Portraits in Chrome
Born in Harlem, New York, Kip Omolade began his art career as a graffiti artist while interning at Marvel Comics and The Center for African Art. He continued his studies at The Art Students League of New York and earned a BFA at the School of Visual Arts. Omolade creates large-scale oil paintings of chrome masks, depicting not only subtle facial features but also incorporating the reflected environment. The series, ‘Diovadiova Chrome’, makes reference in part to historical African sculptures from Benin and Ife, while exploring contemporary aspects of identity, luxury and immortality. Kip Omolade’s work has been exhibited in several galleries around the world and featured on Good Morning America, as well as in Huffington Post, Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose. In addition, he has completed many commissioned special projects and collaborated with Sony Music, Red Bull and Nike. In this interview, we speak to Omolade about his work and how he draws inspiration from his African heritage.
When did you decide to become an artist?
I think I always was an artist but made a decision to pursue an art career in high school.
As a young artist you had the chance to intern at Marvel Comics. How did that influence your work and career?
Interning at Marvel ironically convinced me to follow a fine art career instead of that of a comic book artist. However, my experience at Marvel still influences the sci-fi look of my current Diovadiova Chrome sculptures and paintings.
Having been born and lived all your life in the United States, how important is it for you to establish a connection with Nigeria through your art?
Although I’ve lived in the United States my whole life, my connection to Nigeria is extremely important. Most people draw strength from their past to make statements and decisions about the present and future. When I saw images of ancient Ife sculptures, I immediately saw the link to what I was doing. I could see the lineage between those images of dignified Africans and my work of people of colour.
Before you began creating the chrome masks, you practiced as a graffiti artist. How did you make the jump from graffiti to masks, and what inspired this change?
There wasn’t an immediate jump from graffiti to masks. It was more like a back and forth exchange between styles. For instance, when I was a graffiti artist I would draw metallic characters as precursors to my current portraits. When I was doing graffiti I was also making comic books and painting from life. ‘Diovadiova Chrome’ is an amalgamation of the different styles I’ve used throughout my life.
Your famous chrome masks are inspired by the bronze art of Benin and Ife. Please explain their connection and relationship, as well as what prompted your interest in these bronzes.
I’ve always been interested in realism in art. When I was a teenager, I loved ancient Egyptian art because of the use of realism and the link to my African heritage. However, at the School of Visual Arts, a professor taught that the ancient Egyptians, despite being in Africa, were white people with suntans. We obviously disagreed but in the textbook used for the course there was an example of a bronze Ife head. In the sculpture, I could see the realism and unmistakable African features, and even the professor couldn’t deny that.
Years later, when I was working on my Diovadiova Chrome paintings, I remembered that photo and researched more about Benin and Ife. I still saw the link to ancient Egyptian art but Ife also provided an art-making connection. The ancient Benin artists used a “lost wax” technique that involved using moulds to create a sculpture. Although my final products are paintings, I also used moulds to make my work.
How did you come up with the name ‘Diovadiova Chrome’, and how does it configure into the wider framework of your recent practice?
‘Diovadiova’ is coined from the Italian words for god (dio) and goddess in the historic sense (diva). For me, it suggests that there is a divine power in all of us. ‘Chrome’ describes my current motif.
In terms of process, how would you describe your relationship to the medium of painting and what it is about chrome that appeals to you?
For me, painting is a language I use to communicate. I think of myself as an artist that will use whatever it takes to effectively share a particular idea. It just happens that painting is the perfect medium for me to express my ideas. The use of chrome is about accessibility but also a representation of wealth, power and style.
Models play a huge part in the creation of these masks. Kindly share with us your working techniques.
A mould is made of the model’s face. From this, a plaster sculpture is produced. I sculpt it in preparation for another mould. A resin cast is then made and painted with chrome paint. I mount the chrome “mask” against a panel and photograph it indoors or outdoors. I use the resulting photographs as references for the painting. The painting can take as long five months depending on the scale and details.
Do you have a personal relationship with the models, are they part of the process or just randomly chosen?
Most of the models are people I know on a personal level. I have to like them since I’m touching, sculpting, photographing and painting their faces. Given that it may also take a year to work on a sculpture and painting, I’ve insisted on working with friends and family.
What is the role of symbolism in your work, and to what extent are your artistic choices influenced by a desire to communicate some meaning beyond the immediate visual effect?
I’m not sure if I purposefully use symbolism but my intent is to use my art to celebrate humanity.
Please tell us about some of the commissions you have completed for major brands.
I don’t do commissions for major brands, instead we collaborate using my existing work for projects. Usually it’s to present my work to the public such as through the Viacom and Red Bull exhibitions.
After this series, what else are you thinking of doing, do you foresee your work taking a different trajectory?
‘The Diovadiova Chrome’ series continues to expand to express different ideas. My goal is to stretch it as far as I can to express what it means to be a human being.
April 08, 2021