as we were, he suggested we take a bus and come to Abidjan. He would arrange for the insurance on Monday and we would go back to the border to pick the vehicle. I told him we would consider that, but when I hung up, it was very clear to us that it was not the best option. Fortune finally switched to our side when we eventually discovered some insurance agents among the many snack bars and photocopy centres that hedged the road outside the border post. It was past 2.00pm when we bought the ECOWAS Insurance papers for almost 30,000cfa and presented it to the police. Apparently disarmed, they allowed us to go, but not without some preachments on the usefulness of the insurance and on safety precautions in general. Konate was excited when I called him on the phone again to announce that we were through and were heading for Abidjan. He suggested that we meet him at the Carffour de Koumassie inside Abidjan.
The road to Abidjan was not very busy. It is well paved and lined on either side with plantations of various economic plants. With the experience at the border we had braced ourselves for the worst. But surprisingly, the atmosphere inside the country was different. At the numerous checkpoints where we were stopped by police, we scarcely explained our mission before we were waved on. Like most African nations, Ivory Coast approximated a police state, with those ubiquitous checkpoints that punctuated the highroads.
It was well after 4.00pm when we eventually found the Carffour de Koumassie. In fact, we did not find it, we stumbled on it. Weary from the hassles at the border and the numerous police stops on the road to Abidjan, we drove straight into town, not wanting to inquire from anybody, but looking for any roundabout that could have been the Carffour de Koumassie. When the search was becoming too long, we stopped at the Customs House to enquire. We were told we had passed the roundabout and needed to reverse and go the way we had come. We did that.
On getting to one of the roundabouts, we decided it was better to tarry there and call Prof Konate to come and meet us. When we gave the telephone operator the number and casually asked about the Koumassie Roundabout, he said, ‘Mais c’est ici le Carffour de Koumassie!’ We quickly told Konate that we were already at the Carffour. He said he was just on the other side of the road and was coming over to meet us. In a minute, he was there in a greyish-blue Mercedes, bristling with pleasure and excitement.
‘I must show you to your hotel,’ he said when he had embraced, or shook hands with, everyone. ‘You’ll check in and have some rest before I show you the city.’
At the hotel, not far from the junction where we met, he offered to pay for everybody for that night. We checked in and washed up and waited for him to come back at 6.30pm to take us round.
It was almost dark when Konate returned; he joined us in the bus, leaving his car in the hotel. We drove round different parts of the town as he tried to describe breathlessly some of the interesting places. We drove through Adjame, which according to the professor, was an opposition stronghold. He also took us through Abobo, more commonly known as ‘Abobo la guerre’ (Abobo the war) because of its hustle and bustle and chaotic transport system. It was here, narrated Konate, that many people were killed by soldiers during the political crisis that rocked the country in 2000. The sightseeing culminated in a dinner fully paid by Professor Konate at a place called Nandjelee, a restaurant cum bar owned by a sound engineer and singer called Hounpierre. Nandjelee, it seems, means the same thing as yuppie.
We were welcomed by the proprietor himself who was obviously delighted to host so many Nigerian artists at once. The Ivorian delicacies were served: atcheke (steamed cassava flakes), aloko (fried plantain), some rice, fish, chicken, with onion-tomato sauce. The dining area overlooked the Charles de Gaulle bridge across the lagoon which, we were told, provides an access to Ghana. It is through this quiet Lagoon that the politician Emmanuel Jouleau escaped in a boat in 1985 when he was tormented by Houphouet Boigny and threatened with imprisonment. From where we sat, we could see the city centre profusely bathed in light like some mighty cathedral from the otherworld. At that moment, I imagined that if one was blindfolded in Lagos and dropped in Abidjan, one would for a minute insist that it was Paris or some other French town. As we ate, we chattered merrily along, rummaging through art matters, politics, our experience at the border, and other general issues.
Konate agreed that the Ivorian border was too highly policed, in spite of the ECOWAS agreement, perhaps, due to the uncertain political situation in the country. He, however, insisted that his countrymen were generally friendly in spite of whatever problems we might have experienced at the border. Perhaps he was right.
