Through continually experimenting with new things, Canada-based Nigerian artist Morenike Ajayi has evolved a unique style that makes her art easily stand out, she tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Surely, the pavement is the last place anyone would expect to find these two sofas! Indeed, the rationale behind their juxtaposition in front of a luxuriant pine tree, just outside what looks like a semi-detached building, with a mostly redbrick façade, is hard to figure out. But then, two strikingly similarly-clad figures –sporting black hooded sweatshirts and sweatpants – add their quota to this visual non sequitur. One of them, showing a profile view and striking a conversational pose with two slightly spread-out arms, rests a foot on one of the sofas, which is cream-coloured. The other is simply reclining in a semi-sitting position on the next sofa, which has a greenish colour and is facing the opposite direction.
Curiously, these figures (they could be either male or female) look like mirror images of each other. Could they be Photoshopped images of one person? Actually, they are. And this was what happened: Morenike Ajayi had stumbled upon these two sofas on this pavement and had herself photographed twice by a friend…This was somewhere in Toronto’s East End and, apparently, sometime in the autumn as the dry leaves around the base of the pine tree indicate. Then, with her Photoshop skills, she successfully conjured a doppelganger effect after merging elements of the two photographs.
This photograph is just one of the 219 current posts on the Canada-based and Nigerian-born artist’s Instagram account.
In another digitally-manipulated image, titled 4th Dimension, two grey-suited men (with their backs turned towards the viewer) are standing barefooted at a beach looking towards the sea, from out of which looms a tableau depicting abstract patterns. Each of the two men is carrying four pink-coloured jerry cans, whose colour – while contrasting with the blue colour of the sea and the green colour of a distant shoreline – complements that of the beach and the horizon.
“I enjoy painting and illustrating,” Ajayi confesses. “But my medium is digital illustration across multiple programs, Photoshop, Lightroom, Blender and After Effects. The first time I tried bringing a picture to life from Lightroom to Photoshop and animating the motions in After Effects to a song, I knew the possibility was endless.”
Indeed, it is in the visual arts that the 2020 York University, Toronto (Canada) graduate, who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in information technology after previously studying mechanical engineering and business technology management at Ryerson University, finds her true voice.
Her career’s turning-point period in 2014, she recalls, was “a self-discovery phase” in her life. Back then, she would produce works, which she would keep them to herself, thinking that no one would like them. “Eventually, I showed [them to] some friends and family [members], they loved the art and urged me to share them, [saying] that I was doing something different,” she says.
It all started years ago in the oil-rich Delta State city Warri, where she first opened her baby eyes to the world. As an employee of Shell Petroleum Development Company, her dad was entitled to an official accommodation at the Shell Estate. But, after leaving Shell for another multinational company Schlumberger, he had to give up his Shell’s official residence and acquired a large property elsewhere in the city.
Talking about that property, memories of the large compound her family later moved into float back into her consciousness. She still vividly recalls that the compound had two football fields, several dogs and puppies, a tree house, a fish pond and trees bearing every imaginable fruit. Hence, it was a straight contest between nature and Cartoon Network on pay television for her childlike mind.
By the time her family relocated to Lagos in 2006, she was already a Junior Secondary School 2 student. “Then, my focus shifted to fine arts and Supa Strikas comics, which I used to buy at the fast-food restaurant, Mr. Bigg’s. I was trying to understand how drawings could be given so much life to tell a story.”
Ajayi would take things up a notch in 2011 when she borrowed a Canon T3i camera from a friend. She got so used to shooting with it that she became reluctant to return it to the owner. Perhaps, the good thing was that she bought her own camera shortly after she eventually did.
Meanwhile, her peculiar style began to evolve as she continued to work on her skills. “My style, I’d say, came about by experimenting and trying new things. I wanted my pictures to stand out from everyone else’s no matter how long it took me. Essentially, I turned my apartment into a studio, in which I created a backdrop… and I looked at this backdrop as a blank canvas. I started with plain white, then started changing the colours. Now, I’m able to create worlds.”
Shortly before her first exhibition, she sold one of her now-cherished artworks for $1000. The proceeds of this sale went a long way in funding her very first exhibition, a solo show (albeit in collaboration with three other artists working in different media) titled Synth343, which held from Tuesday, August 29 to Friday, September 1 in 2017 in Toronto. She has since held other exhibitions in Abuja and Lagos.
As for commissioned works she had done so far, the artist, who considers Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonardo da Vinci and the Nigerian Lemi Ghariokwu as her role models, confesses that they would be hard to count. Working with her camera has, in any case, led her into a world of adventure, which opened her to different experiences in both Canada and Nigeria.
In Nigeria, she recalls being challenged by a loosely-organised youth gang while trying to shoot a music video on a pedestrian bridge in the Lekki area of Lagos in December 2018. Accompanied by two other people, she had alighted from a car, thinking that some random people walking past on the bridge wouldn’t hurt her shooting. That was when this gang of youths clustered around them, demanding that they pay to get their permission to do anything here. Two years earlier, while assisting on a shoot at the Oriental Hotel in the Oniru area of Lagos, they were told by the manager who had spotted their cameras that they would have to pay an outrageous fee of N500,000 to be allowed to shoot with professional cameras. This forced them to use their iPhones instead.
Another similar experience was in January 2019, on her way to Tarkwa Bay, a beach resort near Lagos harbour, which is popular with swimmers and water-sports enthusiasts. She had her camera ready to take pictures as usual, but as soon as the car she was in with her friends pulled up in the jetty’s parking lot, the man in charge told them that recording was not allowed there and made her turn off her camera. “I guess he didn’t want his parking lot business to be public knowledge,” she adds.
Meanwhile, it has been a different experience in Canada. “Pedestrians would apologise for getting into your picture, wait for you to finish before they pass and are curious to know what you’re working on and what your photograph is for.”
In Regent Park, a Toronto downtown neighbourhood, where she has been living for the past 10 years, a typical day finds everyone on the move. A nearby athletic park, which consists mostly of a running track, a soccer pitch, a basketball court, an ice hockey rink as well as spaces for dog-walking or buying groceries, serves the neighbourhood.
Here, she finds enough grist for her creative mill. “I see the world as this blank canvas that I need to paint, inspired by my friends and my everyday life. Times when I’m mentally exhausted, I find hope and inspiration in the pain. Good music inspires me, I’m always plugged in listening and it drives me. The goal is to translate my interpretation of what I’m hearing and feeling to my screen on Photoshop.”