A religious upbringing under the watch of a devout evangelical preacher mother prepared the Lagos-based Damilola Opedun for an art practice based on spirituality, writes Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Phobia and Makovenice – names that the two series Damilola Moses Opedun is currently working on pithily bear – attest to the fecundity of an artist’s mind at this time of distress. Of the Phobia series, for instance, something about its offering, consisting of disfigured human forms – albeit with recognisable features – jars on the viewers’ sensibilities. Mostly black circular shapes, alluding to such social media symbols as emojis and smileys, somehow inveigle themselves into the entire visual conundrum as motifs. Thus, the 2010 Auchi Polytechnic graduate hopes not only to scour the human emotions in search of what drives them towards a specific direction but also evaluate the impact of social validation on people’s lives. “With this [body of works], I hope to point people to the one and the only true source of validation placed within each one of us by the Almighty,” he says.
As for Makovenice, it is a body of works that was inspired by his weekly visits to the sprawling Lagos Lagoon-based shanty town, Makoko. Hence, its title derives from the prefixing of the northeastern Italian city of Venice with the first two syllables of the community’s name. It was sometime in 2014 that he first set out – armed with his palette, brushes and a clear vision – to this floating slum, where he hoped to impact on its residents through art. And six years on, he still consistently holds weekly classes for the children of this community – tagged “the perfect nightmare for the Lagos State government”.
The series, Makovenice, is, therefore, a fallout of these weekly visits and interaction with Makoko residents. “I was inspired to create this body of work, which unearths the diamond in the rough of an almost discarded land,” says Opedun, about the body of works, which he hopes to show to the world very soon. “[I also want] to show the beautiful side to the famous ‘slum’ and to become a voice for them, a bridge between them and the intellectual world, to give them the deserved attention and assistance.”
The endeavour has also crystallised into a non-profit organisation named The Seed of True Vine Foundation, which focuses on the education and welfare of the slum-dwelling children. “I see this work as a huge privilege from God Almighty to be a guide and mentor to the budding artists and future leaders in Makoko. I hope to intimately pull my audience into deep interaction with the people and the place while exploring the concepts of survival, hope, innocence, and juxtaposition,” the artist continues, concluding with the famous quote by the late American poet Robert Frost: “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
Though decades separate him from the Lagos elite artists, Opedun has leveraged his association with such renowned industry’s leading lights as Sam Ovraiti, Duke Asidere, Bob-Nosa Uwagboe, Abbas Kelani and Uchay Joel Chima, among others, to his advantage. He also acknowledges the influence of his first private art teacher and mentor, the painter Muyiwa Adejimi, in whose studio that he had his basic training in drawing and painting as well as learnt the theoretical aspects of fine arts that aided his admission into the Auchi Polytechnic. To his late mum, who was an evangelist, he attributes his preoccupation with the Creator and His ways as well as with the meaning of spirituality. “All these shaped my views about life and art,” he explains.
It was during his National Service Youth Corps (NYSC) programme in 2012 – a year after he had met his current mentor Duke Asidere – that his path crossed that of Sam Ovraiti. It was through the latter that he became aware of the power of art. His interest in the spirituality and its link with art increased in 2013 when he watched the American singer and actress Beyonce Knowles-Carter in a YouTube video talk on an Oprah Winfrey Show about the assistance she gets from a spiritual being, called Sasha Fierce. Besides, he was also inspired by many quotes on the supremacy of spirituality over tangible dealings credited to prominent people.
Looking back now, the Ondo State-born artist deems himself lucky to have been brought up by parents, who recognised his talents and encouraged his childhood dreams of becoming an artist. “They both made sure I lacked no art materials and encouraged me to pursue my desire of becoming a professional artist,” he recalls.
After his primary and secondary school education in the ancient southwestern Nigerian city of Ibadan, he was left with no doubt that art was his calling. It was not much of a surprise, therefore, that he became the best graduating student at the Auchi Polytechnic in 2010.
Two things, meanwhile, continued to preoccupy him after he left the polytechnic. One was to know more about his Creator, His plan for humanity and how he fitted into His great design. The other was to hone his skills in such a way as to help him fulfil his calling.
Over the years, as he became more proficient, he developed a predilection for the soft pastel medium. “I really and truly mastered the medium and even got an award from the Pastel Society of America, from their annual juried exhibition. But, because of the limitations of the medium, oil paint medium is now my number one choice because of its malleability that allows me unhindered expression.”
In October 2015, he was featured, as an “Up and Coming Nigerian Pastelist”, in a website: www.howtopastel.com, run by one Gail Sibley and one of his paintings appeared in a popular French art magazine. It was two years later that he participated in the juried 45th annual exhibition of The Pastel Society of America, where his work bagged The Jack Richeson & Co. Silver Award.
Meanwhile, the influences of the works of such American artists as Ramon Kelly, Jeremy Mann and David Leffel as well as those of the Slovakian-born artist Tibor Nagy, the Nigerian painter Abiodun Olaku and the iconic Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn were becoming evident in his works.
In Nigeria, he has been a regular in the local exhibition circuit and was featured at the Mydrim Gallery’s annual The Generation: Future Masters Series art exhibition right from its inception.
The full-time studio artist, who turns 37 on December 8, hopes to make a positive impact on the society through his works, several of which have already wormed their way into private collections within and outside Nigeria.
A typical day, for Opedun, whose mentoring work with younger and emerging artists chimes well with his side vocation as a preacher, begins with prayers and reading the Bible before walking down to his studio, which is only a stone’s throw from his residence. He remains there till 7 pm before returning home to his family.
“For me everything – and I mean everything – starts with prayer. Then I would start looking for my vision of each element of art. I, for example, developed a personal colour system that suits my nature and taste and did the same for all elements. Thus, I’ve created a style that is uniquely mine.”