In this interview, MONI OLOKE of SMO Contemporary Art talks with TAYO OLAYODE, the artist on his on-going exhibition at The Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi titled ‘Permutations’.
MO: Can you tell me how and why you become an artist?
TO: I was actually supposed to study accounting. My mom was a tailor and not a “fashion designer” as they are now called. So I was known as the son of a tailor and that shows that artistry runs in my family. I began by drawing from catalogs in my mom’s shop. She had these voluminous books filled with design patterns. Every time I returned from school, I would head to her shop and draw designs from the catalog and that was how it began.
My studying art was an accident. I actually had my JAMB form and was filling it out while I was working with my uncle after secondary school. My uncle picked up the form to see what I had filled in and when he saw accountancy he said ‘all you young men want to work in banks and get money but you have a flair for art and you should study it’. So when he left the office, I erased everything I had written on the form and changed my course to Ahmadu Bello University’s art program, because it was listed as the best art institution in the country. So that was how I gained admission into university to study art.
MO: What was the influence of art during your formative years?
TO: My mom, who was a single parent, was of the opinion that none of her sons should be at home without doing anything constructive. For that reason I was always going to different studios and institutions to work and learn. I was about 16 years old when I started making paintings with beads and selling them on the street. One day I went to Bode Thomas Street and met a gentleman who was an art dealer, the late Fred Archibong. After speaking with me he offered me a job and I worked with him for almost 2 years while I waited for my admission into university. That was where I learned how to appreciate the commercial aspects of the art market. I prepared brochures, wrote proposals while also working on my paintings which were very large at the time.
From Archibong’s studio, I went to work with the famous Professor Abayomi Barber who was in charge of the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos. Professor Barber encouraged me to pursue a formal art education, and after working with him for two years, I finally gained admission into Ahmadu Bello University (ABU).
By the time I entered university I had already spent four years working as an artist and studio assistant, and this gave me an edge over other students. My lecturers, like Dr. Jerry Buhari, used to call me ‘Lagos artist’ because my CV was extensive. While at ABU, I worked with Abiodun Olakun at Universal Studios in Lagos during my school vacations. When it was time for me to do the mandatory internship in my third year, I got a job at LTC, an advertising agency, as a visualizer. After graduating from university and completing my Youth Service at LTC, I went into full time studio practice because I knew I wasn’t the type of person who could work in an office.
MO: Do you work with other artists?
TO: I have my studio at Iponri Shopping Center and together with a group of 15 other artists formed the Iponri Art Studio Group. Over the years, we’ve exhibited locally and internationally as a collective. I am also a member of the Society of Nigerian Artists. I was invited to join the Guild of Fine Artists of Nigeria and have taken part in several group exhibitions.
MO: This is your first solo exhibition. How do you feel about that after quite a long career?
TO: I’ve always taken my time with my work. I’ve never had a solo exhibition because each time I was close to doing an exhibition, I would find something new to explore and thought I should wait and develop this new experimentation and add it to my body of work. I guess that’s why you can see a wide diversity of works in different styles. They are a part of my developmental stages.
MO: Which artists have had an influence on your practice?
TO: My realism style was inspired by Professor Abayomi Barber and Abiodun Olakun, who are both well-known realist painters. A few years ago, I won a Terra Kultur art scholarship sponsored by the Ford Foundation which gave me the opportunity to understudy Professor Ablade Glover for three months in Ghana. Prof. Glover eventually signed me up as one of his artists at the permanent space of the Artists Alliance Gallery in Accra,
I was definitely influenced by these great artists which is evident in the many different styles and techniques in my work. I love to explore and use different materials and techniques and don’t want to be boxed into any particular style. Any material I see which can best express my art inspires me. I am not particular about style. I am just an artist.
MO: Take us through your creative process
TO: I believe that the kind of materials an artist uses distinguishes them. For the past few years I’ve specialized in exploring materials and methods rather than styles and techniques. I try to fish out mundane and overlooked materials in the environment and use my creative energy to see what I can do with them – to create a new language with these materials with the hope that I might be able to carve out a niche in the art industry. A lot of artists explore materials and methods from time to time, but few really focus on that. I am currently exploring synthetic fibers such as ropes to form a new vocabulary.
MO: Interesting. But why did you choose ropes? What do you like about this material and what message are you trying to convey through your rope installation which is in this show?
TO: Ropes are overlooked as mundane objects which we easily discard. I love their color and texture. Ropes are links. They are powerful symbols for unity. We tie things together with ropes and metaphorically, this artwork shows the linkages within humanity. We need more to bind people together.
