While traveling months back, I visited Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) in Spain and for the first time encountered Andrea Fraser. Fraser became popular in the US in the 90s for her ironic yet analytical performances about the economic, political, and social structures of the art world institutions.
Armed with humour, she pointed at the questionable participation of these institutions in the commercializing of art, and the increasing narcissism of art institutions, especially museums. Fraser criticized the influence of corporate sponsorships and politicians’ money which she believed reduced the authority and responsibility of art to question and criticize.
Not sparing herself, Fraser also turned on her own role in the art world for her willing participation in these conflicting structures, often stating that she is not opposed to the institutions but just questioning this surrender to commercial and ego building powers.
In a not so similar style reminiscent of Andrea Fraser, a rebellious young artist in Lagos is speaking against the commercializing of art. Taking on the title ‘controversial and shocking’ is not a common achievement in this part of the world where there are only a few artists producing bold provocative artworks. Olatunde Alara in a career spanning less than 3 years has followed this uncommon path, questioning and rebelling against the norm. The style and aesthetics of his works are much more similar to Jean Basquiat, the American artist who became popular for his social commentary in the late 70s. While Basquiat’s commentary described as “suggestive dichotomies” attacked power structures, racism, and integration struggles amongst black people, Olatunde’s critique is directed at a system promoting “hype over art” and limiting the diversity of expressions. He has addressed a range of issues from politics to social norms, mental health and the Lagos art scene itself. Some of his paintings, mostly abstract, carry the intensity of his emotions and raw depictions of his thoughts and ideas. For now, he worries less about creating aesthetically pleasing works as he is focused more on experimenting.
Knowing how the system works, that is, often absorbing and breaking movements such as this, combined with the inherent struggle of surviving as an artist, one wonders how long this rebellion and critique can last.
During Alara’s one month residency at Art Clip Africa Foundation in Lagos, I had a conversation with him on his practice and philosophy as an artist.
How did you become an artist and for how long have you been practicing?
To be honest, it was an accident. I would not say it was something unusual as I always drew. I created art long before I started it as a profession. I grew up in a household that was full of creatives. My mom studied fashion in school and my brother is into fashion. So, I generally had those inspirations around me. After schooling in England and I moved back to Lagos in 2011, I pursued music. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a rapper. But, there was so much going on that I didn’t feel like my voice was going to matter, you know, no one was really going to connect with what I did. So art was the next thing.
Does this mean you didn’t study art?
No, apart from secondary school. I did fine art in secondary school. What I studied at the tertiary level was photography. I studied photography for four years in England.
How come you are not working as a photographer considering it is the ‘in thing’ and art of the moment? Photography is getting more recognition than it used to, especially African photography.
Yeah, generally it is. When I came back from England, I was at Kelechi Amadi Obi’s studio, I interned there for a while. I decided not to continue because it wasn’t the kind of art I am constantly thinking about it. I like the actual aspect of painting and I think more about art in that way. I felt like this was just the way for me to go. Plus, if you’re doing things for popularity sake, it shows in the quality of what you do. I have done everything in my power to actually not succeed in this art field. I have done everything that everyone told me not to do. I draw things that I’m told are very unpopular. I approach art differently, and the things that I talk about are things that people are telling me will not be accepted.
So what do you talk about in your art?
I am critiquing the scene. I am critiquing the artists and calling them out. In a way, I am saying that we can definitely get better and I am not saying it in a way that I feel I am better than my peers. I just feel like there’s a certain type of passion I bring to what I do and it is a shame that others who are probably equally as talented or maybe even more talented than I don’t. They take art as something that you can just take on and then drop. Art is really not like that. The material I use is an act of rebellion. I use non-traditional materials like house paint and spray paint. Although right now you have a bit more artists who are going into that direction of using spray paint, it is still largely unpopular. I use these materials to show that art is not limitless and you can do whatever. A house paint piece may not be as valuable as maybe an acrylic piece but then who is valuing it? Whose value system are we using? This brings up another classist nature of the art world. For example, I have had issues with people telling me that because I do everything so quickly, it does not really hold weight. To them, it is more important to create overtly researched works and spend several months on them. There is nothing wrong with people spending months on their work, I commend that, but that is not the only way to validate art. It is the finished product that should matter. If you are more worried about how I did it or how long it took me than the finished product itself, then that is a problem.
But, isn’t there supposed to be some form of value in the process?
Of course, there should be value in the process of a work but I feel like it is only a specific type of process people look out for, the overtly researched stuff. It has to seem very intellectual. I’m critiquing and letting people know it can be different, and it is okay to be different. I am still building my voice, finding myself and learning how to communicate visually. I feel like this is what really matters. Sure, the process might be great but if you do not have anything real to show, it trumps the whole idea. The process is just as key as the end work. My approach is DIY and I like the aesthetic the way it is now. It communicates the rawness of my thoughts.
