Dennis Osadebe: Meet the Nigerian artist visualizing Africa’s future by delving into the past

Written by Natalie Kainz, CNN

In Dennis Osadebe’s “Nigerian Dream”, two figures dressed in fuscia and mustard yellow stare at the painting. Their facial features are obscured by a traditional tribal mask and a futuristic space helmet. The piece parodies Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic”, but trades a rural farmhouse for a modern house and a pitchfork for an electric fan – a staple for beating the heat in Nigeria.

The 31-year-old Lagos-based artist wants to challenge assumptions about African art, visualizing the continent’s future by looking back to the past.

“I always want to use my art to educate people about Nigeria by making them realize that we are already looking to the future,” said Osadebe, whose work is part of the movement known as Afrofuturist art. combining African heritage with technology. “We are… sophisticated and complicated. [We] can participate in art at any level.”

“Nigerian Dream” is an example of “neo-African” art, a term Osadebe said he coined to describe work that rebels against stereotypes around African art. Her style has captivated audiences around the world and even won the approval of tennis champion Naomi Osaka.

Osadebe poses in front of “Knowledge Seeker” (2022), part of his series of self-portraits. Credit: Joseph “Butch” Sanni

Using surrealism and “post-pop” to transcend expectations

Instead of focusing on Nigeria’s shortcomings, Osadebe said, including inconsistent access to electricity and poor health care, her work celebrates the future by showcasing Africa’s potential.

Osadebe describes his art as “postmodern surrealism” and “post-pop”. His everyday scenes, anonymous faces, and images of common household objects are designed to help people visualize their lives in his art.

“When people look at this piece, I want them to think and ask themselves, ‘Do I see myself in this piece and why?'” Osadebe said. “I want to convey the feeling of us as human beings…having shared experiences [by celebrating] the most mundane and simple things.”

Research is the key to his artistic approach. He begins by identifying the features of existing images that excite him. He borrowed horses from Renaissance paintings, reverse perspective from David Hockney and the playful obstruction of faces from René Magritte. “It’s similar to collage in that sense,” he added.

In “Dismantle” (2021), a character dismantles an electric fan – a common item in Nigerian homes. Credit: Denis Osadebe

Then Osadebe starts building a digital image around this feature. When the digital rendering is finished, he prints it on canvas and paints it with acrylics. For him, combining digital and traditional media gives him creative freedom.

Capture a global audience

Osadebe said that art is about developing a visual language that transcends geographical boundaries – a “universal language that anyone can connect to”. His work has captivated gallery viewers around the world, including Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Miami, London and Hong Kong.

He said learning about people’s perspectives on his art fuels his confidence to create. At his first exhibition in Lagos – 2017’s “Remember the Future”, inspired by the Nigerian space program – he was nervous about his work. “I was like, what did I do? These are all cartoon characters,” Osadebe recalled.

This anxiety dissipated when he had a chat with the first person who entered the gallery. “He [said] “As a Nigerian, it’s something I needed to see – it was a perspective, a mode of representation, that made me feel and see my potential.” dialogue that he himself had struggled to put into words.

“Exercise Indoors” (2020) is part of a series of paintings by Osadebe featuring figures playing indoor tennis during the pandemic. He was inspired by his father, a tennis fan, trying to exercise at home. Credit: Denis Osadebe

More validation came from Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka. The four-time Grand Slam champion bought several pieces from Osadebe after meeting them in 2020. His management team contacted Osadebe, he said, and told him that Osaka was attracted to a painting of a woman sitting on a horse in a living room. .

“She was like ‘it evokes the energy I feel when I walk into a room,'” he said. Although he never spoke to Osaka directly, he assumes that she liked the play’s message about controlling her own narrative.

Last year, he painted a cover for a Racquet Magazine article about Osaka at his own request. It features a figure standing in a living room holding tennis equipment.

Turning heritage into inspiration

Osadebe’s references to his Nigerian heritage imbue his art with nostalgia. The tribal mask that often appears in his paintings is inspired by the official emblem of the second World Festival of Negro Arts and Culture – a replica of the royal ivory mask from Benin.

Osadebe grew up in Festac Town, the federal housing estate in Lagos designed in 1977 to house festival attendees. Although he lives in a place associated with the arts, he said there was not enough representation of young and trustworthy artists in Nigeria when he was growing up. “I never knew that [a career in art] was a possibility,” he added.

He is the first artist in his family. His father’s entrepreneurial career inspired Osadebe to study business management at Queen Mary University of London. He completed a Masters in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, before returning to Lagos to work for a finance company. He started painting to vent his frustrations, then realized he could turn his passion into a career.

“Composure” (2022) was part of Osadebe’s latest exhibition “MODERN MAGIC” at König London. It is part of a series of self-portraits that Osadebe said he painted in response to a growing demand for his work and the expectations that came with it. Credit: Denis Osadebe

Her personal journey as an artist has been part of the inspiration behind her recent series of self-portraits. In “Comsure” (2022), furniture, plants and paper swirl through the air of a living room. A figure stands still in front of the objects — calm amidst the chaos.

“I really wanted to reflect myself as an artist today [and] talk about my discoveries, my struggles, my frustrations,” Osadebe said. Under immense pressure, you are expected to keep your cool, he added.

For Osadebe, “optimism is essential”. It’s the phrase he uses when addressing serious themes in his art – like the long history of Nigeria’s military rule from the 1960s to the 1990s in “General (shoots fake gun)” or police brutality in the video game he designed called “Playful Rebellion.” He has stated that his art uses “optimism as a source of protest”.

Osadebe painted “General (shoots fake gun)” in 2019. He said the small Nigerian flag emerging from the barrel of the gun reflects the lack of progress by military leaders in taking the country to new heights. “For the leaders, the priority has never been to empower the people,” he said, adding that the book under the figure’s foot symbolizes education as a last priority. Credit: Denis Osadebe

This mentality fuels his continued experimentation with new mediums. He has already produced 3D sculptures and interactive graphic interfaces. While he couldn’t give spoilers yet, he said his upcoming series will celebrate Nigerian identity.

“With optimism, there is hope,” he explained. “This is what drives me to want to create, [to] try new mediums, because I feel like there are more possibilities.”

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