Never say never– a time-tested aphorism reminiscent of an unyielding desire in one dying to achieve a target. Ben-Lutnaan Duamlong, former Nigeria international and one-time coach of the Super Eagles, had always nursed a dream. Like every sane individual with an ambition and a life goal, Duamlong never allowed his dream to die despite distractions and hiccups along the way.
After spending his childhood and adolescent years as a football player and coach, winning lots of laurels, honour and fame, Ben-Lutnaan Duamlong retraced his tracks and returned to the classroom; not as a teacher but as a student. And at the end he excelled. Above all, he achieved his life target of becoming a fine artist. Duamlong graduated from the University of Jos at 69 and was the best graduating student of his set with a CGPA of 4.32.
“I have always loved the arts. Like I wrote in the handbook of my first and only exhibition, ‘football and arts, to me, are one and the same. While football is performing arts, what I am doing now… painting is abstract arts. They all form the creative. Art to me is everything. Art is life. ”
He wanted to read philosophy. On a second thought he said to himself, ‘I have a passion for arts and during my days in the Green Eagles in the 1970s, I enrolled for a course to study arts with a correspondent College in England. They were sending me tutorials and assignments on drawing and arts. I then said, why don’t I try my hands on this? Even as a kid I used to draw but I had never painted,” he said.
“It wasn’t easy at the beginning as my first painting was nothing to write home about. Gradually, I came into it. Now, thanks be to God, I can do it. In fact, I have held my first exhibition titled SWITCH”
Switch, a maiden solo exhibition by the new ‘kid on the block’ was well received and Duamlong attests to that. “Encouraging. In this part of Nigeria, art is not much in peoples’ consciousness. I plan to have another exhibition before the end of this year or early next year.”
He retired in 2016 as coach of Kaduna United Football Club and was offered admission to read Arts in UNIJOS through direct entry. “My admission was made easy with the qualification I had from the National Institute for Sports and in Germany.” With no formal background in arts apart from the Correspondent College in England, Duamlong hit the ground running.
At school, he found himself in the midst of boys and girls about the ages of his children. Naturally, this would have evoked a feeling of discomfort in some old people. But not Duamlong. “They were not as old as my grandchildren but younger than my children. I didn’t look at that because all that was on my mind was how to become an artist. So, I enmeshed myself in that process and did everything I could to succeed. Like I told you, in the beginning I was on ground zero. Apart from those tutorials, books and assignments I never had a formal arts teacher until I got to the university. From time to time I used to do pencil work, drawing.”
But most students shy away from Fine and Applied Arts because of its complexities and intricate nature. Most Nigerians still cannot appreciate arts, particularly abstract arts. Why was Duamlong bent on making arts his major?
Duamlong’s typical day at the university was, in his words, hectic. “Although I sent myself to school, I must wake up early to beat the traffic. I would get to school before 8 am, because some classes start as early as 8. Thereafter, I would go to the first floor because our studios are on the 8th floor. In most cases when I go up, because I had a challenge with my leg – I needed to operate my knee and hip.
As soon as I dropped my last exam paper, I went for the operation for knee and hip replacement. Because of the stress, when I go up in the morning I don’t come down until it’s time to go in the evenings. The toilets are on the ground floor. But I had to endure till around 5 pm in the evening before I came down.
“It was hectic because I painted everyday, even on weekends I painted. I did that in order to cover lost grounds.”
But what are those lessons derivable from arts? What does it mean to Duamlong being an artist?
“I told you before, art is everything. Art is life. Art is also abstract. It is an abstraction of a whole. When you condense a story like an abstract picture – you may look at an abstract picture. When you go to some places and see an abstract picture that wouldn’t make sense and when the artist who painted it comes and explains all the strokes you will say wow…I did not look at it that way. In the arts there are so many perspectives for you to view life.”
