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Rebellion, Individuality and Freedom; Meet Fadekemi Ogunsanya

Cultural shifts happen often, but the coined subculture, alté (alternative), made a monumental change for artists in Lagos, Nigeria. Although it originated in the music scene, young African artists have taken pride in their individuality and freedom of expression. Nigerian multidiscplinary artist, Fadekemi Ogunsanya, began fully expressing her creativity when her artistry became an escape from her studies at the Architectural Association in London. “My artistry was a direct rebellion against what I was doing in school,” she shares. “Painting was an option I gave myself where I could leave my work without having to explain why I’m making it. I wanted to have a creative expression, where I wasn’t asking anybody’s opinion.” 

Being an African artist isn’t always easy due to traditional pressures like vocational learning and career paths. However, since 2016, Ogunsanya has casually shared her sketches and drawings online. This fearlessness has expanded her community while combining African culture with “spirituality, mythology and folk-art.” Through her friends and community’s support, she has made room for having complete creative control over her work. Ogunsanya has cultivated a safe space within the art world from making textile designs for her close friend, Kenneth Ize, and artwork for DJ Olukemi’s mix.

What began as a mere act of frustration and relief has grown into work that inspires Nigerian culture through impactful storytelling and emotion-rending imagery. Ogunsanya shared some insight with us on her artistic journey, inspiration, and cultural influences.

What was the culture like in your community? How did this impact your work?

I have a strong Nigerian diasporic community; the culture is rich and layered. I’m strongly influenced by my culture, but I’m not sure if it’s transparent in my work. Elements like spirituality, mythology and folk-art are influenced by my culture. The portraits and imagery that I draw are familiar to me and my community. 

What are some of the layers you’ve observed?

In my community, it’s common to have your friends and family members be of different faiths. Nigeria has many tribes and we all have our own specific culture from each tribe; there’s that mix [of cultures through interactions]. I also have the layered experience of growing up in Nigeria, moving to England while going back and forth. I never spent an extended period in either country. I have a layered perspective on myself, the world, and how I want to be represented.

How was navigating your art practices in this environment?

It feels like I’m still in the early stage of coming into comfortability with my practices, figuring out the imagery and narrative that I’m trying to talk about. I have a master’s degree in architecture, which I just finished in June of 2020. Since then, I’ve started figuring out how to create full-time. I think time will tell me what that’ll look like when I have [an ample amount] to dedicate towards [creating].

How did you know that you wanted to become an artist?

I think most people are already artists and just need to find their avenue to express that.

I felt the aspiration to be creative, but when I was younger, I didn’t have many figures around me that were artists. I didn’t think it was a possibility as a career, but I was always expressing and creating. It’s often that a lot of Nigerians have to choose a vocational degree, like law or engineering. I think that’s why I studied architecture because there are very few creative degrees that fit into that vocation. Through my architectural studies, I still felt like there was a lack in what I was doing in terms of free expression. I was frustrated, and that’s when I took on painting as a relief. I wasn’t expecting it to be my main practice, but it made more sense to me as I kept going.

How has studying at the Architectural Association in London influenced your artistry?

My artistry was a direct rebellion against what I was doing. I wanted to do something that was the complete opposite of what I was doing in school. Although it’s a creative university, there are limits to expression because of the pedagogy in being graded and explaining every [detail]. Painting was an option I gave myself where I could leave my work without explaining why I’m making it. I wanted to have a creative expression where I wasn’t asking anybody’s opinion. I’m not looking for validation or a grade. Although it might not be apparent when viewing the paintings, there’s a lot of thinking and work that goes in before they arrive. 

What is the message that you try to convey through your work? 

I would describe my paintings as emotional; I’m evoking emotion from myself and the viewer when I’m painting. I’m usually starting with a sentiment or emotion that ties to a feeling or an idea. It can be a sentence or phrase that I’m trying to get across, a thought, or an image that sparks [my interest] like archival images. I’ve been experimenting with writing and having texts written into the paintings. Although I use many characters, I think the work is still autobiographical. I want people to feel familiar or intrigued. 

