"Modern Afro Minimalism is showing that we are not so different from the rest of the world."
Over the last year, the circumstances of creatives everywhere have changed. So, we at BetterShared sat down to catch up with artist and creator of the ‘The Sky is Always Blue’ series, Abraham Ogunlende.
Born in Nigeria and now residing in Paris, Abraham reveals how his travels have impacted his work and describes to us the meaning behind his artistic style- Modern Afro-Minimalism.
CircleScape III, Abraham Ogunlende
Tell me about your background and how you became an artist?
I was born into a creative family. My dad is an architect and my mum is a musician. Growing up I was always surrounded by art, but I wasn’t so inspired. I wasn’t the creative one in my family. My brother was the one that would draw. When I was eighteen, I started to explore my artistic side. I was in Philadelphia. I would say that the city really inspired me, inspired that side of myself. I started drawing again, that was when I realised that I didn’t have the "typical" very detailed style of drawing. So, I thought why don’t I explore this other style that I have. I kept coming up with sketches. One day, I walked into an art store and I was so clueless about everything. I was asking such basic questions and the workers in the store were mad at me because I was asking those questions. It was sort of like, what are you doing here? That was in 2013, I think. That was when I started, and I just kept going from there. For me it was a way of using my experiences to express and allow people to see themselves in my work. That was the thing that I wanted to do, to be able to have that impact through my art.
You said that you don’t have a "typical" art style. You describe your style as Modern Afro Minimalism. What does that mean?
My style is definitely minimalist. There are different types of minimalism, but I came up with Modern Afro Minimalism as a way to describe the way my work is presented. I wanted something that was unique and my own name. Modern Afro Minimalism is essentially me expressing new perspectives of life back home. When you leave Nigeria and speak to people, you get the sense that they often don’t know what it’s really like in Nigeria. Understandably, because it’s so misrepresented. I saw it as a chance to represent my people, represent my heritage. It’s a chance for me to do that in a new light so that I can provide new perspectives of what is going on back there. I try to do that in a minimalist style through simplifying all the elements in my work. That’s what Modern Afro Minimalism is. It’s representing new perspectives of African life in a minimalist style.
What would you say have been your main sources of inspiration? Has there been an event that has influenced your work as an artist?
To be honest, God. My Father. Literally. I know a lot of people don’t say that. Maybe because it’s not cool. I wouldn’t say that it was always like that, but I feel like this year especially has changed my perspective on how I want to express my work. Just being able to impact people in a positive way and being able to change perspectives. I say that but I’m not saying that I have necessarily done all of this yet. I think that it’s something which down the line I will get to explore more. I feel that what I do have to represent is very important and just keeping myself grounded in the fact that I’m not doing it all for myself alone, but also for the general public. For Nigerians. Africans. That is my inspiration now. Just that impact that I can have with art. It’s a journey. Minimalist aesthetics, you know just even being in Paris, a lot of my artistic influences had these varied experiences in this city. Just being here and creating here is really inspiring. Picasso used to make works not too far from where I am. Not to idolise him or anything, but that to me is pretty inspiring.
Another thing that inspires me is cross-cultural images and aesthetics. Modern Afro Minimalism is showing that we are not so much different from the rest of the world. I could be walking down the street and see something. It could stand out and then I could say let me use this in a way to say: ‘ok you do this, they do this, we do this, we all kind of do this’. It’s just that commonality that inspires me.
Would you say that your travels have also been a source of inspiration for you?
Definitely. They’ve given me the opportunity to hear these other voices, and to say like ‘hey like this is the same’. We think a lot of the same things. I don’t want to say that we have the same traditions necessarily, but they’re all rooted in the same things. I definitely agree that they’ve definitely had an impact. I think that’s why it’s so much at the basis of Modern Afro Minimalism and just what I’m trying to represent, and to who I’m trying to represent to. It’s not just a story for Nigeria. I feel like it’s a story for the world. Not to make it sound overly important or anything like that, but I would like it to be.
Who are some artists who have helped to shape your creative path?
When I started painting, I was so inspired by Keith Haring. I love his work. I would read his books. He had a bunch of memoirs and I just started to read them. I was never really a reader. It was just art books that I would read. He spoke about this period in his life where he started travelling for commissions and he had this whole chapter about Paris. When I read that I thought: I have to go to Paris, I have to be there. He inspired my work. Not so much visually right now, but in his thinking about colour and how lines interact.
