The humble oyster has a lesson for us. It knows how to forgive.
"Irritation gets into the shell. It doesn't like the irritation. So what does it do? It makes a pearl," said Ibiyinka Alao, who travels the world as the United Nations ambassador for art. "When we have irritations in our lives, there is only one prescription: Make a pearl."
"Ninety-nine percent of wars could be avoided if people would let bygones by bygones. Children understand that," said the artist, who will show some of his artwork and share his message of peace during a presentation on Monday at King's College.
Alao, 35, grew up in Nigeria, where the equatorial sun was so big, so warm, so close "it seemed you could reach out and touch it."
The sun led him to appreciate brightness and color – two elements essential to his art. Perhaps as tribute, he said, "You'll always see me paint the sun, somewhere in the corner" of a painting.
He can't remember when he started to paint – "You'd have to ask my mother," he said – but he knows he was very young.
"When I would have a bad dream and it would scare me, I would tell my mom or dad and they would say to let it out in painting. That would make me feel better."
Has he experienced other irritations?
"When I was learning English, it was the greatest irritation of my life," he said with a laugh. "Being from Africa, it tangles the tongue."
A speaker of 14 African languages who is working on French, he practiced English as a youth by reading his father's copy of Dante's "Divine Comedy."
"I thought it would be a funny book," he said, admitting he felt somewhat frightened by Dante's "gruesome description of the journey from hell to heaven."
But if he felt frightened, he could always "paint it out."
For Alao, art has become a path to spirituality. "I pray when I paint. I paint when I pray," he said.
His message is always peaceful, he said, even though he's been to some dangerous places on his home continent where "I had to run for my life."
"You just have to shake your head sometimes," he said. "Muslims are trying to kill Christians, and Christians are trying to kill Muslims."
But he believes there is a way to experience the joyfulness and peace suggested by some of his paintings, including one called "True Miracles," in which women are not dancing so much as floating around an oyster.
"When we forgive people, we are making pearls," he said. "Then you can feel the way the astronauts feel when they are weightless. Fully free."
What: "Visions of True Colors: The Art of Ibiyinka Alao"
Sponsored by: King's College's Office of Diversity and the College's African Cultures course.
When: 6 p.m. Monday
Where: Fitzgerald Room of the Sheehy-Farmer Campus Center, located between North Franklin and North Main streets on King's College Campus