What is the story behind the running theme of the decapitated heads that are held in the air? 

I don’t have a running theme of the decapitated heads in my paintings; it appeared in one painting. It’s the same painting, but two different views of it as the painting developed. I tend to not display the full work with my Instagram account because of my show, so I’m usually just posting works in progress and glimpses of the painting. It’s a painting of multiple female archetypes troupes. I was looking at the idea of the female fatale; a man-eater or a woman who is dangerous and violent. 

What are you currently working on? 

My main thing is working on this show. It’s happening in Lagos in June. I’ll show a collection of works spanning over the past three or four years. Right now, we’re working on building all the frames one-by-one, from scratch and hand-painting them. That’s been a big project as it’s a lot of work that we’ll be showing. I’ve been working on making new work, some collaborations that will be coming out soon, and printmaking some prints of the paintings that I can release later on in the year. 

What other mediums do you hope to expand to or incorporate into your textile work?

I’m incorporating oil. It’s been fun, interesting, and exciting. I’ve never used oil-paint before; it’s a completely different process because it dries slowly. At the moment, I’m trying to figure out a way to manipulate the paints to essentially make them look like watercolour and gouache. I remember when I was in boarding school, I had to paint and use mediums in a specific way. Now that I have the freedom to do what I want, it’s interesting to try to manipulate these mediums. At first, it was a bit of a challenge, but I’ve gotten into the groove and have an idea of how I can use the paint to make the images I want to see. I’m excited to share that at some point.

Do you intentionally always use blue in your paintings? What is the meaning behind it?

Yes, I do. I heard or read somewhere that blue was the shade darker than black, and when thinking about colour mixing; when you mix the colours brown and blue, you get black, and this is a concept that I liked. That was the initial prompt that made me want to start painting black bodies and figures in blue. It was a mystical aspect to it that’s powerful to me and enriched the works. Being Nigerian and Yoruba, the colour indigo is prevalent in our artistry, with adire (tie and dye textiles). It’s being used culturally and is another connection that felt right to me. I don’t exclusively use it, but for now, I’m exploring that colour palette.

How did you get connected with Kenneth Ize? What prompted you to follow through with this opportunity?

We’re friends, and I’ve known him for a few years. My whole painting journey has been a very humbled entrance into the art world. Since 2016, I made little sketches and drawings and would post them to Instagram. [At the time], I just had my friends on my feed about twenty people, Kenneth was one of those people. When I started figuring out my blue theme, he was keen and excited about it. I made a painting that I gave to my sister and her husband; it was one of my first blue portrait series. Kenneth liked it a lot and wanted to use it on a print. That’s how it began. If I made a painting that he liked, he would ask to use it for a print, or sometimes he would specifically ask me to design and print for fabrics. For the last Paris collection, he commissioned me to make a pattern. 

Your collaboration with Jomi Marcus-Bello and Stephen Tayo for Wafflesncream was inspired by African love. What does “African love” mean to you? How does this inform your work?

Love is one of the biggest things I explore. I think many Africans identify less individually and more as a community. My first idea of what love was, was familial love. I enjoy painting romantic love and couples. I love the idea of romance, the fantasy and ridiculousness of it; it’s fun. African love is something I haven’t seen much of, especially in paintings and fine art paintings. I think that has something to do with being stoic, where affection isn’t shown in the Western way, that we see in movies and TV with the full drama. There’s still a lot of drama with African romantic love, at least in Nigeria, we love, love. All everyone talks about is dating, marriage, and having a family; it’s a big deal. It’s an interesting theme to explore. I’m still figuring out what exactly African love means. There’s a difference I’ve seen in the way we express but at its core, it’s all the same thing.

What is your favourite past version of yourself, and why?

Recently an old friend sent me a message with a photograph of his fifth birthday party. There were giant costumed-adults like Telly Tubbies, Minni Mouse, and Micheal Jackson. He said his mom remembered that when I got to the party, I thanked them for coming. My five or six-year-old self would be my best version of myself. I don’t know where she is now, but that sense of naivety is powerful and probably, in some way, influences my work. 

All images courtesy of Fadekemi Ogunsanya

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