One of us, Godwin Ufuah, raised the issue of the need to re-appraise the situation of the art historical scholarship in the sub-region so that it does not remain as lopsided as it is now, especially as the art of the sub-Sahara was more or less the major model for scholarship. Everyone nodded in agreement, but pointed to the barrier of language as a major difficulty confronting sustained interaction among artists. Whereupon somebody grunted that the only way out was for Africans to learn and speak both French and English as a matter of necessity. There was common laughter.
As we ate and drank up, we were greeted by the son of Amadou Kourouma, the ‘biggest’ writer in Ivory Coast and winner of the most important prize in France (with his book on the Liberian war). The young mulatto-looking man seemed to know Konate well, from the way they chatted. He was an artist and he promised to attend our roundtable on Monday. But he never came around.
That same night we made enquiries about the trip to Dakar. We were told that we could get a bus to take us to the Malian border and from there we would require about 3 different transports to get to Dakar. The second option was to go in our own bus. The third was to go by rail, but there were only two trains a week. Each of the options would have cost extra days and funds, with the rail option appearing to be the costliest. There and then at the corner of the bus station, we had an informal meeting and unanimously decided to cancel the trip to Dakar. It was better to see more people in Ivory Coast and Ghana and plan a more comprehensive trip to Senegal in the near future.
On Sunday, most of us, in the characteristic Nigerian manner, were scrambling to find nearby churches and join in the worship, even when almost everybody did not know a word of French. Ivory Coast is predominantly Roman Catholic. So it was easy for the Roman Catholics in our party to find a place of worship, but not so for the die-hard Pentecostalists who were very choosy about where to worship.
We were to meet Konate somewhere in town at 12 noon. But we had to call him to meet us near the Customs House when it appeared we were missing our way. We drove through parts of the town again, Konate leading in his car. He showed us the Government Secretariat, parts of Adjame again, and Cocody which, he said, was the richest part of Abidjan. In Cocody, there are also several Maquis where all sorts of items were sold. We were also shown the Biafra District where Emeka Ojukwu and several other exiles lived prior to Shagari’s amnesty for him in 1982. Then we came to the place where James Houra, an Ivorian painter, was building an art centre.
He was waiting to receive us and was happy to show us round the centre. There were two dance studios, more than three workshops for the visual and conceptual arts, living rooms and kitchens for artists, as well as other conveniences. As Konate says, it is about the biggest (privately-owned) art centre in Abidjan, with facilities for residencies and other site-specific programmes and projects.
James Houra was supposed to give us lunch, but he said his cook was not at work. Yet meeting him alone and going on a tour of his centre approximated a sumptuous lunch. He explained that he had no grants for building the art centre, but rather relied on the sale of his works. He appeared to have come a long way, having worked as Director of the Art Institute in Abidjan for more than ten years. He painted in the semi-realistic mode and received his inspiration from the cultural realities of his people which he believed were fading and needed reinforcement and celebration.
While Houra was studying abroad, Europeans jested with his name by calling him ‘Hip! Hip! Hip! Houra-a-a!’ But James Houra is not a funny personality. The significance of his project – Centre Houra – is beyond the imagination and capacity of simple minds. In Africa’s art-academic circles where ostentation has displaced hard work and the pursuit of noble causes, his attempt at building such an important centre is a feat of inspired commitment.
On our way out from Centre Houra, we stopped to see the reggae artist, Alpha Blondy, who was the subject of one of Konate’s books. The house was weird, but imposing, with the stone work dotted with uncountable colour patches which, we were told, were brushed in by Blondy himself. He personally renovated the house every year in a manner and with a dedication that approximated a ritual. The top of the house was lined with Chinese-looking porcelain vases which remind one of ritual pots in which a continuous offering had been made to the gods of reggae.
Blondy was not in residence, but the visit was not useless. For as we were just admiring the weird building, a BMW car pulled up by our bus and a young man, fair in complexion, jumped out excitedly from the driver’s side, exclaiming with puerile joy:
‘My people! My people! How did you get here!? I am a Nigerian! You are welcome! How did you get here!?’
