I began this series of conversations with comic creatives and graphic storytellers in order to introduce some of the current practitioners who I think are doing fascinating and challenging work which is little known outside the world of comics and graphic novels, and sometimes little known in that community as in the case of Eze Chimalio.
Eze Chimalio is a brilliantly witty and creative draughtsperson
His paintings feature some unusual materials and processes. He scratches, turns words, even his own signature name, upside down and for a dull dark texture, uses coffee grounds. He is a versatile artist, bold and ruthless with a punk sensibility. He is fascinated by conversation, by the way, women and men speak, the way they perform in public and to each other. And in his work, he refers to the inner life, its differences to the conversation we hear. What is going on in each other’s minds while we perform our relationships? Even those clever with words, even the most articulate do not express what they articulate in their inner voice(s).
Chimalio has been producing the MONOMONO BANZA DIARIES for about a decade. We first met through our work with Neil Coombs Dark Windows Press in what for me was its heyday in the early teens. A sadly missed small press that had all three of its feet in surrealism. We have been friends ever since and worked together on radio shows, gigs, in exhibitions and hope to continue this association through years to come with plans afoot for musical collaboration in the near future.
But for now, it’s very interesting to be able to focus on his graphic novel work for this series for ARTLYST.
JCM: Can we begin by talking about your powerful portrait work? Do you draw real or imaginary people? Can you also say something about your use of materials and your approach to portraiture?
ECM: I started working on portraits quite a while ago, but it started taking form after I lost possession of my studio. At first, I was angry with my situation but was soon thankful because It allowed me to rethink the way I saw life and the way I worked. ‘Failure’ has almost characterised the history of my artistic pursuit up until that point. Not that it bothered me that much because for me work was more important than success in the absolute sense. Now, the real breakthrough for me was animated films which I was making at the same time as painting.
I decided to start making 16 or so frames of portraits on A4 paper before doing the final image. It worked because it allowed me to experiment with everything I could imagine. The first result of these was a portrait of the Nigerian performance artist and activist Jelili Atiku. Many people contacted me after that and wanted me to do their portraits, but I did not oblige them because I do not do commissioned portraits. I am simply not interested in that. All the work I do that are portraits are of the people I like.
They are of real folks who have been studied and digested in my guts and then freed through the imagination and fixed on paper or canvas. I study faces in-depth and I have a very good memory that supports my somewhat poor eyesight, this coupled by the fact that I like drawing allows me to make images that I want to create. Some of the works take a couple of hours while others make take up to a week or more to produce and that depends on what is going on in my brain.
Materials? Apart from coffee which I found out is an amazing colour when mixed with acrylic, I use pencils, charcoal(carbon), inks, shoe polish, wax, watercolour, emulsion and oil paints. I worked for a whole year after art school in a paint factory, so have a love for paints and its cousins.
Here is how I work on portraits. I draw and render the image with as much line and detail that I can remember or care to employ. Once it meets my scrutiny, I copy it at different dpi’s and sizes before I begin the dangerous work of erasing, shading and re-erasing the surfaces of the images with a very sharp razor and fat rubber. I often cut my fingers and the blood does soak into the paper or canvas, but I wipe the gore off as I do not need it there. After I have gotten my image, I transfer it unto paper or canvas, its final destination. With that completed, the real fun begins. All the colours and whatever I choose to add befalls the work. It is a very physical business; nonetheless, I try not to allow the tedious nature of the process shown in the final work. My desire is to find a connection between the dead image I have created and a look in someone’s eyes. I succeed and fail in equal measure and that is okay for me.
JCM: When you draw an external character, are you conscious of your interpretation of the inner conversation and/or backstory of the person portrayed?
ECM: For me, it is very important that the essence of a subject or character cuts through expertise, technique or material for that matter. I believe that everyone has an interesting story to tell, but they are not necessarily that important to the artist and his audience. Still, in seeking love and harmony in our distressed world of today, we must make time and passion for stopping and paying attention even for a moment. That moment could be the making of a better life, a wonderful world of richer experiences.
So yes, I am curious and conscious of the inner conversations taking place within me as I approach the nature of the persons I wish to portray. I am ‘talking’ to the subject throughout the duration of the work, the image. I try to understand their fears, anxieties, focus, hopes, wishes and so forth.
Sometimes the conversations can be so intense and tiring, boring at its extreme, but in the end, I get to learn more about myself under pressure and the new friend I have just made.
