Olu stared stolidly at the unfinished portrait of Chief Obi’s late mother in his poorly illuminated studio. A sole, white light, from the torch strapped around his head, shone against the canvas. A Masters in Painting graduate seven years ago, he used to be the best portraitist in Lagos and would finish a portrait in single hours. This painting that was to be his major break, though, was stubbornly different. He’d spent six months tweaking it and it still looked like a mask, metamorphosing and deepening in its hideousness each time it freshly emerged from the carver’s shed. No significant progress, – a step forward, ninety-nine backwards each time, – canvas painted over thirty-something times and Chief Obi, already growing impatient, was asking for a refund. Olu constantly felt an impulsive urge to dump the portrait for other smaller works to raise the money. However, as an invincible rope wound tightly round his neck the urge constantly drew him back to the portrait. A portrait that gawped at him like a vexed god wondering what to do with an unfaithful but beloved priest. The lines were thick and dull and had a crystal air of laxity over it. The features just wouldn’t cooperate with the interplay of draughtsmanship, colouring and experience. Each colour took its place on the canvas in an alternating toggle between light, dark and iridescent and each line was birthed by an unsteady, unconfident effort.
Befuddled, Olu dropped his brush. He stroked his palm across his face, smearing the latter with a hollow, multi-hued mosaic. The portrait giggled, irritatingly.
“What?” Olu blurted. The portrait only stared back in its habitual vexed state. The dark-brown, bluish-purple strokes bordering the edges of the woman’s lips contracted into an annoying smile twitching in an angry face. Olu saw this. He took two steps backward, tilting his head in a simulated re-examination of the work. The smile remained on the face but the head tilted in mockery of Olu and the lips parted.
“What are you looking at?” He heard.
“Why, me indeed!”
“Indeed what?” Olu shrieked.
“Indeed! What are you looking at?”
“You, of course.”
Olu rushed forward and turned the portrait to the wall. He picked up and laid a new stretched-out canvas on his donkey, and sat to work. A scoff resonated in the oil-slash-paint stuffy studio as the first stroke lay aimlessly.
Olu scanned the room.
“Who are you looking for?”
“WHO ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?”
Not seeing anyone, he returned to the new painting. He dipped his brush unconsciously in his palette and whished another stroke. It laid contrastingly over the first stroke. The scoff again, a bit heartier. Olu threw the brushes up, grabbed his palette knife in frustration and rushed towards the painting. He hit something blindly on his way and a faint shriek was let out. He didn’t stop.
“Why are you tormenting me?” He cried.
“What are you looking at?”
“Why are you tormenting me?”
“What are you doing?”
The canvas screamed in an ear-rending tear. The palette knife stuck mercilessly in and dragged across the canvas, forcing sharp outbursts from the lifeless cloth flailing faintly from its stretcher.
A grave silence enveloped the studio. Olu heaved a deep sigh of relief and stood. He straightened his browned singlet. The torn canvas stared at him, but his features and nerves calmed, a satisfied murderer. He strutted back to the canvas on the donkey, unknotting his taut neck muscles and fingers, dipped the blue .5 brush and threw another stroke.
“What have you done?”
His heart beat rapidly. The torn canvas gawked at him, its smile intact. Olu rushed at it, spearing the palette knife into it repeatedly.
“What are you doing?”
Olu stopped. He wiped the beaded sweats off his face and armpits, allowing the canvas fall from his hold. It came to rest some inches before a pair of black polished, hand stitched Italian shoes. He lifted his head, slowly tracing the starched, creased trouser folds resting on the shoes. His view bumped a fleshy growth of hands sprouting from the short-sleeved arms of the top. Red, rectangular traditional beads stopped slightly above them. Chief Obi’s head propped out of his neckless frame, looking down at him. Olu’s sight faltered, fleeting between Chief Obi’s lower frame and his eleven year old chubby son, Ikenna, beside him. Ikenna had always called the painting Olu’s ancestor, and was wincing and rubbing his left arm exaggeratedly.
“What have you done?” Chief Obi asked, aghast.
Olu stared at the dead canvas, the bloodied palette knife and slumped to the ground.