His name was Njoku, he explained. He was an Engineer trained at the Institute of Management and Technology and Enugu State University of Science and Technology both in Enugu, Nigeria, but was engaged in commercial business in Abidjan. The next minute, we were in his living room, being hosted to drinks, over an animated chatter about so many subjects, much of it comparative of Nigeria and Ivory Coast. We later took a group photograph and sped on to the house of Frederick Bruley Bouabre, with a promise by Njoku to treat us to dinner the following day. On the way, we were joined by Savane Yaya, the Director of Ivory Coast’s National Museum. He was like a son to Bouabre and would facilitate our meeting with the old man, Konate said.
Bruley Bouabre looked very wise and very old. He is one of the heroes of Les magicians de la terre, one of those major European shows of African art which helped to turn the scholarship of African art into a fantasy island in which every white-faced intellectual-magician was welcome to play. The story of his life is an engaging saga that falls short of a modern fable. He was originally a sailor who never navigated. He later joined the Ivorian police. One day, on his way to work as a policeman, he saw seven suns in the sky in different colours. To him this was a revelation from God and he went ahead to found his own congregation. He was later to abandon his work as a prophet in order to become a scientist and worked in a research institute. It was around this period that he also invented some African alphabets and tried to present them to President Houphouet Boigny as the solution to what he referred to as ‘African problems.’ He even attempted a storybook with these alphabets but it was not a commercial success. Then one day, he saw President Boigny presenting $20,000.00 to a female artist on television. He immediately decided to become an artist. But he could not achieve any success or recognition until 1989 when Andre Magnin came to Ivory Coast in search of possible participants for Les Magiciens de la terre. Magnin, after meeting several Ivorian artists, concluded that none qualified to participate in the exhibition. As he prepared to return to France, he was met by Elizabeth Panthounier who introduced him to the works of Bouabre. Fascinated, he anointed Bouabre the Ivorian representative in the exhibition and this validated his claim to artistry.
Bouabre welcomed us very dramatically in the traditional Bete manner. Specifically, when soft drink was served, he took a bottle of Sprite, poured a portion of the drink into one of the glasses and used it to rinse all the other glasses. Then he drank that particular portion down, while Yaya helped one of his sons to serve the remaining drinks. After we had our drink, Bouabre said he was ready to hear our mission. That was the tradition. Visitors must drink water or whatever else before they addressed their host.
I gave a brief history of PACA and told Bouabre how we had all longed to see him after Professor Konate showed some of his works in a slide lecture in Enugu, Nigeria. That was about three weeks earlier when he visited under the auspices of Institute of Visual Art and Culture, Lagos.
He was flattered and, perhaps, honoured. His face beamed with beatitude and fulfilment. Yaya gave out tableaux of Bouabre’s works, while the old man narrated how fortune smiled on him when he found himself as a participant in France’s Les Magiciens de la terre.
‘Poverty is fire,’ he surmised, casting a dreamy glance on the bare floor. ‘All of us need to rescue ourselves from it.’ He spoke of charity and universal brotherhood and said we were all bound together by the earth and its natural waters.
‘Do you know I once told my wife that she was a sister to Queen Elizabeth of England and she said no, she wasn’t?’
Everybody held his or her breath. Bouabre went on like a roused oracle, communicating through Konate.
‘I insisted that she was. After all, she eats, drinks and shits like the Queen. All the excrement is absorbed by the earth and joins the waters which later evaporate to generate the rains that nourish all of us. We are all brothers and sisters united by the natural cycle of things. So you see, my wife is a sister to Queen Elizabeth.’
Ripples of raucous laughter swept through the room.
He holds the artist in high esteem, as the vanguard of civilization, he said. He was happy we came, he also said, all the way from Nigeria to see him and share in his experience.
We had the chance to see the traditional alphabets/pictogram he had invented, and he tried to write some of our names with them. When somebody asked him whether the Ivorian government had showed any interest in his alphabets, his voice was an ugly pathos as he muttered, ‘Non. Pas du tout!’
Having thanked him for his hospitality, we posed for a group photograph and went to visit a retired Mayor who, Konate said, was trying to set up an Art Foundation in Abobo.