JCM: Discussing both your portraiture and your comic work, I find your women are often very challenging, challenging the viewer. What do you feel about this? Do you identify with those women, do you see them as other as a male drawing these characters, or is something entirely different going on here?
ECM: Your observations are correct. The women are always tough and challenging cerebrally because of my interest in the real core of power. As a male, you grow up with this notion that you have this divine appointment to the cult of power of manhood for the primary sake that you are born with a prick.
On some level you cannot be blamed because everything that symbolises power is masculine – men at war, men fighting over money and sex, Tarzan strangling beasts, the heroes, the superheroes, the prophets and so on. Add to that the fact that men don’t cry and you begin to see how half-man and half-biscuit is made. This is the state of our present selves. I am as lost as many mad people. Still, I decided to go into the interior of things feminine to save my being and it was in that cave of blind light that I discovered that Adam did not know what a snake looked like nor did he realise you could eat an apple until Eve educated him.
The female characters I have portrayed thus far carry some of the spirit of Eve, the woman. They come from the authority of taking charge when power is not a debate or struggle. The women play two roles for me. Firstly, they embody the creative and nurturing edge to life and Secondly, they trigger or prompt men to pursue and achieve feats that they would otherwise not have the urge to accomplish through the all-important matter and question of love. In simple terms, most of what men have achieved (bar some) on earth so far has occurred because they were seeking the pregnant ‘feminine’-the god in themselves – without even knowing it.
JCM: I now need to move onto the MONOMONO BANZA DIARIES. Please tell me, in your own words what these stories and comics are about in terms of subject matter. What is going on in your authorial opinion? Please give me an overview of the DIARIES and why you began this series, what was their origin in your life?
ECM: MONOMONO BANZA DIARIES began a life long before I knew I was going to write it. I started writing a journal after my father died to cope with a new shift of order in my life. It was all broken and it did not really have much to do with my father either, but it was kickstarted by his absence. I was not happy when my father left this planet in 1995 partly because we had not finished the conversations we were having on several subjects that included my future, surrealism, his art and business, life as a whole. This also included his work on copyright laws that he had gone to Switzerland to do on behalf of the Nigerian Society of Artists where he was the main man. I had gone off to Tokyo to do my thing on a shoestring budget that resulted in working on the set of Shinya Tsukamoto’s epic TOKYO FIST. I did not get any credits for it and my dream of making it big in Japan failed but not without some great memories of drinking sake and Kirin beer, eating shabu-shabu and going to Noh theatre.
Anyway, the dialogues I was having with my father returned shortly after his death, but this time his voice has gone and had been replaced by flexible and engaging imposters. What I was getting and hearing were of different characters, even animals and plants engaging me in sheer and baffling confrontations and arguments. At first, I thought I was going mad but through meditation realised that those voices had always been there but had been muted. They were, in fact, my own voices.
They were my interior world and the central aim of these competing autocrats were their own kingdom. It was this that formed the skeleton and later foundation of the three-part graphic novel. It is not a dairy in the classic sense of the word as there are simply no dates to guide you, but it is written with dates in mind.
The subject matter in MONOMONO BANZA DIARIES is love sought in a world where nothing is guaranteed.
I find that there is really no universal template for love between humans and the reason for that is this.
Love is an experience that is based on emotion, time and geography. So, in producing the work, I sought to pursue an unfolding world of possibilities, of hopes, of promises, of anxieties and lastly of dialogues and discourse. The third book will end the trilogy.
JCM: Do you think you achieved in MONOMONO BANZA DIARIES what you set out to do? What was successful about them in your eyes. For me, the drama of these DIARIES is very compelling. In the recent extract, I read from Volume 2 the subversion of expectations of motherhood is both hilarious and unsettling. I wanted more. Therefore to me, they succeed as narrative works.
ECM: Thanks for that.
The response I got from the book’s publication surprised me. I had not set out the book to be successful or controversial; most writers will tell you the same. You write because you are compelled to and if it sells, words cannot express the fulfilment you get. The book was able to get ‘there’. It is essential to say here that by success I do not mean I got a Ferrari out of it rather I mean that people actually bought and read it even though it was not your typical graphic novel or comic book. To answer your question, I think it achieved more than I thought it would.
I knew I did a good job with the book, but I did not think it would go anywhere because people are reading less these days. An artist must be willing and ready to produce work regardless of how the public receives it for it is only by doing so that the ‘art’ manifests itself.
JCM: For me, there’s so much humour in your work. Please tell me more about what you feel humour is and how you feel your works are funny. Or have I missed the point? What humour do you admire in other graphic novelists and comic creatives?
