Ade Abayomi Olufeko on Merging Art and Science
Ade Abayomi Olufeko, is the founder of Visual Collaborative, a platform for humanities and innovation, where he presently serves as its CEO. He consults in technology, exhibits data-driven prints and digital paintings, as well as advises on consumer experiences for the internet, mobile and moveable spaces across West Africa.
Olufeko has delivered lectures at institutions such as Oxford, Yale University and Harvard which have been covered by various media including THISDAY and Voice of America. In 2017, his research in design and its intersections with culture, led to a journey inside ‘Sungbo’s Eredo’, bringing the rampart’s narrative back into social dialogue.
In this interview with Omenka, he discusses how he merges art and science through his platform; Visual Collaborative.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, please?
Presently, I am the chief executive of Visual Collaborative. It is a platform that works with architects, artists, designers, creative professionals, and data scientists, and the focus is to create and innovate unique solutions or service offerings to the public. I am also a long-life technologist and a self-taught artist.
You have a background in new media and consulting for tech companies. From research, you have this unique signature where you merge art and design and science into a sort of art form. Can you please tell us about that?
It’s pretty much data science and data visualisation in a form of art. We all know that we are moving into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Africa is being digitised, and most of it is Western. Looking at the traditional things we have, like artworks, we have billions of artists and collectors, but how do you stand out? How do you create something that is not saturating the market? So what I did was—with my background in technology working with tech companies, I was exposed to scientists, different artists, creative professionals, and growing up in an entrepreneurial design family—I took that background and merged it to create my own art form. So, it’s really data visualisation in the form of art. Anything I exhibit is not just aesthetics. You look at it and say, “Oh, I wanna buy that.” It actually has data within the art that has future projections on economics.
Is it something that has existed before?
Yes, it has existed, but it needs to be refined to the consumer market. It exists out there, but not in West Africa and Francophone space, so I’m championing that through my innovations.
What artist inspired this?
I would say it was just my exposure to different factors of the creative industry. I’ve been inspired by human creatives no longer alive now, like Louis Bagan and so many people, even music artists. My style evolved from multiple movements. But if you want to put it down to a specific movement, I’ll just say the Contra culture movement.
What do you think the market is like for this type of art? Do you think it’s a favourable market, or do you have to really explain to them before they buy?
Many artists, including myself, have to explain about their art, but once you work with a capable curator, a promoter, or an artistic director, the language won’t be too heavy for the regular consumers. When they walk into our galleries, they are looking for something, and when they are astonished by looking at the artwork, the curator tells them to squint a little bit and they realise the artwork actually has data. If an economist was standing next to them, they would take the data and look at things that happen in the regular knowledge of the basic economy and make future predictions of what will happen. Answering your other question, it’s an acquired taste, but eventually, with the way technology is going, and the convergence of tools, it will become mainstream at some point.
Is this a good thing for Africa to be digitised? Because there is this relationship Africa has always had with the West, where we have always been the centre of attraction in terms of being taken from, but when it’s the other way round—when Africa has to benefit—we just don’t get as much as we should from this type of attraction.
Well, there are goods and there are bads. The good part is there is a lot of indigenous knowledge that has been transferred from ancestors to elders, to kids and this present day. A lot of those things are not documented. We have three national archives, one in Ibadan, one in Kano or Kaduna, and one in Enugu, and these things are not really well maintained. If you want to find information about Nigeria, you have to go to the national archives in the US and see things about our own country elsewhere, which is unfortunate. So, the plus is we are now creating something that can be referenced, if we digitise things. And we can bring up some indigenous remedies or solutions that can be applied to the world, which is us teaching the world that Africa or Nigeria is not some dark, unknown, unquantifiable place. It will be just like how The Philippines or China or some of these places are being romanticised. I think, with digitising Africa, our cultures and our beautiful people, people will say we have a lot to offer.
Now, the downside is intellectual property. How do you take ownership of what you’ve created? You just have to have smart negotiators, people with strong business acumen. This goes beyond having an MBA. A lot of people go for money, and some go for legacy, and I’ll be talking more about this at the annual Yale African Summit in Connecticut in a few weeks. I’m sitting on the innovation panel, and I’ll be talking about some of these things. For me, intellectual property for the creative and music industry is very important. Once you patent or license your work with international partners, then you have some bargaining power to push the African agenda forward. If you are leaning solely on the foreign solutions, then you really have no say in what you are producing. So there are pluses and negatives, so I think those disparities with data eventually would make sense.
