As his forthcoming solo exhibition in a Lagos-based gallery looms, Kunle Adeyemi relives his creative trajectory so far in a chat with Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
In this high-density rabbit-warren Lagos mainland neighbourhood, called Mushin, one thoroughfare can easily be mistaken for another by any first-timer navigating the maze of chaotic streets. Yet, this originally used to be a low-density residential neighbourhood, particularly the prestige-evoking kind known as the G. R. A.( an abbreviation for Government Reserved Area), because of its serenity.
Back then, in 1986, there were no unsightly shanties in sight. Instead, there were warehouses strewn here and there. And because there used to be fewer residents here, everyone, including the landlords, who were members of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria, knew each other. That would most likely explain why the then-popular Lagos State Governor, Lateef Jakande, paid a visit to the studio years later. “There was sanity,” Kunle Adeyemi added, taking a seat closer to his interviewer that Thursday afternoon.
When the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, lecturer and former Dean of the tertiary institution’s Faculty of Art, Design, and Printing first moved into this space in 1986, the rent was 200 naira per annum. “Where we are now used to be my living room,” he added, revealing that the property was previously rented as a dwelling space before it became his studio.
At the time in question, he was a graphic illustrator for The Guardian newspaper. His post-Yaba College of Technology experience at the print media house, which influenced his outlook on life, seems to have adequately prepared him for a career as an artist.
That same year, 1986, the Ondo State-born artist began to attract studio assistants, most of whom were brought in by parents and automechanics in the neighbourhood. Muyiwa Afolabi, who had previously worked for the advertising agency Lawson, Thomas, and Colleagues (better known in the industry as L.T.C. ), appeared to be the oldest of these assistants present that afternoon and was excited to talk about his experience at the studio. “He trained me in painting,” he disclosed. “At the close of work, I would come here, and we would work all day.”
According to Afolabi, who in 1987 became the first student member of the Society of Nigerian Artists (S. N. A.), working with Adeyemi opened up many doors of opportunity for him. “The way he designs influenced my style of design, and the fact that he constantly held exhibitions kept us (his students) on our toes.”
“I was looking at [Kolade] Oshinowo as a template,” Adeyemi interjected by way of explanation. “He was then much younger and easily accommodated younger people.”
Talking about Oshinowo, Adeyemi worked as an apprentice for the renowned painter, just as he did for his own dad, who was a carpenter.
Back to his studio hands, many have moved on over the years. Among the current ones, there are Ayomide Ajose, Olushegu Oduyele, Yusuf Oyetumoh,Daniel Abiodun Michael,Tunde Samuel, and Faruk Ayangbayi. Ayomide Ajose, a 16-year-old lad, is a recent laureate of a National Arts Festival (NAFEST) art competition.
That afternoon, these studio hands were flitting about the space as Adeyemi talked about his forthcoming solo exhibition, titled Innovative Testament, which opens at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 18, at the Tim and Carrol Gallery in Ikeja G.R.A. and will be on until Saturday, July 8. The idea behind it, he was saying, is all about movement. “As you innovate, you continue to refresh.”
His most recent printmaking experiments are prominent among the works he will display in the upcoming exhibition. According to him, he had developed two techniques he called “paintograph” and “paintocast” while working on his PhD research at the Delta State University in Abraka.
These printmaking techniques, which clearly echo Bruce Onobrakpeya’s legendary efforts, attest to the latter’s influence on Adeyemi’s career. Interestingly, the artist who turns 64 this year never used to like Onobrakpeya’s works because, as a student, he was only exposed to realistic art forms. It wasn’t until he visited David Dale’s exhibition at the Italian Cultural Centre that he realised that there was more to art than just painting, drawing, and sculpture.
On learning that Dale was once Onobrakpeya’s student, he decided to visit Onobrakpeya at his Oloje Street, Papa Ajao, Mushin home. This was back in 1988.
It was, therefore, at Onobrakpeya’s studio that he heard about his famous print experiments like “plastograph” and “additive plastograph”, among others.
However, Adeyemi’s exposure to printmaking predated even his time at the Yaba College of Technology. He formerly attended a printing and graphic arts school, where he received a General Technical Knowledge certificate in printing from the British Printing Industries Federation.
Since 1975, when his father handed him over to one Dr. Adewole, the first orthopaedic surgeon at Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital, in the hope that he would become a doctor, the artist has indeed come a long way. Fate, having other intentions for him, asserted itself and turned him into an artist whose creative ventures have so far been marked by restlessness.
Now that his works seem to have resolved into a coherent vernacular, Adeyemi enthused about his odyssey with colours, which he described as “the heart and soul” of his art. “With paint, I could produce any colour that comes to mind,” he declares in his artist statement. “I use colour as a catchment to create atmospheric meaning and identity. Most times, my colour generates or creates some philosophical questions, such as, ‘What am I?’ ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I treating that subject?’ ‘Where am I?’ and ‘When or in what mood am I when creating the picture?’ I run my colours from neutral earth hues to warm reds and indigo blues. I use colour to create illusions or new worlds and evoke some vivid antique memories.”
As for his chosen form of expression, it is firmly rooted in the simplicity of traditional African sculptural forms. Some of his patterned motifs, which are more than antiquated aesthetic adornments like some of his lengthy “house post series,” allude to anything from historical wars to ideas or knowledge or even records of sacred objects in temples, palaces, and other sacred locations. “My words, like the age-old African folk pattern, are thoughtfully designed to chart the course of the lives of the people of my generation, document the present and create ways for a viable future, inform, educate, refresh, entertain my audience and posterity, and create avenues for self-expression, especially on societal ills,” he further elaborated.
But even Adeyemi’s impressive creative credentials, which include his participation in over 85 joint and group exhibitions in addition to his 20 solo exhibitions, seem to pale in comparison to his motivational work with people around him, especially hopeless young people and women. This is what made his Mushin-based studio a haven of sorts for students, dropouts, the physically challenged, and students from Nigerian polytechnics and universities on industrial attachment programmes.
The Society of Nigerian Artists Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement winner has frequently donated his work and expertise to charity and community improvement. In commemoration of his 40th birthday, for instance, he gave 12 of his artworks to the management of Nigeria’s foremost orthopaedic institution, Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital in Lagos, to be used in their wards and offices. For his 50th birthday, he gifted art supplies worth $500,000 to five secondary school art students, and when he turned 60, he donated 25% of the revenues from his 2019 solo exhibition to the Niola Cancer Care Foundation.
Back to his creative forays, they have been burnished by his participation in many workshops, residencies, and visual art retreats in Sweden, the United States of America, Liberia, and Nigeria.