NOV 11 - JAN 23  

OLAMILEKAN ABATAN

PATTERNS

THE RISE OF BLACK PORTRAITURE

BLAACKBOX is truly honored to introduce the recent work of up-and-coming Nigerian artist Olamilekan Abatan.


Within the ever more engaging Pan African effort to position contemporary Black Portraiture in the History of Art,

Abatan's work is a fresh take on issues of identity, social justice, and cultural heritage.



NOV 11 - JAN 23  

OLAMILEKAN ABATAN

PATTERNS

For his first solo show with the gallery, the up-and-coming Nigerian artist Olamilekan Abatan focuses on recent work exhibiting patterns. His approach to using geometric forms as a support for his hyper realistic black and white portraits, at times ostentatious, at times uncluttered, resides in a profound passion for popular “African” textiles and the history and symbolism they carry. Yet, beyond the colourful red and ochre leaves, or meandering indigo flowers, more sombre patterns are being displayed throughout his representations of seemingly classical portraiture. Celebrating black pride and social justice, Abatan uses contrast to highlight injustice and prejudice, while engaging in the global conversation on issues of cultural heritage, colonial history, identity, and gender.

 

 

 

We might be inclined to separate the four black and white striped background drawings from the bright coloured fabrics surrounding the other four compositions in this exhibition, while in essence they translate the same artistic approach.

 

If we look at the artist’s Self-Mugshot series (front & profile), we are immediately projected into the contemporary debate about American racial profiling, and the beating heart of the BLM movement. Outside of this direct reference to what is going on in the streets today, the recycled Hollywoodian mugshot iconography throws us back into the narratives of films like Fruitvale Station (2013) or Selma (2013), to name just two that were produced the same year, and tackled police brutality and systemic racism.

 

These four black and white personal portraits are matched by four very colourful compositions which also comment on contemporary ills. How They see Us (2021) is a representation of a silenced young generation, an all-too-common ailment of contemporary societies which are still governed by much older generations. With this composition, Abatan draws our attention to those who should speak out and contribute to thoughtful societal debate, no matter how progressive it may be. “Our younger generations must be heard, no matter what, no matter how they see us”, comments the artist.

 

The influence of Kehinde Wiley and his compositions celebrating black pride, or even JP Mika and his effervescent characters painted on floral fabrics may transpire softly in certain works on display, but the gravitas of Abatan’s recent portraits conveys a sense of urgency which is frontally unique. His technique is very different from the champions of Black Portraiture just mentioned, in that it relies on a contrasting combination of charcoal drawing on paper, which is then sublimed by cut and collaged pieces of popular Dutch wax fabrics.

 

Ronke Shonde (2020) uses a famous real case of domestic violence in Nigeria to comment on a growing shameful global injustice often exacerbated by the pandemic-time stay-at-home policies, whereby women have become the victims of increasing domestic violence. With this gripping portrait of the murdered middle-aged Nigerian banker about to remove her ring, comes a call to say enough is enough. Abuse always is repetitive by nature and returns with increased virulence. The contrast of the dark subject matter with the warm nurturing floral design makes for a explicit experience which leaves no one idle. Abatan calls on males to stop such behaviour, and on women to speak out, immediately: “What I know about domestic violence is that it happens the first time and you would wish, hope, in silence, that it was the last of it. But deep down, you know it only just started.

 

Abidemi (2020) is the mother of a friend of the artist. Abidemi is a name most found among Yoruba people, where it means Born When Father Not Present. This work is very personal and celebrates beauty, pride, and culture, as symbolized by the gold jewellery and traditional hairdo.

 

Abatan also gives place to more lightness in Ancestor during a Pandemic (2021), where a man wearing a bronze Ife head looks straight at us, wearing a disposable face mask, while rubbing his hands together (possibly with sanitizer). Set on a bright yellow Africanized fabric produced for the global market, the composition questions cultural heritage, and identity. Wax textiles, which have become emblematic of pop-African-cultures, are not of African origin. Invented in the Netherlands in the 1800s with the goal of mass reproducing Indonesian batiks, Dutch wax prints did not hit the mark in Indonesia because of their flawed prints. However, they found an unexpected market in the Gold Coast where their irregularities were seen as an asset, making the prints look more alive. Dutch wax prints then grew in popularity across West Africa and evolved with patterns and colours designed to speak to this new audience. Their use in contemporary African art thus serves the double narratives of cultural appropriation and colonial heritage. It is that very heritage that is reclaimed in this surrealist portrait, where the existential question of repatriation is raised by the representation of an Ife bronze head. Part of 18 copper alloy sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at Ife in Nigeria, the religious and former royal centre of the Yoruba people, Ife heads also symbolize the recognition of an ancient history of art in sub-Saharan Africa, something which was long denied by white supremacism until then. Restitution and repatriation negotiations are currently unfolding in many Western museums, so that Africans may build upon their own cultural heritage at home, instead of in former colonial museums abroad.

 

 

 

There is another pattern that can be observed in the most recent focus on Black Portraiture by artists from Africa and the Diaspora. While a new wave of Ghanaian artists has followed in the stellar trajectory of Amoko Boafo with its own very distinctive ensemble of artistic approaches to how black men and women are portrayed, there is a similar tide coming from Nigeria with rising stars like Peter Uka or Oluwole Omofemi. It is undeniable that frontrunners like Kehinde Wiley (USA/Nigeria), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (UK/Ghana), Toyin Ojih Odutola (Nigeria/USA), or Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Nigeria) have opened entirely new chapters for the genre that is portraiture, but one needs only to look beyond these two very prolific countries, at the work of Marc Padeu (Cameroon), Ocom Adonias (Uganda), or Nelson Makamo (South Africa) to note how one of the existential Pan African contemporary artistic concerns lies in the representation of black identity, claiming its long-delayed place in the canons of the History of Art, all the while activating a soft-powered conversation on the future of Africans and Afro-descendants in a globalized world.

 

 

 

 

 

Klaus Pas

November 2021