An Artist’s Longing for Pristine Nature 

Yinka Olatunbosun

Oluwafemi Otoki’s dream two years ago was to hold his next solo exhibition at the Mydrim Gallery in Ikoyi, Lagos. It is now a reality, as his eye-catching, big paintings evoke ideas about urbanisation and the environment. This full-time studio artist had always been fascinated by landscapes in his surroundings, which had formed the foundation of his three-decade work.

With several group exhibitions on his sleeves, Otoki decided in 2022 to have his first solo show titled This Land is Not For Sale at the Signature Gallery. The feedback was overwhelming and he decided to have another one in March.

“I started working from the day I told them that I would love to have a show here,” Otoki said as he walked us through the paintings. It was a preview day with a handful of journalists who were determined not to steer the conversation out of context. Focusing on his large works, he explained how the space on canvas helped with his unique visual storytelling.

“Some of my collectors and gallery owners that I have related with have told me that I work better when I have the space. I think it is true.”

This show, Landscapes of My Fatherland, is a continuation of sorts, trailing after the thematic preoccupation of the previous solo show. Otoki is concerned about how fast cities are encroaching on nature, replacing rural normalcy with city life, and its architectural disruption. For him, it is important to document the moment for historio-cultural preservation.

“Anytime I travel, I am fascinated by landscapes and sometimes I stop along the way to take pictures if I see something fascinating,” he said. “I am not really fascinated by city life. I love landscapes that show nature untouched. It has not been distorted. I love painting riverside, mountains and other things that appeal to the eyes.” 

Some of the places he had painted before hardly look the same some years down the line due to urbanisation. With a detailed depiction of scenery, Otoki weaves the conversation about the impact of poorly planned urban development on sustainable development and best practices. For instance, urbanisation often results in deforestation, habitat loss, and other forms of environmental degradation.

Otoki had discovered mountains being destroyed in Nigeria. This threat to the national landscape had been worrisome to him and had further propelled his curiosity for the subject and the desire to crystallise history.

This exhibition, which features 19 works, opens on March 16.

“I feel that it is the only thing we have,” the artist added. “We must do everything within our power to preserve our cultural heritage; if not, we will be losing on both sides so that future generations can begin to see how things were done before they came into existence. But if we start destroying everything now and in the future, what will happen? It is like losing who you are. We should be able to tell stories about our culture and the need to preserve those things.”

Otoki, a keen observer of the natural world, captured the aesthetic qualities of a rural community in his painting “Fisherman’s Village,” which has major elements like smoke floating in the air and shelters built on water, both of which represent life.

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