Reading at an old age is not as simple as it seems. The distractions are numerous. For a man who had long left the classroom, reconnecting with the past calls for heavy adjustment. Domestic and family problems and even social pressures could provide numerous excuses for the uncommitted. Determined Ben Duamlong had his challenges and was up to it as he surprisingly cleared his papers and made a CGPA of 4.3, the highest in his set, beating vibrant-looking younger students. Deservedly, he emerged as the best-graduating student of his set. How was this possible?
“Hard work. Hard work. Hard work. There are some people that had graduated from the arts school before me that I went to beg to teach me at weekends. I go to church in the evenings, except there is an occasion that requires me to go in the morning. When I come out in the morning, I would paint till 2-3 pm. I really pushed myself very hard.”
For those who were responsible for his development to becoming one of the best artists at the university, Duamlong’s result did not come as a surprise.
In the foreword to the handbook of Duamlong’s first and only solo exhibition, John Oyedemi, PhD, Head of Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Jos, wrote thus: ‘SWITCH’ is a solo exhibition by one prolific individual/artist of his age. Ben-Lutnaan Duamlong was the oldest student and one of the best in the Fine and Applied Arts Department. He was always in the studio, a motivation to the younger ones. I once wondered how he got such energy and mental strength to work. No wonder at graduation, he had the largest collection of paintings which was evidence of hard work.”
On his part, Jacob Enemona Onoja, PhD, Curator and Arts critic, Art history section, Department of Fine And Applied Arts, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, University of Jos said, “Duamlong’s themes of compositions range from human activities depicting culture of his people, football, markets, cityscapes and portraitures of important personalities, lecturers, among others.”
Continuing, Onoja said, “the tactility of the works using the palette-knife, the dexterity of the use of colours, space utilization and forms placement in the compositions, the use of unique subliminal and obvious symbolism and a myriad of stylistic tendencies are expressed in his paintings.
The artist to me exemplifies tenacity, doggedness and the spirit of working hard to be able to achieve his set goals even at his age of 69, age is just a number.”
He hopes his exploits at UNIJOS at 69 will serve as a source of inspiration to not only the older people who think old age is a barrier to furthering one’s knowledge but to the youth. “Anyone who is ready to push, remain committed and go the extra mile is bound to succeed.”
Before he became an artist, Ben Duamlong was a football player and later coach. According to him, he began playing from the streets before going to primary school.
Duamlong was born in Pankshin, Plateau State, but life actually began in Maiduguri, (North Eastern State) now Borno State. “The turning point was in my primary 3 in 1963 when I started showing my abilities as a goalkeeper. I went to Maiduguri on holidays with my father’s friend. At the end of the holidays in my Form 2 in1968, I thought we were returning but didn’t know he had made up his mind to keep me there. I was training with some town boys and one day something happened and our goalkeeper did not show up. I was asked to stand in his place. By the time I went back to train with the boys, they didn’t leave me with any choice in regard to where I wanted to play. They said they had got a goalkeeper.”
His father was a civil servant who was always on the move. That made little Duamlong live with different people at different times. But that did not, in any way, disrupt his steady rise in academics. “Of course, but for football, my line would have been academics because many of my mates went on to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. At least, I did my HSC but I decided to go to Sapele to take over from Peter Fregene who was the goalkeeper of Amukpe Lions that metamorphosed to New Nigerian Bank of Benin. I came in when NNB had just taken over. I came to Sapele in 1973 after the first National Sports Festival in Lagos. I represented the North Eastern State. I started keeping for the North Eastern state from my Form 2.”
He would not agree that football was a distraction. Could he have achieved his academic goal earlier than he did, if football did not stand in his way?
“Football did not disturb me. If I wanted, I would have gone to school of Basic studies and then straight to the university. But I wanted to play football. I didn’t go through Jos to Sapele. If I did, they would have stopped me.”
He played his way to the national team, the Green Eagles when the likes of Peter Fregene, Joe Erico and Eyo Essien were calling time with the national team. “when we were going into camp was when the three great goalkeepers were being asked to go because time had caught up with them. They were all great goalkeepers that I loved to imitate. They were my idols and role models.”