by Habeeb Kolade
I painted all night long, the one who demolished my beautiful sand castles, my enemy within, me.
It was my three year old son that really taught me how to paint. Though, I had begun to paint ten years before he was born and he had learnt to paint from me; from his paintings too did I learn to smoothen my writing aptitude. I had always wanted to paint and write and they were the only things I ever thought of. And then, they were the only things I ever did with all my heart, with all my strength, and with all joy.
I sat before my canvas again and I wondered off. The beautiful landscapes that travelled into the sky and the setting rosy sun that breathe its rosy rust into the ambient air whose presence I perceived in the swaying chartreuse stalks, bending and bowing at will like a bridal usher, waltzing to the breeze’s indiscernible melodies, always held me in awe. And when I holidayed to the home of Hadrian, Newcastle, sitting upon the Tyne River, I peeked out of the charabancs to behold its waters that dared the sky with its calmness, bowing beneath the bent bridges, slithering below the rowing boats and sparkling in the city’s night lights, one of Europe’s finest. As soon as I stepped on Grey Street, I felt like holding out my brush to paint its beauty but I could not. I loved it more in life than on canvas. Though I did eventually paint the street and the magnificent Theatre Royal that kissed one of its numerous alleys, I turned it away into my cupboard because I feared my own inadequacies and had found no beauty in what I painted, in myself.
But in the ancient castles of Newcastle, I could see the ancient rusty roofs of Ibadan in disharmony with few silver roofing sheets like chatoyant crystals amidst boundless brown mud, undulating at will and terminating in the horizon. The ancient cinema had given way to fashion shops and plastic effigies dressed as humans and owned by immigrant Igbo men and the alleys had given way to dual carriage express roads; those roads whose gutters had swallowed the faces of our own castles of brilliant architectures, home of royal chiefs and affluent men. How time turns wealth into waste and back. More were to go down too and give way to giant shopping malls, cinemas, and commercial banks and I did not know how to paint how our history was been slaughtered for modernization. We must forget old things; many say and give way to the new. Yet billions of taxpayers’ money sinks into rediscovering lost antiques that were by man destroyed. How amusing man is! And how amusing it was to my son who asked why a farm was being started in the middle of the express ways.
I had always wanted to paint them all, everything I saw; dancing children, colourful nights, abstracts, colourful flowers and the twirling waters of the valleys. I had always wanted to tell the tales of the different people that I saw too. How the poor built the homes of the rich, how the poor would normally vent their frustration in street or communal violence and how the rich outthought them and fed off their ill-thought decisions. I wanted to paint too, the tears in the eyes of the fallen, the joy in startling victory and the arcane hope of the city hustlers, scrubbing between the highways, licking their sun whipped sweaty skins, and somehow believing that someday, palaces will be built from their penny pockets planted with proceeds from peddling packaged perfumes and packed plantain chips. Such beautiful belief I could not afford.
My first work of art that saw the daylight was of the girl I fell in love with. I painted her in oil and smiled when I flashed it against the light. I loved the girl in the canvass and it was the first time I was proud of my work. Artists are better artists when they fall in love. Though I am yet to convince myself whether the artwork was great or whether I was just in love with the fair maiden in the canvas; the fair maiden who bore me the son that taught me how to paint. When she finally saw the painting, she was clearing out our store. She had broken into admirable tears and wondered why I never gave it to her. I felt betrayed and wished I had the courage then to push it into her bag that evening that I painted her as she left but I could not tell her that the reason I painted her was because I feared that she would leave me and love another man while I wanted to keep her forever. Her affluence scared me, her beauty more. But she never did. She agreed to stay with me not for one night but for every night, and through all the changing seasons. She agreed to marry me with my inadequacies. I have given her a ring of copper with no stones and that smile that came off her face was the best gift I had received all my life, from anyone.
The second best gift was the birth of my son. That night, I wrote her a poem and sang it to her. I had never seen her so frail yet strong and I had always wondered how it was possible for a whole baby to come through down there. I sat by her and kissed her fingers persistently. And she would smile every time that I wondered if she ever was in pain. She always appeared perfect, maybe to please me. Maybe to make me feel I was doing enough to make her happy. But somehow, I knew I was not doing enough. I had managed to scale through university and had secured a job as an accountant in a firm after rejecting all offers from her and her father to secure me a job in a better place. It made me less a man, I told her. She did not question me, she only said that she trusted me and sat beside me to audit my first account.
