With drawings, ex-prisoner praises Divine AmnestyBy Tajudeen Sowole
(First published in May 2008)
In Lagos, prison reform activist and artist, Arthur Judah Angel revisited the gallows, over the weekend, as his solo art exhibition opened on a spiritual note.
The exhibition, Divine Amnesty, which was organised by Biodunomolayo Gallery, National Museum, Onikan, Lagos as part of activities marking the gallery's fourth year anniversary, had the artist, an ex-prisoner, emphasised the need to abolish capital punishment in global jurisprudence, across the world.
Though not exactly meant to revisit the artist’s campaign against prison reform and abolition of capital punishment, the show, which opened on Saturday April 26 and ends on May 3, 2008, unavoidably had the prison subject dominated discussions, among visitors.
Largely of drawings, the exhibition, Angel said, was aimed at looking at how divinity plays a vital role in one’s life when hope is lost. Stating that he is a typical example of the theme of the exhibition, the artist recalled that his freedom was a divine amnesty: "Everyday on death role was time spent in hell. I witnessed the deaths – by hanging, firing squad, lynching by the prison warders, sicknesss, suicide and poisoning – of 450 fellow inmates. It was life in the belly of wild beast, life in the valley of death, a kiss and romance with the powers of darkness. Those nine years and six months were years of extreme mental and physical tortures"
The exhibits were grouped into two: his drawings done in prison and post amnesty works. Largely of drawings, the works ranged from such titles like My Fellow Inmates, Keeping A Date With the Hangman, Enemy’s Strokes, Destiny in Doubt and Back to Life.
The post amnesty drawings cut across social strata as the artist appeared to have a special place for women and children in his art. Perhaps this has to do with his traumatic experience in the prison; quite a number of works at the show extolled the virtue of the family value. These include Motherhood (series), Trials of Motherhood, Joy of My Soul Violation of Womanhood, Mother and Child.
His passion for drawing, Angel explained, has to do with his believe that the best way to communicate through art is drawing. "Drawing makes the artist. I don’t think an artist can communicate better in paintings. Drawing is the best medium to get crucial message like this across."
On the choice of the artist by the gallery, the curator of the show, Biodun Omolayo said it was based on the lessons about the travails of the artist over the years. He explained: "Imprisonment can be in different reasons. It could be physical or spiritual for an offence committed or not. Whichever way, one will loose his freedom and access to see the good and natural things of life, even the sun and the sky." And to regain the freedom, Omolayo added, it will take a Divine Amnesty.
Angel who has started an NGO called New Life Bridge to attract support for abolition of capital punishment said he had wanted to remove his prison memoir from this exhibition, but was convinced to add it on the advice of the gallery. "Because there is New Life Bridge, I thought I should remove my art from the struggle to abolish capital punishment. However the gallery thought I should include my prison experience. I have been on this campaign since I left prison, I think its time for others to take it up under New Life Bridge."
Under the sponsorship of Amnesty International, Angel had toured over 15 countries with exhibition of his drawings. Some of the artists’ works are currently being used as part of campaign by Amnesty to stop capital punishment in Nigeria and across the world.
In December 2007, Amnesty disclosed: "Despite the country’s recent assurances that no one has been executed there (Nigeria) 'in years', Amnesty International has uncovered evidence of at least seven executions in the last two years. It is feared that more may have taken place."
And perhaps to prevent recurrence, Amnesty warned that
approximately 700 prisoners were estimated to be on death row in Nigeria. More than 200 inmates, it noted, have been on death row for over ten years, some for over 25 years.