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Julius Agbaje — Humor and metaphor as tools for advocacy in art

Target Practice 1. Acrylic on canvas, 2020

Three things bring validation to an artist: emotional reassurance, when you see someone have an emotional connection to your art, which helps the mental frame of the artist, then; monetary remuneration, when people can part with their money for your work, it means you’re doing something right, the third thing is accolades and recognition.

Julius Agbaje is a satirical visual artist who uses his art as an extension of himself. He describes himself as an advocate for people and human rights and relationships, and he expresses this same passion through his art and paintings.

I spoke with him about his artistic inspiration and creative journey and how he manages to tackle societal issues using metaphor and his characteristic visual language.

From dropping out of a Computer Engineering course at the university to taking on and studying art and then recently having his first solo exhibition, Julius Agbaje is no longer a stranger to the unconventional path of an artist.

For Julius, art is not just about paintings. It’s an extension of his lifestyle as a person. Not only that. It is also a medium with which he speaks up about the things that don’t sit right with him and challenges destructive societal beliefs. He sees his art as a journal that documents his transition through life, his connections and interactions with fellow humans, and human activities.

“I firmly believe that humans are conduits capable of holding and disseminating energy,” he says. This inspires his most recent body of works, The Pipes that Bind Us, which graced his recently concluded solo exhibition at Bloom Art Lagos.

Julius Agbaje

How would you describe yourself as a person, and as a creative person? Are there any similarities or differences between Julius, the person, and Julius, the artist?

Wow, as a person, I pretty much am known for equality and fairness. I dislike spaces where people are being cheated. I tend to put other people’s interests before mine.

As an artist, I’m pretty much the same way I am as a person. My inspiration to write usually comes from my interaction with other people, and the same goes for my painting. When I create, it is usually a result of my relationship with other people.

In my works, I’m talking about fairness, injustice in society, political oppression, religious biases, gender discrimination, and the like, so it is usually about other people. I have lived a privileged life, so I try to use my art to talk about disenfranchised people and those who do not have access to some of the privileges that I have access to.

That is beautiful. And very noble at the same time. What has your creative journey been like?

I cannot remember the first time I called myself an artist. However, I will say since I left school, that is, graduating from art school, it has been a roller coaster of a journey. There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of uncertainties along the line, a lot of doubts, and lots of emotional turmoils. I wear my heart on my sleeve, so I soak in many emotions when I go through life. When I’m heartbroken, it reflects around me. When I am angry or sad, it does too; thankfully, those are not emotions I experience a lot (chuckles).

So you’re a very happy person?

I am, I am. But back to the question, whenever I feel things, I feel them very deeply; because of that, whenever I get rejections concerning my work, it takes a toll on me even when I try to be strong about it. Thankfully, my relationship with God has been helpful. I have learned to be hopeful through the dark times. So far, so good. I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

You spoke about some challenges you’ve faced in your journey. But artists have to face challenges, such as finding a unique style of art and the lack of recognition, which are challenges that artists face in the current Nigerian climate. Have you faced these same challenges? How have you navigated through them so far?

Yes, I have. I don’t think there is an artist, especially from Nigeria or working in Nigeria, that has not experienced their fair share of that. I have had a lot of support from my family. My parents are the most supportive people on earth. I don’t think many African parents will be enthusiastic about their child dropping out of school as a Computer Engineering student to study art, but mine supported me through the ups and downs. I was in my father’s house for the longest time, just moved out last year, and he never made me feel uncomfortable. So yes, I have the most supportive parents, which has helped me.

I feel once you have loved ones in your corner, you don’t feel or see yourself as less than you are. You just feel like you have your sense of worth. Like I said earlier, I am one of the privileged ones. I can barely complain. I have a lot of love and support, not just from my family, but my friends (I don’t have many friends) have also been a strong support system, always cheering me on.

Can you remember the first piece of yours that was exhibited? Or the first one that someone wanted on their wall?

Oh yeah, I remember that one. I don’t think I even have a picture of that anymore. It was titled The Expectant Mother. That was in 2016. That was the first time I had someone resonate with my work and pay good money for it. Before that time, I hadn’t gotten anything at that level.

That’s lovely. What does it feel like to get your first yes?

It was really exciting. The thing about monetary remuneration for your work as an artist is that it brings validation. Three things bring validation to an artist; emotional reassurance, when you see someone have an emotional connection to your art, which helps the mental frame of the artist, then; monetary remuneration, when people can part with their money for your work, it means you’re doing something right, the third thing is accolades and recognition. At the time, it was a combination of the three things for me because it showed they were connected to my work emotionally, they parted with their money, and it was recognition that I was able to show in the space that I did. I was euphoric.

