Alimi Adewale on Disruption, Innovation and Resisting Expectations
Born in 1974, Adewale Alimi is a Nigerian contemporary artist. Before embarking on his now very successful studio practice, Alimi earned his Bachelor’s in engineering from University of Ilorin, Kwara, where his interest in art began. Upon graduation, he attended several art residencies and workshops to improve his skill and deepen his understanding of the conventions of representation.
United by his interest in materiality and rich surface textures, Alimi’s work explores topical urban issues, documenting everyday city people and engaging in the controversial subject of nudes in African art. Largely experimental, he often mines the endless possibilities of his media, from a clever hybrid of photographs and oil to thick impasto paintings. Interestingly, his minimalist and abstract sculptures coated in acrylics blur the boundaries between sculpture and painting. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses his work, process, and recent exhibitions.
From a background in mechanical engineering, you have built a reputation as one of Nigeria’s most prominent contemporary artists. What inspired this change in career?
I studied mechanical engineering, but during my industrial attachment I realised engineering in Nigeria is predominantly a maintenance field, not a design one. With this knowledge, and as someone who likes to experiment with materials, I decided I didn’t want to be stuck doing maintenance work. After my engineering programme, I worked at Accenture as IT analyst and at Vetiva as the head of IT. I was painting at night while I performed these IT roles. At a point, art took over, and I had to do it full time. So I’m a self-taught artist and a product of art residencies and workshops.
You are well known for your oeuvre, which blends realism with abstraction and encompasses urban landscapes, monumental portraits, and nudes. What is the connecting thread between these areas of interest, and how would you describe your creative process?
The role of the artist in society is to document his or her time. The artist can also be a social commentator, even a political antagonist. I use my art practice to document issues in my society. The ability to be cognisant of issues is an important attribute for an artist. I also work in series, and this has enabled me to fully tap into themes. I don’t work in a particular style but employ the best approach, medium, or style that suits the project I’m working on.
My creative process starts with research and extensive reading on any particular theme I’m working on. This is important so as not to mislead the audience. Since artists are documenters and their works live on, wrong information in a piece of work might have its consequences later in the future, so accuracy is very important. For example, I interviewed migrants in Sweden when I was working on the ‘Migration’ project. I also researched on butterflies using a book published by IITA Ibadan when I was painting the ‘Transmutation’ series. After gathering ample knowledge about the theme I’m working on, I look for the best approach to interpret the theme. Then style, material, and medium considerations will follow.
What is your thinking behind ‘Suits’?
‘Suits’ is an expression of my fascination with how professionals are the bane of society, from the financial industry to oil and gas to law and so on. They are the main characters in the rush-hour phenomenon, a part of the day during which traffic congestion on roads and crowding on public transporting is highest. Normally, this happens twice every weekday—once in the morning and once in the afternoon or evening, the times during which most people commute. This is a phenomenon that is very common in megacities like New York, London, Lagos, Sao Paulo, and Mumbai.
I find this human movement in droves fascinating. This movement is the bane of modern society. Where are people going, where are they coming from? Without this movement of people, I wonder what the world would look like? Also, the act of people watching is a therapeutic practice, which connects us to the world we live in, assuring us that we are not alone.
More recently, you have turned your attention to sculpture. What is the significance of certain characteristic elements in your sculptures, like the half-finished features and colouration?
The contemporary artist is an artist belonging to or practicing in the present. Gone are the days when people categorised themselves as painters or sculptors. The contemporary artist is always looking for different means of expression. At a point in my career, I discovered that the two-dimensional canvas wouldn’t be enough to express some of the themes I was working on. That’s what prompted me into sculpture. And if I’m going to venture into this field, I have to be sincere with myself. What I mean by this is that I can’t be repeating Yoruba or Benin old masters’ styles of wood carving. That’s why my subjects are everyday people living in the present.
The sculptures are actually finished. I started chopping off the nose, mouth, and ears when I discovered that, as citizens of Nigeria, we are all anonymous, faceless. The government doesn’t listen to us and doesn’t even care to address us. No manifesto during elections; we don’t know what the plans are; it’s just “Go and vote.”
You closed the previous year with The Heroine Project, an exhibition that explores some of Nigeria’s most notable women. Kindly tell us more about it and what you aim to achieve.