And yesterday, I sat again in front of my canvas wanting to paint my blissful life. Even though I never found pride in what I painted, I found joy painting it. To me, it was not always good enough and I bothered on what the world would say when my horrible work stands before them. So I never put them out. I would just sit before my magnum opus and wonder if there was any better than it. But it lasted for just a few moments before I tossed it off somewhere believing it could not stand any chance. And like my son building sand castles with pride, revelling in joy as he put in the lightening conductor and then somehow tossing it off in the evening, so did I treat my artwork each time I finished it. And like my son, I would begin another day to build my own sand castles, marvel at its perceived beauty and compare it to the Taj Mahal, then sadly convince myself that it stood no chance with Newcastle’s ancient castles and then toss it off into a corner, by the same hand that I had built it with, sometimes with the shove of my feet and then walk away, leaving behind what had given me but ephemeral pride, a quick passing pleasure.
But that was not what my son taught me.
That was not what made me build my own art gallery at Leaf Road or resign my job the day I was promoted. I stood that day with my oil paint looking at my canvas again ready to paint my son, the bliss of my life. He stood a few metres away at the basement of my house with me, facing his own canvas too. While I stood waiting to bring myself to paint, to begin again the amassment of my sands of thought to forge a picture of my son, his complete castle, not the way he was, but the way I wanted to paint him, the way I wanted him to appear, my son had begun to throw oil on his canvas. I was attracted to his beguiling concentration to his artwork and I paused and watched him, how he focused deeply on each smear he made like a rain maker summoning some powerful gale to drive the clouds together and that any little loss in focus would rive the twirling clouds and like falling sand castles render all his work, and to his mother and me, child’s play, futile.
He paused intermittently to look at me and flashed his severally gapped teeth, gapped from the loss of a few of his milk teeth or maybe they were never yet there. I smiled back and he quickly continued. I saw his face light up as he finished. And then he ripped the canvas off his frame, and his delight shone and lighted up the whole room.
Dad! See! See what I painted!” I peeked at his work and I could not fathom what he drew.
“What did you draw?” I asked. I looked again at the incoherent smears of oil.
“You! That’s you, dad!”, I smiled again.
This is me?!” I laughed and he laughed with me.
This is beautiful! I said. “Can I keep it?”
“1000 naira! That’s how much you’d get it” He replied, smirked and extended his hand. I hesitated with a frown.
He grabbed the work from me and flew up the stairs to his mother, proud of the work he had done and willing to show the world, confident of its worth. He was proud of what he drew, the incoherent smears of oil, however imperfect. I could notice the chasm between my son and me. And I sat there smiling sheepishly and threw several looks again at my several works that dined in the basement corners with cobwebs. They returned my every look with haunting disappointment and sobbed at how I offered them no confidence and how I had found them worthless, not worthy of sunshine, of peeking eyes, of reaching hands, of wads of notes, and camera flashes. How I had instead let them down and left them at the mercy of spinning spiders using them as stanchions for its webs. I could not be more saddened.
I sat there unable to paint, caught in my own web of thoughts. I had come to know one enemy who had let me down and shut off every of my attempt for success. He had haunted my every thought from the incunabula of my painting odyssey, my aimless wanderings through this art of time and pushed me to become an unfulfilled accountant. He was the one who stood on my path to success and ordered me back, telling me I was not good enough and showing me how much I would fail in the face of the world, in the midst of the best, how imperfect I was. I had believed him and lost the belief in myself and like a snail, burrowed in my shell, afraid to hear the world tell me how slow I was, how much I drooled, how ugly I looked and how imperfect I was. And there was my guerdon for failing myself, for running from the goldsmith’s hammer on my crude gold, the emptiness that enveloped me, the shame, the murdered esteem, and the defeat I had always hid from.
I gazed at my canvas and drew for the first time with pride, my own enemy; that enemy who if I conquered would make me free and powerful beyond measures, unstoppable. Free to break through all chains, to conquer my deepest fear of inadequacy, to rise above normal and conquer those warriors that who stood in my way, who I had always feared and cowered from.
I painted all night long, the one who demolished my beautiful sand castles, my enemy within, me.
Habeeb Kolade tweets from @Habeed_x
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