Alimi Adewale is a Nigerian contemporary artist based in Lagos. At a young age, he attended art exhibitions and became interested in the arts, in fact, the feelings from his encounter at these exhibitions prompted the desire to become an artist. Although he graduated from the University of Ilorin as a mechanical engineer, he has worked in various service management and consulting institutions in Nigeria. Alimi now practices art full time as a sculptor and painter. His works explore topical urban issues, documentation of everyday city people and the controversial subject of ‘Nudes in African Art’ as a form of expression.
In this interview, Bukola Oye engages Alimi Adewale in a conversation about his recent project Butterflies in the City and his experience as an artist so far.
Bukola Oye: Tell us about your most recent project “Butterflies in the city” showing at the alternative art space OM’s Flat in Lagos?
Alimi Adewale: Butterflies over the city exhibition explore nature, connecting with it and knowing that nature can be a source of solace, healing, insight and regeneration. Communing with nature is also a source of wonder, nature quite simply is everything, it is the source of life. But urbanization and the rapid pace of development are fostering a disconnection from the natural world within us. The people in the city can no longer contemplate what and how nature is.
The simple activities of watching a bird in flight, glancing at the cloud formations in the sky or even looking at growing plants are increasingly becoming difficult to experience. ‘Butterflies over the City’ is a reminder of how nature is our foundation, nourishment, comfort and our treasury. And it is only by accounting for the full, comprehensive and irreplaceable value of nature in our decision making that we can secure the future of our society.
BO: On your website, you cited that going for exhibitions at a young age spurred your interest in art, what did you experience then that led to this life career choice and which artists did you encounter that influenced you strongly?
AA: I am a voracious reader and the global art world always crop up in novels like James hardly chase and Jeffrey Archer novels I read when I was young, but, my first contact with art was from an art festival held in Lagos. Then as a greenhorn, you just enjoy the art with all sincerity without even taking a glance at the signature. So I can not recall names from that period.
BO: How would you describe the art scene at that time, is there a big difference compared to now especially in terms of creativity?
AA: I did not even know there was a scene then, not even galleries or exhibitions.
BO: Were these exhibitions in Lagos?
BO: When did you eventually become an artist, what did you do before then and how would you describe your kind of art?
AA: I studied Mechanical Engineering because as a kid my father was my mentor and he is a Marine Engineer and he was in the Navy. I marveled at the different sea stories he shared with me. Come to think of it, I did not practice engineering for one day, it was more like doing routine maintenance. Engineering companies in Nigeria are not into research and product development so I knew it will be boring. I later underwent an art appreciation and apprenticeship training under the artist, Kamoru Sarumi in Yaba area of Lagos. While I painted at night, I worked at Wangonet, Accenture and Vetiva Capital over the years, I decided to focus solely on my art ten years ago.
BO: As a self-taught artist, what challenges have you faced, and what steps did you take to develop yourself and what are the techniques you use now?
AA: Like many other self-taught artists all over the world, I experienced rejection. Arts by outsiders are rarely considered important. What I have learnt is perseverance. If you love what you do and keep at it, I believe recognition will come. The local industry is a 360 degrees effort thing, you will have to manage your career yourself, do the work, market it, do the publicity, even hang it for exhibition and deliver it most times. One must have the strength to do all these things. I do not believe an establishment can make a star out of any artist, the artist must have put in some work too. My advice to any artist who cares to listen is, never stop working every art has a wall waiting for it, it is only a matter of time.
I do not put much emphasis on the technique that I use, the story is the most important aspect which can be disseminated in any technique and media.
Like many other self-taught artists all over the world, I experienced rejection. Arts by outsiders are rarely considered important. What I have learnt is perseverance. If you love what you do and keep at it, I believe recognition will come.
BO: What is your philosophy on the kind of art that you create and what do you hope it will achieve when encountered? How does being a creative person working in Lagos come to play in this philosophy?
AA: I make sure my art documents the period that I am in and that is why my works are in series. This is evident in some of the titles like the Socialites Series, Carnival Series, Migrants Series, Anonymous series, etc. While I am telling all these stories as an artist, I believe the aesthetical elements must also be considered, elements of design, balance, the harmony of colours used and most importantly draughtsmanship. Lagos is an amazing authentic city with so many possibilities and there is a lot to be inspired by in a city of 18 million inhabitants.
BO: In 2005, you had your first exhibition at Quintessence Gallery, how would you describe that experience and the works you exhibited? How many solo exhibitions have you done since then?
AA: I was lucky to start my art career with an institution like Quintessence, which at the time represented and showcased works by Nigerian masters like Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Suzanne Wenger, Twin Seven Seven, Muraina Oyelami and other amazing artists too numerous to mention. My first solo exhibition is an attempt on the Sublime, a journey of aesthetics, the art of balance, of purity and serenity that calm and soothes our mind in the chaotic world.
BO: Are you represented by any gallery?
AA: Yes. Quintessence and Red Door Gallery
BO: Have you participated in any international exhibition or biennale?
AA: Yes. In August of 2015, I was shown in an exhibition alongside another Nigerian artist, Adeola Balogun at Pumhuset Trollhatan in Sweden. In September of the same year, I featured in another two-man exhibition, Connections II, a month after my residency at Galleri Astley Uttersberg in Sweden, with Adeola Balogun. That same month, I had a solo exhibition Megalopolis at Just Africa in Sodermalmstorg, Stockholm.
AA: [Dis] Placement was shown in another two-man exhibition with Richardson Ovbiebo. Through it, I explored further the city of Lagos, the ongoing changes in this new Lagos which to the unknowing eye is still the same but indeed new structures and developments are taking pace. The focus is on the displacement of everyday city people because of excessive urban development.
The Anonymous Series are portraits of average city people, the boy selling sachet water on the street, the ‘Maiguard’ working as a security guard, the young girl selling fishes in the market and so on. These are the less celebrated icons of the metropolis called Lagos and they are equally important in the documentation of Lagos story. The idea behind the series is to elevate them to an iconic status and make a Marilyn Monroe out of them. Interestingly, they were collected for apartments and homes in the luxury driven parts of town. The project was for a charity show, the entire proceeds were donated to Ebunoluwa Foundation.
BO: What has been your most remarkable experience as an artist?
AA: When a European National Visa was granted to me on the same day of the application while in another country, waiting to open an exhibition in a different city in Europe. That was when I knew that art is very important. I was proud to be an artist on that day.