Authors: Richard Wiley
For my daughter, Pilar,
and for Morgan
The New York Times
August 10, 1984
, Nigeria, Aug. 3. The television advertisement can be seen many times each evening throughout Nigeria. In the first scene an office worker is shown sprawled across his desk, fast asleep. In the second, a secretary paints her fingernails, oblivious to the telephone ringing at her desk. A voice asks, “How do you spend your day?”
To drive the point home, the camera shifts to a Nigerian air-traffic controller efficiently coordinating arrivals and departures, and then to a baggage handler energetically loading a Nigerian Airways jetliner.
The commercial is one of several promoting the “War Against Indiscipline,” declared in March by Tunde Idiagbon, one of the two top men in the military government that overthrew Nigeria's civilian administration in a coup last December 31st.
The students were assembled in the courtyard and the principal was waiting for the artist to arrive so that he could begin his speech. The music teacher was playing a medley of Gershwin tunes on the piano, but the students, though previously quieting to the gentle nature of the music, had discovered that the program was delayed and were soon chatting again. Nigerian and American, Israeli and Indian, they were nevertheless all speaking good English, as easy on the ears as the music that they heard. Their teachers, who were nearly all American, were standing behind them and chatting too.
The principal was uncomfortable with the idea of the installation of the three panels of art, though not with the art itself. He was uncomfortable because the school board had purchased the art as some kind of tribute to him, an act insisted upon by the school board president, though the principal had several times discouraged it, saying that he simply wanted to continue on with his life, letting the events depicted in the art affect him, if they would, in a strictly private way.
The principal was sitting with the school board president and other board members on a makeshift stage at the center of the courtyard, but he felt completely alone in his loose-fitting suit, and he looked into the audience to see if he could find a friendly face among the adult Nigerian guests. Even a bit of indigo would have buttressed him, or the sight of someone wearing heavy glasses on a string.
From where he sat he had a good view of the school gate, which was open and through which he could see the continuing turmoil of ordinary Nigerian life, people walking past with bundles on their heads, uniformed students on their way to the local schools, which they could attend at a hundredth of the cost of attending his. It was clear that the artist would not arrive on time, and it was equally clear that the others on the stage were losing patience. They all had places to go, and the principal could see that even the board president, though he'd been the one to insist on this ceremony, thought it would be better if they just got on with the school day.
Though the morning had not yet given way to the oppressive Lagos heat, the principal had removed his jacket, and when he stood to approach the microphone he had trouble getting the jacket off the back of his chair. A part of it had worked its way under the left back leg of the chair, the only leg not covered by a rubber bumper, so he had to lift the chair to free the jacket and when he did so he saw that the jacket had been torn by the jagged edges of the chair's leg. This struck him as a kind of sign. Not only did his clothes still fit him poorly, but perhaps he should not have gone back to wearing them at all. He remembered the loose-fitting Nigerian clothing that he'd worn, the way the breeze had come through it even during the hottest times of the day, drying the sweat under his arms.
The principal leaned into the microphone and said, “Good morning.” He adjusted the microphone and smiled out at the students, who quieted so quickly that he was caught looking down at his jacket again.
“Recent events have been turned into art by one of Nigeria's great artists and today we were supposed to be able to meet the artist and receive the first installment of his work.”
The idea of paying attention to the art really was a good one, but buying it the way the school board had still troubled the principal, seeming, somehow, like clear evidence of a continued misunderstanding.
“Though life sometimes seems endless and routine, it is not,” he told the students. “It comes and goes according to a set of rules that we cannot understand. But a school is a place for learning, and our school years, though we rarely know it while we are living them, should be the most wonderful years of our lives, with nothing to do with our time but learn, nothing to carry back home with us but books. It is a time when ideas win out over pragmatic concerns, a time when our hearts understand more purely, and a time when each piece of information, each new idea, seems invented especially for us, at the very moment of our learning it.”
The good quality of his opening remarks had put the principal into a certain rhythm, and once speaking he might have continued for a very long time, suddenly sure that he could tell his story as well as the art could. But when he looked up at his audience he saw some of the teachers pointing to the courtyard's side, where the artist, stepping into the school's isolated world, cheerfully stood. And the artist was smiling so benevolently that the principal let himself go. He remembered that the artist had spent weeks on the work, and by doing so surely did understand what had happened better than anyone else, better, even, than he did himself.
The principal held his hand out toward the artist. “Hello, LeRoY,” he said. He then sat back down with the others, waiting while the artist came forward, his assistant trailing behind him with the piece of art.
“Hello, good day, everybody,” the artist said. He spoke too loudly, so the A.V. man turned the microphone down. “What happen over dese las' weeks belong to us all, every one in some small way, dat is why I wan' make it into art.”
