Saturday 30 March 2024

Brushstrokes of fragile mastery

'The Human and her White Halo' (oil and acrylic on canvas, 20 x 30inches, dated 2023) by Olamide Adesola.

FROM cave painting era to modern, postmodern and contemporary periods, portrait art has proven to be the most resilient form of representational expression. Despite its resilience, portrait art in 21st century contemporary period appears to have been reconstructed, and perhaps, deconstructed by artists of radical expressions, including Olamide Adesola.

Between a portraitist and figurative artist, Adesola's approach to portrait art lies in the middle of the two, seemingly capturing both. But such floating – deliberate or subconscious brushstrokes – comes with its fragility challenge. But as art history, across generations, keeps emphasizing the relativity of mastery, Adesola's supposedly fragile strokes might just be a mastery to track.

Relatively fresh as an artist, Adesola however inherits the baggage that most older portrait artists of modern and contemporary periods attempted to avoid. As much as every portrait artist attempts to create some uniqueness out of representational forms, the shadows of the past known textures always trail their canvas. For Adesola, escalation of fresh textures from the old stereotypes is a task, no matter how hard, so suggests her slippery brushstrokes. However, her brushstrokes are not immuned against the much dreaded repetitive hues overrated by artists across generational divides of portrait art.

Olamide, like most artists of her generation, came into practice at a period when contemporary art in Nigeria was just recovering from being misconstrued as Avant-Garde. Between the early 2000s to the beginning of the last decade – approximately 2004 to 2013 – representational forms, specifically portrait art, was bashed by some critics as "obsolete." It took resistance of contemporary masters such as Abiodun Olaku, Olusegun Adejumo, Gbenga Offo, Mufu Onifade, among others to confront the single narrative of the Nigerian Avant-Garde, erroneously representing the contemporary art of the country.

Having survived the politics of contents for contemporary art in Nigeria, artists of figurative or representational forms, mostly portraitists, have the flood of young names to contend with. Adesola belongs in that new generation of portrait artists whose art requires extra energies to stand out from the crowd. The portrait art space, interestingly, is loaded with mere enthusiasts and natural artists. For some of these young artists of which Adesola belongs, perhaps it's too early to distil masterly strokes from their paintings. 

A virtual studio-visit to view Adesola's works suggested a mix of deliberate energies with quite some faint fragility. For examples, most of her paintings come with stylised necks in elongated forms. As fragile as this appears as an identity in portrait painting, the possibility of the artist using it as a strong signature can't be ruled out. Among such paintings of Adesola that capture poetic visual narrative and exciting aesthetics include Focus, The Golden Girl, No Woman No Cry, Queen Moremi, The African Child and Her Highness.

However, in Her Highness (Oil & Acrylic on Canvas, 24x36 inches, 2022), the artist weaves her theme around black women femininity strength across sectors. The piece, which belongs in the elongated neck stylised forms, also depicts strong confidence capturing Adesola's thoughts. "She’s Queen, she’s powerful, she’s Black," Olamide extols the virtue of her subject. "Her royalty doesn’t necessarily have to be by birth, but by her virtues and values." The text attached to the painting continues: "She’s not a goddess, but she’s a Queen! She’s brave and cannot be overlooked; though history might tend to be unjust to her. Though she’s covered in Green, once you dig to the roots you’ll discover that the foundation is Black.  Though she’s compassionate, she’s a fighter for what is just and right!  She’ll never stop fighting for the good course because she’s… Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Chief Justice Meaza Ashenaf, Karmala Harris, Serena Williams …and so on."

As an art piece, Adesola's Her Highness is bathed in theatrics of visual expressions, escalating some known cultural traces. Among such dramatic features are the artist's technique of ensuring that every part of the lady communicates as seen in the hair style and exaggerated neck. Perhaps, the artist's appropriation of Fulani hair style in the painting strengthens the poetic texture of the piece with the twin ponytail-like weaving that drop on both sides of the lady's torso. This and other paintings of Adesola bring one to question the artist's style of elongated neck, either as an added identity or otherwise of the body of aesthetics to her work. Yes, anatomically depicting woman always produce longer neck. But there is something extra about Adesola's style, which either  adds or subtracts, in that context, creating shadow of fragility around her art.

Also, using a Fulani woman as a metaphor to capture the strength of black women could be contentious. Couldn't the artist have used unidentified ethnic character? 

Between stylisation and realism in portrait paintings, artists no doubt have the creative licence of choice. However, artists like Adesola whose choice of technique creates conflict between realism and stylisation might be misunderstood.

 - Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based Art Writer.

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