Dennis Osadebe: Inside Out
Through February 12, 2022
By EMANN ODUFU, January 2022
Dennis Osadebe is a Nigerian artist, based out of Lagos, who creates work that explores Nigerian identity. His work recontextualizes traditional African symbols like the mask and reinvents them through exploring the interplay of spirituality, technology, tradition and modernity that characterizes the contemporary African experience. Dennis Osadebe’s digital exhibition Inside Out is on view at the MoCADA until February 12th, 2022.
EMANN ODUFU: Hey Dennis, I’m happy that we were able to get on zoom together.
DENNIS OSADEBE: Yeah man, good to finally connect. I've been so busy with life, with getting married and trying to settle into this new reality.
EO: Congrats, you said you got married so congratulations. So let’s just jump right into this. Tell me a bit about yourself and your practice.
DO: As you know I'm Nigerian and I work and live in Lagos. I grew up in Lagos until I was 15 then I moved to the UK for five years. Growing up, I didn't see the opportunity to be an artist as I didn't know of any Nigerian artists who were doing well or were doing works that I found inspiring. The exposure that I got living in the UK opened me to new possibilities. From there it was all about how I would use my background, my experiences and my exposure to my advantage when it was time to express myself. I started practicing full time in 2016. Since then, I've been able to develop the direction in which I want my work to go and the meaning of what I'm trying to do. I think most artists reflect their life in their work and that's been the most important part of my practice. I constantly ask myself if my perspective is beneficial to us as Nigerians.
EO: So let’s delve deeper into this. How has your identity as a Nigerian and your experience growing up there manifested in the work that you’ve created to date?
DO: In Nigeria I'm from a town called Festac in Lagos. As a child growing up, the town’s emblem was a traditional mask. I believe it was called the Benin 77 mask. This emblem was everywhere, and it was the logo of the area. It was only in the last two years that I realized how crazy it is that I’m now using the image of a mask to draw similarities to all the characters in my work. I also originate from Anambra state, which is in the eastern part of Nigeria. One big thing in Igbo culture is that the kids must go home to the village every December to reconnect with where they are from and understand their culture, language, and food. When I was there, I would experience various festivals and witness masquerade dancing and men in costumes and masks. I started to question why they are wearing traditional masks and what happens when they do. For me, it was an important segue into the world of science fiction. When these dancers put on this mask and helmet, they go into a different realm. They are no longer with us and are communicating with higher beings. I remember thinking this was so profound. I find it interesting when people say things like science fiction is not really an African thing. As a kid I experienced it firsthand, so for me it’s important to inform people of this different perspective through my work.
EO: That’s really interesting. I'm actually half Nigerian and half Guyanese. My mother is from the Caribbean and my father is from Nigeria. I’ve actually never been to Nigeria, but I’m going for the first time in February. So yeah, my dad is Igbo and from Lagos, but he grew up in Delta State and Abbi and so I'm going to Abbi to attend their annual cultural festival. I've been looking at videos on YouTube of the festival and seeing masquerade dancers and it seems really cool. So, you referencing attending local festivals to connect with your culture really hits home with me. But yeah, I want to delve deeper into your usage of the mask. In African American literature, the mask or the veil is used as a metaphor to describe a sort of dual consciousness that exists between being black and being American. Two things that are hard to reconcile at the same time. I'm just curious if the mask holds a similar meaning in your work and whether you are critiquing notions of the African identity, especially as many of your figures wear a mask or helmet. For me, I see a juxtaposition of the traditional way of operating within African society versus the growth of modern African culture. Is this something that you are considering when making your work?
