Growing up in Nigeria, mixed media artist Dennis Osadebe did not have many artists that resembled himself to look up to. His exemplars were successful businessmen, so that’s exactly what he became after earning his business degree. After university, he worked in finance, all the while continuing to find himself lost in the magic of the art shows he would attend for fun. Two years later, he had had enough of constricting suits and suffocating ties. Osadebe walked into the art store and bought the largest white canvas he could find.
In the beginning, his art was messy and confused, but the freedom of crafting art without expectations encouraged Osadebe to explore interesting and unique motifs. As an “African artist”, he knew it was expected that he craft pieces centered around the stereotypical conceptualization of art produced in Africa; safari plains, wildlife, or traditional patterns.
As a “Neo African” artist, however, Osadebe has been able to create modern works of art that are reflective of his Nigerian heritage not defined by it. The term “Neo Africa” is igniting a revolution of African-born artists to demand more from the art community when it comes to interacting with their art. It refuses to allow museum curators to brazenly dismiss and mislabel Osadebe’s bold colors and stunning visuals under the wide umbrella of “African art”.
Osadebe’s most recent project is currently being showcased online by New York's GR Gallery. The set of canvases on display encourages viewers to question their preconceived notions of what it means to be an African artist in a modern world. Each of Osadebe’s works portrays a man wearing a traditional mask, but the mask itself is full of neon colors that are far from traditional. In one scene, there is a man in his traditional-yet-not mask sitting in a clearly modern living room, but he’s holding a horse.
Outside of the eye-grabbing use of color, Osadebe’s artworks occupy two spaces at once. His visions shatter those of the past and force the western art world to recognize the multilayered experience of any artist.
Listen to episode eight of 'Our Folklore' featuring an interview with Dennis Osadebe. Available now on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or Google Play. Find excerpts from the interview below.
A photograph of Dennis Osadebe by Jay Olowu
My work is centered around the idea of exploring the connection between tradition, innovation, and modernism. I try to use a technology as the artistic medium to reflect the everyday experience of Nigeria, from the things I experienced online, from the conversations I experience with my friends, and also the things that bother me as well. I use my heritage as a standpoint, in a sense, where my mask is a reoccurrence as a constant reminder of where I come from and who I am.
Who am I outside of being an artist? I’m a sneaker lover; I love sneakers. I’m into very clean stuff, my apartment is a very simple design. I don’t like noisy furniture or you know all of that cool stuff. I watch a lot of funny stuff like How I Met Your Mother. I do not like Friends, unfortunately. I’m into business as well, like in the sense that I love reading a lot of journals on business.
I want to do things that fulfill me because I know the kind of individual I am, and I feel like I’m at my maximum when I’m actually doing things that are fulfilling for me, when I’m actually fighting for causes I truly believe in. I bought my first canvas, tried it out. I bought two canvases, and I did rubbish. I was still learning, still researching. At the beginning it was more about just learning, it was more about just pouring myself into what I wanted to do. The more I did that, the more I got fascinated by what art is and what it could be.
What was also interesting, was that during the whole period of me learning, I never came across Black artists; I never came across artists that look like me because of the works that are shown. The more you click, the more of the rabbit hole you go down. I just found that the moment I came across Basquiat, there was just this connection to the work that made me also realize that [the connection] is deeper than words. Visual art is deeper than words. There are many things that visuals can express that words can’t.
Every time you come across an artist who lives in Nigeria and who is trying to express themselves, there are different layers that affect his thinking of how he expresses himself. I’ve also encountered that. For example, you know the art institutions, they have expectations of the kinds of arts that should be created. The collectors, they have an expectation of arts if they are buying from a region or a country. I just felt it was such a strong ideology that it’s not allowing artists to truly express themselves. For example, if you’re into speakers, you should draw a speaker. If you’re into action figures, you should draw action figures. It doesn’t have to be so drenched in culture and heritage. It’s a choice for each and every individual, and I found that there’s that constraint a lot with artists from Nigeria. With galleries I approached, it was like, 'Your art is not African enough'.
In essence, “Neo Africa” stands for the idea that Africa is not one thing. Africa is not one experience. Africa is not one package. It’s not just like someone in a pink jacket and he’s Black. That’s not what it is. Neo Africa is an ideology of the lived reality of who you are as a Black person. Whatever you are, it’s about that true and honest expression of yourself. It’s about pushing it forward. It’s bigger than the expectations, and it’s more important that it’s about how you feel and what you want to see. It’s all about perspective. It’s just something that I try to make sure is relevant in my work and also relevant in the text around Neo Africa.
Nigeria actually has a space program. It’s a space program [created for] us to launch a rocket by 2030. On the day of the opening of my show, I found out that the University of Nigeria worked with one of the American institutions to launch a satellite that day. In that sense, the idea of that show was reflecting that we have problems in Nigeria, we have problems with our leadership. I think our main problem is with our leadership, and it stems down to the people. So I was just kind of speaking to the people saying that all these ideas are very important, but we need to remember it’s the things we do today. The way we are approaching the critical issues, the way we are approaching all these important things is very key for us to approach it better in order to change the future for Nigeria for our kids to come.
It’s just so interesting how we’ve gone from doing [art] by hand, to refining, refining, refining, and now we can do it in an hour, in two hours, in ten hours. And we can create gigantic things with this amazing technology. For me, I think it’s very important that we understand just what we have today. Art also has to evolve, has to grow, has to push boundaries. Art and science have always been in contention against each other because you need the freedom of the artist and the radical approach, or the fine-tuning of the scientist to come together, to innovate.
I feel like the reason why Nigerians resonate with my work so well is because I think they are also of the thinking, yes, we want to be reflected in this way because we see ourselves this way. We see ourselves with so much pride. We see ourselves with so much talent. We see people leave Nigeria and reach for the stars and touch the stars. It’s like we need this futuristic vision for Nigeria because we need to normalize it. I think, for me, that was the confirmation. In the sense that, okay yes this is what I was actually trying to say without knowing but just with following the journey. I think Afrofuturism is very important to Africa. We’ve lived so long with this set of images. It’s just inspiring for a kid in Rwanda to see that there are robots in the hospital who are attending to people who might have COVID-19. That’s so cool. You don’t realize how much it changes the life of that individual.
It’s very important that we understand what we have and we use it to our advantage. When I approach sculpting, I’d rather approach it from the point of this is what I want to do, how can I sculpt it on the computer? How can I work with someone who is skilled at this software to develop the idea, and then after it’s developed, how can we use the most modern approach to printing, to sculpting, to fabrication, to create this piece. I think, for me, it works very well. I like to achieve [my ideas] very quickly. I’m not very patient, so I think I need a medium that just keeps me going.
Words by Paige Downie