With two exhibitions in her less than three years’ sojourn in Nigeria, Kathleen Stafford, wife of the United States consul general in Lagos, has succeeded in transforming her memories of the country into forms that would leave a lasting impression in the minds of people
As an artist she is able to put life into common things that would otherwise escape the normal eye. A wife, a mother, a diplomat and an accomplished artist, Kathleen Stafford, wife of the United States consul general in Lagos, draws inspiration from her travels and turns them into unique works of art. As someone who can see what most people cannot see, she fell in love instantly with the African continent the moment she first set her foot on it in the 1980s. “People are warm and accepting. That is true of every country I have been to in Africa,” she noted.
Stafford, who is currently concluding her tour of duty in Nigeria, was the cynosure of all eyes during her recent exhibition at the Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos. The array of works on display excited the art community, including budding artists, professionals and art collectors because they are a departure from the regular oil paintings-cum-mixed media that dominate art exhibitions in Nigeria. The works exhibited are a combination of watercolours and collagraph prints and the subjects are mostly people, places and rhythms of everyday life.
Nike Davies-Okundaye, owner of the gallery, was very excited about the exhibition: “This is the work of a lady who has an African heart. All her life’s work is devoted to Africa. She is good in spirit, good in mind and everything about her is African.”
From Olumo Rock, a panoramic view of the ancient city of Abeokuta, to Obioma, the itinerant tailor also known as Ejika ni shobu in Yoruba language and Three Sisters, a portrait of gaily attired ladies dressed up for a formal occasion, the exhibition, which was titled: Glimpses of Light and Colour, tells the story of the artist’s sojourn in Nigeria. Apparently, she is fascinated by the culture of the people. With a stroke of the brush, she is able to capture what she sees artistically. “I get a lot of inspiration by merely opening my eyes and observing. It is easy because life is on the streets here. Unlike America where such things happen behind closed doors and windows, here people are selling food on the street, they are selling cards, fruits and all sorts of things,” she told this reporter in an interview that preceded the exhibition.
More than half of the 39 pieces of art works that she exhibited were on Nigeria. Some of them are Ajoke, Celebration, Igwe, Iyalode, Onilu (Drum Maker), Otun and Folake. Indeed, one can easily relate with Stafford’s paintings. She favours realism, in her approach to art, rather than abstracts. Her style is unique. Whether she is painting portraits, market scenes or cityscapes, the outcome is usually the same: subtle and vibrant at the same time. Not many people do collagraphs, she noted, because it entails a tedious process. Collagraph is a technique in which the artist adds materials to a rigid background such as wood or cardboard. The resulting design, which is built up like a collage, is then inked and printed on paper. Throwing more light on the process, the artist said she spends hours upon hours making preparations for just a single work. “I have to go through three to four different steps,” she said, adding however that the opportunity is endless with what one can do with collagraphs.
Stafford first did collagraphs as her graduating project in 1972, but did not practice it for 25 years. She returned to it recently to capture the rich texture and brilliant colours of African clothing. On the other hand, she said the medium of watercolour is straightforward, “but mistakes are usually difficult to cover up.” Kolade Oshinowo, a professor and one of Nigeria’s leading artists, admits that watercolour is not his favourite medium. “Watercolour is my weakest point as an artist; I rarely go there because I don’t have the temperament. But she has handled it very well in addition to the prints,” he said. Oshinowo and Pius Emorhokpor, another artist, agree that Stafford’s work reflects hard work.
Indeed, Stafford was the toast of the art community at the opening of her second exhibition two Saturdays ago. In the words of Bruce Onobrakpeya, celebrated Nigerian printmaker, painter and sculptor, “She came, she saw and she conquered.” He said her style is what you may call super reality. “She reflects the dignity and life in Nigeria; she reflects reality. She makes a simple subject like drawing water from the well look so royal, so interesting and so fascinating,” he observed. Oshinowo equally appreciates the fact that she showcases the rich culture of Africa through her paintings. “She has done more of Africanism than even Africans, and her collections have been enriched by the period she has been in Nigeria,” he said. Similarly, Tanwa Olawepo, an aspiring artist, is passionate about Stafford’s works because, in her estimation, they give a good testimony about Nigeria and Africa.
Responding to a question about how she combines her duty as a diplomat, wife and an artist, she said it is a pleasure because as the wife of a diplomat, she gets access to circles that she would not ordinarily have access to. She added that she lives in a lovely compound that gives her the opportunity to paint endlessly, but since life is made up of different parts she has no option but to live up to her responsibilities. “It’s a lovely mix. I enjoy parties and I enjoy meeting people, so it’s a pleasure really. I’ve really enjoyed going out and meeting people here. But when I get to the Sudan (her next posting), I suppose I will spend more time indoors,” she concluded.
One thing that has continued to amaze her is the kind of patronage artists in Nigeria have, unlike other African countries she is familiar with. Hear her: “In a lot of African countries that I’ve been to, you can hardly get people to buy paintings, but Nigeria is different in that respect.” She has enormous respect for many Nigerian artists, including Tola Wewe, Rom Isichie and Davies-Okundaye, who she refers to as a sister and a friend.
Unlike most people, Stafford did not grow up trying to discover what she wants to do in life. From childhood, she was surrounded by creativity; her grandfather was an artist and inventor. By the time she was ready to go to college, she already knew she was going to major in arts. So far, she has exhibited her works in various cities worldwide, and her paintings are found in private collections, embassies and museums around the world. Generally, she is fascinated by people everywhere she goes. “I generally like to draw people,” she admitted. That is one of the unique things about her paintings. As the wife of a diplomat, she has had the opportunity of travelling to so many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. “That is what is great about travelling. People look different everywhere we go; their clothes are different and their lives are different. So, when I’m painting them, I sort of imagine what their lives are like.” But when she was living in Kuwait, Stafford did not get much opportunity to meet and interact with people, so she resorted to painting mosques and depicting other aspects of Islamic architecture such as domes and minarets.
Has the nomadic life of a diplomat affected you in any way?
Oh yes, when I listen to my friends who have their parents and grand parents close by and have family reunion everything, I feel jealous. I think it would be nice for our son in particular. When my mother was ill, I always feel sad that I can’t get there fast enough. So, things like that are a bit hard on the family. On the other hand, you have this rich texture of life that I feel so fortunate. I’ve seen much of Africa and the Middle East in the past two decades, meeting people. I’ve really enjoyed it. I hate packing; order than that, it’s `fine.
The Staffords assumed duty in Lagos in August 2010. Since the day they set their feet on Nigerian soil, the artist’s love and enthusiasm about Africa have further deepened. She is particularly fascinated with the energy and drive of the average Nigerian. “In spite of all the odds, people are determined to make a living. I see people walking miles to get to work. As for the people on the streets selling things, it cannot be easy; they run up and down trying to make a living,” she noted, concluding with a smile on her face: “I’ve had a wonderful time here.”