Bestraddling Painting and Sculpting  in Debut Solo Show

Yinka Olatunbosun

Fiyin Koko born Fiyinfoluwa Tunde Onadele has enjoyed painting since childhood. But while propelling her luggage out of her Nigerian home to study in North Carolina State University, she had a different idea in mind: to obtain a first degree in international relations and environmental dcience and perhaps return for a Master’s degree. 

Some life-changing events would later change her career course. One of them was the COVID-19 pandemic which imposed isolation on everyone. It was a time for self-reflection for Fiyin Koko. She recalled how she was working with plastic as a child with support from her mother who is also an artist. After graduating from the university, she had a stint in marketing before deciding to work as a full time studio artist.

Beyond the maternal influence, her love for travelling paved the way for conversations that informed some of the subject matters raised in her body of works as showcased this Christmas season till early next year.

As a child, she relocated from Lagos to Aba where she stayed for almost six years. This move created a cross-cultural outlook that is reflected in the use of language in her works. Some titles are drawn from Yoruba and Igbo languages while some are in English.

“I feel like a lot of our culture should reflect in our art,” she began. “Art is meant to tell our stories and if we don’t show that now, we can get lost somehow. And I use Yoruba more than other languages. I went to Benin earlier this year to do research. I wanted to create works that have Edo names as well.”

Inside Yenwa Gallery in Victoria Island, Lagos, Fiyin Koko’s first solo show, “Water Me” created a refreshing atmosphere away from the bustling city life. The fountain of water installation at the centre of the gallery’s ground floor serves a visual metaphor for the show’s overarching theme of growth.

On the right and left flanks of the exhibition were paintings that featured motifs of gleeful women. The artist explained why the representation of women in her work is so important.

“I don’t think people tell our stories they way they should. I think when i was younger, i would always see African art and having some type of burden on the woman. It is either they are pounding yam or carrying some load on their heads or pregnant or carrying a child on her back. Even today, when you go to art markets in the cities, the art that women are featured in always create this image of bearing burden. There is more to women that the society needs to know and project.”

From deconstructing negative stereotypes of women, she began to explore other materials different from acrylic, oil and impasto. A friend of hers had a leftover of a clay and during a studio session, they played around with it. That experience rekindled an old flame in Koko. She used bend plastic into different forms to create several objects. This time around, she made the clay more than just a play thing. 

“I went to Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Harmattan Workshop in Delta state to start the clay journey. That’s how I got here.”

Although a self-taught artist, she consolidated her natural talent with research and skills taught by her clay teacher and began working with the potter’s wheel. Sometimes, she would travel all the way to Badagry to glaze and fire her works.

While on a research-oriented journey, she would meet women, take their photographs and engage them in simple conversations about their well-being.

“Learning is one of the gifts of life. I believe that there is a lot that is hidden in conversations,” she said. 

With “Water Me,’’ Fiyin Koko tells a story of personal growth. Using flower planting as an example, she told a visual story of nurturing and expressed this in a series of work that replicated the ones in 3-dimensional art forms. Made of terracotta, glazed in silver, the pieces are reminiscent of Benin bronzes in the way they allude to African forms.

“It was important for me to challenge myself after doing 11 group shows within that time,” she added.

For her solo exhibition, she attempted over 70 different sketches. One of them is titled, “My Happy Place.” Capturing joyous moments, Fiyin Koko’s textured landscape painting paraded sisters exemplifying blood ties as well as energetic female dancers thus contrasting the image of overburdened African women.

Speaking on the significance of the blue colour in her works, she recounted how her childhood dreams had been rendered in blue.

In “Dusk of Despair” rests a self-portrait of her struggle with pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

“I haven’t done any work like this before so this is very challenging. It is like a screenshot of how I felt at that time- very isolated,” she disclosed.

“I discovered that a lot of women are dealing with it as well. No one really talks about it because maybe we are ashamed or because it is so personal. It is normal.”

With the work titled “Forward,” she projects optimism, forging ahead regardless of life challenges.

Her show runs till January 7, 2024.

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