Kehinde Awofeso: Challenging and Refining Gender Identities and Roles
At first glance, one concludes easily that Kehinde Awofeso’s figures are icons of masculinity. However, on close observation, several ambiguities appear. By capturing these individuals in unscripted moments, many of them in their moments of rest, pensiveness, as well as in defeat, Awofeso’s feminist critique does well to indict viewers in its desirous gaze while listing a series of gender stereotypes to dismantle. Significantly, each painting radiates a personal, at times, tender respect for its subject, a testimony to her skill and empathy as an artist.
When did you make the decision to become an artist and how did you transition from designing book covers to creating paintings?
I have always been fascinated with the production of art; one of my favourite places to spend spare time is art spaces. Drawing, for me, had always been an easy exercise so at some point, I purchased some art materials including guide books and began practising with different media such as watercolour, charcoal, and pencil colours. The first painting I sold was a lighthouse scene through a gallery in Ibadan around 2007. I painted portraits to strengthen my knowledge of colour, forms, perspective and so on, and eventually started receiving commissions for portraiture. During this time I was also working a 9-5.
Around 2013, I decided to work full-time as an artist. I was introduced to illustration through an author and publisher who had seen my work. I put my drawing skills to use and acquired an additional skill of interpreting texts visually. Around this time, I was also commissioned to do some book cover art.
In 2017, I was introduced to Jumoke Sanwo, creative director of the Revolving Art Incubator(RAI), by a dear friend of mine, who is also an artist. I was then invited by RAI to a group exhibition titled ‘Four Women’, which I was excited about because I was going to be showing alongside talented artists. Initially, I had no clue what my body of work was going to be about, but after a few weeks of thinking about it, I resolved to create around what I have always wanted to say but wasn’t quite comfortable saying out loud.
Very often, your figures disconcert your audience who are uncertain if they are viewing a male or female. The figures not only challenge gender stereotypes but also undermine the notion of a stable, consistent gender identity. Why is it important to explore gender identity as a flexible continuum of negotiable possibilities—behaviours that blur binary gender boundaries?
I think it is important to explore this subject because, despite extensive research and information available on the subject, it is disturbing that persons who identify outside the dictates of the binary construct are generally stigmatised. I also think if it is possible for my work to unsettle its viewer, then it is a reflection of what obtains in the larger society where in an instance of viewing, eyes trained to see binaries are, maybe, compelled to adjust to a different or unusual reality. Now while my figures, in particular, are deliberately depicted to ask what is not quickly obvious to the viewer in terms of bodily features, I am careful not to get caught up in the labels of either masculinity or femininity that constitute these stereotypes. Personally I do not think gender identity is stable and so the society insisting on binaries seems like an erasure of the beautiful diversity of humanity, and it is painful to imagine this rigidity.
In your work, the self-portrait becomes a powerful tool in presenting your body as a contested site to engage gender-specific issues and non-conformity. What personal experiences have shaped this decision?
My everyday personal experiences largely involve negotiating the easiest ways to exist ‘unnoticed’ as a gender non-conforming individual, within hostile spaces, in actual fact, leaving the confines of my house is anxiety-inducing— strangers stare or intrude into my personal space. These actions are due to their prejudices influenced by the systems that uphold gender constructs— religion, patriarchy etc., so painting myself presents one of the ways in which I can exist proudly. My narrative helps with coming to terms with and owning my identity.
The fluidity of gender and sexual identity is a theme you engage strongly with. How have our distinct cultures influenced our gender identities such as masculinity and femininity and what elements in your work challenge, negotiate and refine gender roles?
I believe the definitions of masculinity and femininity as qualities are not exclusive to the respective genders, also these conflations tend to stir condemnation by the general public. The dynamic nature of culture allows for realistic engagement within a prevailing dominant culture, in particular where the influences are systems of religion, politics, etc. with underlying discriminatory tendencies against the possibilities and flexibilities existing beyond the social construct of gender. So far, our distinct cultures have, for the most part, I believe, changed over time through the dictates of some of the aforementioned.
For example, Sango, a Yoruba oosa, is gender fluid and their mountees (human sacrifice), and like the oosa, dress in forms that are considered feminine post-colonialist. This fluidity applies to many other oosa/Irunmole within Ifa corpus, however, with the heavy influence of Abrahamic religions, these practices have been pushed to the margins of the society, much like queer bodies. Therefore, I incorporate elements such as anti-genderism, bodily autonomy, mental well-being and spirituality/belief systems in my body of work.
What criteria do you observe in selecting your sitters, are they randomly chosen or do you share a history together?
I work mostly with subjects who defy social norms pertaining to gender and sexual identities. People who have unique qualities that make them vulnerable to discrimination based on these differences. These subjects express their authentic selves despite challenges posed by a society attempting to repress them. Although meeting my subjects are sometimes random experiences, deciding to work with them is mostly due to the fact that we have a shared history and identities.
