Self-taught conceptual photographer Ade Okelarin known as Asiko recently had his first solo exhibition, the Adorned Series at the Rele gallery in Lagos. This was, however, not the first time his photographs were shown at Rele.

In June 2016, Rele took an innovative approach to exhibiting art, fusing culinary art and photography, titled ‘What’s Cooking?’. Kitchen connoisseurs and renowned photographers were brought together to do the exhibition. Ade Asiko, alongside veteran photographer, Kelechi Amadi-Obi were the artistic eyes behind the photography part of the exhibition that was such a buzz at the time.

Highly inspired and driven by his cultural heritage, Asiko continually explores narrative around the female form to visually tell a compelling story, putting them in a light we may find irresistible despite the seeming imperfections that surround the idea of being a woman.

Just before the exhibition opened, Roli Afinotan had the chance to interview Asiko about his experience as a photographer, his creative muse and his journey so far with the Adorned Series.

Roli Afinotan: Is your real name Asiko?

Asiko: So Asiko is just one name that’s kind of like my photography alter ego. My name is Ade Okelarin. There was a time I wanted that to be my name but then it didn’t quite work out.

Roli: When did you start photography and at what point did you specialize in fine art photography?

Asiko:  I started taking photos about 6 years ago, but I think in the past 2-3 years I have gone down the more art inspired photography which is what I do. I always thought my photographs meant more so I kind of wanted to dive down that route and I found that my field and the things I was interested in were my culture, my heritage and women.

Roli: Great! Because my next question was going to be why women?

Asiko: It is a strange one. There are two responses to that. One is I do not fully know, I just find that that’s where my narrative points. I am surrounded by a lot of women and I do see the challenges our women go through. For me, I have wanted to use my photographs to talk about that, to show the strength that women have. They should not be considered the lower sexes. I do not believe in that. I believe in equality. I guess that’s possibly the reason. But to know the definitive reason, I can’t say.

Roli: Can you tell me about the Adorned Series?

Asiko: Yes. So the Adorned Series is born out of a memory I had when I was a child. I have this vivid memory of being at an event, somewhere in the village. Not sure where, possibly my mum’s side but I remember a woman there, very strong, very old but she carried a lot of strength and she had on a lot of jewellery, layers and layers of jewellery. That memory of her stuck with me. And then the dancers as well had on a lot of jewellery and it was kind of mesmerising. All those memories inspired the beginning of a project. As I started to shoot, I started to dive into strong women. Yes, women are strong but they also go through a range of emotions and I decided to start bringing little aspects of that into my work. So it is about jewellery and women of where I am from.

Asiko, ìkárùn-kan - The Adorn Series

Asiko, ìkárùn-kan – The Adorned Series

Roli: Have you exhibited the Adorned Series anywhere else before?

Asiko: Just about a month ago, which came out of nowhere, I exhibited in London at the Gallery of African Art. They have a different set of images where I was exploring female archetypes. Some of these archetypes, sometimes, are what I have seen and what we do traditionally. Take, for instance, the hunter. I have seen women and the things they do – the mother, the nurturer, the spiritual. So I explored that.

Roli: What was the reception like?

Asiko: It was very well received. That was one of my big first solo shows. I did that with another photo (artist)… well, he’s a mixed media artist but he takes photos – Evans (Mbugua). But yeah, it was very well received.

Roli: About the installations, when you were taking these photos did you always know you were going to adorn them literally?

Asiko: Oh yes! It was through the process of photographing that I decided that I would love to actually adorn them. I actually wanted more ways I could use my hands. So aside from taking photos, I want to start using my hands. There are things that are going to come out in the next year or two that will be more mixed media. It could begin with photography and then end somewhere else. I kind of knew that as I was going along. In the beginning, no, but through the process and I think that’s the beautiful thing about the process.

Ori Okan by Asiko

Asiko, Ori Okan – The Adorned Series

Roli: Did you make the jewellery used in adorning the photos yourself?

Asiko: Actually, three of them were made by me.

Roli: Wow! Okay, that’s the element of surprise I was waiting for, I didn’t think you made any of those. They are all so beautiful and delicate.

Asiko: Two of them were made by a very dear friend of mine, Anita Quansah. She’s an amazingly talented jewellery designer. She’s half Ghanaian, half Nigerian. We wanted to try the partnership out and see how it worked out, so she did two of those images but in the future, I think we are going to go all out and do a bigger collaboration.