Can you talk to us about the Remember to Rise initiative?
Remember to Rise is a titled art piece and it was a project I started with the London Business School last year. We had an idea where I created a derivative work that someone had already created, but it’s an abstract piece for those who appreciate abstracts. It’s going to be exhibited along with at least twelve of my other pieces which are rich in data and some of my older works which are fantasy mixed with Afro-futurism. Afro-futurism is about themes that are in the future but related to Africa, similar to Black Panther and those types of fantasy things.
Remember to Rise is an exhibition which should have kicked off, but due to logistics, we’ve pushed it back. Two of the major artworks have a lot of celebrities who have accepted to put their signatures on the pieces, from Oswald Bochang to business magnates like Amy Jadesimi and musicians like Seun Kuti. So it’s a representation of everybody’s industry in their respective fields. How do you shed light on someone who is trailblazing in the fashion industry or something unique like health? It’s art, and it has all these branches to other things, so it’s like looking at a library, and the library is for us by us.
Will it kick off later in the year or next year?
It’s later in the year, and the date will come out soon. We’ve learned our lessons: that until everything is intact you can’t mention the dates. Once you create something, whether it be an exhibition or an artwork or a book or a sound and you think it’s done, all of a sudden, you have this creative parent vs. child dynamic. You don’t want the art piece to leave. Maybe there’s one more brush stroke, or maybe there’s this person you want to be part of this project. So, it is going to be later this year. It will be announced through the Visual Collaborative platform, as well as some other media partners.
Like Omenka, for instance. So stay tuned, guys.
Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Thanks for the love.
You grew up in Surulere as well, and the social cohesion in Surulere is part of the influences you had as a child. What other experiences did you have? Do you want to tell us about how you grew up and how fancy it was?
Well, I think fancy is a very generous term. I think experiences, as they say in Spanish, is in the eye of the beholder, or whoever’s looking at the experience. I had a mother who was an illustrator and a lecturer, and she had a fashion house where she made lots of garments. She would always illustrate figures of women and men and those who go to her office. She ripped out all these Cosmopolitan magazines, Vogue magazines, GQ magazines, then she pasted them all over her fashion house. So we’re coming back from school—Ade is coming back from school—and I’m seeing all these creative things, all these caricatures, all these models. I mean, if that thing is pressed upon you in your subconscious as a kid, your hippocampus—I guess it’s the component to help expand your imagination and your cognitive abilities.
My father too was an entrepreneur. He had contracts with First Aluminium Rod Co. (these were companies in Lagos back in the day). So being around that is all part of the creative ecosystem. These things were pressed upon my brain. I spent a quick time before I went to Saint Gregory’s at St. Finbarrs College in Akoka, and I was exposed to the Nwokocha Brothers. Their art was just off the roof. So me having that background and converging, meeting with them, it just made my palate, or my imagination, even much more illustrious.
When people met me as a young kid, they were like, “Are you always living in a fantasy world? You know, there’s science students and there are art students. Like, how far?” But it was okay, because later on, when I meet people in this day and age, they would be like, “It’s making sense; E don dey enter…,” stuff like that. And it’s like they see the importance of individuality. We are now in an age where, I believe, it is very important to encourage your child to do what the child wants to do, and then inform them that this is what’s likely going to happen if you take this path. Show them the right way. We are just in an age where the people who are creatives, people who you just think are stupid, carry the seeds of solutions in any kind of society. But my upbringing was very interesting. I and my sisters were all very creative in our own interesting way.
So, you guys used to sit down and talk about science fiction?
No, we just liked them. We like really silly stuff, like the Voltron cartoons, Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, or if a new Little Mermaid is coming out. There weren’t many Black cartoons at the time. But, we’ll talk about those things, like, “Do you remember this? Do you remember this character?” And then we were exposed to Mrs. Glenda Masha, may she rest in peace. She was an American who married one of my dad’s friends—I think American Indian— and all the kids who remember Mrs Masha today just send the woman love. Though she wasn’t a Nigerian, she had books of Nigerian cartoons that you wouldn’t even see anywhere, stories like Jolomi fighting, doing gidigbo, and all those things.
