Lagos-based artist Gbenga Matthew Olawole challenges prevailing canons of aesthetics in his first-ever solo exhibition. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

A medley of forms – mostly grotesque in their expressions and dizzying in their unpredictability – seethes with a sense of urgency, proclaiming Gbenga Olawole’s restlessness from the rooftops. In a manner of speaking, these odd expressions hint at the tumult brewing in an invisible finer material world of formed thoughts, which exert their influences on the denser and visible physical environment. 

But the Ondo State native proceeds on a premise that is based on the best of intentions. To him, this is all about a personal quest for aesthetic perfection, which often sees him disfiguring what hitherto qualifies as the ideal in his patented “spontaneous symbolism”. Apparently, because his perception of “ideals” is impaired by the limited capacity of his earthly senses, he considers them as nothing more than stereotypes, which in his lexicon could just as well be called dogmas. 

This explains why he declares, in his artist statement: “I create, but I never force a picture. It’s usually an emotional dance that I try to pour out, in my best way possible, and in the instant, I feel them.”

This penchant for spontaneity courses through the 30 paintings featured in his ongoing and first-ever solo exhibition, titled Ominira, through which the artist – a self-described “critical thinker,” “keen social observer,” and “introvert” – seeks to express his individuality and creative uniqueness, distorting his forms in the process. “I paint as though I’m making poetry with colours and strokes,” he says. 

The Pig Farm, acrylic on canvas

Buoyed by this urge to freely express himself “without [the] restriction of any kind”, he proposes alternative aesthetic canons, which he would like to proclaim as “neo-Afro” symbols. Thus, he hopes to distance himself from the Afro-centric assumptions of such motifs as Uli, Nsibidi, and Ona. But then, isn’t that what his naïve draughtsmanship seems to be all about: a resolute unwillingness to adhere to laid-down rules? 

Meanwhile, this whole endeavour betrays some level of insouciance and lack of creative rigour. Somehow, it is as though, in a bid to free himself from the shackles of dogmatic rules, the dreadlocks-sporting artist unconsciously allows his thoughts to be herded through the rigid channels of supposedly newly-found freedom, which even to him remains an unclear concept.

Otherwise, why would the artist, who proclaims himself as “self-taught and self-evolving”, be so enamoured by the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Frank Kline, and Mark Rothko, among others, as to consider them to be his holy text and guide? Granted, he may indeed have successfully risen above the old aesthetic canons, but he seems susceptible to the influences of his new “masters”. Besides, doesn’t his appropriation of what he considers to be new African symbols, which include such objects as ladders, bridges, plants, yams, apples, text, birds, cars, feet, and arrows, amount to the introduction of new dogmas, which can impede his imagined freedom?

Back to the exhibition’s title, Ominira. The ebony-complexioned 28-year-old says it resonates with his much-desired freedom of expression. It is cobbled together from two Yoruba words: Omi (water) and Inira (struggle, concern, and stress). “Water, like a mirror, reflects,” he explains. “The viewer sees a reflection of himself and his personal struggles in each work.”

Each of the displayed works demands that the viewer has his wits about him. With ambiguous titles, they force him to stumble through the pitfalls of conjecture. This art scene’s equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes literary folktale sucks the viewer into the vortex of the artist’s thought processes. He feels compelled to wring some meaning out of these deliberately distorted figurative expressions, which could pass for childish doodles and to which he would ordinarily have paid scant attention. Hence, rather than scrutinise them for possible inadequacies, he prefers to beam the spotlight on himself, calling into question his art appreciation proficiency at the same time.

Stay Sane, acrylic on canvas

Before the acrylic on canvas painting, “I Choose Me,” for instance, the riot of colours and forms at first leaves him scratching his head. But a casual glance at what is obviously an unclad female form, whose wide-opened mouth forms an “O”, shows that the artist is making no pretences about drawing attention to her pudenda. So, where is the nexus between this visual conundrum and the title? 

Another work, titled “Masters”, is no less confounding. Its title compels the viewer to linger before it and scrutinise the two prominent figures for possible clues, all in a bid to make sense of its meaning. But then, he takes solace in the consciousness that the artist’s spontaneity permits the elasticity of interpretations. 

“The Weightlifters”, yet another unintelligible outpouring of emotions, tasks the viewer further with its brazen disregard for the basic notions of draughtsmanship. Like other works in the exhibition halls, texts are deployed alongside neo-Afro symbols for this mind game with the hapless viewer, who is struggling to match the words of the title to the forms in the painting.

Meanwhile, subtle emanations from the paintings “The Pig Farm”, “Playground”, “The Crush” and “Stay Sane” conjure a hint of calmness and a beguiling scenario. Even so, the viewer as a critic remains neutered by these ostensibly innocuous expressions. The artist’s true innermost volition remains shrouded in deliberately elusive appearances.

Nonetheless, this neo-expressionist painter deserves to be commended for his non-dogmatic approach to his quest for truth, even if it should not be applauded as an end in itself. His creative odyssey, which began with his creation of comic books with African characters as a child, saw him studying drawing and painting at the Xtetixupcycle Art Studio in Ile-Ife and understudying the art world’s acknowledged mavericks in 2018. That same year, the artist, who is also an alumnus of the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation’s annual Harmattan Workshop, set up his own art studio in the Lekki neighbourhood of Lagos. 

As for his works, which are the extension of his daily life as a poet and musician, they have found their way into respectable private collections. 

·        The exhibition, which opened on Sunday, July 2 at the Gallery at the Landmark in Victoria Island, Lagos, ends on Friday, July 22

Gbenga Olawole

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