UN Art Ambassador visits Linden Hall

By on December 12, 2012

By: RICHARD REITZ Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer

Photos by Preston WhitcraftUnited Nations Ambassador Ibiyinka Alao, of Nigeria, was at Linden Hall last week to address students about diplomacy through art.

"Art is frozen music."

That was how United Nations Art Ambassador Ibiyinka Alao described the power of art to Linden Hall students during his visit to the school on Dec. 3.

"Art embodies a message. Like a song, it tells a story from the artist to the observer," Alao said. Instead of lyrics, he uses strokes of the paint brush.

One of the most important messages Alao conveys in his bright, colorful artwork is that of peace and understanding. His tempera paintings with creative flair and rich detail are largely inspired by traditional images from his home country of Nigeria. But there’s something deeper in each painting.

"Every time I paint a picture, I am trying to fill a hole in my heart," he explained. "People have different ways that they feel this emptiness, and how they fill it."

Alao gained international prominence in 2001 when his painting, "The Perversity of Life (Girls and a Greener Environment)," was selected among artists from 61 nations as the winner of the bi-annual United Nations International Art Competition. He was the first winner from an African nation.

At first glance, his award-winning painting appears to be a scene where several people are taking part in daily activities near a body of water. But he explained how it was actually showing the life cycle of a woman in Nigeria, from infancy, through motherhood and old age.

A few years after winning the art competition, he was tapped as the United Nations art ambassador, a position he has held for eight years that has taken him around the world to share his message, his art and his music.

"It has been a special grace to be able to do this for the United Nations," he said. "It has opened a lot of doors for me."

His presentation included music, and at one point he led the entire audience in a traditional Nigerian song about patience, then encouraged them to stand up, dance and sing along with him. When the song was finished, he laughed and smiled. "You are very musical here. Good job!"

Alao’s engaging presentation was filled with humor and warmth, and he connected well with his audience. He shared humorous stories that illustrated the importance of understanding cultural differences, including one instance where he mistook a bit of American slang as a complimentary phrase.

"I would use it all the time, even as a greeting to people, thinking it was so cool," Alao said. Eventually, he learned that the term used for a donkey was not considered a compliment to another person. "Where I’m from, it is an animal that does its work honestly and never asks for anything in return.

"In one culture, it’s a compliment; in another, it’s an insult," he said. "We have to understand other cultures, languages, and have a very open mind and heart for others."

In another painting, titled "True Miracles," he depicts the beauty of the pearl… but underneath the pearl is the story of an oyster that is dealing with an irritation.

"It is the lesson of the oyster; if there are irritations in our lives, there is only one thing we can do. Make a pearl," he said. "The oyster pours love on this very thing that irritates it, and something beautiful results."

The same can be applied to life. If someone irritates us, we can either "irritate them back, or be like an oyster and forgive."

Alao said one challenge he faces as an international art ambassador is keeping up with his artwork. But that is simply another irritation that he is working hard to turn into a pearl.

"It can be hard to find the time to paint when I’m traveling," he said.

But he has found that acrylic paint on canvas has made it possible to transport larger works, since it dries more quickly and the canvas can be rolled. He had some of the students unroll one of these pieces to display to the entire student body near the end of his presentation.

The opportunity to inspire enthusiastic young students like those at Linden Hall is the pearl that makes the challenge worth its while for Alao.

He told the students that when he was younger, speaking in front of others was one of his great weaknesses.

"I was just so afraid, but decided that if I can’t talk about something, I would just draw," he said.

And as he grew, he developed into a well-respected, and eventually an internationally recognized artist.

"Our weaknesses can show us our greatest strengths," he said.

Art also helped him turn another fear into a strength… speaking in front of others.

Alao speaks 14 languages, and the last one he learned was English. Although he is quite fluent today, he said it was the most difficult of the languages to learn.

"It was the greatest irritation of my life," he said. "You have no idea how difficult your language is."

But just like that oyster, he was able to turn that irritation into a pearl as well, and today has an opportunity to share his message of peace and understanding with people.

He was pleasantly surprised afterward when he noticed the Nigerian flag among the school’s display of world flags in the auditorium. Kristen Jenkins, communications manager at Linden Hall, told Alao the school displays flags from all of the nations where their students reside. Four of Linden Hall’s student, each of whom met with Alao after the presentation, are from Nigeria.

For more information on Alao and his artwork, visit his website at www.ibiyinka.com. More AMBASSADOR, page A19

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