Gary Stephens: Documenting Moments of Nigerian History
South African-based American artist, Gary Stephens works in a variety of media including painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. His works have become veritable sites to assert the African identity and have been featured in many exhibitions across the globe. As an artist straddling several continents and cultures, his creativity stems from his experiences living among societies and the people he encounters on his extensive sojourns around Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. In modern times, the social significance and personal meaning of traditional hairstyles have been forgotten. Instead, ancient styles are re-born, bearing several elements of modern fashion. Stephens’ system of strings and vertical pleats are a metaphor for the influence of modernity and the spread of global capitalism on post colonial Nigeria. He raises questions of hybridity and identity as his subjects adorn sunglasses, modern earrings and decorative ornaments in their hair. His works are strongly individual, their juxtaposing, providing a sense of urgency to an immediate purpose – to challenge the various stereotypes thrust on the Nigerian while addressing issues of personal identity, self discovery and history.
You were born in Arizona, and now live and work in Johannesburg. How do you feel about being described as an African artist, and your work as understanding Africa’s history and present?
Every artist wants to feel their work contributes positively to society and will be valued, so I am quite honored by the question. I would never claim to have an understanding of Africa’s cultural history,
but I am quite fascinated by its present. My work pays homage to current urban African trends in hair braiding, head scarves and how people choose to present themselves in public. I document, enjoy and
hopefully raise awareness of the beauty and sense of style I observe. The ultimate compliment is when a young African friend comes to tell me about a hairstyle or hat they saw someone wearing. This makes me
feel in my small way that I am contributing to people appreciating and noticing the beauty in their own culture.
What draws you to a particular hairstyle?
By paying attention to braid styles when I am in out in public, it brings me an extra level of enjoyment and appreciation. Nigeria is very full of inspiration for me. I try not to judge the styles but just observe
how people present themselves in public. Cascades of extensions or symmetrical rows of pleating, both inspire me equally.
What next for Gary Stephens?
I am currently into a new series I call Afro Pop Art using stencils, graffiti and newspaper on wooden panels. The subject matter is still African but they are very colorful. I am making my own background patterns based on Nigerian ankara. A few years ago, I painted directly on ankara but now I feel like reproducing the patterns on my own. I want to show the paintings in groups of repeated images like Warhol did with Marilyn Monroe. The inspiration came from the location of my last art studio in
the part of Joburg where all the graffiti artists are very active. I got very attracted and played with some spray paint. I still tend toward my usual attraction to detail, and I am spending many hours cutting very intricate stencils, which I layer. I want to eventually make some very large pieces. I plan to stay with my African themes and hope to get opportunities to travel to more African countries for residencies and to document the variety in various African cultures. At the moment, I am noticing women with headscarves – how they tie them, the colors and fabric patterns. It’s a rich and very iconic African subject matter.
Full interview published in Omenka magazine issue 4
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