Studio practice, research work and the supervision of his painting students have kept artist Blaise Gundu Gbaden busy since the outbreak of the pandemic dissuaded social gatherings. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
Most Lafia residents largely avoided social outings and already hunkered down indoors by early April. Then, the coronavirus pandemic had not yet officially been proclaimed a countrywide scourge. After all, the government-imposed lockdown was still restricted only to the federal capital, Abuja as well as to Lagos and Ogun states. “It was mainly [due to] an urban consciousness,” Blaise Gundu Gbaden explains. “On the outskirts [of Lafia], life continued as usual since there [seems to be this] congenital denial of the existence of COVID-19.”
With the eventual closure of institutions of learning, the Federal University of Lafia’s associate professor of painting and drawing retreated to his two main redoubts: his studio practice and domestic activities. “As early as March, I had begun to do miniature acrylic paintings on circular formats, some as small as 15 cm in diameter. Understand that being a member of ASUU [Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities], I had embarked on the nationwide strike action in February. So, I was at home for a while before the sanctions were imposed.”
Meanwhile, thoughts about the pandemic trailed the 54-year-old to his studio. Soon these thoughts lent themselves to visual expressions, turning his paintings into a vent for his pent-up emotions. “The virus completely took charge of my thinking processes and so I had to do art that would reflect its damaging effects on the human psyche, so to say,” he recalls. “I painted vigorously. And quickly too, to record the temperaments as they occurred.”
True, painting on circular formats had been his signature technique since 2018. But then, wasn’t this, incidentally, almost how the dreaded virus is being depicted? A globular object with blunt-edged spikes projecting from it?
Besides, circumstances corralled him to a mixed-media technique. And this technique admits a generous dose of acrylic paints as the major paint component. “This simply because at the time of the lockdown acrylics were the major artist supplies I had in my studio,” he discloses. “Again, I must confess that I have used acrylics in recent years because my art production requires an immediacy of response. Acrylics offer me this chance to see the effects of the creative process almost immediately. I abandoned oils a long time ago since they seem to choke, especially when used in studios. In fact, these days I work outdoors in the open.”
Expectedly, the lockdown period turned out to be heaven-sent for his academic research work. “Our dictum [in the academic world] remains to publish or perish. But, I am carrying out research work these days at my own pace. I have now consolidated on my career. The days of random writing have ended. It is now creative pursuance of a narrow strip of specialisation. What painting means to me and the way those around me, or those who came before me, have experienced the painting enterprise, the art they use, the formats they adopt, the spirituality that motivates them; all these elements inform the central fulcrum of my current research.”
Gbaden, like most artists, does not consider the lockdown detrimental to his art practice. Don’t many artists, after all, work at home? “For me, the art studio has always been at home,” he says. “Yes, it’s true that as a university lecturer, I work in the art studios with my students during school hours and while supervising their art or doing demonstrations, but basically my creative work is done at home. The lockdown only extended this period of staying at home.”
Even so, the restrictions undeniably came with its inconveniences. How, for instance, would he hope to replenish the supply of his art materials under the circumstances? It became not only obvious that he could no longer freely move around, but also that he would be unable to get his artist supplies when he needed them. “As I speak to you I have completely exhausted my art supplies. I have been trying to get fresh supplies from Abuja, but the lockdown has affected the sales of art materials, as these are not considered essential materials. So, if I fail, I may have to send for acrylics from Jos. The problem with Jos is that I may not get the sort of acrylics I want for my art production.”
Gbaden’s pre-COVID activities used to be like this: as a university lecturer, he would spend a whole day teaching his students as a top priority. On getting home afterwards, he would devote most of what was left of his spare time to any current art projects.
On the role of the artist at times like this, he says: “It should be to continue doing art that is relevant to the social, psychological and spiritual well-being of the people. Art is a commodity meant to be consumed by the art public and so should be done to reach this group of people. I am aware that most pedestrian persons see art as a sideways distraction. But the reality is that art has enmeshed them and their thought-processes more than they know or are capable of admitting. So the artist should strive to keep the art alive by continually reaching out to the public good. And good does not mean mere grandstanding, but criticism as well, essentially of policies that are detrimental to the pursuance of peace, security and well-being of the people. And in doing so too the aesthetics of art should not be compromised; that is composition, colour, thematic focus and adherence to the principles of design. The twinge of imagination and intuition that most successful artists have is based on years of contemplating and applying these truths in their art production.”
Despair, meanwhile, lurks somewhere in the shadows. This is as the pandemic lingers beyond the optimists’ timeline. Events seem to be edging both artists and stakeholders towards adaptation to new realities. “Adaptation is what we are prone to at this moment,” Gbaden continues. “Already, web-based conferences are going on all over the place. People use social media to engage art in a way never contemplated before. We should adjust to this reality.”
The University of Nigeria, Nsukka graduate of fine and applied arts urges his fellow artists to look beyond the internet-based facilities and seek new mediums of expression. “I may have to go back to drawing using the common pencil. Art materials are often around us, but we neglect them. So, improvisation would be the key to survival. Use that which is available to express yourself. Beyond that, turn to the internet to display your art.”
Creativity, he affirms, should on no account be stifled under these dire circumstances. He recalls being acquainted with artists, who have resorted to fasting just to get inspired before producing paintings or writing poems. As an undergraduate, he adds, he was practically sleeping at the Ben Enwonwu painting studio of the Fine and Applied Arts Department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in preparation for his final examinations in painting. “It was only on the eve of the submission date that I finally got inspired to produce a painting. I remember earning an ‘A’ grade in that paper.”
Meanwhile, as he continues to paint “vigorously”, he is gearing up what he calls a “Corona Series” for an exhibition that would hold “as soon as this scourge is over”. His academic research and writing, as well as the supervision of painting students at the undergraduate, masters and PhD levels, are also keeping him busy. “They had sent in their research papers, proposals and thesis chapters before the lockdown. I am perusing these. There is work to be done. As for compositional formats and materials, I would leave that to the realities of the availability of materials.
“I have applied for an artist residency programme scheduled for 2021 and the selected candidates should be contacted soon. So, I am working with an open mind to accept the vagaries life throws my way.”