The students applauded and the artist bowed. “It took me too long to made dese panels and I apologize for bringin' 'em âround so late. I don' want to take all de time I took, but I can only hope, now, dat my panels will satisfy, speakin' to dose who look at 'em well. Of course, I tried to pound dese my panels wit' de truth, but when you look at 'em de truth will move aroun' a bit, depending on who is looking. Get it? Dat is de way wit' art.”
The students applauded again so the artist told his assistant to unwrap the first panel. “Les do it like dis,” he said. “Today let us enjoy panel number one. Den les wait a short while. Panel number two is already done, but les put it up nex' week. Dat way you can all grow âccustom to de beginning before proceeding to de middle. An since de school board wan' me to pound my third panel right here on de school groun' on de auction night, later on you can all see de end unfoldin' before your eyes. Dat's de way I like things to happen anyway, firs' de beginnin', den de middle, den de end.”
Without further comment the artist and his assistant put panel number one up on the nearest wall of the school, between the nurse's room and the main office door at a spot that had been prepared beforehand. He hung two small talismans from it, two leather pouches that swung down the panel's sides, sending out an aura of safety and good luck. The students were dismissed, and though they filed past the panel, pressing against one another in order to see it well, the bell soon rang and the courtyard was quickly deserted. Later they'd come down to look at it one class at a time.
The school board members hurried out to their cars, but the principal and the school board president stayed by the panel, both of them trying to make sense of it. Though neither man had seen the panel before, as they looked at it now they would not have been able to come to any agreement on what they saw. The principal ignored the whole, staring instead at the far left side, where the nearest talisman hung. He touched the talisman lightly and then tried reading the panel as if it were a book. In this way he was drawn into something that surprised him, once again, by its complexity and magic and depth.
The school board president, on the other hand, saw the same jumble he always saw when he looked at African art. The panel told the story, he supposed, but it was a story that he already knew too well. And in the art the story was longer than he thought it should be, and considerably more complicated, not simple, like stories about real life should be.
Looking at the panel made both men late for work.
Before leaving his flat to walk down the stairs and across the athletic field to his office in the school, Dr. Jerry Neal looked through the peephole in his door. Though there was rarely anyone else on the stairs at that hour, the action was habitual. He liked to take his morning walk alone, without the obligation to chat. He also liked to be the first one at school, to walk through the hazy air without the sounds of other people's voices buzzing in his ears.
The school's chief custodian, a Nigerian man with his shirt off and his trousers unbuttoned, was washing himself at the side of the courtyard and called out brightly when the principal came into view. “Good morning, sir!”
Jerry Neal nodded to the man but he did not speak. The chief custodian always arrived before him. He was the one exception.
The principal put his lunch in the teachers' room refrigerator and, once inside his office, hung his jacket from a wire hanger that swung from a hook on the back of his door. He loved the silence of this early morning time, when no one came to speak to him and when the noisy air conditioner, his constant companion once the day got hot, had not yet become a necessity.
Since it was Monday the principal took out his calendar for the week and shook his head, overcome by the work load, but pleased with it as well. There would be a school board meeting and several subcommittee meetings. There was the problem of salary increases for the locally hired teachers and the mystery of the missing cans of toner for the school's copy machine. Someone had been stealing the toner, but though the chief custodian had twice set traps, the thief had not only proved difficult to catch but irritating as well, leaving such things as dead birds and bats' wings around to try to frighten the Nigerian maintenance crew. Jerry Neal kept an empty toner can on his desk as a reminder to keep the problem firmly in mind. He suspected that once the toner was safely off the campus it came back by way of the copy-machine-supplies salesman, who bought it from the thief and then resold it to the school. He hated seeing the toner can on his desk each day, but since the problem was infuriating, he wanted to infuriate himself further with the unsightly presence of the can. Christmas vacation was less than a month away and he would have the problem solved before dismissal.
The principal had worked on his school board reports for about an hour when, at slightly before seven-thirty, someone knocked on his door. The knock came twice, but he finished the sentence he was writing before sighing and calling out, “Come in!” He didn't like these interruptions at all.
Since it was still early he had expected an adult but when the door swung open a student stood there, a Nigerian boy with his head down, hands at his sides. This boy's name was Nurudeen, and Jerry remembered that there had been some trouble the previous week.
“Ah, Nurudeen,” he said.
“Good morning, sir,” said the boy.
“Well, come in. Are there others, or are we going to get to the bottom of this alone?”
Nurudeen didn't reply so the principal told him to close the office door. “All right, son,” he said. “Did you speak with your parents?”