History

Author Judah Angel: The artist who refused to die

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38 people were on August 2 1994 executed at Nigeria’s Enugu Prison but artist Arthur Judah Angel somehow was not among them.
Angel was convicted of armed robbery and murder: tortured and framed , he says, by corrupt police under the military dictatorship of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida .

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At the time, Nigeria was liable to put to death condemned prisoners without warning at any time, like Japan does today … except that Nigeria carried out such executions by the dozens. In one instance Angel witnessed, there were 58 executions in a single day.
On August 2, 1994, a Tuesday, that occasion finally arrived for Arthur Judah Angel — or so it seemed.
“I was chained; I was given my last meal that was August 2, 1994,” Angel said in an interview. “38 others were executed that very day. Only God knew how I was spared. He was the one that made my name disappeared in the book. I did not know how it happened. But it happened. I died, in fact, every person on the death row dies every day.”
Who exactly it was that saved Angel on that date I have not seen conclusively documented, but they say that God helps those who help themselves. In this case, Angel helped himself with his charcoal sketches on death row, which soon brought him to the attention of some well-placed people in the prison bureaucracy, a Catholic bishop — even a British arts organization which organized exhibitions of his work in 1993 and 1994.
Angel’s death sentence was commuted in 1995, and he was released outright in 2000. He well knows that, like those other 38 people who hanged this date, he’d be forgotten if not for his fortuitous escape. Life is just too damn cheap for exonerating the dead.
“I am able to clear my name because I am alive,” Angel said. “If I had been executed, nobody would believe that I was innocent. If I didn’t make it, no one would know. I knew many people who were innocent in prison. Yet they died in prison. Only people like me, who were close to them until their death, knew they were innocent. The rest of the world learnt that armed robbers were executed on so and so day; nobody knew they were innocent.”
But Angel did survive, and is remembered — not only for his exoneration, but for the 51 startling sketches he made of Nigeria’s death row. They (and other anti-death penalty art Angel has created since) have been exhibited worldwide by human rights NGOs.
Angel, who’ll turn 50 this November,
continues to work as an artist from a studio outside Lagos — and uses his art to campaign against the death penalty, as one might imagine. He has written a book, I Refused to Die; unfortunately for its prospective international readership, the book requires expensive shipping from Nigeria.

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