So when you see those kinds of things and then you come on the world, it’s a beautiful thing. You know what part of the world you’re from, but you also have to be aware that with that type of exposure, it’s also a privilege, and you don’t get careless because you then can stir up animosity. So, growing up, you are just exposed to so much information and then you carry it into the world with you.
You haven’t really talked about Surulere, because you mentioned that you don’t think you’d have turned out the way you turned out if you didn’t particularly grow up in Surulere.
Yes. Surulere is always going to be special. The whole place was filled with water before. I didn’t meet it when it was water, but when you talk to the people who were inhabitants of that place, you see that most of it are landfill, places like the old Bode Thomas. When the houses were designed, all the houses there were designed the same way—Lalupon Close, Adebola Street. Then you have Alhaji Masha, Kilo, Ogunlana Drive, Eric Moore Tower, Iponri Estate. All those areas were all connected, and it was bare. I mean, imagine what we know now and going back in time. I know we can’t go back in time, but it was such a beautiful place.
So you’re saying it’s no longer beautiful?
It’s not as much, just because Nigeria has taken a beating by her politicians or people who had good intentions. I’m sure that when national budgets are passed as Nigeria develops, it will create a budget to beautify different cities and rural areas. All the people I know from Surulere, they’re all like mad corps. For example, Ramsey Noah, he lives in Surulere. I remember growing up, I saw him around me; you see a lot of people. It was cosmopolitan, it was very cool. I mean, it was just like there was no stress, no wahala. You had the National Theatre in Iganmu, so if you’re coming to the island, you see a lot of people going to the National Arts Theatre and then you have the National Stadium where they had lots of different events. Surulere had the beautiful part, the hard part, and not-so-good parts. I draw on those things today. So it has a special place in my heart.
During your TEDx talk, you concluded with a pertinent phrase. It says, “To give back the knowledge that is verified.” What do you think this means, especially in a rapid information era?
It’s very important that the information that we put out is not just sound bites, that they’re not half information, things that could generate fake news. We’re really passionate people. Those things create enemies, strife, and national irresponsibility. So I believe that the data that we put out there in this day and age—if we are champions of the data, if we’re a champion in an industry or if we’re in the industry—should try to bring some integrity to the process of it. You can’t say, “I know. Don’t tell me. I already know the answer.” I mean, knowledge is not static. It’s expensive. It’s not static. You have to be able to suspend your belief and say that I don’t know. And if you’re presented with data that have been verified in 20 different places of the earth, then I think you really should take a pause and say that “Wow, if 20 other places can reference the same material in different languages then they must have done something right. That’s measured data they are putting out.” And then it again filters its way down into the school system to the kids, but if it’s fake data, then you have a lot of potentially good people doing some stupid shit when they get older, so it’s very important.
Can you tell us a bit about your favourite works, your most memorable work and how you designed it? What’s your process like in the midst of all of this? Is there a socio-political language, because data is very socio-political right?
My favourite works—that will be a tough one to pick.
Top five? Top three? Top two?
Okay, I give my top two, or I say my top three. Now your question is phrased into what’s my favourite art form, as I understand it. So the intention of the platform Visual Collaborative was to create a reoccurring festival for a span of seven years, and we were able to surpass that seven years. And it’s like a big platform itself. It’s a metaphor of an incubator where everybody comes in. That platform is like a canvas to me and I think the most blood-sweat-and-tears successful venture that I’ve had. That would be my ultimate number one project: where I’m able to create solutions for other people to plug their models into one big 360-model.
Then Philosopher’s Legacy is another piece that I really enjoyed, not because of the people who supported it with their own inscriptions or signatures or artwork or their own little creative input, but just because, for me, it’s a brand new process. I enjoyed the whole process wonderfully, just creating an abstract 3D image and then mixing it with traditional image, which is like gemstone sand and this kind of thing. So it’s merging two different mediums into two different disciplines. I enjoyed it.
