By Morakinyo David.

June 6 is World Environment Day, and Lagos is all wet. It has rained for four hours already and many parts of the city are waterlogged. Somewhere off Ozumba Mbadiwe Road in Victoria Island, the rainwater, heel-high in some places, slosh atop the interlocking stones as vehicles speed to and fro. Nearby, inside the Murhi Okunola Park, three young painters have planted themselves at vantage points to document the immediate surroundings on their respective canvases.

Keeping a dying art alive

What they’ve set out to do is an art known as Plein-Air. “Plein-Air, sometimes called classical painting, is not that popular anymore, so you won’t find many artists doing it,” says Femi Adedeji, convener of the painting party, which is meant to commemorate the global awareness campaign on preserving the environment. “I find it very interesting, which is why I have chosen to stick with it.”

From his position in the Park, Femi is half-way through painting the view he has fixed his gaze on since the exercise kicked off one hour earlier. On the canvas I can see the paved walkway, a garden bench, lamp-posts, tree branches, refuse bins and, far beyond the fence, a block of high rise building. But the shades of colour in his brush strokes don’t quite match the actual objects, I observe.

Femi smiles knowingly. The big deal of Plein-Air painting, he says, is the fun derivable from the process, not the final outcome. “The [unwritten] rule is to paint what you see, and not what you think exists. There will always be interplay of colours,” he says, adding that artists tend to see things better while observing the landscape by the moment.

Keeping records of the environment

The overall aim of this outdoor painting campaign is to blend art with the concept of ‘green economy’, something already synonymous with Lagos State in the past six years or so. So how long is the painting going to last? “I take my time and I hope to finish this particular painting (canvas: 16’by20’) in, say, three hours,” he says, turning his face to look at me for a moment. “I use acrylic, which is best suited for outdoor painting. I prefer it because it dries quicker; besides, it’s fun and interesting to use.”

Some metres away from where Femi stands with his easel, a lanky Nojeem Muse is also busy painting away. By the time I get to him, he has already completed work on three small canvases and stowed them away in a wet-canvas carrier, a brown box on the floor inches from his feet. He is looking out towards the Law School, a tall tree blocking the view.

“My canvas (8’ by 6’) shows that everywhere is wet; the rain water is splashing all around. Plein-Air is another way of keeping records, while not writing,” he says with a grin. “The essence of Plein-Air actually is to capture fleeting moments. If you look closely, you won’t see the entire detail—until you step back a bit.’

I do as he has suggested and step back. I can make out a line of slanting eucalyptus trees, specks of rich red flowers in the foreground and office accommodations in the background. Nojeem says he is awed by the sheer endlessness of nature itself and he plans to keep on painting for as long as he lives. “The more I paint, the more I reason,” he tells me.

Private passions

Interestingly, Nojeem is self-taught, though he passed through the Federal College of Education (Technical), Akoka. Over the years, he has tried his hands at sign writing and a couple of other blue-collar jobs, but later realized that he was not fulfilled at any of those engagements. Feeling trapped and stranded, he retraced his steps and began to explore his artistic side. He is now clear where he is headed.

“In my paintings, I always leave room for the viewer to imagine, interpret and express their own feelings,” he says when I ask him what he thinks a stranger would make of his current effort in a neutral setting, a gallery perhaps. “As painters, what we do is basically to pour out our hearts on canvas the same way a musician waxes an album or perform on a stage with all the swag. The rest is for the audience to make sense or meaning from the show.”

Does he plan on selling all his paintings from today’s commemorative outing? No, he says. “A painter doesn’t have to sell every work he paints; he needs to keep some masterpieces. I am not painting for anybody but for my future.

Painting the monuments

Muyiwa Akinwolere, the third artist on the team, is selling his. “The painting I am working on will go for between N25, 000 and N30, 000,” he says, near one of the Park’s ‘In’ gates. “These days I am beginning to be more streetwise. I don’t just market my works in the traditional way; I also promote my works online, which has yielded some results.”

He has come here with the thought to focus on one piece for the day, choosing to highlight the scenery that stands the island apart from the mainland. “On the Lagos mainland, there are no fast cars as such, no high rises. The idea I am working on is that on a weekday what does the Victoria Island look like?”

Muyiwa confirms that there is a different feel to outdoor painting as opposed to studio practice, which is what he does for a living. As a matter of fact, he was ‘lured’ into today’s activity. “Plein-Air painting is a professional practice that is dying out and what Femi is trying to do is preserve it,” he says. “[it] is a process not to be rushed. The truth is that older generations of Nigerian painters did Plein-Air, and back in the day it was a widespread and acceptable practice. The joy of the time was to see beautiful scenery and/or landscape and commit such to the canvas.”

After the day’s outing, Femi has his sights on bigger projects. “Many of Nigeria’s monuments and landscapes are yet to be painted and there are quite a number of them,” he says before I leave the trio by themselves. “Yes, there are photographs and videos all over the place, but someone needs to preserve these aspect of our heritage on canvas. That’s what’s going to be next for me.”