Ebenezer Akinola on Creating Purposeful and Relevant Art
Ebenezer Akinola is easily one of the finest painters working in Nigeria today. This assertion is not only evidenced by his technical virtuosity but also an ability to switch readily from one style to another.
Born in Ibadan on December 1, 1968, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in painting from University of Benin (1989). Here, he received a scholarship for the best student in painting in 300 level (1988); departmental prize for the best student in fine art; and the Fasuyi Art Prize for the best student in painting (1989). He has since completed several important commissions including portraits of former leaders Rt. Honourable Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, and generals Abdulsalami Abubakar and Olusegun Obasanjo, which are all displayed at the National Gallery of Art, Lagos.
Ebenezer Akinola works broadly in two representational modes; a calm academic style comprising of portraits and figure studies, and a radically divergent more expressive one. In the former mode, he skillfully achieves a balance of realistic and abstract passages in his paintings, adding further depth with a combination of broad sweeping strokes in the background and smaller, finer details to highlight areas of interest. Characterised by a deliberate exaggeration of limbs and torsos of his figures to achieve rhythm and fluidity, Akinola’s latter convention tends towards abstraction. It is also hinged largely on the artist’s affinity with rich and varied surface textures, as well as bold line to accentuate form and create mood and feeling. In these canvases, Akinola’s highly individual expression comes to the fore, sacrificing finished form and detail for breadth of execution and heightened emotion. When asked if he has difficulty or conflict in resolving his two distinct styles, he responded with an emphatic “No, I found myself a long time ago.” “I refused to be defined because I believe a true artist should work in several modes.” Perhaps my training at school contributed to my early figurative thrust. However, I am happy I overcame the challenge to shift early.
Akinola lists the major artists who inspired him early on in his career as; Prof Clary Nelson-Cole, who taught him at the University of Benin; Tyrone Getter, an American artist whose work he came across when he was studying at Benin; as well as John Singer Sargent and Howard Terpning, both of whose paintings he first encountered on a visit to Chicago in 2003. Akinola recalls Sargent’s work left him spellbound for about half an hour. “When I first saw John Singer Sargent’s work in a library in the United States, I could not sit for 30 minutes. I soon returned to Nigeria motivated. At the time, I was not working in the figurative tradition; my paintings were highly stylised and I was preoccupied with genre themes. It was then considered something of a taboo to oscillate between 2 vastly differing modes but more usual to stay faithful to a genre, for example, landscape painting. Before too long, I committed to traditional representational art.”
However, Akinola’s embrace of the abstract wasn’t always an easy one. His interest was kindled when collectors challenged him to paint, in addition, canvases devoid of figures. Gerard Richter whose body of work encompasses both the strongly figurative and the abstract provided further impetus for Akinola to turn to abstraction. “When I came across the art of Gerard Richter, it mattered not the previous advice I had received. I loved his work.” Originality is paramount to Akinola. Despite borrowing from these artists, he is careful to retain the authentic quality of his work. He asserts, “I value originality in an art work, I am an African artist and that resonates in my paintings. Though one can be influenced, it pains me when artists copy. For example, Terpning’s work draws from history. I don’t copy him as I paint what comes to mind while responding to the stimulus around me.”
Akinola’s early themes include travel and migration. He explains his underlying philosophy, “The empty background is for two reasons; one is technical. Sometimes it’s better to focus on the essence, the positive space; it gives better visual impact. The second and more importantly, the background shows the ‘unknowingness’, of the so-called journey and throws up several questions like; where are they going? Migration is constant. Man cannot remain static, he must move.”
Akinola’s ideas around shifting identities, the politics of representation and cultural multiplicities play out in the background or space, as well as through the men, women and children that populate his canvases. Here, the real and the virtual intermingle, a metaphor for the breakdown of physical spaces and temporalities. In alluding to Akinola’s assertions, our experience of these spaces that are of no fixed geographic location is dependent on mobility and an ability to view multiple perspectives simultaneously.
Strong criticism in good measure from a close patron, Eyamba Dafinone and gallerist/curator, Oliver Enwonwu, persuaded the artist to explore more narratives and complete work in series. Recently, he has increasingly engaged the negative legacy of colonialism, an approach he terms ‘colonial mentality’—one made popular by celebrated musician Fela Kuti. According to Akinola’s research, two other types of negative thinking by Africans that have suppressed the growth of the continent are ‘cultural mentality’ and ‘religious mentality’. He claims that Kuti once bemoaned the still existing sad reality that anything black is of no value. Akinola cites the example of the world not paying much attention to Madagascar’s claim of creating a vaccine for the coronavirus because it is a tiny Black African country. He argues further that because the negative cultural mentality has so pervaded the global African community, rather unfortunately even Black people don’t value anything that is Black. “Even Blacks don’t approve of what is Black. In the past, I refused to listen to Fela Kutu’s music or watch Black TV because I considered them in opposition to my Christian upbringing.
Just like the artist Ai Wei Wei who inspires me, Kuti, through his music, fought for the mental emancipation of his people. In another example, I received several complaints from friends and congregants, who distanced themselves when a model of mine who wears dreadlocks accompanied me to the local church. They forget our ancestors had no razor and so wore their hair that way. The razor is the invention of the white man. We have lost so much of our rich culture and tradition; we ape them by trying to speak like them. I find that most annoying, we need to begin to appreciate our values.”
Ebenezer Akinola speaks on his newest direction through two paintings ‘Rated and Abused’ and ‘Red Carpet’. With reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, the first is a critique of Western systems of art evaluation. He asserts that through improved marketing and advertising, works with less artistic merit continue to achieve more visibility and value in sales. ‘Red Carpet’, the second work is a succinct commentary on the objectification of the female body, increasingly employed today as an advertising strategy to market goods and services. “It is important that artists create work that is purposeful and relevant. Art must not be for its sake alone, it must be political and shape society positively. I want my paintings to free us mentally and culturally.”
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