Now, the process—I can’t really give my trade secrets away. Well, the process itself is just the people involved. Sometimes it’s like quick, and sometimes it could be like you have to get people to understand what the vision is. What are you really doing with it? At the end of the day, nine out of ten times, any time people see the finished product, it’s like, Wow, you guys told us that is what you’re like. So there’s a lot of that. And when you get that “So what are you really doing?” your ego can take it one of two ways: Oh I’m doing something that would not be appreciated or it’s verification that you should actually go that way. The bumps in the road are what you should be. The obstacle is the way; that’s how you find a way, not through the path of least resistance. Now, if you go through the path of least resistance, then there’s one thing you’ll be taking care of, which is money. If you’re looking to create artistic integrity, you put a lot of your heart and soul into the process, and then it flourishes to close to what you have in your mind’s eye or that exactly. And if you are true to your process, it’s not supposed to be easy, but the output is usually something that could be quantified as a legacy.
So those are my very two favourite works. I have many others off the shelf. Well, my artistic works—we’re going to bring it down to the micro-level—Gloria in Excelsis Deo, that’s one piece that occurred like several other pieces that were exhibited in Queensborough. Queens is the largest borough in New York City. So there were two different cities where I exhibited, and the people of Queens came out to show me support. And it was very, very good. They used to see lots of acrylics in New York or L.A. The acrylics are like a dime a dozen. When you have that kind of material mixed with digital material in one medium—I always look at it like what a baby sees when they’re given birth. The lights—boom!—are in their eyes in the delivery room. That first experience is what I try to go for. In essence, the soul is being captured, like the first reaction, the primitive reaction, like wow. Oh, there’s so many, I can’t remember all their names, but the Queen’s Gambit exhibition in Queens in New York was an amazing one.
And what narrative was it like?
Glory be to God in the highest. That’s really what it was. I was going through spiritual rebirth, or what Christianity would call being born again.
Did you leave Christianity, or you just delved into deeper Christianity?
No, no, no. I’m still very much rooted in the Christian church, but around the time I had one of several consciousness shifts where you actually appreciate life. You just see life. And I was just really in a very high space with God. I understood the sermons that the preachers were preaching even much better than I did before, being able to be agnostic when I needed to be. I was close to God. Yes, I was very close, and it was reflecting on my own artworks. And it was a very radical time for me as well. I had a Mohawk. I was in the art scene. I mean, I was being a lifelong technologist, not a technologist as a label, but technologist as understanding the technical process of everything and that industry—I was part of that. There was this radical part and it’s very easy to do it in first world countries. You can explore this freedom of speech, not in a federal republic like Nigeria, some of the countries where freedom of speech is not so common. You could not take me away from how strong my faith was. It was very strong, and I feel happy even thinking about the period.
You have the subjective and you have the objective reality as well. If it’s really authentic and it’s really good for you, then if people are using their own eyes to see it, to have a reaction, I think that’s super amazing.
So, can you just tell us about your upcoming project called Polaris North Star and why you are excited about it?
I had mentioned that Remember to Rise has been pushed forward. It’s been moved to a later date. So Polaris was a project that was on the shelf for at least a few years, and it was supposed to be the publication arm of Visual Collaborative, the publication arm where we would have a collective of features. So Polaris North Star, also known as North Star, is a collection of interviews with different kinds of individuals, mostly creative individuals and what Visual Collaborative means to them. Visual Collaborative is the name of our company, but it’s a universal word. Architects have to participate in the visual collaborative process, hairdressers, scientists, artists, filmographers, cinematographers, filmmakers, even politicians. So this collective is a collection of art featuring 25 profiles. The profiles range from Tomide, a global name in Egypt who started her design curriculum out there, to Tosin Oshinowo; a local architect over here. She’s actually being featured in Polaris. We have Remy Von, a filmmaker who is from the Von Richard’s family. That’s a long lineage of power players. We have Polly Alakija; she painted under the bridge and Irene. I’m just excited about it, pretty much. It’s an international company backed by Nigerians on the world stage showing the world, creating an image that we can collaborate and we could work; we can work with different people from different cultures.
I believe that there is some type of connection between artists, creators, and God. So Polaris is a collection of interviews of different human beings, Nigerians included, sharing their own lens to the world, teaching us some things about the industry’s art industries, the legal industries, misogyny, just many different topics is in Polaris. I am the chief editor. I have a group of people interviewing these individuals, and I can’t wait for it to come on. That’s what I’ve been working on for the past few months.
On which other platforms can we find you?
I’m on IG @Adefeks, on Twitter and also on olufeko.com
Until next time, bye-bye.
April 16, 2021
April 16, 2021