The local art community is reeling with shock with the announcement on Thursday morning of Nsikak Essien’s death, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Nothing could have prepared anyone for the devastating the news of Nsikak Essien’s sudden departure from this earth-life that Thursday, July 30 morning. Only, on Saturday, July 11, he had exchanged cheerful WhatsApp messages with Ayo Adewunmi, the Life in My City Art Festival (LIMCAF) artistic director. Those messages, which concluded with: “We are gloriously blessed, Ayo. Thanks”, turned out surreally to be his last words to Dr Adewunmi.
Essien was the jury chairman of the LIMCAF’s 2019 edition, which concluded sometime in the middle of November. He was also what Dr Adewunmi described as “a background supporter of LIMCAF”, who “drew sponsors to support the festival”.
Essien, born in 1957, drew much of his artistic inspirations from his environment back in those heady years of the 1970s and LIMCAF was indeed for Essien “a home-coming after [having] been away from Enugu for many years.” It was at the Enugu-based Institute of Management and Technology that he had graduated in 1979 as the overall best student and winner of the Fasuyi Best National Art Graduate in Painting. After an 11-year stint as a lecturer in the IMT’s Fine and Applied Arts Department, he moved on to become a full-time studio artist in 1991.
Undeniably, his membership of the now-defunct AKA Circle of Artists helped to indelibly etch his name into the industry’s consciousness. The Circle – which featured such heavyweights as El Anatsui, Bona Ezeudu, Chika Aniakor and Chris Afuba, among others – was a collective of 13 artists, who were also art teachers in different tertiary educational institutions. Nonetheless, the artist subsequently enjoyed a distinguished solo career, which saw him curating the National Gallery of Art’s biggest ever exhibition, tagged ARESUVA 2008.
Leaving Enugu for Lagos was a turning-point in his career as well as in his personal life. His eventual embrace of the Christian faith impacted on his art practice so much that it was omnipresent in his experimental relief-textured mixed-media works and became the theme song of his solo exhibitions, titled Love Stories, which held at the at Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos from June 2 to 8.
Shortly before the exhibition, which was acclaimed by critics as one of his most profound statements with mixed-media, he said: “Man is on pilgrimage on this earth to raise the consciousness of unifying people.”
Among the members of the local art community, Essien was celebrated as an inspirational figure and for his modesty. Buoyed by his Christian faith, he extended his message of love and unity beyond the exhibition halls to his interactions with his numerous colleagues. Dr Adewunmi, for instance, recalled first meeting him in 1991, when he joined IMT as a National Youth Service Corps member. “He helped to point the direction for my professional practice and wrote the foreword for my first solo exhibition,” the LIMCAF artistic director recalls. “It is still unbelievable that this master of masters, whose artistic themes were inspired by his Christian faith is no longer with us.”
The fact that the news of Essien’s demise was announced to the art community on the birthday of his colleague and co-LIMCAF jury member Sam Ovraiti was painful to the latter. “What is the meaning of life,” Ovraiti mused in a tribute. “What is the meaning? What is the meaning of the struggles of today? … Nsikak Essien, oh Nsikak, what is the meaning of our friendship, what is the meaning of this?”
Meanwhile, art journalist and publisher Dapo Adeniyi wrote in a WhatsApp message: “I’m just facing this sordid news, what I attempted to deny at first. That one of the most beautiful people I have known in the whole world, a very dear brother and friend is departed: Nsikak Essien.”
Predictably, the outpouring of reactions from the other members of the art community was as sorrowful about his passage as they were effusive in extolling his good deeds. One of these reactions was from the illustrious matriarch of the local art community Nike Okundaye, who expressed, in a Facebook post, “with [a] heart and deep sorrow” the passing of her “dear friend and great artist, Nsikak”. According to her, “Nsikak was such a very wonderful man, humble and loved by many. He was a shining star in the Nigerian art world. My husband and I will miss him dearly. Our hearts and prayers go to the wonderful family he left behind, [who are] now mourning his passing.”
Another noteworthy reaction came from Mufu Onifade, a leading artist, who founded the Ara Movement. He described Essien’s death as “a huge loss to the Nigerian art community – and the world” in his Facebook post. “What a black Thursday!” he lamented in that post. “With all rudeness and shock at its disposal, Death warned no one, sneaked in and took Nsikak Essien away. And we lost a gentleman to the core. We lost a great artist. We lost a humble humanist. We lost a fine teacher and a hugely creative artist.”
Essien’s name, he recalled, was already familiar to him while he was still a student. “We read about him. We studied his works and were greatly inspired. I encountered his ‘Portrait of Segun Olusola’ in 1992. A masterpiece that amplifies Essien’s truism as a super colourist! I had since looked forward to meeting him. I finally did in the late ’90s when I visited his Lagos home to discuss Art. Full of smiles and full of life, he cut the image of a man at peace with himself and everything around him. He never hid his Christian faith, but he would never push it down any body’s throat.”
He also recalled that Essien featured alongside artistic heavyweights like Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya, Professor Peju Layiwola and Professor Jerry Buhari in a seminar, titled “When Does an Artist Become a Master?”, which was organised by Ara Studio in 2006. “Nsikak Essien presented a practical paper that effortlessly underscored his brilliance and mastery of Art. I had since reaffirmed my admiration of him and his art. He was a man we all treated with absolute respect, and this is based on the strength and quality of his work and his friendly and receptive mien.”
The news of Essien’s death hit the contemporary Nigerian art scene exactly a month after that of a former Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) president Uwa Usen.