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Uwa Usen: Shock exit of creative sector’s most engaging leader

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TRIBUTES are good for what they are – paying due respect to the departed. No matter how adept one is in the art, he either makes a very good work of it or ends up with a very bad piece. There is no middle score because, often, the receiver is already deeply engaged in the tribute’s thrust before encountering it.

  So tributes are tricky. Should you be adept in communicating emotions, you get the beholder of your tribute feel the loss to the extent of tears. Should you not be, you just end up, giving the much you can and leaving the rest to conjecture. But in making tributes to peculiar persons, even the best of chronologists, biographers and orators fail short. They are just condemned to scratch the surface, no matter how good they are in their art.

I cannot write a tribute that would suffice for Uwa Usen – my friend, colleague and “brother from another mother” who passed on a fortnight ago, in a manner that still leaves me shocked and in utter disbelief.

  I can only bring myself to say the much I have because I owe him a citable ‘goodbye.’  More so, because I know that should he still be alive, he would insist that I said something.

I cannot recount how many times he said: “Man Chuka (the way he called me) what do say about it? You must say something… I know what you can offer….”

  Beyond being a buddy, Uwa ardently believed in me. I cannot explain why. I was convinced that he got my back, I believe that I tried my best to give him assurance that I got his. We actually, worked like a tag team in, primarily our art activism endeavours which eventually extended the relationship to other realms of friendship. This made me know how passionate he is about people, leadership and particularly, our field, the arts. He was a genuine leader, and a very charismatic one indeed.                He had the rare natural gift of securing any favour he keenly routed for through his natural charming ability to persuade, unrivaled generosity and very creative ‘packaging.’

  Uwa was a leader, motivator and well accomplished achiever.

  Handsome, always dapper and focused, he lived literally from one project to another, left records and a haul of honours. But sadly, he died too soon. A joke we used to share highlighted his deep engagements in academic scholarship; art and the creative sector leadership; the Rotary Club; co-ordination of creative sector activities along with church chores.

  In all of them, no matter how many, I cannot remember any project Dr. Usen engaged in for just himself. He lived his life for the people and craved for better society where art was pivotal. He always had smarter ideas for which he never shied away from putting his feet forward on.

As recent as April 24, 2020, the novel virtual exhibition of contemporary Nigerian sculptural art pieces which he curated. The show that features the ‘who is who’ in the three-dimensional field of the country’s visual arts was entitled, ‘Sculpture Beyond Lockdown.’ Still available for viewing online, the group exhibition which was mounted as Nigerian sculptors’ innovative way of commemorating the 2020 World Sculpture Day, also came as an ingenious beating of a corner over the restrictions of COVID-19 necessitated lockdown and presented an opportunity for artists to showcase their artworks despite restrictions to physical gatherings like typical gallery exhibitions.

That is the kind of ideas associated with Dr. Usen. He had a knack for breaking barriers and proving that things that appeared like hey were beyond reach are achievable and surmountable. He sincerely believed that art, especially through unfettered creativity, can offer solutions to most of man’s problems and he lived the belief until death.

  Writing in his (Curator’s) comment on the sculpture show, he canvassed this his unwavering art-based ideology of life. Without knowing it, he serendipitously, used his directing of the sculpture show to establish a concrete reference point to his mission as an active artist and to consolidate his general ideology of life as something dependent on creativity while capturing his conviction that all humans are equal, irrespective of whether one is born in royal court or in ghetto.

  Interestingly, Uwa had a very elite background but he hobnobbed more with the lower class.

His words: “Sculpture symbolizes the experience of the artist and his interpretation of knowledge in an objectified form to acknowledge or discredit an ideology of a homeland.

  “Our knowledge about history today is rooted in …art which enriches the experiences of history for people to discover the shared experience and the associated thoughts of the work of art exhibited by the artist which vents their shared experiences, their way of thinking, Ideology, fears and expectations on the pandemic through sculpture.

  “The theme of this exhibition is ‘Sculpture Beyond Lockdown.’ I was inspired to do this theme because of the global pandemic and the lockdown. The work of Oladapo Afolayan and Ken Koli has a unified conherent narrative which is insightful about the present-day pandemic. The Steatite Stone and the Mild Steel treated with brine work done by these artists have a universal spatial reference that is globally referenced to recent reactions of people regarding the pandemic — the way it closes the gap between the rich and the poor. The work of Ayandepo Abiye Ayanladun titled, ‘The Leveler,’… gives a compelling insight of the origin of the pandemic, the lockdown, how it affects us as family, our outlook as result of the lockdown and the impact on business.

