As we’ve seen time and time again through the media, being an African-American person, especially a male, in North America has its own sets of bad juju which seems to rest upon the prepossessing hearts, minds and shoulders of its people. From the perspective of a young, first-generation American woman, who was born to African parents, who migrated to the United States for a better life, ORI personifies the often unspoken strengths, upkeep and masculine charm that men of African descent tend to emit, as well as enrichment, entitlement and kingship. Oluseye’s emphatic use of geometric shapes, which combine human, sculptural and mask elements, captures its rough-hewn and primal attributes intended to come through. The self-taught Lagos, Nigeria-native visual artist, who is now based in Toronto, earned his first solo show in New York City and it’s on view in Chelsea at Gallery 151 located at 132 West 18 Street New York, New York 10011 until May 12.
On another note: In time, I hope and faithfully pray that this embarrassing, bloodcurdling truth will change within the lifetime of our children.
There seems to be a resemblance between the subjects in your paintings. Is this deliberate?
There was never a conscious decision to create my subjects in the same likeness. I was more interested in creating imagery that depicted a physical-spiritual identity. This meant stripping and deconstructing the human form to reveal, as I conjured up, the layers and building blocks of our very existence – the essence of being, so to speak. It’s the reason all of my subjects are bald and nude, and I suppose therein lies the resemblance. In some ways, the similarity between my subjects is a prelude to my next body of work, which shifts focus from the individual and instead explores the notion of an inescapable collective identity – as different as we’d like to think we are, we’re really all the same.
Can you tell us more about your fascination with shapes and why you’ve chosen to create a body of work that’s partly inspired by geometry?
I’ve always loved straight lines and triangles. I grew up drawing them every chance I got – on my skin, on receipts, walls, desks and now, in my art. I’m not sure what the affinity is but I am hoping it’s something I’ll understand through my art. What I do know is that there’s a simple complexity about basic shapes that I like. I love to layer them up to a point of “geometric chaos”. It’s a metaphor for life and how it can be simultaneously simple and complex.
How has your background as a Nigerian, specifically being Yoruba, influenced you as an artist?
Yoruba culture is so rich – there’s a plethora of motifs and ideologies I pull from regularly. My debut body of work is essentially a contemporary interpretation of various aspects of Yoruba mythology and spirituality. Best of all is that being Yoruba, I can take as much as I want without the slightest feeling of cultural appropriation. My relationship to Yoruba culture is one of ownership and I intend for it to seep into all of my creative endeavours.
This is your first solo show, and it just happens to be in New York City. How do you feel about this achievement?
Thankful is the word that first comes to mind, but how I truly feel is a much bigger emotion than just gratitude. I haven’t been able to find the right words but it feels a little like being on a patio with all of your favourite people on the sunniest day of summer. A year ago I never would have thought this would be possible, let alone, in New York. Every time I go into the gallery in Chelsea, I pause for a moment and thank the universe for granting me the opportunity.
What was it like working with Jae Joseph on this project?
Working with Jae on the ORI exhibit has been a truly rewarding experience. He is a wildly intuitive creative and instantly shared in the vision for ORI. He was genuinely drawn to work and has worked relentlessly to ensure the show’s success. I couldn’t have asked for a better curator to debut with. Unknown to him, he’s pushed me to be a better artist, to put in more hours and to keep challenging my notion of what beauty is.
What’s next for you?
I recently finished a commission for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Scratch and Mix Youth Project, which is in conjunction with the Basquiat: Now’s The Time exhibit. It’s a group exhibit with 10 other emerging artists so if you’re in Toronto pop into the AGO. I am already embarking on my next body of work, which will include an installation piece I plan on creating in Lagos.