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“I Made Sure the Lockdown Period Counted for Me and Those Around Me”

Ver Ikeseh launched the I Can 100 Mural Project where he aims at painting murals in 100 communities across Africa and in the process teach kids and youths how to paint murals.

Ver Ikeseh has over ten years of experience as a practicing visual artist. He earned a Bachelor of Art in Fine Arts from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria Nigeria. He also has two art related Master’s Degrees from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and Leiden University, the Netherlands.

Could you tell us a bit more about the I Can 100 Project?

My undergraduate thesis was an analysis of the wall murals within the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. This and my subsequent research on murals have continued to propel my passion to impact lives and minds by transforming dilapidated structures in slums and villages with my colourful murals.

I started a company called Abeda Etcetera where I paint murals in public and residential spaces for a fee. So far the company has been impressive considering the growing clientele. One of the main reasons for starting this for-profit is to be financially self-reliant, employ others, but most importantly make money to fund my community service which is to paint murals in dilapidated areas around Africa. This is in line with SDG 11- “Sustainable human settlement through art”, hence there is a need for every human to live in a sane environment and enjoy a bit of some relaxation.

Most people (especially children) live in slums and villages that lack aesthetics and basic amenities which have now become luxuries for them. While painting in slums and villages, I paint with school children, dropouts and those who can’t afford tuition fees to enable them to mingle, so they can learn from each other. Those who are yet to be students are encouraged to strive to become students while those who are already students are reminded to appreciate the privilege they have. 

Recently, I launched the I Can 100 Project where I aim at painting murals in 100 communities across Africa and in the process teach kids and youths how to paint murals. I have painted some communities in Nigeria and Ghana. This campaign earned me a spot as one of the 25 AYADA Lab 2019 finalists which is supported by Goethe Institute, Alliance Français and I-Space Ghana. Currently I paint mural commissions, and the proceeds are used to fund my I Can 100 community mural project.

Before I officially launched I Can 100 I was already donating murals to communities. I felt a special kind of fulfilment when I painted free murals for those who can’t afford. Then the idea to formally launch the project and brand it was to enable proper documentation, accountability, self-evaluation and to aid me apply for funding.

It’s interesting that the colourful murals excite the children so much they are now more interested in going to school and diligently attending classes. This was an angle I didn’t foresee before the commencement of the project. The slums and schools in Africa, particularly Nigerian, are so dilapidated it seems every school and street need murals. The demand is so high, I get several calls and messages from people who also want their regions painted. One of the strategies has been to concentrate on regions that can’t afford it financially if they were to pay; so I focus on the most dilapidated and deprived areas. As a result of the demand I have increased my target. Instead of painting 100 communities for a few years, I have decided to paint 920 communities and make it a lifetime project. During the lockdown I used the time for evaluation and planning and in the coming months I will launch the 920 Project.

How has the lockdown impacted the project and your mobility as an artist?

The lockdown has been a huge disadvantage to my work. This is because I could not travel to places where I was booked for commissions which meant I lost money and or my money was on hold. For instance, I was to attend a mural festival in Dakar and also paint a few communities, my flight and accommodation were booked shortly before countries started shutting down borders. Everything about that festival is on hold and plans have just resurfaced towards re-planning. I was also booked to fly to Lagos from Abuja for another mural commission but plans were put on hold due to the Covid-19 lockdown. However, since I could not travel internationally or interstate, I concentrated on Makurdi city where I spent most of my time during the strict lockdown in Nigeria. In Makurdi I painted several murals, both commissions and donated murals. I made sure the lockdown period counted for me and those around me.

What have been the effects of restricted movement on the African communities you visited?

It was very difficult for people to cope with, particularly when a large percentage of people in Nigeria live from hand to mouth. Most of them depend on their daily earnings to eat. For instance, a man with three wives and eight kids who rides his bike locally as a means of transportation business was forced to sit at home and stare at his hungry kids and wives daily. This is quite difficult in a country where the government didn’t make adequate plans for palliatives. So eventually the man ends up disobeying the authorities who have said no movement, he would rather face the wrath of the government and risk contacting Covid-19, because not going out means his entire family would eventually die of hunger. There were also reported cases of crime on the rise. This is because restricted movements meant limited earnings; as a result those who were in absolute lack ended up stealing and committing crimes to earn.

It’s also interesting how most of the remote communities didn’t believe Covid-19 existed. They believe it was a way for the government to control the public and possibly embezzle funds. For these categories of communities, adhering to Covid-19 as directed by WHO wasn’t even an option nor a topic for discussion. In fact, to them wearing a nose mask, using sanitizers and observing social distancing was unnecessary and alien.

How have they responded to the lack of mobility? Did it reflect in your mural commissions?

Lack of movement coincidentally inspired new modest ideas for entrepreneurship. During the Covid-19 lockdown when movement was restricted, it became obvious to people how important essential services are, with food top of the list. Several people began to sell food in various forms and quantities. These were easy ways for people to earn. In addition, several people ventured into the nose mask business, as it was compulsory for those who had to commute. These included fashion designers, tailors and anyone else interested. There was a ready-made market for nose masks and sales were easy. Those who could produce them easily retailed them earning extra cash on the go. Unfortunately, I didn’t capture these new norms in my murals; however, I have included them in my sketches for my next set of murals.

During the lockdown, people also realized it was a good time to spend together as families. So people travelled across regions to go stay with their loved ones. People who have tight work schedules and hardly have time for immediate and extended families went extra miles to travel to their families, even when it required getting a Movement Pass from the government authorities.

Do you believe this episode will change anything for the future of mobility?

Yes. This is because the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown reminded the world that restricted movement is difficult to adhere to, especially for low income earners; however, there are so many things we can get done without having to move from point A to B. During the lockdown, people found innovative ways to achieve their goals with limited physical movements. This has also helped to cut certain costs related to logistics. These are areas people explored and are willing to explore further, even after the Covid-19 pandemic.