Modupeola Fadugba: Challenging Racial Undertones through Art
Nigerian artist Modupeola Fadugba, is a multi-media artist working in painting, drawing, and socially-engaged installation. With a background in engineering, economics, and education, she works at the nexus of science, politics, and art. Fadugba works in series addressing cultural identity, social justice, game theory, and the art world within the socio-political landscape of Nigeria and a greater global economy.
Fadugba holds a BEng. Chemical Engineering/MA Economics from University of Delaware and MEd. from Harvard University. She has held solo exhibitions and also featured in group exhibitions in UK and Senegal including The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 2017, Dakar Biennale, Senegal, 2016 and The Art Energy, London, 2015. Fadugba has works in the collections of The University of Delaware, the Sindika Dokolo Foundation and Liberian Presidency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her theme, inspiration, as well her recent exhibition Dreams From the Deep End at Gallery 1957, Ghana.
What links can you draw from your background in engineering, economics and education to your present occupation as an artist?
My academic experiences have been excellent guides on my journey to become a well-rounded artist. Economics focuses my interest in data, analytics and systems, how people are ordered and how they make decisions. It helps me anchor my organic and instinctual painting approach with structured, research-based concepts. Education defines how I want viewers to interact with my work. Learning something meaningful is equally as important as being moved by something beautiful.
Your work was warmly received at the 2018 edition of Art Dubai, garnering many reviews including a feature on the cover of the respected Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. Please tell us more about this experience, the reception to your work and the pieces you exhibited.
Art Dubai was a fascinating experience, for many reasons. First, the reception and engagement with my works was overwhelmingly positive. I was moved by how the environment coloured their perception of the work. Dubai is a melting pot of locals and expatriates from all over the world — a completely different racial dynamic from the places I’ve exhibited in before. I was surprised to find that many viewers didn’t immediately realise that the paintings were depicting young women of colour. They were more fixed on the abstract nature of the works — the ballet of bodies aligned to create fluid shapes and the different representations of water. Second, it was an honour to be the first African artist featured on Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. It’s been long overdue, and I’m glad to see that spotlighting Africa-based talent is becoming a new normal for the magazine. It was also a tribute to the talented subjects of those works — the young Ibadan synchronized swimmers in Nigeria.
Hinting at links between the practical and the scientific, the academic and the essential, your work Beyond the Blackboard depicts a young African girl collecting water in a calabash on her head, from a distillation column. What was the inspiration behind it?
Beyond the Blackboard came about almost 10 years ago. Then, I was an undergraduate student delicately balancing my interest in the arts with the rigorous reality of chemical engineering. My advisors saw this desire, and kindly watered it by commissioning a painting for the department. Although the idea of my own studio practice was barely a thought at this time, it’s interesting to see that I was still compelled by many of the same themes. I reference water in this work – water as sustenance, as a form of recreation, and as a means of transportation. I also reference education — how it’s received in different environments and between various groups. This work ultimately highlights how, beyond the formal boundaries of a classroom, we rationalise different educational and environmental inputs to act individually and collectively.
What does the red ball in many of your works signify?
When I first started using the red ball motif in the ‘Tagged’ series, it was a symbol of my initiation into the art world. It alluded to the round red sticker placed on a work after it has been sold — both a critical method of validation and an all-consuming trap. Now, it’s simply a standard part of my visual vocabulary. It’s a common thread that ties newer works to older ones. It can take any shape or form — whether the cherry on an ice cream cone in Icecream Girls or the red swimmers’ caps in Gossip Girls.
You often appear in your paintings. What message or personal experience are you are trying to convey?
It’s interesting that you mention this. This is something that didn’t start out quite so deep, but eventually became a conceptual pillar of the synchronized swimming series. When I started exploring water and swimming, it was difficult to find subjects to photograph and paint. Many Black women that I approached didn’t know how to swim. And those that did were keen to avoid other water-related inconveniences, such as getting their hair wet/exposed to chlorine. So naturally, I got in the pool myself and became my own subject. But over time, based on the reception of my works, I’ve explored those racial undertones more acutely in my work. You can see it in the way all of the subjects’ hair is braided as a form of protection. Or in the simple reality that the swimming teams that I’ve depicted are all touted as the “only” or “one of a kind.” It seems like a glorious designation at surface level, but it begs the question – why aren’t there more?
In a relatively short period, you have achieved international recognition. What impact has it had on you, as well as on your practice and what advise do you have for emerging artists looking to break onto the burgeoning contemporary African art scene?
It’s been a humbling experience to devote myself to this work and witness others understanding it, appreciating it and supporting it. But unlike my subjects in their placid serene pools, I’m swimming a long distance journey. I am enjoying the present, but staying grounded and focused on the continued evolution of my practice. My advice for emerging artists is the same I gave myself at the beginning of my journey, and continue to remind myself about even now; look inward. As referenced in the Dear Young Artist manifesto art world is a whirlwind — there are many different voices and forces at play. You stand out and perhaps stay sane by quieting the externalities and finding inspiration, fortitude, and confirmation from within.
Please tell us more about your recent series ‘Synchronised Swimmers’, and how it differs from previous bodies of work.
The evolution of the synchronised swimmers series mirrored my own evolution as an artist. What started off as an individual swimmer navigating the turbulent pool scape, slowly grew to include other like-minded individuals. Several like-minded individuals inhabiting communal waters, slowly grew into a team collectively swimming towards a unified goal. In terms of the visual evolution, everything was initially abstracted to remove the focus from the individual. But as I’ve immersed myself in synchronized swimming communities, realism more adequately captures the lived experiences of these individuals.
How well received was your exhibition Dreams from the Deep End held recently at Gallery 1957 in Accra and how you achieved your objectives?
Dreams from the Deep End, curated by the ever-committed and brilliant Katherine Finerty, was created in part in Abuja, and completed during my residency at International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York City. At the exhibition in Ghana, viewers engaged with the works in the same way that I engaged with the overall endeavour. First, the depth — I immersed myself fully into the lives of my subjects. The subjects for this series were The Harlem Honeys and Bears, a community of black senior citizen synchronized swimmers aged 64 to 96. I captured them excelling at their craft, but also being frank about the everyday battles they face as senior citizens, as African Americans, as parents, and so on. This was depicted with added realism in the artworks, a departure from the abstractions of my other synchronized swimming subjects. Viewers were also able to interact with the subjects in multiple installations, whether gazing on the Harlem Honeys and Bears from a bird’s eye view or from underwater portholes. Second, the process — the scale of this research based effort resulted in constant co-ordination and logistics management. Its success depended on the synchronous movements of so many individuals: from the team filming the documentary, to New York City giving permits to shoot in public spaces, to my studio assistants rolling up canvas back in the studios in Abuja, Brooklyn and Accra . This became a frequent discussion point in the documentary and during the artist talks. Third, the learning and self-reflection — in my own research, I was moved by the history of public pools in America. This is a space — literally and figuratively — fraught with racial undertones of access and autonomy. Who has a right to which spaces? Why are drowning rates so much higher in Black communities? The depiction of these Black senior citizen swimmers, already a bold defiance of stereotypes and societal expectation, demanded that viewers confront some of these questions.
Only time can tell what truly resonates, but I was thrilled with what I saw; young children attempting to dive into the bird’s eye view installation of the pool, individuals casually sitting on “pool chairs” watching the documentary and other artists reading some of the research and literature (David Hockney, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Contested Waters by Jeff Wiltse) that captivated me so greatly this summer. Young Accra locals gazing intently at black New Yorkers on the other side of the ocean, some of them committing to learn to swim, before old age.
April 22, 2021
April 21, 2021