DO: The answer is simple. For me, the mask represents what it is to be Nigerian. I want to create work that is very true to my heritage. When I had to decide on the kind of mask that my characters would wear, it was very important to create something reflecting what's happening today in Nigeria. I wanted it to be colorful and expressive. I wanted something that could easily repeat itself. For me it's almost like I'm creating a logo that speaks throughout my body of work. It was also important to take inspiration from the different ways masks are made in Nigeria. For example, the Yoruba when they design masks focus very much on the cheek area. When you see masks from other regions of Nigeria, say for example the northern region, the focus is on a certain part of muscle. My goal was to make sure that this was the most Nigerian unifying mask that I could ever present to the public. Even prior to me using masks, I was working with helmets, which is another recurring theme in my work. I use both as tools because it's important that they reflect the state of mind of the character in my work or the state of mind of the viewer. It also works well because it gives each character a level of abstraction, so whoever sees the work can reflect on it freely and see themselves in my work. Therefore, I'd say the helmet represents tech and the mask represents tradition and spirituality. For me spirituality and technology are one and the same, and this could be an even deeper conversation.
EO: One thing I love about your work is that it reminds me of the American artist Derrick Adams in that I see a lot of black bodies at leisure. In your work you’re not really seeing the trauma or the things that you normally see represented with the black body. I love that you create sophisticated characters who are pursuing leisure in sophisticated spaces.
DO: It’s almost as if there are unspoken rules that say if you are an artist that creates in Nigeria you must reflect the society and the suffering in the society. It’s like I know we have problems, but I also think we can redefine the problems through positivity.
EO: It harkens back to that concept of black joy as a form of protest.
DO: Yeah, we just want to see ourselves taking life in. We deserve it. We owe this to ourselves. The more that artists engage with this concept, the more that it will be normalized. It’s human nature to be at leisure. We deserve it.
EO: I know that you eventually create physical representations of your work, but that you begin the creative process digitally. I'm curious to know your thoughts on the future of digital art with NFT’s and the metaverse changing the way art and art exhibitions can look. Was this a choice for you and the MoCADA to align yourself with the future of art?
DO: The show actually started off as a digital show because we were in the thick of the pandemic and saw this as an opportunity to work on a digital platform. I think the world is going digital and that this medium provides us lots of opportunities to do more. A lot more people would be able to engage with the work on the museum’s website and they can see it on their computer screen or use 3D or VR goggles. It represents me as an artist and the MoCADA as an institution coming together to present something that is digital, but that does not lack context. We thought a lot about how we can make the viewers feel and how we could amplify their experience seeing my art digitally. My dream for the future is to be able to go to a museum, see work, touch it and have it come to life. All of this is going to be brought forth by the advancements of technology.
EO: At what point did you realize that you wanted to create an interactive art game to release as part of the exhibition?
DO: I did an exhibition called Figures of Playful Rebellion and that series was built around centering play as a means of challenging the system. Through play we can build teams, in the process bond, and we can channel the higher power that exists. This process breaks down the oppressive aspects of the society that we live in. During the time that I was making this series, we experienced END SARS in Nigeria. I really wanted to say something and raise awareness, but at the time I just could not find a way to do so. There were loads of conversations happening around how we can empower ourselves as youth. We wanted to present to the government how we've been affected and how we can improve our situation. After it all blew up in our faces, everybody went back home to think about what to do. This period inspired me to work on this game because I wanted to create something that was reflective of what it is to be a Nigerian youth. The game is about a kid who is trying to get to school, and, in this process, he must dodge police officers. Something as simple and straightforward as this, is very important as it shows what it's like being a black kid and being so limited by the system of law which is supposed to protect you. This holds true as a Nigerian or as an American and is a global problem where you can get pushback from doing something as simple as getting an education. Once I decided that this would be the context of the game, it was more about executing my vision. I really wanted to use this as a tool to raise awareness of the problem and bring more people into the room for discussion. I wanted to reach people who weren’t necessarily into gaming, but that would engage with it, because it was an art experience. I wanted to engage people who were not in Nigeria. I just wanted more people to engage with this topic. WM
Emann Odufu is a writer, artist, cultural critic and filmmaker hailing from Newark, NJ. His writing and film work have been featured in the NY Times, Huffington Post, Okay Africa and other leading magazines. He has spoken about his creative work at various universities around the country including, but not limited to Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and NYU.
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