Expressing the pains of others and those of a period in his childhood through his paintings became the theme song of Toluwalase Awolaja’s studio practice, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
Dysphoria, for some reason, became Toluwalase Awolaja’s obsession. This was when the 23-year-old Ogun State native began earnestly to seek answers to some of life’s apparent puzzles. Curiosity lent wings to his thoughts, as he continually delved into these conundrums and sought to cleave through the dense veil of prejudice set up by his audience’s social conditioning. Before long, his compositions began to weave themselves around those themes, bordering on contentious issues. To this end, he appropriates different techniques, verging on the marriage of abstraction and realism – a nod to his philosophy which advocates peaceful co-existence among people of divergent beliefs and social standing. Along the line, going against the rules and trying things from different angles became a norm as well as his road map to unearthing new realities.
“I have often asked questions like, ‘Why are we so different as humans? What makes us who we are?” the artist, who signs his paintings as Tolu Raymond, muses in his artist’s statement and challenges his audience to question the very essence of their being. “These aforementioned questions are some of the bricks that formed the foundation upon which I built this Dysphoria Series.”
Indeed, it was while focalising his obsession around gender dysphoria that he began to empathise with the distress certain individuals feel on account of the mismatch between their gender identity and the sex assigned them at birth. “These unique individuals, who didn’t have a choice on how they were created, constantly face issues such as discrimination, hostility and sometimes death sometimes from the same people who ought to protect them from harm, leading to depression and other forms of mental illness,” he opines. “The focus of my work has been to pull out these individuals from the shadows and humanising them by celebrating them in my works.”
This 2018 Yaba College of Technology, Lagos graduate believes art should be a tool to question “the status quo and reflect the times”, adding: “That is the kind of power I want my art to carry. I want it to have the ability to say things that cannot be said and evoke certain emotions in my audience.”
In the course of his studio practice, which started during his years as a student at the Lagos mainland-based institution better known as Yabatech, he had produced a respectable number of commissioned works and participated in two successful exhibitions. Among the latter was an annual exhibition organised by Arts in Medicine, an NGO founded by Kunle Adewale, an Obafemi Awolowo University-trained artist as well as the Tulane University, New Orleans, US civic leadership graduate and the University of Florida-certified arts in medicine practitioner. Featured at that Arts in Medicine exhibition were artworks produced at its annual volunteer programme, during which students, artists and healthcare practitioners were trained on how to deploy art to therapeutic ends.
Close up on Awolaja’s years as a student at the Yaba College of Technology. They expectedly initiated him into the intriguing world of art. “At first, I was keen on creating a style for myself,” he says.”But, later, I realised that that would be a restriction for me. I believe, as an artist, one must always try and learn new things. So, having a [peculiar] style would restrict me from exploring in my work.”
A keen observation of his paintings reveals his predilection for charcoal and graphite, which he blends harmoniously into his compositions. In addition, he has cross-fertilised ideas with the many “amazing artists”, whose paths crossed his during his years as a student.
Flashback to his childhood years. Floating in the foggy memories of those years were moments Awolaja recalls himself “creating art”. Yet, his then sanguine visions of the world could hardly have admitted such serious notions as choosing a career’s path. Art may indeed have always been a tendency. But, he was only a child with fleeting attention span, who savoured the activities without a thought about where they could lead him to in the future.
Yet, as the last child – indeed the only male child – of his parent’s three children, fate led him through needful experiences that etched indelible imprints on his psyche. He was wrenched from the warmth of his parental home and placed under the care of a strict and austere paternal aunt, who lived in one of the satellite Ogun State-based communities along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway when his parents temporarily relocated abroad. This was while his sisters were all sent off to a boarding school.
About two years later, when it was obvious that he could no longer cope with the strict regimen at his aunt’s place, he jumped at the opportunity to return to his former school in Lagos. This was where he eventually completed both his primary and secondary school education.
He currently attributes the fact that most of his paintings express pain and struggle to those bygone years when he lived with his now-deceased aunt. “We are all affected by our past. This is why I like to express the pain others might be enduring silently – just like I did as a child – through my works. Today, I don’t look like what I have gone through, but the scars still remain.”
Fortunately for him, his parents gave him their full support – and even encouraged him to more diligent and consistent – when he told them about his decision to study art. “They stood by me when my art was still at its early stage,” he says. “For this reason, I was able to face it head-on without any emotional stress. My parents did all they could to also provide all I needed for my studies. Most people think studying art is for unserious people but it’s a rather expensive course and career’s path. I was convinced that it was what I wanted to do because I yearned for it since my childhood. I met people along the way who taught me. I remember when I would cry because I wasn’t able to replicate still-life objects given by our lecturers. But, I didn’t give up and kept on trying.”
Awolaja would rather not be restricted to particular role models. The world, he explains, is his role model since he can get inspired by just anyone or anything. Even less rigid is his working schedule because he juggles his time between the studio and mural project sites. “Mostly the mural aspect keeps me away from studio work for like a week. So it makes it difficult to plan my schedule. I remember how just before my graduation from the art school, I was already thinking about making money to run my art practice.”
He first joined a company that specialises in doing murals, called Left Eye Signatures. Later, he teamed up with a friend to start a mural company they called Ripple Effects. “So I’m caught in between working for a mural company, running mine and also doing my studio practice when I can.”