Tam Fiofori: Have Art, Will Travel

That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention for a few days/week/months, you miss out on articles like this which touches upon the subject of one of your core chapters. I’m not quite sure when it was published (google tells me 21/04/2010) but check it out on Next Online. I still take the freedom to fully reproduce it here, simply because I don’t think there has yet enough been written (at least not in publications I have had access to) about this art tradition (compare that to the breadth of literature on truck arts in Afghanistan/India/Pakistan):

Tam Fiofori:

Have Art, will Travel.

As children growing up in Benin City in the 50s, we had to invent games. Benin City being a popular stopover town on the main road that linked the then capital, Lagos, and the Western Region to Onitsha and the Eastern Region (and even Cameroon), was a busy and ideal place to spot the many cars and lorries (before the advent of luxury buses) that passed through. So, we invented a quiz game based on memory, observation and descriptive powers. Essentially, the game was to spot a lorry, memorise its licence number, know its brand name, its colour and the inscriptions on the front board above the windscreen; which was where most of the idiomatic and poetic sayings were boldly written.

The lorry-spotting quiz game was intricate and complex. The variations went like this: you called out a licence number, or a brand name, or the inscription, as clues. Your opponent was then supposed to fill in the other bits of information. The first clue could be God’s Time Is The Best and, if you knew the lorry, the answers would be LE 268, Bedford, Blue. You had to match the clues to particular lorries. Or you could start with LE 268 and the correct answer would be God’s Time Is The Best, Bedford, Blue. The inscription and licence number were the major clues.

Surprisingly, any attempt to fake or cheat was invariably found out; for, at most, within two weeks, these same lorries frequently passed through Benin City in one and then the opposite direction. Also, it took most lorries about one whole hour to stop for a food-and-petrol break and then drive through and out of Benin City. This meant that children who knew and participated in the game would most likely have seen the lorry, and memorised its peculiar particulars.

Photo © Tam Fiofori (published at Next Online)

The messages

As our fascination with brand names: Bedford, Austin, Morris; colours and licence plate numbers gradually faded, we became more fascinated and intrigued by the messages the lorries bore. The messages became the main point of interest and the major clue in the lorry-spotting puzzle.

‘No Telephone to Heaven’ became my all-time favourite message. Maybe it was because telephones were relatively new and few in Benin City then. It was always a big thrill when we were allowed to talk on the telephone with our friends; some of whom were in ‘far-away’ Agbor. The idea of Heaven and talking to Almighty God himself, I agreed, was both unthinkable and impossible!

‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’, ‘Remember Six Feet’, ‘Save Journey’, ‘Slow And Steady’, ‘No Hurry In Life’, ‘Trust In God’, ‘God’s Case No Appeal’ and ‘Beware Of Friends’, were some of the memorable messages of my lorry-spotting youth. They were in the realm of social/public service and traffic education; more so when I remember that in those days on the narrow Benin City-Lagos road, there were many signs that read, ‘Beware, Elephant Crossing.’ In essence, these lorries took their messages across Nigeria and, can be rightly regarded as innovative travelling billboards with words of warning and wisdom.

Later in my early teens when my father was transferred to Yoruba land, I noticed that nearly all the lorries (Bolekajas) were Bedford and their messages were in Yoruba. Being that kids master languages fast, I was able to decipher that my favourite ‘Ewe Nla’ meant that a big leaf can never become a small leaf.

When I travelled with my Kings College multi-sport team to play against Achimota College near Accra, I was amazed to notice the Ghanaian versions of these lorries. Called Tro Tros, they were all Bedford, had their own fascinating messages with a definitely Ghanaian flavour and a different sitting arrangement; with the passengers’ backs towards the driver’s back, both looking at opposite directions.

Advent of Mercedes lorries

As from the 70s, a new dimension of lorry-body-art became noticeable on Nigerian roads. It seemed that all the Bedford, Austin, Morris lorries had disappeared, to be replaced by Mercedes Benz 911 lorries. The shape of the front of the 911 is all moulded metal and so a new form of lorry art or travelling art evolved. This is tailgate art. The messages on the back top wooden board are mostly not exciting, mostly mundane ‘Peace Movement’ or in Igbo accompanied by a huge date of a calendar year. On the tail gate are artworks; usually stylised, of lions in combat with men wielding karate kicks (the influence of Chinese films) and a speed limit. ‘No Standing’, ‘Horn Before Overtaking’ are standard instructions which are always disobeyed. Another original aspect of tailgate art is the signature and addresses of the artists that are prominently displayed.

A few months before Pope John Paul 11 was to visit Nigeria in 1998, I ventured into what was literarily a museum of stationary travelling art. Travelling through Mgbidi between Onitsha and Owerri at night, we drove past mile-long German Benz luxury buses parked on either side of the road; each with a religious motif, usually Jesus, painted on the back, and holy Catholic scenes on the sides. ‘Covered By The Blood Of Jesus’, ‘Psalm 119’ and ‘Jesus Saves’ were some of the iconic talismanic messages offered to potential passengers of these luxury buses that ply long distances across Nigeria.

Diseye Tantua employed a mix of these sayings in a collaboration that incorporated fragments of Fela’s Afrobeat lyrics for his Afro Pop Art ‘Look & Laugh’ exhibition in Lagos in 2009. In works like ‘Time Wait 4 Nobody’, ‘Original Hustler’, ‘Democrazy’, ‘Water No Get Enemy’, ‘No Event No History’, ‘Suffer Work & Chop’, ‘Life No Get Fotokopy’, ‘Chop Alone Quench Alone’ and ‘No Time 4 Nonsense’, Tantua made this marriage successful by blending colour and meaning to achieve new reason.

A carefully selected mix of classic, loaded, one-liners; expressions of witticism, wisdom, warning, wailing, barbed street humour, quasi-spiritual invocations, veiled threats, political protest, social commentary, common sense; the sublime and absurd masterfully hued and garnished in colour tones.

Foretaste of uprising

In an astonishing journey down the Forcados River in September 2005, I got a foretaste of the great unrest to come in the volatile oil-rich Niger Delta. At virtually every turn in the snaking creeks, we were accosted by armed red- head-band-wearing militants in motor-powered dug-out canoes, who wanted to know our mission. Our knowledge of the lingua franca of the Niger Delta let us through. Then out of the blue we saw ahead of us a huge goods-and-people transport boat.

Incredibly, on the back of the huge loaded boat, was a painting of a man with both his arms raised aloft in a clenched-fist salute of defiance and revolution, and above his head was written the slogan UPRISING. For those familiar with reggae music, this piece of travelling art is a tribute to Bob Marley’s album with the same title. As I raised my hitherto hidden camera to grab a sneak shot; in what could be odds of one in a million, a young man riding on the roof of the boat also raised his hands “in uprising” to collaborate Marley’s musical statement and the mood of the Niger Delta. The message was clear.

Also, not sure whether I already before linked to this article by Soyinka on the same subject.


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