  “Generally, the exhibition addresses the ravaging pandemic and celebrates the International Sculpture Day which is today 24th of April 2020. The works are true reflections of these two focus with a cultural implication.

  “Traditional and modern techniques and styles that involve various sculptures materials is dominant.”

Characteristic of the deceased, he rallied ‘everybody’ (almost every frontline sculptor) in the ‘… Beyond Lockdown’ group show. This is similar to what he did, 2004 through 2006 when he was Akwa Ibom State Chapter Chairman of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). Being one who craved that everyone partook in his bounty, he secured the state government’s nod for a set of public art commissions and brought the creme de la creme of Nigerian artists to display in Akwa Ibom.

  Dr. Usen who served as president of SNA, led the 58-year-old body, nationally, to what could the period of its most memorable display of art stakeholders’ unity and effusion of resolute activism. This was manifest in the sector’s outing during the National Assembly’s bid for revalidation of the National Gallery of Art (NGA) Bill in the chambers of the House of Representative in the era of the Sixth Assembly in 2008.

  He was also a curator of the ‘Nigeria @ 50’ national exhibition in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. His ideological bent was noticeable there.

  His era in SNA leadership, in which I was privileged to serve as ex-officio member of the very tight-knit national executive was marked by high level lobby that reached up to Aso Rock and a sagacious human engineering among all levers of artists in Nigeria. Even when internal and external challenges emerged, the manner of securing solutions bore hallmarks of suave negotiations as well as sophistry in deployment of power and authority. There are many instances to cite even in his native Akwa Ibom chapter as well as Lagos and FCT but all settlements were amicable.

  Uwa’s personal tendency to have everyone as friend largely influenced the results. Sometimes when I winked in ‘howdy?’ on how we got through some knotty developments so smoothly, he would smack my shoulder and say: “Man Chuka, you don forgot say I be barrack boy?”

Yes, he was the son of a super cop. His father was a one-time Inspector-General of Police in some southern African countries. Being a real barrack boy, Uwa spoke fluent Yoruba, Ibibio, Efik, Hausa and some passable Igbo. He also had his way of connecting intimately with the folks of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) where he had his early childhood as his father also served in the helm of the country’s Police. You needed to behold him dancing with the T&T band troupes in a cultural carnival. He even brought them severally to perform with relish in   some street carnivals in Nigeria.

The ‘barrack boy’ knew his way through people. He was also very resourceful to me when I served as the national General Secretary of SNA and he served as ex-officio member.

Dr. Usen started his secondary education in Westmorland Secondary School, St. Gorges Grenada and later St. Gregory’s College, Ikoyi Lagos wining several prizes in both schools. He had a fruitful studio apprenticeship under the studio master and doyen of African art, Dr. Bruce Onabrakpeya, after graduating from Ahmadu Bello University with B.A. Hons, in the mid-1980s and M.F.A. in Sculpture. In 2019, he obtained his Ph.D from the University of Port Harcourt, River State. Until his death, he was a don in the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, where he was the head the department of Fine and Applied Art in the Faculty of Environmental Design. His studio forte is in metal sculpture.

  Somehow, he lashed on studio work with gusto in the last four months of his life. He told me in confidence that l he was planning a solo outing after the ongoing online exhibition. For that, he waltzed zestfully into a flurry of stainless steel sculpture masterpieces — most of which we discussed and they are very engaging works.

  Like a true student of Onobrakpeya, Uwa worked in a vast range of media. He is widely exhibited with a sizable number of art research publications.

A dyed-in-the-wool Rotarian, Uwa was deeply involved in community development and social projects. He was, until death in his late 50s, a Chapter president of Rotary International. 

  He is survived by his wife, children and siblings who I do not know how to console now that he could not survive this terrible pandemic.

  How do I tell them that them that their husband, father and brother was the most genuine leader in the sector and they would not turn to mourn deeply and assume that he may have flogged himself too hard to achieve an ideal society which never came. But at least, Uwa tried and proved his pont. That is sufficient consolation.

  Without sounding outlandish, Uwa was an outstanding leader, a down-to-earth mobliser, an overtly creative man, a jolly-good fellow and my friend.

We all, will miss him because he was of  a rare breed.

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