Roli:  Even though you have said something about it earlier, how did you come up with the idea to literally adorn your images? Because, looking at the other images, you had already adorned them before photographing. 

Asiko: Like I said, it is more like testing the process. It is one thing to take the photograph and another thing to be able to play with it and that is the direction I want to go with. It was one of those spark-of- the- moment ideas that just comes.

Roli: How many photos in total do you have in the series at the moment because I understand it is an ongoing project?

Asiko: There are some in London, plus the ones here, we are looking at about 32 and this is just the beginning of the project. I am looking at ‘adire’ as the next thing. I think ‘adire’ is a beautiful part of our culture which we are gradually losing and I want it to be something we can see and re-appreciate. Then will also be looking at skin – adorned skin, from tribal marks to tattoos. There’s a lot to explore really.

Asiko, ijó - The Adorn Series

Asiko, ijó – The Adorned Series

Roli: Interesting. Speaking of skin, I see that you have done some work on skin. How was the experience like? How easy or difficult was it to find women with skin conditions willing to participate or feature in that project?

Asiko: I see the skin as perfect. For some reason, it is strangely considered not. The skin we have been given, we should see it as perfect. The project was more about loving yourself even though you may have been through… well, there were some women who had disabilities – amputees I have shot and some others I am going to be shooting. On finding the subjects, I think it depends on how you phrase what your intentions are. I think people are open when you want to show them in a beautiful light. And in my photography, in as much as I orchestrate and create things, there are elements of truth in there and that’s what some of the women resonated with. Some of the women have seen the kind of work I have done. I don’t retouch the skin. The skin is who we are. I have shot close to 20 women for this. Amputee, albinos, those with vitiligo; I am currently working on those images and I am yet to get the interviews done.

Roli: You have a series called Layers which I find interesting. You took pictures of women between 19 and 90 at various stages of their lives with flowers in the background. Do the flowers have any symbolic relevance in the photographs?

Asiko: We shot it over a month period. As we shot, the flower aged. The usual thing is to let the flower age but as the flowers aged, we added greens to them, to see with a different set of eyes. So as we added greens to them, the flowers became bigger but it was less colour and more greens. For us, it was more about adding depth.

Roli: For a self-taught photographer, you have accomplished so much in such a short time. From research, I understand that you came from a science background, worked with GSK and some other big time companies. What pushed you to leave all that behind, go into art photography for that matter, (because you are not into commercial photography per se)? How was the transition? Is it something you would have done differently if you could go back in time?

Asiko: It’s a hard question because I have asked myself this question before a few months back. If I went back in time, I would go back to my university days and change my course to an art course but then would I be who I am? Would I create what I am creating now? I would be a completely different person. I really like who I am now, but then making that change when I did has been a gradual thing. Art had been the centre for many years and it’s been the only thing that interested me. So when I picked up the camera, I just ran with it and went crazy. Initially, I shot all kinds of stuff, I thought maybe I should be commercial, then I decided to start listening to my own voice, which is a hard thing to do in the midst of everyday chaos and life.

Roli: From your work and all you have said so far, you are deeply rooted in your cultural heritage which serves as an inspiration for your work. How would you compare the reception of your work between London and Nigeria?

Asiko: I think it’s interesting in Lagos. It is actually great here. It’s been good in London as well but I think people are more connected to it here. For me, this is important, because if I can come here, plug in, connect, get to know more about who I am, I can use this to feed my work. I haven’t actually thought to compare the difference between them before, which is interesting but it’s something I will start giving conscious observation to.

Roli: Who are some of the photographers whose work you admire?

Asiko. Well, that depends because I don’t look at a lot of photography. I am inspired by a French photographer, Sarah Moon. Her work is emotional, my work is nothing like her work but the idea that I can connect, is something I continually aspire to. Another is Tim Walker. Tim Walker was shooting what was interesting to him, and then people came to him. So really, I am shooting stuff based on who I am and my journey.

Top featured image: Asiko, àdímú-hold – The Adorned Series.
All images courtesy of Ade ‘Asiko’ Okelarin.

The Adorned Series exhibition is currently showing at the Rele Gallery in Lagos and will be up until 20 November 2016.