Madame Fatima Sylla was a vibrant lady, full of charm and bubbling with intense creative energy. She lived in a small but impressive house set on a sprawling land overlooking the ocean. She had an eye for the beautiful and the aesthetic, as could be seen from the artistry and organisation in the landscaping and the numerous wood and terracotta sculptures that adorned the verandas and the open sitting room. She was a great friend of former First Lady Mrs. Boigny and had been for a long time the Mayor at Tiapourn, very close to the border. She was interested in traditional pottery and took an immediate liking to the ceramists among us. She wanted to know about the trends in Nigerian traditional pottery – the styles, the history, the immediate interactive possibilities. There and then she promised to invite one of the female ceramists, Grace Oji, to a workshop in Abidjan later. She also consented to our using her Foundation as venue for the planned roundtable conference the following day.
The Roundtable Conference was not crowded, but the attendance was not bad, either. The eleven of us were joined by twelve Ivorian artists including Konate who served as Chair and translator. The discussion focused on integration, the working conditions of the artist in Africa, the language barrier, and the governments’ lacklustre interest in the promotion and propagation of modern African art. Although there were divergent views as to how the problems could be tackled, everyone agreed that there was need to establish more contacts among African artists through the creation of artists networks that could sensitise the people and the governments on the positive roles of art in a developing civilization. In a lead paper presented earlier, Helen Uhunmwagho had decried the problem of language, but blamed the artists for not doing enough to rise above the situation by exploiting the universalist essences of art. A position statement from the conference has since been published by the International Advisory Council of The Pan-African Circle of Artists in English and French.
The next port of call after the conference was the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan. We were admitted into the Embassy after some awkward delay. The Nigerian Ambassador to Ivory Coast, Mr. Kehinde Olisemeka, came down to the hall a few minutes later to receive us. He looked every inch a gentleman in his black suit and spoke excellent English and French. He gave the history of the Embassy building which was initiated by the Shagari administration, and went further to talk about the Anglophone-Francophone politics which is dwindling in the present times to give way to a more fruitful relationship among African nations, irrespective of who colonised them or which foreign languages they spoke.
But the major point of concern in his address was the invasion of Abidjan by Nigerian girls, mainly from Edo State, who were notorious there for prostitution. Most of them, he said, had been lured out of Nigeria on the false promise that they were to be assisted to get to Italy or Spain, only for them to be dumped in Abidjan to work as sex slaves. He enjoined us to take any possible steps at home towards a reversal of the situation.
Thanking Professor Konate profusely for facilitating our visit, Olisemeka urged him, in impeccable French, to visit the Embassy more often and to explore further the cooperation occasioned by our visit and his own earlier visit to Nigeria.
As if to corroborate the Ambassador’s statements, two boys approached us as we appeared from the Embassy gate, claiming they were Nigerians, stranded, but wishing to return home. They looked haggard and harassed. They had been lured, duped, and dumped by some roguish traffickers who had promised to take them to Spain. We told them it was not possible for them to ride with us, but offered to take any message they might have to their relations back home. They scribbled a few lines and wrote some fake addresses in Nigeria which only made us more suspicious of them.
We were also met at the Embassy gate by Youssouf Bath, an experimentalist Ivorian artist who had been an associate of PACA since 1992. He was to host us in Dabou, about 50km from Abidjan, on our first night, but had had cause to travel out the same day we arrived. He had just returned and had traced us to the Embassy through Konate’s mobile phone. He was to take us from there to Dabou to see his work and have drinks with him.
In his house in Dabou, he almost re-enacted the Bouabre style of reception, but did not rinse the glasses with drink. And he served cold water as against cold drinks, and followed up with sugar cane drink, a variant of ogogoro, the local gin in Nigeria. When everybody had had a swallow or two of water or gin, Youssouf sought to hear the nouvelles, the news. There was no news, I wagered, but we came with greetings from Nigeria, and it was a great pleasure for us to meet him physically, having exchanged correspondences for almost ten years. He shared our disappointment over the difficulty in artists interacting with one another in the continent and said he had always wanted to visit Nigeria but was deterred by the negative impression one got of the country in the media. Whereupon we assured him that his fears were unfounded and he was welcome in Nigeria any time.