ECM: Humour thrives on your sense. It works on your nervous system. Humour is anything, act, play, speech or visuals that can stop you in short and twist while tickling and buckling you in a way that you thought impossible.
Humour in its purest sense is never cruel, violent or destructive. It may display some of these nasty attributes, but it prefers to use laughter as its medicine to soothe the heart’s aches and pains.
I try to include and introduce what I think is humour in the works that I produce. Sometimes it works and I find myself chuckling and at other times it is other people who tell me the work is funny even though I cannot see the humour in it. I think there is humour in some of the sequential panels in MONOMONO BANZA DAIRIES.
It is sometimes quite subtle, so the way to see it is by following a gaze, a smile, a look, a poise of a character or two. Somewhat momentary, they soon dissipate. These moments peep in and out throughout the novel to a greater and lesser degree when the dialogues are sparse or dense depending on the issues at hand and where there are none. My hopes are that readers can find and make sense of them or at the very least, enjoy the silent panels.
I like seeing and reading graphic novels that portray life in the most truthful if outlandish ways.
It does not have to be technically great or fantastic as long as the writer is telling their own truth; you can always find humour in even the most banal of stories.
JCM: Do you have any favourite influences among graphic artists that you haven’t yet mentioned. Is there anyone you would like to pick out for comment?
ECM: There are so many good graphic novelists to name, but I would give you a few here. Marjane Satrapi – PERSEPOLIS an amazing book and an animated feature film, Enki Bilal – NIKOPOL TRILOGY the art is something else, Robert Crumb – FRITZ THE CAT not for your mother and certainly not for children, Hernandez Brothers – LOVE AND ROCKETS, Latin world of wonders, Ed Pinsent – ILLEGAL BATMAN, more giggles than the real thing, Guy Delisle – CHRONIQUES DE JE’RUSALEM, you know this is good from the first page.
JCM: It’s no secret that I am enamoured by what I have heard of the Yoruba god Esu, the trickster, whose name was initially used to translate the devil in the missionary bibles. The current push to change this and confront other wrong use of language unnecessarily hostile to Nigerian divinity is gathering pace. Do you have anything you’d like to add to the debate here?
ECM: Yes, I do. The misrepresentation of these divinities in Western literature and language was calculated and effective. Its negative mission was successful until late. The upside is that the process of change is moving in the right direction as far as correcting the mindset of the ‘outsider’.
They are in turn becoming more receptive to what a divinity like Eshu stands for and as more people like Moyo Okediji, a professor of African Arts and History at the University of Austin, Texas, Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju, a researcher and writer and Jelili Atiku whom I have mentioned earlier to name. Still, a few – they are far more knowledgeable on this matter than myself despite my deep interest therein-continue in their quest for discourse, information, action, education and performance, these divinities would be heard and loudly.
The downside of this uptake is that due to the rise and spread of fundamentalism both in the Christian and Muslim circles, many more people who should know better condemn and dismiss these gods such as Eshu as evil that needs destruction begging the question. What has happened to these people? Why the self-hatred and where is it coming from? What drives a person to feel repulsion and rejection of the very things that defines and identifies his/her origins of past, present and future?
Colonialism? Capitalism? Socialism?
As an African and more so an artist, I find this development deeply disturbing and distressing because we cannot hope for any kind of sustainable future without understanding and understudying the maps of our past in the present.
JCM: You are an international man who has lived and worked in many different countries. Can you tell me something about how this has influenced your work? I believe you spent some time in Japan. Was that an influence on your comic style? Is something subtle going on in terms of cultural exchange?
ECM: I am flattered by your use of the word international. Someone should please contact their Saudi friends to buy me a jet of my own. Colour must be coal tar. Having said that, my travel bug started while I was in Nigeria sneaking around in dangerous vehicles at breakneck speed and such like and going to distant towns and villages. It grew wild when I had the opportunity to travel and study abroad.
Travelling was hard work because I was always broke. That did not deter me. I worked out how to travel like a Bushido monk on very frugal funds which meant having a very ordered way of doing things. I was able to go to a lot of places I didn’t imagine I would ever have travelled to like Russia, the Sudan, Cuba, Colombia, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Germany to name but a few. I was in Japan several times and for quite a while courtesy of a very good friend of mine who taught me basic working Japanese.
The travels did not have any significant influence on my work in the aesthetic sense, but it taught me discipline and order. It gave me the confidence to depend on myself and my thoughts while teaching me everything I know about how to improve my education because before travelling most of what I have learnt in schools, colleges and university was total garbage except the art of reading, comprehension and mathematics.