The Heroine Project is aimed at celebrating the accomplishments of under-recognised women in our society. A heroine is a woman admired for her courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. She is also a woman who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model.
The struggle for political emancipation and self-determination became popular in Nigeria at the close of the 19th century. Prior to the era of the popular nationalist movement, there were women who fought to defend their kingdoms, nations, or states, as the case may be, against external control. It is a fact that the heroic posture of these early nationalists in different parts of what is now Nigeria inspired the concerted efforts that eventually ended colonialism and brought freedom our way.
Also, in modern Nigeria, we still find women who make outstanding contributions to their organisations and communities. This project was born from the realisation that men are made icons more often than women in Nigeria. The purpose of this project is to give more attention to these unsung heroines.
So I selected seven women and did several pixelated portraits of each of them. These women are Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Hajiya Gambo Sawaba, Margaret Ekpo, Dr Ameyo Stella Adadevoh, Abimbola Rosemary Odukoya, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, and Dr Dora Nkem Akunyili.
About your recent solo exhibition, Defying Sameness (2018), you quipped, “I strive to create work that engages me and the viewer in a discovery process. The disruption of norms and defiance of expectations often emerges from these exploration processes; however, neither is the initial impetus nor the priority.” Why is it important to adopt this strategy rather than striving to develop a recognisable style in today’s clime where uniqueness is highly prized?
Somewhere along the line, “disruptive innovation” became a buzzy concept in business circles. But disruption, innovation, and defied expectations have long been tools in the artist’s kit. A priority of this body of work in the salon show was to disrupt norms and defy expectations, because sameness and the regular is a path I don’t want to tread.
Defying Sameness was a salon show that didn’t follow a theme. Abstracts are juxtaposed with pixelated portraiture [‘Courage’ series] and abstracted cityscapes [‘Rush Hour’], all coupled with brutalist acrylic-coated sculptures in wood. I love variety, and I always work on different projects at the same time. On why it is important to adopt this strategy rather than striving to develop a recognisable style in today’s clime where uniqueness is highly prized: Our experiences and exposure are different at every stage of our lives. Based on this premise, I cannot have a recognisable style.
‘Sprawling Cities at Retro Africa’ (2017) is vaguely reminiscent of the work of celebrated Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu, whose large-scale paintings are inspired by the abstract energy, topography, and sensibility of global urban landscapes. What marked contrasts can you point out in your approaches?
I have been living in the urban sprawl of Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, for the past decade. ‘Sprawling Cities’ is an exploration of life within these non-conforming developments.
Inspired by the haphazard and often unauthorised growth of Nigerian cities, such as Lagos, Kano, Ibadan, Abuja, and Port Harcourt, this exhibition explores a global issue that remains of persistent interest to urban planners, international development organisations, and architects the world over. Yes, this series is reminiscent of Julie Mehretu’s work, but the series emanates from my personal experience living in these sprawls.
In 2016, you completed a two-month residency at Konstepidemin in Gothenburg (Sweden), where you researched migration. What was your experience of the complex issues surrounding this growing phenomenon, and how much influence has it had on your art?
Konstepidemin is located in central Gothenburg. The buildings were originally used as Gothenburg’s Epidemical Hospital. From 1886 until 1970, epidemic diseases were treated here. When a group of artists landed their vision of a centre for art and culture in 1987, the initiative was named Konstepidemin. The productive artistic environment and the opportunity to develop one’s artistry and projects are important reasons artists seek this colony out, and often return. It was a great opportunity for me to be in Sweden (which is the country with the second highest number of migrants) and research this global issue.
From my research, I discovered migration policies cannot be beneficial to all; skilled migration is good for receiving countries, but less for sending. Family reunification is important to migrants but not always useful to receiving countries. The individual interests of migrants can create an undesirable brain drain, and so on. It is difficult to simultaneously benefit the citizens of countries of destination, countries of origin, and the migrants themselves. One needs to make social and political choices.
What new projects are you working on?
I’m currently focusing on international art fairs. I believe artists working from Nigeria are doing globally relevant work, but there is a lack of exposure. The focus is to share our creativity with the world. It’s a vast world out there, and people need to see and know what we are doing. I just finished a series of bronze casts, which I called ‘Icon of the Metropolis,’ and up next is a series of stone carvings.
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