We had the honour of viewing some of his work. It was almost like an impromptu mini-exhibition. Youssouf Bath is one of the Vohou-vohou artists known for their penchant for research and experiment, with a critical eye on the need for a home-spun imagery in the search for a universalist essence and clarity. Vohou-vohou is a vernacular word for eclecticism and means the same thing as Daroo-Daroo, the name of another Ivorian art movement which is basically an extension of the Vohou-vohou philosophy by a crop of younger artists.
True to the spirit of Vohou-vohou, Bath’s paintings were an experience in the harmonisation of ideas and cosmic visions in an attempt to infuse fuller meaning and energy into content and philosophy. A good number of the works were rendered on tree barks which he skins from felled irokos and other giant species. The barks, that is, the inner part of it, was dried to a canvas-looking texture and was slightly stretched to receive pigment which, for Bath, consisted mainly in dyes extracted from roots and herbs. At times, conte crayons came into his palette to strengthen some areas of hues. Occasionally, he worked with other media on canvas or paper. But irrespective of media, the technique and style were remarkable. Bath, in his forms and motifs, was a classic traditional fundamentalist. He appropriates from native lore and imageries to address contemporary situations. An apostate of Islam, his close association with sorcery and magic, he claimed, had provided him with extra-sensory eyes and enabled him to access the world behind the world. For him each painting session was a hierophantic experience, as forms and images escape from his usually suffused mind to enliven his canvas or other unconventional grounds.
He was one of the nine artists in the 1990 exhibit (Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition) at the Studio Museum in Harlem from which Bruce Onobrakpeya and El Anatsui were selected to represent Africa in the 1990 edition of the prestigious Venice Biennale. Bath said he had great admiration for Onobrakpeya and Anatsui and that the former once passed a night in his house in Dabou when he visited Ivory Coast. Then he spoke about artists and commitment and the need to eschew materialism if an artist wanted to attain greatness. As the exchange continued, we forgot that we were supposed to be in a hurry. It was almost 9.00pm when we went out to get something to eat before departure.
It was atcheke, aloko, and some fish sauce again. One of the wenches that served us the food at a roadside eatery had a cellular phone she was fiddling with. Of course she drew both excitement and regrets from us, as the phone was a luxury status symbol back home in Nigeria. We had discovered, to our chagrin and disbelief, that once one crossed the Lagos-Cotonou border, the mobile phone became a common necessity. And we could not help but wonder silently and aloud what kind of a giant Nigeria was in Africa. No doubt, giant on clay feet or one cast in snow would remain questionable until it transformed into a more concrete, credible, and durable one.
As we got ready to return to Abidjan, we thought it was too late to keep our dinner date with Mr. Njoku. So we rented a mobile phone and called him to cancel the appointment. He sounded sad and disappointed but he wished us a happy trip when we left Abidjan the following morning. Youssouf Bath paid for the call and we took a group photograph together. Then he embraced each one of us before we jumped on the bus and sped off.
Konate was travelling to Cape Town Tuesday afternoon so he could not come to the hotel to bid us bon voyage. But we rang him up when the party was set for departure. After exchanging thanks and pleasantries, we promised ourselves that the fruits of the creative exchange should be exploited maximally, as we had sowed the seed of cooperation. The next minute, we were headed back for Ghana, stopping briefly at a ceramic tiles factory on the outskirts of Abidjan and at the multi-craft village in Grand-Bassam. We stopped again to refuel before reaching the border. Petrol is expensive in Ivory Coast at 590cfa (about N110.00) per litre.
^This is the second part of a travelogue published last week from the book, Critical Travelogue (2003: The Citadel Publishing Company) by C. Krydz Ikwuemesi. The third, and final part, will be published in the coming week.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi MFA, PhD, is a painter, art critic, ethno-aesthetician and cultural entrepreneur. A polyvalent artist of superlative merit, Ikwuemesi has held several solo and group exhibitions. He is the founder of the Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA) where he directed Afrika Heritage (the PACA Biennale), Overcoming Maps (PACA Study Tour of Africa). He is Emeritus President of The Art Republic; Editor, Letter from Afrika, The Art Republik; Ag. Director, Anambra Book and Creativity Festival. He is an Associate Professor of Fine Art, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Cover photo credit: Nicobert.com