What is the role of the artist in the age of the Corona virus? What does the artist see, feel, hear, taste in the new sea of anxieties? Who is an “artist?” Why does he matter? Does trauma enforce creativity? So many questions. Maybe we should turn to the great artist, Ben Okri. Hear him riffing in the Financial Times (March 20, 2020) on the questions:
“I remember during the Nigerian civil war, which I witnessed as a child, that when the bombs began to fall, and when the family was cooped up in a tiny space, with little food, was when I learnt the most about my cultural heritage, and the lives of my father and mother. They told stories to distract themselves, to amuse us, but mainly to ward off fear. It seems that the more society advances, the more we need this primeval power of storytelling to keep us going. When Boccaccio wanted to tell us what qualities helped people survive during the Black Death, he showed us a group of people travelling through a plague-stricken landscape. Their chief resource was telling one another stories to fortify, delight and strengthen them.”
The artist is a human being. The human being is an artist. Sometimes, the role of trauma is to force the artist to listen. There is beauty in pain and suffering. There is beauty in triumph over trauma. But life goes on. The artist is just another human being enduring one-ply toilet paper because that was the only one he was lucky to get at the grocery store. And Okri’s musing reminds me coyly that there should be boundary bending that blurs the distinction among classes. Art is art, from the streets of Lagos, to the highbrow theaters of Broadway. Art is living.
The artist bleeds. The artist hurts. We are at war. For now, the living is art in all its pain. And we live it. And we live through it. My Lover works in the hospital, the virus roams the halls of her paycheck and we never know who is going to be infested next. Our daughter is a doctor in the hospital, brave one texts me about her colleagues infected with this plague. Brave one, our baby, is now grown up enough to be sacrifice for the god of narcissism. Art does not have to wait until this is over. Living and dying are art, yes.
There is nothing new under the sun that has not happened before. Our ancestors before us saw hell, and saw tomorrow, but they endured it even though they did not like what they saw. Our ancestors were their own vaccines. Those who lived to tell the story of that time when people fell off the farms and the hunting trails to their mysterious deaths had no idea what all of that was about. They simply danced to the drums of hope that somehow, they would find meaning on this earth. That meaning eludes us.
I found a letter from my mom to my dad about the Asian flu that terrorised the earth in 1957. It was a matter-of-fact letter that went near viral on social media when I put it up. I thought about the bravery of my mom, so young, caring for those too sick to care for themselves. I thought about how romantic it was that she would reach out to her lover so far away. And the cliché about distance making the heart grow fonder mocked my proximity to my lover. My lover would like to save my life by going far away from me.
So, it is very toxic in our household. My Lover comes back from the hospital and undresses fully in the mud room that houses the washer and dryer, puts the clothes in the dryer and then heads straight to the shower. The kids are in the room avoiding contact with her. I do not have the heart to leave her alone. But it is risky, we are both at risk. Our first daughter is in her apartment in isolation because she has to be in the pediatric cancer ward and since she’s seen positive patients. She doesn’t want to be exposed to the virus. We don’t know what we are doing. This thing can wipe out whole families. But life goes on. I might not be alive by the time you are reading this. OMG, I am such a drama queen. I will survive this and live long to torment my readers and haters.
In real life, I am not an artist, I do play one. I am a bureaucrat struggling mightily to contain this plague upon us. I am what you call a knowledge worker pressing my phone trying to connect resource to resource, resource to the needy. The last thing on my mind is worrying about the poetry of this thing. Yet there is poetry. To relax, I turn on to Fox News to listen to Mr. Donald Trump who I cannot bear to call my president—I am an American, sadly. I am fascinated by the lush poetry of his ignorance and arrogance. I could watch him forever. This is why he is popular. He has the poetic instincts of a six-year old, and many Americans love that. They love cooing gibberish to toddlers. Mr. Trump is an overgrown toddler.
I imagine things. I guess that makes me an artist. What will the world look like after this? Has Covid-19 manufactured more compassion now that we see clearly the divide between the haves and the have nots? How should we document it in song? Should we write a book? But then, I hate writing books, because I come from the oral tradition of my ancestors. YouTube. Yes.
We will be fine. I have seen war. And it is not pretty. And I didn’t see all of it. But I was an 8-year old with my little brother, a 6-year old, alone in this city that became suddenly very strange and cold without our parents. Biafra. When you survive a war, everyday living becomes war. The anxieties never stop. We will be fine is a cheesy mantra that keeps me sane.
This is not the time to be worrying about writing, or dancing, or theatre. We will sing again, we will dance again, and we will write again. We are doing all that, but we just don’t call it art.
Ikhide R. Ikheloa is an author at Enkare Review