In japan, I saw how man could use his intellect to unite nature and himself without trying to destroy himself in the process. I studied photographs of Noh dance, watched a Samurai sword being made from ore, went to marvel at the architecture of a Shinto shrine and read a lot of free Manga (visually). Japan, for all its ills and imperfections, remains the most influential place for me and my interior.
JCM: You are also a musician and improvisational composer. Please tell us something about your musical projects.
ECM: I have just refurbished a cornet and a trumpet myself which was a surprise and a joy for me, thanks to the COVID-19 crisis which has made refocus on the power of the mind as the tool of change. The pandemic put paid to meeting my usual repair technicians as no one wants to meet and handle equipment that required you to blow air through them, mouth and handwashing notwithstanding. I had to study the design and structure of the tubes that make up the horn for about two weeks on the internet before embarking on the project of stripping the lacquer and taking the horn back to brushed brass and final polishing. I am pleased with the result and hope to keep studying more on the subject in my spare time.
My focus is improvisational music with an emphasis on Jazz, electronic, film and experimental compositions.
My first album with MSB ENSEMBLE was titled PORTRAITS OF BLACKS IN BLUE which was really an extension of my visual work in the sonic medium. The musical concept on the album had been playing in my mind for some time before the recording. I had toyed with making paintings and composing works dedicated to them but had not realised it up to the making of my debut. It is a project I hope to accomplish in 2021 when I get some cash to boot.
The completion of Portraits of Blacks in Blue gave me some clarity on the direction I wanted to take my ideas to. Some of the compositions were successful while some lacked a pointedness I had sought.
This were in part due to some technical issues I had with the trumpet sound and tonal delivery, a highlight of some of the problems you encounter when you are self-taught. I can say now that I have overcome those issues now after some trumpet-master classes I took on the subject. The second album THE NEW AFRICAN JAZZ BIOSPHERE has more of the elements and colour that I would further explore.
I did a lot of research for some of the tracks on the album. I fused some of the discoveries I made on Nigerian tribal war and funeral music (Abriba) into them like in Hunting Fireflies With Real Bushmen and the atmospheric pathos, In Zaria (Sheep Grazing In The Sun). The album has highlights as well as lowlights, but it had the progression from the former that I was happy with. At present, I have been practising, reading, writing and working on the composition of my third album which would be released under the name of Mallam Sulay Balladan, with me as principal writer/composer. This is as a result of me taking over the name and affairs of MSB ENSEMBLE. Live performances would be part of the new setup as I look forward into the future.
Finally, I have a collaborative project with you soon and I hope that it would result in an EP of beautiful sounds.
JCM: Where can we get hold of narrative work? And what can we expect next if anything? Is there any project that you’d like to realise that you haven’t yet been able to achieve? What could you do if you could do any art project and money was no barrier?
ECM: You can get hold of the graphic novels through places like Amazon and most digital distribution channels that handle ebooks. I would recommend reading the ebook if you do not like carrying books around. They are also much cheaper and always with you if you carry a smartphone or tablet around. Both volumes MONOMONO BANZA DIARIES Volume 1 and Volume 2 BONGO! BONGO! BONGO! are ebooks.
Volume 1 is in paperback but hard to find. I have five copies that I am willing to part with. If you are interested, get in touch. The third and final volume will be out in late 2021 and would complete what I have so far titled THE BANZA TRILOGY, 1250 pages of life as a graphic experience in paperback with an ebook in tow.
That said, I would be releasing my first animated feature film next year titled LA RAMPA circa (2002).
A tale of crime, corruption, sex, politics, intrigue and murder featuring the fictional police detective Enst Buga from Force Headquarters, Abuja, Nigeria which I wrote and shot way back in 2001/2002. The trailer would be out in December 2020. I am also finishing my script for a rogue road movie to be shot in Nigeria.
I am lucky to say that I always have work to do and I like working. I have lots of ideas that I would like to try out, but I am old enough to know that I cannot do them for now, so I don’t bother myself with wishes anymore. Life is interesting.
The art project I would love to do if money was no barrier is to open a hand-made paper factory in Hosanna, Ethiopia and Enugu, Nigeria. I think being able to make your own paper would go a long way in strengthening the visual arts, empowering people and developing sustainable skills and futures for emerging artists in Africa.
Thank you so much for talking to me and ARTLYST
Interview Jude Cowan Montague © Artlyst 2020 – Illustrations Courtesy Eze Chimalio