Give people back their story
Ibi told a story from his childhood, about how his father allowed him to capture fireflies under the African skies. His father cautioned him, though, that the fireflies must be released or there would be no stars in the sky.
To become stars is their destiny and to release the fireflies is to give them back their story. When we let them go, they become greater versions of themselves.
Ibiyinka Olufemi Alao represents his home country of Nigeria as an Art Ambassador for the United Nations. His message of peace and healing through art is temporarily housed in Northwest Arkansas where he is artist-in-residence at the Rogers Experimental House.
I sat down with Ibi to talk about his work, his life and his understanding of art as a medium for healing.
How it all started
Instead of pursuing his dream of a Naval career, a wise school counselor steered him into architecture instead. Ibi’s creative talent was obvious, and his love of math and physics was perfect for a career in design.
After graduation, he worked for an architectural firm. At the same time, the war zones to the north in Sudan and Niger had forced refugees to his land. Some of the rescued child soldiers were housed in a camp nearby.
To entertain them in the evenings after work, Ibi would engage them in art projects.
These children, uprooted from all they knew, forced to become killers before they barely had permanent teeth, had no concept of home. Their story had been ripped from them. Rather than a place they were from, “home” was a distant future.
Art provided a way for them to heal. It was a way to connect with each other. It was a way to dream a new “home.”
But they were little boys, and little boys are rambunctious and rowdy. It was a challenge to keep them busy, and a large commercial architectural project was now demanding Ibi’s time.
How could he keep those boys occupied?
An art contest!
Funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2001, an art contest for children was just the ticket. Except, the boys noticed there was also an adult component. Why should they compete if Ibi did not?
So to keep them quiet, he entered the contest too.
Surprise! He won first place in all of Nigeria. His artwork was sent to New York to compete with 61 countries, and he won that competition as well. That piece of art still hangs at the United Nations.
Those rowdy boys with no story of home opened a path for Ibi to release his soul’s expression.
Give people back their story
Ibi explained that when a river is dammed and not allowed to reach the ocean, the story of the river stops. The life that could grow, the birds, the fish, the plants, are prevented by the stopped flow. The river has lost its story and the land suffers.
We do the same with a people when we prevent their language use, their cultural traditions or dress. Losing their story creates conflict when they lose their home and their honor.
As an Art Ambassador, Ibi remembers what a wise mentor once told him “Real diplomacy is not about solving problems, it is about listening.” We cannot have peace when we cannot live our story. We are no longer connected to our ancestors, our land, or our source.
Allowing a people or a nation to tell and reclaim their story is an act of peace building.
Ibi’s work is to listen and let the art express the story. Whether it is on a canvas, through the music that runs through his head while creating that painting, or through the performances surrounding the work itself, Ibi finds new ways to express stories and build peace.
His next step will send him to Arizona to visit a Native American reservation. And again, he will invite a new way to give people back their story.
For more about Ibi click here.