What exactly do you want people to pay attention to, the art or the subject?
Everything. Everything from the presentation to the subject matters to the intent. As an artist, you know why are you creating. Is it honest? There’s a whole list of factors. I just feel like most artists here (in Lagos) really do not understand. People here did not really get a good art education. We don’t really have decent art schools. There are a few schools though but we don’t really have places where they are teaching you to discover. Instead, they just teach how to do things one way. If I wasn’t into discovering, I will not be doing anything like this. I would just be doing what everyone else is doing because I was not taught or pushed to discover.
Are you aware that art is not one school of thought and people can do it differently from the way you see it whether you agree or not?
Yeah, of course, which is exactly what I’m trying to say. I am saying that by doing something different, by doing something that challenges what people are doing. That art is in fact very multifaceted. You see what I’m saying? That it comes in different languages, it comes in different media, it comes in different ways so we should leave room for something that is different. The stuff I am doing has taken a while to catch on. It is only recently that people started warming up to my work but largely, everyone thinks this is just weird art. They think it is ‘white art’ because it is not cliché. I am not talking about the cliché stuff that they want me to talk about, I am talking about experiences that are very specific to me as a person.
Does it not bother you when people say they don’t understand your style, subjects and the aesthetic? Would you present the same subjects differently so the message and the essence of what you are creating are not lost?
No, I will keep pushing. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years. I mean that’s literally what this entire thing has been about. People ignoring my stuff is how the work itself develops. It is also part of the process because if you watch the journey of how I started and the fact that people were not so open to it, you will see how the form and everything else has changed. And not necessarily to match people’s expectations. I don’t really care about people’s expectations. People can think whatever they think. This is deeper than just people liking the work. People have opinions. It would be great if people came here and went, “oh, wow, I like the aesthetics and stuff”, but then, it is also great that you can come here and not particularly like the aesthetics and question things. Like, “why is it rough?” I want you to come here and not like everything. For an artist, that is not challenging. But if you go, “this makes me uncomfortable”, and we can have a discussion around it, that’s great. I feel like I have done my job. I feel like that’s what the conversation should be about.
So are your works basically about having conversations?
Yes. And just creating. I am very particular about that. What are you giving to people through your work? That matters. It is one thing to say something and then not really be able to back it up with the art. It is art the way I envision it, the way I want to see it. As an artist, my job is not to please you, I am supposed to challenge you. You’re not supposed to come here and just agree with me, no. You’re supposed to come here and broaden your horizon, broaden your perspective. People here in Lagos are used to one type of aesthetic, one type of work. Who the hell is this using house paint? Why? Why are you using house paint? My answer is, it gives me space as a young Nigerian artist to redefine what it means to be creating.
You said earlier that you talk about unpopular subjects and people wonder why you create these kinds of work. What are these subjects?
In the past, I worked on homophobia and sexism. I am currently working on subjects around mental health. There are very few spaces to talk about mental health because it is seen as a white person’s problem. That is bullshit. There is nothing like a white person’s problem. We are human beings and every human being gets overwhelmed. There are times that you just can not cope and that is okay. It is a different matter to acknowledge these issues but not understand them. It is why you should have conversations about it because you don’t know anything about it. There are so many things that I am doing that I don’t really know too. I think I am doing them to create a sense of urgency. I am taking risks here. Doing things that are very largely unpopular in spite of being told to do things that all my mates are doing. I feel like this is how things get changed.
Are there chances that your belief and style will change in the near future?
No. I feel like I am too stubborn for that. The things I am doing are very important to me. I am not doing them to be edgy. I genuinely believe in them. Even though I am a part of the art scene, I do not really care much for it. If you check on my Instagram, my bio says, “F— the Lagos art scene” because most of it is just a fuss with people running around. They are not really interested in art, they are just interested in the money. It’s okay to make money from this stuff but do it well. We have all these young artists who are coming up and they already think they are celebs. They think because one or two people know them, they have arrived. For me, I’m not doing this thinking I have arrived, I am doing this knowing this is just the beginning of the work. There is so much that can be done and I look forward to these challenges and how I evolve as an artist.
Has this residency allowed you to experiment in the way that you would want to?
Yes, definitely. Looking at what I have created so far, I do not feel like I have compromised my work in any shape or form. It has given me space to work in a bigger medium. I used to work from home, and because of space, I was limited. You can see how space has affected my work now. The last works I did for the exhibition at Stranger were smaller. Space only dictates the size of the medium I work with. At the end of the residency, there will be an open studio exhibition to show the works created here.
Top featured image: Olatunde Alara at Art X Live Performance. Photo credit: Kachi Eloka.