We chat to Nigerian-British artist Sola Olulode about traditional West African-inspired art techniques and the importance of celebrating queer intimacy
Reader’s Digest: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be an artist?
Sola Olulode: I was always drawn to drawing and painting as a very small child. I was able to explore it at school, and then went on to study at a university level. Quite soon after graduating I was able to partake in graduate shows and had graduate residencies, so I started practicing professionally quite quickly. I feel really privileged that I was able to study art at a higher education level. I think that opened a lot of doors for me.
RD: What are your artistic inspirations?
SO: I was really drawn to old master paintings when I was growing up. I was obsessed with Leonardo da Vinci, the pre-Raphaelites, things like that. These were the paintings that I would see in major galleries. But then learning about my own personal interests, I was looking at the black arts movement, Claudette Johnson, artists like that. I was always interested in the ways that artists paint the body and the scenes that they’re creating, but I wanted to explore less typical artists.
During university I was looking at a lot of Nigerian artists like Wole Lagunju and Nike Davies-Okundaye. My research was around how they were using traditional art practices. At school here we learn about the masters and all those traditional art movements, but I wanted to learn about what the other non-European art movements were and how they had developed in other countries.
"No one was really paying attention to West African artists"
I wanted to see how contemporary Nigerian artists were using some of those more traditional crafts and techniques. No one was really paying attention to West African artists. So I kind of developed my own technique by looking at textiles, the history of cloth making techniques, and applying that to the technique that I’ve learned through oil painting and European art.
RD: Can you talk us through your art process?
SO: My process is quite intuitive. It depends on the themes that I have in my head. Sometimes there might be a particular technique I want to try out, or a particular motif I have in my head. I wanted to create a series of waves, so I started with the idea of, Okay, I’m going to batik this wave. [Batik is the process of decorating cloth using wax and dye.] So I melted the wax, applied it to the canvas and dyed it.
Then I think about how I can get my figures to interact with the wave and the background, because I don’t want to cover up the background of the batik and the patterns and textiles. So I’m limited to the amount that I can explore on the canvas. I can end up spending quite a lot of time thinking about it. But sometimes I just have to go for it! Each piece is kind of an experiment, trying out new colour combinations or a different way of applying the wax.
RD: A lot of your paintings seem to have a yellow and blue colour palette. Is that on purpose? Is there a reason you are drawn to these colours?
SO: I was quite intentional about blue in the beginning. I developed a particular series that I wanted to have a really rich, dark, blue background. I was working with that colour a lot, and I really liked the way it complemented black and brown skin tones. When I discovered indigo dyeing and adire and that connection to Nigeria, I also liked the strength of the colour, so became the main theme of the work.
"I’m drawn to bright, bold colours, even in the way I dress"
I found that people kept coming up to me and being like, “Oh, you’re the blue artist!” So it became a bit of a thing. But it wasn’t entirely on purpose! I like working monochromatically and at the time I was using indigo, which has such a rich history of being a natural based dye. I was interested in other natural dyes and that led me to look at turmeric as a colour. I’m drawn to bright, bold colours, even in the way I dress. So turmeric and bright yellow are colours I wanted to replicate, too. I tried dyeing literally using the spice turmeric, but it doesn’t last as a dye.
Yellow became the next theme in my work, but blue has still stuck around and it’s kind of now what I’m known for as an artist. But in my latest series I wanted to use more of a blend of palettes and expand on that a bit more.
RD: What is adire?
SO: When I was using a lot of blue, I wanted to start dyeing my canvas. It was initially a shortcut instead of painting the whole background blue. So I was researching dyeing and indigo is a common dye that’s used across cultures all over the world, but I found that there’s a particular textile, the adire (which translates to tie dye in Nigeria) and it’s very common as a piece of cloth. A lot of people have it in their homes. One of the few connections that I had to Nigeria at the time was through textiles and things.
When researching that I discovered the techniques that they would use to make adire. A lot of it was with cassava paste and batik and kind of tie-dye techniques. This led me to look at the artist Nike, and the way she made batik, textile-paintings was kind of what I was looking to do. I thought I can make my figures out of batik, it doesn’t just have to be the pattern in the background.
My artwork is quite personal to me and my family is originally from Nigeria so I like weaving that little bit of Nigeria into the works along with the subject matter.
RD: A lot of your work is about celebrating queer intimacy. Why is that important to you?
SO: It’s just about creating visuals that I want to see more of in the world. I try and create spaces for queer couples to exist in that are not polluted by the negativity of the outside world. I long to see these themes of people just enjoying the love that they experience between one another. When I was first exploring queer intimacy I was looking at it in the stage of a couple falling in love, you know, meeting, going on dates, existing in that kind of fantasy. And I wanted to take it further by putting them in this sort of paradise where they’re just free to exist.
"I want people to see themselves reflected in the work and feel joyful and at peace"
A lot of the imagery is based off of photos I took from various holidays. When I was on holiday in Greece at the beach, I would just think of these moments that felt free or at peace and that fed into my work. The world can be cruel to queer people a lot of the time and we’re exposed to a lot of that negativity, so I just wanted to remove my figures from that world and give them this free, happy space.
I like to paint against narratives of struggle and despair. My experience of being queer isn’t of despair. I’m privileged to have a community and a family around me that supports me and to engage in loving, beautiful relationships. So a lot of what I paint is also what I know, and it hopefully shows that the beauty of these relationships does exist, and the peace and care that we give each other is just as important as the struggle to be accepted in society. I want people to see themselves reflected in the work and feel joyful and at peace.
You can visit Sola Olulode’s exhibition Islands of the Blessed at Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery until February 17
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