MO: What inspired some of your other works?
TO: I really can’t be specific about what exactly inspires me to create each piece. But I know that I work with intuition. Once I get the feeling to do something, I follow it through. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I rarely go out. I am always working in the studio. Even when I want to relax, I paint. Painting relaxes me. There are some experiments I did over ten years ago that I am revisiting and merging with recent works. That was what gave rise to the rope and asphalt techniques you see in this show.
MO: Tell us how you came to work with asphalt.
TO: I was looking for a material that could flow like watercolors but I found there was virtually no medium that could do that. I had some left over asphalt that I was using for the roof of my house. So I bought a stove, got an old pot and boiled the asphalt. It is toxic when wet but I kept working with it. After it boiled, I just poured it on a stretched canvas and found out that it was not only durable it also had an amazing texture. So I decided to keep experimenting with asphalt and see how far I could push it with acrylic, on canvas, on paper and on other surfaces.
I’ve learnt over time that in an art studio there is nothing that is wasted so I’ve kept all my failed and successful experiments. Sometimes I go back to my failed works and try something new with them, so one project evolves into another. All these works are linked in one way or another. To a normal observer they may look like different styles and techniques but it is just one journey and a phase that I’ve passed through. It is a single progression. Sometimes I have to stop and say to myself, ‘Okay Tayo, sign this work’. Left to me, I would still keep pushing and experimenting instead of exhibiting but people kept telling me it was time to exhibit.
MO: Tell us about your perforated works.
TO: In 2014 I was awarded a one month residency by Arthouse Contemporary and was able to visit the Vermont Studio Center, USA. When I was there I shared a studio with a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He used incense sticks to burn and perforate paper and make amazing designs. He told me it was an artistic legacy that had been passed down to him through generations of artists in his family and was something quite unique to them. I believe we influenced each other because he also really liked my work. When I returned to Nigeria I decided to try out painting with incense sticks. It is a dangerous and toxic technique because of the fumes that you inhale, and I can’t do it for long because whenever I create these works, I experience a tightness in my chest and have to stop. But my greatest residency achievement was learning this new art techniquewhich inspired a unique body of work.
MO: You created a series of perforation works of famous people and called them your inspirational leaders series.
TO: The inspirational leaders I portrayed are people who have influenced many and have huge global following. They are humanitarians who focus on the plight of humanity and worked for the good of others rather than themselves. There are many inspirational leaders I could have portrayed but I decided on a few because of how they contrast with each other. Followers of Bob Marley may not necessarily go together with followers of Mahatma Ghandi but they were both freedom fighters and represent similar humanitarian qualities; another interesting contrast is Obama and Che Guevera.
MO: Your identifying style is that you have no specific identifying style. Would you say that is what defines you as an artist?
TO: I don’t want to be identified by a particular style. The art market may try to define me with a particular style and I’m fine with that. But I know that I’m not going to be boxed in by any style or technique. It is easy to be labeled when people write about your work. Artists get carried away with not wanting to produce works in styles they are not known for. This is limiting. I believe the era of ‘my style’ is over. There is versatility in art. Artists should be free to explore, experiment, and embrace whatever materials and methods they are drawn to.
MO: Describe yourself as an artist?
TO: I would say I’m very impatient or maybe even a bit aggressive when it comes to my work. When the inspiration comes, I just hit the canvas. I don’t do any preliminary drawings or sketches; I just go with the flow until I feel empty. On the other hand, I am very calm when it comes to making decisions.
MO: What are your observations about the art industry in Nigeria?
TO: I think the art industry is growing. We have new galleries, auction houses, independent curators, and many full time studio artists like me. In many countries I’ve travelled to, a lot of artists do not survive as full time studio artists. A lot of the big artists that we read about have day jobs. In a lot of countries artists do not have the opportunities we have. For example in Ghana, they are dependent on tourists for sales of their art, mostly during peak holiday seasons. In Nigeria we have over 90% of local patrons buying our works. I think we are blessed in Nigeria.
MO: Tell us about some of your career highlights?
TO: This first solo exhibition is a highlight. I’ve been working for over 20 years and have taken part in many group exhibitions at home and abroad. Many artists do a lot of solo shows and unfortunately, sometimes you see a downward spiral in the quality of their work. I’m not like that. I wanted to do my first solo when I knew I was ready.
MO: What do you hope to achieve with this exhibition?
TO: A lot of people who have my works don’t really know me. They tend to associate me with only the works they have collected or seen. Now they will get to know me better and see the artist behind this diverse body of work.
MO: Thank you.
*Moni Oloke is a psychologist and SMO Project Officer