Death is just the beginning By Simbo Olorunfemi

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Late last night, the newsfeed brought me a photograph by Biyi Bandele. That was quite a late feed, as he had put the photo up on Sunday. For some reason, I keyed into the photo intensely, seeking meaning, wondering what the Photographer was trying to say through it, wondering what was on his mind.

So lost was I trying to make sense of a rather simple photograph he had captioned, “A father watches a movie on his phone with his two kids on the Marina” that I forgot to click on the icon of love I customarily placed on his photographs. I had moved on, promising to return to that photo.

But before I could, another post from him rolled up, one that would tell us it was not from him, but by his Artist-daughter, Temi, whom he had fondly written about here a number of times. This was announcing the passing of Biyi, the day before, that same Sunday he had put up this photograph that had kept me spellbound. It was heartbreaking.

As Tèmi wrote, “Biyi was a prodigiously talented writer and film-maker, as well as a loyal friend and beloved father. He was a storyteller to his bones, with an unblinking perspective, singular voice and wisdom which spoke boldly through all of his art, in poetry, novels, plays and on screen. He told stories which made a profound impact and inspired many all over the world. His legacy will live on through his work.”

I have always known him, being both of the same generation of writers. But we never met. At the formative stage when we were only beginning to find our voices, it was a thing of joy and reassurance to hear of the publication of his first novel – “The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams”. We are told he had only just completed work on his second novel.

But it is as Film Director that he has come to be more widely known, especially here in Nigeria. Starting with ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, he has built up an impressive resume, with even more works in the work. He had directed ‘Fifty’ and the recently released ‘Blood Sisters’. He directed a documentary on Fela and is reported to be working on another one. His film adaptation of Wọlé Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ – Ẹlẹ́ṣin Ọba (The King’s Horseman) he said is due for release on Netflix soon, and premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2022, “making it the first ever Yoruba language film to premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentation category.”

In spite of his obviously busy schedule and prodigious talent, that he had the grace and heart to share another side of his life on here was something of note. Initially, he was quite light on the platform, but sometime back, he started to share with us photographs specifically focused on life on Lagos Island. I had the guess that he was either making a statement with these or going somewhere with it. I did say that a few times. But he just kept us guessing, uploading more and more tellingly beautiful images of streetlife, marketlife and ‘ordinary life’ in their daily engagements.

A number of times, I wondered how he managed with the Camera on Lagos Island, knowing how tricky it could get, especially with his locks standing him out. The narratives that often accompanied the photographs gave some hint of assurance that he had the charm and emotional intelligence to navigate the streets. Evidence was there in the beautiful photographs he kept bringing us until the last day.

Through his photography, I began to see that part of Lagos through a different eye. I saw order in disorder and beauty in what might have otherwise passed as chaos. Looking into the eyes of many of the people he captured with the aid of the camera, I saw different layers of love, pain, hope, industry and all sorts.

Looking at Lagos through Biyi’s eyes, I was inspired to see the place in a different way. I spent a few months in Lagos this year, and a few times, had cause to take a walk around Onikan, Military Street, Igbosere, TBS, Marina, Broad Street, Back of Mandiilas, etc. These are some of the places he had walked. Inspired by his work, I found myself doing some bit of photography with the phone, half-hoping I might just run into him on one of his walks around the island. Sad. That would never be.

Such is the finality that comes with death. On 28th July, in introducing the project, Ẹlẹ́ṣin Ọba, he had written, “Death is just the beginning.” He left it hanging, perhaps that might have been within the context of the play, as death was actually just the beginning of a lot there. However, I believe it aptly sums up the next phase of the life of this great man. I believe that death can only be the beginning of him getting to receive more accolades and due recognition for the work he has done.

In the words of Tèmi, “He was taken from us much too soon. He had already said so much so beautifully, and had so much more to say.”

“Portrait of the artist ambushed, sweat-soaked, by Freedom Park paparazzo, photo©TOJ” – Biyi Bandele