The next artist that inspired me was Wassily Kandinsky. Not so much for his aesthetics but for his thinking. This was a guy that was prominent in the early 20th century. He was talking about an artistic movement of moving away from anything that was recognisable and reflecting works that were of the spirit. I feel that a lot of topics that he was speaking on are relevant today. We often see works that are just void of any meaning. I’m not trying to go against any artists, but I just felt that what he was saying was very important. Its always stuck with me. He wrote this book that I read when I was first starting out called Concerning the Spiritual and Art. When I read that book, certain things that he said have always remained with me throughout the years. I would put him in that category of inspiring artists.
Then you have Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney. Its funny, a lot of people say that my work sort of reminds them of the David Hockney style. It's funny because I knew of his work, but I didn’t know much about him until quite recently. I really love his work. I also like Chris Ofili. He’s someone that I want to have a conversation with at some point about art. I really admire his perspective.
Can you describe your creative process?
I listen to music sometimes, but I like to just hear my thoughts. A lot of the time I don’t know what I’m trying to create, so I have to listen. What does this mean if I put that there? What does it mean if I put this colour here? I feel like I have to have that dialogue. If I do have music, it’s something very relaxed and chill.
I work with a lot of layers. For me I find that colour is often the most important part of the painting because I could spend the most time in the studio just picking between two colours, putting them side by side. Definitely a lot of time just mixing colours and trying to find the right shade that I’m going for. That’s what my process is like. A lot of colour mixing and listening to myself. I like to come from a place that is not necessarily spontaneous, but from within.
How do you like to work?
When I start something, time goes. I could be in there and I don’t know how long I’ve been there. I just put my phone on silent. I often find that I like to work on more than one painting. I like to work on three to four at the same. I don’t know if my mind gets restless or I get tired of one, but I find that I can work better when I can do something and let it dry and then at the same time start something else.
Can you tell me more about your series ‘The Sky is Always Blue’?
It’s a series that offers a positive outlook in a year like this. Everyone had so many goals for 2020. I kept telling my friends that this pandemic sucks. It’s all very uncertain. But you have to improvise and adapt. I came up with the tile ‘The Sky is Always Blue’. It’s essentially just saying that even if there are dark clouds, you go above that, and the sky is always blue. It’s also saying that just because it’s not the most ideal period right now, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be like this forever.
I wanted to represent themes that are contrary to the current moment. It’s a kid jumping in the pool. It’s a kid making a splash with another kid floating away. A woman lying in the grass. Just little scenes like that are nostalgic to the time that’s passed but looking forward to the future. It’s not positivity that’s based on not realising what’s currently happening. It’s just trying to tell people not to worry so much, the future will hopefully be better.
How has Covid changed how you work, and see life?
I’ve always been chill. Honestly, it’s given me more time to examine what I was doing. It has given me more time to create with intent. It has also given me more time to figure out who I am as an artist. Sometimes having access to materials has been quite challenging. One thing I wasn’t doing before was pulling more details out of my work, and now I realise that I can’t show it in person everywhere. That’s something that I’m currently working towards doing better. It’s not been all negative. I’m ready for it to be completely done though.
How do you see yourself developing professionally as an artist?
Taking more risks artistically, and not taking my work too seriously. There’s a serious aspect of it but there’s a certain freedom to it. I was previously making work in Nigeria for the past three or four years. Prior to that, I was in the US making work. I went back to Nigeria with a goal and I feel like I accomplished that goal. Now I have another goal that’s geared towards getting my work out there internationally, globally. It’s not just made to be seen back home. So, with that you often need to be more professional and intentional. Refining myself as an artist, growing continuously, evolving and not being afraid of that also. That is also something that is an inspiration for me to just do that and achieve that.
What would you like people to know about you?
I feel like I joke around so much. I’m just mad goofy but people don’t know. I guess that playfulness does seep into my work. I’m not as serious as people think.
Abraham's series is currently available for purchase on the BetterShared website. Shop his collection here.
Keep up with Abraham Ogunlende on Instagram @abeogunlende