Earlier, you mentioned using your art to talk about certain things in society, people that have been treated unfairly, or social ills such as gender discrimination. Have you ever sparked outrage with your art when you created something that did not fit popular opinions?

Not really. Well, yes, but the outrage was not on a large scale. Perhaps, two or three comments were negatively directed toward me. Like the Buhari piece I made for which I received some threats on social media.

Has there been any piece that was almost painful for you to part with?

Well, it’s difficult for me to part with my work generally, but the piece that would be the stand-out piece would be the Buhari piece.

That’s interesting because it was the same piece that sparked some negativity. Why do you think it stood out?

It represented more than just what it was to the buyers. To the buyers, it was an investment. It was a business deal for them. But I had an emotional attachment because that work represented a transmission in my life. The period between the long hiatus from working because of a broken relationship. That was the first piece I made months after my breakup. It was a log of anger, and I used it to purge many emotions. It was emotionally and mentally important for me, not just the work’s political significance.

Wow! I’m sorry you had to go through that. When it comes to your art and painting, is there any medium you prefer to use?

Acrylic. I like the vibrancy of it. It allows a lot of spontaneity. If you notice my entire body of work, you’ll see a sense of colourism and colour fusion. I enjoy using colours a lot. Acrylic gives me that vibrancy, more vibrancy than any other medium that I know of.

Seeing you love colours and the vibrancy that the presence of colours gives, does your work have a signature style or a certain symbolism?

I would say the immaterial things you do not see cut across all my work. The overarching idea behind all my works is to have three key elements; humour, metaphor, and a sense of activism or advocacy. Those three things cut across all my work. Physically, I think the colour is something that binds them. My language of expression has changed over the years. When I first started, I started out making abstract forms of art. Then I explored anthropomorphism and personification, where I made human paintings with animal heads. I evolved from that into sectioning the entire head to where I am now. So there’s an evolution in terms of the visual language.

That’s a lot of growth. You have a solo exhibition recently. Is this your first?

Yes, it is.

Your exhibition is themed “The Pipes that Bind Us”, would you want to talk about it?

Yes.

What are the inspiration and the creating process like?

The inspiration is, once again, advocacy for humanity and a call for us to be more sensitive, not just to our fellow humans but also to our environment. So the theme and the body of work were inspired by the pipes in my father’s backyard. My father is a very intelligent, skilled, amazing man of God. 

One of the things that he is adept at is picking up skills from workers whenever they come around to work. My father always watched the plumber work, and before we knew it, he bought his plumbing materials and started doing all the plumbing around the house. Behind our house, there was a pile of pipes, broken pipes from his experimentation, pipes that were broken by accident, and they all kept piling up in the backyard. 

One day, I looked at them for so long, and it struck me that humans are like the pipes in how we connect. We’re able to hold and exchange energy like pipes that connect. Some of these piping systems were complicated, similar to human relationships and how they are interconnected. So I started looking at that. 

When you examine my works from the past three years, you’ll notice pipes in them. That’s also an answer to your earlier question on symbolism, the infusion of pipes in my work over the past three years. The pipes project has been in the ”pipeline” for a while now. 

On the one hand, I wanted to explore the nature of relationships and interpersonal energy exchange between people. On the other hand, my science background – learning physics, resistance, and how current flows – also played a role. So everything ties together to form this body of work.

The title of the body of work, “The Pipes that Bind Us”, is a word play on “the ties that bind us”. There are two series of work: the first is Fifty Shades of Me, which is an expression of myself. I wanted to put myself in the face of my audience, so I’m the muse for the pieces in this series.

The second one, which I’m excited about, is titled Flowers are Boys Too. It is interesting because, you know how in this part of the world, women are referred to as flowers, and the attributes of flowers are softness, elegance, beauty, and tenderness. I decided to challenge the notion, and I wanted to ask why can’t men have these attributes too.

Essentially, I’m just trying to debunk what society dictates men should be. So, I made a few portraits that the audience would most likely perceive as gay or effeminate based on their social conditioning or the predominant mentality in this part of the world. I’m trying to raise a question on social thinking; I’m telling them that I’m not gay because I like pink or because I dress a certain way. Coincidentally, June was mental awareness and health month, so it’s really useful that the show opened then.

You’re doing wonderful work with your art. What’s your goal as an artist?

I intend to stretch myself as wide as possible. I’m happy to go wherever God leads me. I’ve learned not to set goals that God has not set for me.

It has been really lovely talking to you, Julius. Before I let you go, when you’re not creating, what do you do?

Netflix and Football.

Thank you very much for your time.

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