By PAUL LASTER, May 2021
Creating art since he was a child and getting portrait commissions since he was a teen, Oluwole Omofemi learned the lessons of life early on from his grandfather. Guided by the wise elder, who had set out as a fashion designer and tailor before becoming a driver, the young artist knew what he wanted to do, even if his schools didn’t teach it. Self-taught in the beginning and self-motivated once he did study art at The Polytechnic in his hometown of Ibadan in Nigeria, Omofemi has always been a standout in the creative crowd.
Initially inspired by the local urban landscape and community of people who inhabited it, Omofemi found his true calling when he started focusing on idealistic paintings of his peers. “My style changed when I started painting black women with my own dark skin color,” the artist shared from his Ibadan studio. “I don’t want to just paint a picture. I want a picture that captures the soul. I want a picture that captures personality. These are the things I want people to see.”
Working in his studio in the center of the city, where he also gives young students art lessons for free, and from a second studio at home, where he can quickly respond to ideas that come to him at night, Omofemi captures his striking subjects in a highly realistic manner. Delicately painting the dark skin tones of his black female models, the artist embellishes their faces with scarification marks of past times to identify his subjects’ tribal roots and places emphasis on the styling of his sitters’ hair to express their independence.
“I use hair as a metaphor for freedom,” Omofemi added. “It’s is a big part of our identity. In my paintings, I try to tell black people to accept who they are; accept their identity; accept their beauty.”
Omofemi selects the colorful clothes and scenarios for his models and takes countless photos before narrowing his choices to one or two images from which to paint. Working with the photograph in hand, he draws on the canvas and then begins to paint, which turns into an elaborate process that can take three to four weeks to complete. After mixing his colors, he paints instinctively while letting his spirit take the reins. An optimistic artist, he challenges himself to reflect that spirit with each new painting.
The painting Blue Atmosphere (2021) presents a portrait of a beautiful black woman wearing a flowered blue dress in a blue room. The round shape of her silver-rimmed glasses, which have a glowing yellow tint, is reiterated in the two round forms that create the shape of her silhouetted hair. The light reflecting off her body and face defines her contour, while her soft red lips and sultry eyes further invite the viewer’s visual embrace.
Contrastingly, the canvas Invader (2021) offers a look at an introspective young woman who’s hairless. Engulfed by a rich blue blanket in a stark yellow setting, she stares out into space pondering the future while reflecting on the past. A symbolic reincarnation of the artist’s beloved grandmother, who suffered through chemotherapy before losing her battle with cancer, the portrait poetically projects the inner beauty of the soul onto the figure’s dark, flawless face.
In Sisters II (2020), two black women wearing bright red Afro wigs stand back-to-back in front of an exploding floral background, that’s reminiscent of a 1960s Pop Art pattern. While the vibrant graphic ground and the models’ complementary blue dresses are rendered in a flat, two-dimensional style, the featured gazing figures seem real enough to walk off the set and straight out of the painting once we have finished looking at it and them.
Three related paintings—Metamorphosis I, II and III I (2020)—enchantingly employ a black female model to symbolize the three stages of life: childhood, youth and adulthood. Portraying the same subject in a black and white polka dot dress against a batik floral field, an Afro-flaunting femme fatale with an accentuated pink lower lip and bright yellow earring glances to the side, then captures our glimpse before confidently confronting us with fixed eyes.
Finally, in the painting Lost Identity (2020/21), Omofemi looks back to the independence his people had before colonialism, through the depiction of three stylishly dressed contemporaries with masked faces. Two men with blue faces wearing patchwork patterned sport jackets flank a woman with a red face sporting a dazzling yellow blouse, as the three off them stare intently into an unseen crowd.
Echoing the imaginative street style of Afropunk and the liberating spirit of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s Pan-African vision, the artist looks to the past while exuberantly eyeing the future—a marvelous metaphor, which he engagingly expresses in each of his captivating canvases. WM
Oluwole Omofemi’s paintings are on view at OOA Gallery in 1-54 New York Online 2021 from May 17 to 23, 2021.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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