Nigerian Artist Affen Olusegun Ojo Celebrates Motherhood With “OMO ADÉRÓNKÉ“
Even at a young age, the parents of Nigerian artist Affen Olusegun Ojo recognized his budding creativity, prompting them to enrol him at a local art workshop. There, he discovered what a printing press was, how to cut stencils and print names on a T-shirt. But Ojo did not stop there. He went on to teach himself how to draw and paint by watching videos on YouTube.
To make a name for himself, he followed the trend for aspiring artists at the time, which was to paint famous faces and gift them the portraits afterwards. As a way to generate buzz, Ojo painted Nigerian musical artists such as Wizkid, Davido, Mayorkun and Don Jazzy. His plan worked and he began to garner attention and receive commissions. It was also the first time he got paid for his artwork, something he did not know was possible at the time.
As Ojo’s profile continued to grow, a friend encouraged him to keep going but not limit himself to just celebrities. He sought to start telling stories of his culture and where he comes from, which was when he began to search for his own point of view that would stand out from the crowded Instagram art space. The answer came to him a year later, after his mother passed away. While he and his sister were sorting through her belongings, they discovered a large bag full of her ankara fabrics that she had kept from many outings, occasions and ceremonious events popular in the Nigerian culture.
Ojo associated the fabrics with his Yoruba mother’s sense of style, which he recalls as being full of color, patterns and personality. He came across a picture of his mother that he wanted to recreate and incorporated one of the ankara fabrics in homage to her. Titled “Mama Africa”, it was the first piece in what would become his signature style. The subsequent post of the artwork was popular on Instagram, resulting in many of Ojo’s followers wanted to be “muses” for his vibrant paintings.
Nigerian artist Affen Olusegun Ojo
His work caught the eye of Swakara Atwell-Bennett, the founder of BetterShared, a global art marketplace for emerging artists from Africa and the diaspora. This led to one of Ojo’s first group exhibitions in the UK, where his work was able to reach an international network of clients and collectors.
Ojo’s first solo exhibition, titled “OMO ADÉRÓNKÉ” (which translates to “son of Adérónké”) in honor of his late mother, took place at the Angels and Muse art space in Lagos. Curated by Tiwa Adegbuyi, the exhibition features Ojo’s colorful paintings of muses such as model Adut Akech, in monochrome portraits accentuated with the vibrant patterns of the signature Ankara fabric. The body of work is a celebration of Black womanhood and African culture at large, the artist’s contribution to the wave of cultural pride that is currently flourishing on the continent.
The Folklore spoke with artist Affen Olusegun Ojo about his signature style, his duty to tell African stories and the purpose behind his work.
“Serving Melanin & Style”, 2021
“OMO ADÉRÓNKÉ” is your first solo exhibition. How does it feel to have your very own show?
I was scared at first. Because I’d previously only ever partaken in group shows and with other artists involved, their fans are also coming to see the show; they’re not just coming for me. But with this solo exhibition, it was just me and I was afraid no one would turn up! Even though the show was only for a few days, it was great. It went really well. The show has now gone virtual and it is online at Artsy until the end of the month.
Many of your paintings depict young people—children and young adults. Is that a deliberate choice that you made?
Yes, I can say that. When we were little, many of our parents wanted us to be doctors, lawyers or engineers; they choose our career paths for us. My parents were not like that. And what I’ve noticed now is that young people manage to go to school and still make time for who they really want to be, and this is something that inspires me. Despite what their parents want, and despite what’s going on around the world, the youth today are putting their passions first, they’re putting their countries on the map and representing where they come from. I think this should be reflected in my painting, so when I’m not telling my story, I’m telling theirs. For me, it’s almost a duty. I think our stories and experiences should be told by ourselves, not our parents.
“OMO ADÉRÓNKÉ”, 2021
Tell us about the “OMO ADÉRÓNKÉ” painting, which is a representation of you and your mother. Is the image based on a real memory or is it from your imagination?
The posture here is actually how my mom used to put me on her back whenever we went to the market to do the shopping. In the piece, you’ll notice the mother is wearing a pink hat—it represents cancer, because my mom died of breast cancer. The bag the boy is holding is the “Ghana must go” bag, which is how we would carry our goods home from the market. The clothing she’s wearing is how my mother would dress—a bold blouse with a mismatched skirt or wrapper. That’s what I grew up seeing and this piece is a way to depict it.
When people see your work, what do you hope they take away from it?
I want them to see a reflection of themselves. I want them to embrace who they are, the color of their skin, their background, their culture, their language and traditions. I believe this is who we are and if we can’t embrace this, then that means we’re living a lie. I should be able to go anywhere in the world, speaking my own language and not feel inferior because of it, but some people hide that part of their lives. I just want people to be able to love each other, love their culture and love themselves. At the end of the day, who we are is what really matters.
“I Am My Mother’s Son”, 2021
Finally, what do you have planned for 2022?
Actually, my plan was to have my first solo exhibition in the UK but because of the pandemic, that couldn’t happen. It was supposed to happen two years ago in 2020, really, but I’m actually glad that my first solo show was held in Lagos because this is where my career started. If I’m going to have my first solo show then it should be in Lagos.
I have some upcoming projects and shows later in the year, so I’ll be creating more pieces in the meantime. I keep learning and growing everyday, and I’ll keep telling my story, as well as others’.