Nigerian contemporary visual artist, Ademola Ojo, dreams of a time when the world will marvel at the traditions of the Yorubas, specifically their version of the creation story, which he believes triumphs above every other. In his works, he uses oil and acrylics on canvas as mediums to depict the Black identity. He explores black skin and hair, two distinctive aspects of African human physiology.
In this chat with The Moveee, Ademola talks about his creative inspiration, and the importance of his creative focus in the preservation of important culture both past and present, for the benefit of current and future generations.
TOPE AKINTAYO: In a previous interview, you mentioned naturalism. Before we get to talking about your story, I would love to start with naturalism. Could you talk a little bit about naturalism and what it means for your work as an artist?
ADEMOLA OJO: There is a great influence from our immediate environment in anything we do as artists. In my works, I strive to present relatable issues. When you look at some of my paintings, you’ll see that they are depictions of the realities around us. They are natural in the sense that they strive to mirror things happening in our natural environment.
It’s very easy to forget cultures and ways of life, especially as new generations come with modern cultures. It is therefore important for us to document contemporary experiences so we can pass them on to future generations, and not let them fade away.
However, the focus is not just on future generations. I also capture the social way of life so that people can see, relate with, feel and appreciate their immediate environment. These are ways in which I use my art as a tool of discourse. I don’t just want to do art for art’s sake, just for aesthetics.
I think that the success of an artwork, in the long run, is its historical embodiment, whereby in the next few years or decades, people would be able to get an idea of the cultural ways of life of the era in which the art was created.
That is new, and that’s brilliant because, I’ve spoken with a couple of artists and many will say they want to create, to change the narrative of things. It is quite new and beautiful to hear someone who wants to document what we are going through, our current way of life, our culture, and our history so that in a couple of years, people can look at the artwork and be able to say okay, this is what happened, these are the things that were being used during certain years. And how do you think society has been taking your artwork, in terms of critical acclaim and the likes?
This might sound flimsy, but then whenever I upload my work on my social media handles and it attracts a lot of engagement, it shows that people are watching my art. The comments come across as inspiration. This might sound cliche but my drive is not always to sell but to document society, although I am always happy whenever I am opportune to sell any of my works. If the drive is just about selling I won’t continue. I remember when I was starting out, I would pitch my work for exhibitions and competitions and they will never pick me, but I kept on because the drive and the motivation are not just about selling. My drive has always been to document my immediate environment, culture, and beauty — to allow the larger world to have an idea of what happens around me.
So how did it all start? You once mentioned that you started art as early as when you were a first-year secondary school student. How did you know you wanted to do this?
I grew up seeing my dad as an artist. I saw him drawing and painting. I was influenced by his artistic practices and I began to see myself as an artist. In JSS 1, I did my first solid work, the portrait of my dad. I received such terrible criticism at the time — some said I painted Papa Ajasco. It discouraged me in a way but I continued. At some point, I painted myself, then I started painting public figures. In 2015, I got admission into the Pure and Applied Arts program at Obafemi Awolowo University. I majored in painting and I finished in 2019. During this period, I met so many intellectuals and professional artists. I started practicing immediately, effective from 2019. I did my industrial training in 2018, at Segun Fagorosi’s studio where I learned so many things about colour, painting, and other important topics.
So, I’m really fascinated by the body of work you’re creating, especially mentioning the fact that you’re trying to document. I think that is a good selling point In a country like Nigeria, it seems that the art market is not very encouraging. What are you doing to reach a wider audience beyond Nigeria, in order to sell your idea of accurate documentation to an international audience?
As I mentioned earlier, when I first started I used to take a lot of effort into reaching out to galleries. Over time, when I see that it is not yielding results, I decided to take a different approach. Now I focus on doing a lot of research that will help me create an amazing and unique body of work. I do not want to do the same thing everyone does because it’s only when I stand out that galleries, collectors, and publicists will see the value and then the need to reach out to me. On their terms, but based strictly on outstanding merit.
Besides that, I have taken the time to experiment with new ways of presenting my work—from photoshoots to storytelling. These efforts have resulted ultimately in my works attracting more galleries and art collectors and my social engagement has exponentially increased. I even have to turn down some advances recently, especially when they do not align with my goal.
What significant element or symbol underlies your work?
When you see some of my paintings, you would notice the Ife bronze head symbol. I intend to inform everybody all over the world about the history of the Yorubas, and the history of the creation of the world according to Yoruba history. The creation started from Ile Ife: how Orunmila came all the way from heaven, and how the hen created everything. I want everybody to see that the source of the creation is from Ile-Ife. Everybody in the world, regardless of their colour, hails from Ile-Ife. That is my own personal idea.
I created works like Ife Mona Lisa and Miss Africa which I use to show that the number one female figure in the world is the Olokun. Ultimately, I include symbols in my work to show that I am creating art in honour of the discovered Yoruba artifacts from Ile-Ife.
What are your dreams for the future? What are you working on for the future and hoping to achieve with your work?
I have a belief that the future starts one minute after now and what I do with that one minute determines what happens in the next minute. So, I work hard every minute to achieve my goal which is for art collectors, gallery owners, and galleries all over the world to appreciate, collect or showcase my work to the world. I see people come to me asking me questions about topics I create art about and interviewing me for magazines. I want my work heavily exhibited and auctioned.