The Ebola outbreak in Liberia no doubt brought the country to its knees, and the news of the situation at one point seemed to have near-apocalyptic implications. The last thing on the mind of anyone on the ground would have been art or creativity… or so they thought. Yet, the many priceless acts of creativity throughout this crisis have helped millions of people nationwide emerge from denial and adopt preventive postures and protocols that would keep themselves and their loved ones safe during the epidemic.
Among those championing the creative cause against Ebola are artist couple Omar El-Shabu and his better half, Maisha, along with several other Liberian artists who will present their works in a major exhibition at the National Museum in Monrovia from December 1, 2014 to January 31, 2015. The other artists include Lawson Sworh, Mohammed Bah, Marcus Benn Yancy and Isaac Dubor.
Named and styled “Recovery”, the exhibition aims to help eliminate the panic and fear people have of Ebola and make room for healing – “visual healing”, according to the organizers.
The Shabus, better known as ‘Baba and Mama Shabu’, have had an extensive and coveted artistic career that sets them apart as nothing less than sages. Baba, a painter with experience in academia as well as the African textile industry, is regarded for his expert knowledge of traditional African symbols, those native to Liberia being no exception.
His use of traditional African symbols in his paintings encodes an awareness that viewers must learn to discover or rediscover, toward a stronger sense of cultural identity. Such passion for traditional symbols has given birth to a series of projects including the up-coming one, Recovery.
"My art is symbolic,” says Baba. “There are a lot of symbols inside of my work. Now is the time for us to use art symbols. These symbols represent courage as a way of moving forward from this Ebola outbreak.”
The cultural symbols Baba employs come from across the spectrum of Liberian traditions, including Kpelle, Vai, Lorma and Mandingo, to name a few.
Mama and Baba have for over a year published a monthly series of articles on Liberian traditional symbols in the Daily Observer’s LIB Life section. She pens, he paints. Lately, during the heat of the Ebola outbreak they shifted gears to produce the articles every week, highlighting the role of art and symbols in the fight against Ebola.
“We need to do something that’s going to relate to recovery, especially as we get closer to recovering from this Ebola outbreak,” says Mama, speaking of the up-coming exhibition. “A lot of artists are going to be a part of it, including Baba himself. After the initial shock from Ebola, the deaths, and how people are starting to say let’s move on. We shouldn’t remain down, we need to keep going forward.”
The pair expressed their initial wish, which almost came true until the Ebola outbreak.
“We planned this exhibition in March 2014 and started to share ideas with others,” Mama explains, “and then Ebola. We started thinking; artists have an important role during periods like this when everyone is down. We could actually spark a recovery, and that’s how Baba said, let’s have a recovery exhibition.”
The Recovery exhibition will be their second in post-war Liberia. In 2012, Baba held a major exhibition titled, “New Water from the Ancient Well”, at the Liberian National Museum.
According to the couple, the idea for that exhibition came about while visiting the museum one day and seeing it’s old artifacts.
“Baba was looking at the old artifacts and decided that we needed to have an exhibition. The exhibition featured pieces [already in] the museum as well as his contemporary interpretation of those pieces. We had paintings and textile tapestries – large wall tapestries. It was beautifuland such a success,” Mama recalls.
The New Water from an Ancient Well exhibition sparked a renaissance in many different circles about heritage. Since that exhibition, Baba has been working with a many artists who were inspired by his works.
“A lot of artists have been coming up since the exhibition, giving time and doing different things with Baba,” Mama explains. “Because of the exhibition, a lot of new art schools have opened and positive things have blossomed. When we produced the exhibition in 2012, we wanted to inspire the Liberian art renaissance. We wanted to be a part of the renaissance taking place. And we feel that we’re a part of that.
“We look forward to doing it again with the Recovery exhibition,” she continues, “and bring on board some of these artists that Baba has been working with,” she disclosed.
According to Mama, fear and discipline has been the overall effect of the Ebola crisis.
"If you follow the guidelines in staying safe and have instituted some discipline on yourself, you’ll see yourself moving above. And that is the antidote for fear. We have to admit, Ebola did that," she says.
The Recovery exhibition, Baba says, will highlight symbols of recovery and moving forward from the past.
"We need all of these symbols because they’re symbols of strength and courage, to move us out of the Ebola era. In my work, I project that image of courage, getting away from fear. We need to move forward as people. This Ebola, like so many other elements that are in life, will come and go. We can’t stop because they exist, we have been here in Africa for more than 10,000 years, and all of these things did not just happen. There were many disasters, so we must move forward."