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Nengi Omuku

While she drove away a man struck the rear of the car. She slowed, and I wondered if something was wrong with a tire, or if a door hung loose. The man scurried to us and stood by my window. He claimed, as soon as we bent forward, that we were the only good people in Port Harcourt. “No one would listen to me. No one would stop for me,” he said. “I am on my way to Lagos, and the bus has left me behind.” At that moment he began to weep. “Your city is a terrible place. People here are wicked. If I can leave you would never see me again.”

Four days prior she told me she was robbed the previous year. Throughout our conversations the robbery was referred to in anecdotes—possessions they made away with, how she shivered when she recalled the night, what security measures she’d had to take, and how unsafe she still felt.

To the man we gave our sympathies and a little cash. He wiped his eyes, indicated some gratitude, and yet, dallying beside the car, appeared to consider our gift paltry in comparison to his utter want. We debated if he was a conman, if his desperation was faked. I thought he was honest because he had taken the risk to stop a moving car. But she mentioned being stopped in a similar fashion once, being asked for help by a man in need of the other half of his transport fare. Days later the same man approached her, at the same bend of the road, making the exact request

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She is surrounded by such recurring affront. By all superficial evidence she is in fortunate financial circumstances, considering the SUV she drives and the part of town she lives in. That the bungalow she lives in is her family’s, and that she struggles from year to year to make her life as a painter possible, are facts imperceptible by those who consider her from a distance. As a woman in the Niger Delta, young and unaccompanied for the most part by a man, men older or younger, strangers or neighbors, imagine her as a wife-in-waiting. One man, she recalled, only entering her studio for the first time and watching her work, told her after their brief chat: “We are looking for a wife.” By we he referred to himself. His use of a collective pronoun couldn’t have been more discerning of the delusions of fellow men.

Since she began her career in 2009, considering the date of her first inclusion in an exhibition, she has painted almost exclusively with oil: on paper, canvas, panel, linen, and board. She could be called an abstract painter, but this would simplify her fascination with figuration. Figures began to emerge in her work early on—figures that seemed, at first, like wiggling gobs, but became discernible as human outlines; faceless, wigged, and decked in apparel. At a cursory glance, no one looks at her paintings without seeing the human form—or, to use a more heady word, the forms are anthropomorphic. Yet when I steady my eyes, the forms become specters motionless for a brief moment. Transient, hovering in the foreground like atoms before they break into smaller particles.

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