Sunday 7 May 2023

Spreading 'Kindred Spirits' of art as metaphor for humanity

'Face to Face', from Tayo Olayode's 'AI series' (acrylic on canvas)

OVER the last few years, the Nigerian art environment – the commercial art appreciation space – has witnessed some behavioural changes among artists and the collecting community. As young artists emerge, a new breed of art collectors also arise who challenge traditions and norms. While some artists are being herded onto the ship of stereotypes, others take cautious steps, resiliently sticking to their cherished traditions and values. The diverse options, across collection divides are exactly the strength that energises Lagos, and indeed, the Nigerian art space.

Two artists, Tayo Olayode and Ade Odunfa, have risen to bridge this divide. In their individual practices, both artists have tapped from the foundational old era and blossomed into the energies of twenty-first century contemporary art. Having been privileged to examine several private collections – across generational shifts and tastes – over nearly two decades, I have seen the works of Olayode and Odunfa featured prominently on the walls of top-rated patrons. 

From Lagos to Port Harcourt, among other cities, both artists are asserting themselves on the contemporary art scene. For each of the artists, some of their public-space art (mostly commissioned) have expanded their careers within the generational bridge-builder context. Across critical and commercial art appreciation, Olayode and Odunfa have each taken critical spots on the burgeoning art landscape of Africa.

As an art reviewer, I have tracked the two artists from the infancy of their careers. Olayode's work first came onto my radar when he emerged winner of the Terra Kulture/Ford Foundation art award in 2008, which I published in a review for The Guardian newspaper. The award earned him a three-month residency at Professor Ablade Glover's studio in Ghana. Odunfa's dexterity on the canvas has bred cerebral energy in him, from which he has created quite a number of platforms. As a fruit of this activity, Odunfa launched a yearly exhibition themed Faces and Phases, which is designed to showcase the works of young artists. 

It has taken the discerning and keen curatorial effort of SMO Contemporary to bring Olayode and Odunfa together to showcase the two artists. The current exhibition titled Kindred Spirits, showing from May 1-June 30, 2023 at Wheatbaker, Ikoyi, Lagos is curated by Sandra Mbanefo Obiago. 

From mastering crowd-effect in opaque slim figurative painting technique Olayode has expanded over the years into the application of flip-flop. His art is also keeping pace with developments in the tech world, specifically capturing artificial intelligence (AI), among other themes. Painting on fabrics is not exactly new on the contemporary art landscape of Nigeria. However, in Odunfa's technique and choice of the lace fabric – which most artists won't dare to attempt – there is creative conquest.

In works such as 'Mobile Tailor (Obioma)' and 'Help Me Push, Abeokuta,' Olayode's application of the flip-flop takes off, drawing viewers into the fluidity of the composite. His creation of pseudo-wave movements out of flip-flop materials interestingly comes into submission to his mastery of lines. In fact, Olayode's style and technique in the flip-flop series celebrate lines as the most important element in the creation of visual subjects.

Floral Florence (acrylic on lace, 36 X 36 inches, dated 2021) by Ade Odunfa.

In much experimental art, the integrity of materials applied by some artists can't be trusted. However, in Olayode's flip-flop series, the burly textures radiate resilience; this is particularly true of the unconventional art material made from ethylene-vinyl acetate. The artist's simplified graphic approach in rendering his human subjects and others adds an aesthetic appeal to the flip-flop series.

The indigenous nature of every artwork – which has generated that timeless phrase, 'Every art is local' –  is reflected in market scenes of nearly all generations of Nigerian artists. This is the same in Olayode’s oeuvre. In his 'Market Gisting,' the coalescence of opaque, overlapping human figures, enliven his poetic capture of the trading activities of the subjects. Still on creating conciliation art across generational shifts in visual culture , his 'Market Gisting' series distil the essence of the theme from the stereotypes. And from hues of conservative colour, Olayode's brushing emits a great depth of dimensionality across the human figures. His style and technique also spotlight the market women's wares as iconic items in the composition.

Olayode's AI series challenge one's ability to appreciate optical illusions in art. Woven with quite an array of aesthetic elements, the paintings, which look perfect for the storyboard of a sci-fi film director, probe into the future of man's relationship with tech.

Odunfa's interest in using lace fabric as an extension of his canvas, which started over 10 years ago, has no doubt grown into a passion. Yes, in the context of clothing and fashion, lace has been adopted as an extension of cultural values in Nigeria. But for Odunfa, the attraction is the texture of the lace fabrics, which he uses to enhance his canvas, for global appreciation.

For every piece of Odunfa's lace painting in this exhibition, the artist's control over the fabric provides more than enough for art aficionados to ingest. In pieces such as 'Queen Mother' and 'Olorioko,' Odunfa highlights the beauty of aristocratic status and royalty. His sprinkling of certain motifs and butterfly icons on parts of the paintings adds subtlety to the texturised canvas.

Whatever one may feel about the recent revival of black consciousness as seen in the use of darkened figures in the works of artists of African descent, the trend cannot be ignored. However, each artist's tested signature separates the established, deliberate ingenuity from a bandwagon mentality. For Odunfa, his well-known radical brush movement technique, coupled with the lace-texture identity, provide a fresh experience as seen in series such as 'My Sunday Morning,' 'Sibling' and 'Moremi.'

Perhaps Odunfa's palette accepts the fact that traditional and non-collaged painting have proven the most resilient over centuries and across regions. For those of us who are stuck within the framework of conservative art appreciation, Odunfa's brilliant brush strokes in pieces such as 'Shade' and 'Brown Skin Girls' provide so much to admire. For example, in the key attributes of hues and lighting, whether high or low, natural depiction is boldly celebrated by Odunfa in 'Shade' (a female Yoruba name).  

The artist’s skill with light is also depicted in 'Brown Skin Girls.' Whatever his thoughts on the contrast between the two girls captured in the painting, Odunfa’s exuberant and creative application of shades and hues is a delight to savour.

Kindred Spirits offers art lovers a rare and timeless collection from two artists who have so much in common but differ in their creativity. The exhibition also speaks metaphorically to the world. Irrespective of our diversity as peoples of different races, ethnic and religious backgrounds, humanity remains as kindred spirits – the fountain of commonality that should keep the world together.

-Tajudeen Sowole, a Lagos-based writer on The Arts wrote the review for the catalogue of Kindred Spirits.

Translucent S.I. Media management agency for artists and art galleries


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