Which artists have been your major influences and provided impetus to your career?
Adejoke Tugbiyele, Tina Adebowale, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Muholi Zanele – All these artists work within the themes of interest to me; their visibility and works, are an impetus for me to explore possibilities with respect to art expressions, queer bodies and gender identities.
How would you react to comparisons with Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; where do the similarities end and where does the divergence begin?
It is an honour to be compared with Yiadom-Boakye because I admire her paintings and feel that her works are revolutionary in terms of representation of the Black body in art history. I am drawn to her work because I find her compositions, although fictitious, captivating and evoke a realness I can relate with on a personal level. The first time I heard about Yiadom-Boakye was during the ‘Four Women’ exhibition at RAI, Lagos. After checking out her works, I resolved the similarities might be in the tendency for her work to appear fluid with a strong message on gender representation. During one of her artists’ talks, she discussed how putting a male and a female on a single canvas is yet to work for her. I suppose the idea of her narratives not being of pop culture makes them somewhat natural and un-exaggerated. Now given the pace at which she produces a painting, there is no doubt about the mastery she wields on the canvas, and her skill on a palette of Black bodies, which I find fascinating—their beauty radiates elegantly against dark backgrounds. There might be similarities with the colour formats in a few instances, and also with the broadness of the strokes. However, the divergence begins with her figures having fictitious narratives while mine does not.
Thomas Laqueur asserts that the body including its expression in sexuality, “is one of the great political arenas of our time”. Indeed, controversies address conventions regarding the most socially preferred size, shape, age and colour of bodies while there exist taboos against specific forms of sexual expression. Which are the most frequent in Nigeria and Africa and how do they compare to those common in the West?
Thomas Laqueur’s assertion is indeed and sadly so because in contemporary times it has become important to keep conversations going about what the convention or expectation is and what really exists, how these standards came about, their implications on socio-economic and physiological state, etc. It is sad because the body and its accompanying expressions, while subject to prevailing conceptions easily bypass repressive regulations and are manipulated by the complex effects of power such as law, culture, religion and capitalist systems. I believe that when conventions cease to uphold equal rights for all parties through the erasure of peoples and their realities, they should be redressed by upholding oppression-induced hierarchies. Therefore, controversies, as a means of negotiating well-being become instruments for challenging and deconstructing exploitative preferences.
In Nigeria and a host of other African nations, laws exist that further instigate discrimination against persons who do not conform to the dictates within the gender binary. This bigotry often extends to persons who are perceived as belonging to these gender and sexual non-conforming categories with state and non-state actors often performing on the notion of taboo with citings such as “Not in Our Culture”, “Un-African”, “Ungodly” and religion as references for perpetrating acts of violence against such persons.
It is important to note that sexual behaviours differ from sexual orientation and gender identity, and it can easily get muddled up if there is inadequate education on the subject, however, there is a lot of information available for those who are willing to learn. Gender and sexual diversity exist everywhere; they are not imports of the West, however, there is evidence to show that the West, through colonisation, introduced laws to erase and criminalise these realities amongst Africans. The irony, however, is that while the West continues to progress in terms of inclusion of diversity for gender and sexual expressions, Nigeria and major parts of Africa remain repressive.
In what ways do you explore religious practices and their relationship to gender identity and expressions while interrogating their role in demonising traditional beliefs?
“If we cannot go further, we can certainly return to where we have come from,” this saying in Yoruba is used as my reference for investigating the relationship between religion, tradition, beliefs, and spirituality. Through research and conversations, I examine the nature of these subjects and what influences they have on gender identity and expressions. I discovered that Abrahamic religions are largely control-based, hence easily become suitable tools to demonise traditional beliefs, while traditional or indigenous spiritual belief systems are nature-based. African ideologies embrace gender fluidity and are not solely dependent on sexual anatomy but are rather purely energetic. In addition, gender fluid representation with the existence of intersex spiritual deities was never unusual.
Kindly elaborate on these paintings; ‘Questioned to Shame’, ‘Undaunted’, ‘Kilode’, ‘Self Love’ and ‘Omo Ayanshina’.
‘Questioned to Shame’ is about conversations, usually unsolicited that random or known people inquire about my identity in disrespectful and condescending ways, which become toxic in retrospect
The title ‘Undaunted’ was originally an illustration in a collection of queer poems. I decided to include it in the exhibition with myself as a subject because it resonated with me.
‘Kilode’ means why in Yoruba, and it was a question directed to everyone who discriminates based on gender and sexual identities.
‘Self-Love ‘ became a conscious and continuous active response to stigmatisation.
‘Omo Ayanshina’ is the portrait of a super talented friend of mine.
April 08, 2021