Oluwatobi Adewumi's "My Crown" courtesy ACANSA Gallery

Oluwatobi Adewumi, now a resident of McNeil (Columbia County), was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, to the Yoruba tribe. He began making art on a wager — one that resulted in his winning a national arts competition in high school, setting him on a steep path of artistic self-actualization. He is self-taught, and his influences are diverse: the croquis he grew up around in his mother’s fashion design studio, the frank self-portraiture of Rembrandt, the stark light of Caravaggio’s paintings. Among contemporary artists, Adewumi’s sources of inspiration include the Nigerian multimedia artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, the epic-scale pluralist painter Kehinde Wiley, and the Ivorian photographer Joana Choumali. 

In 2015, an arts residency in New York brought Adewumi to the United States. While traveling south for an exhibition of his work, he met the Arkansas native who would become his wife and would propel his move to McNeil, where he lives and works. An exhibition of his intimately scaled, mixed-media portraits was on view at ACANSA gallery through March 15. We talked with Adewumi in February and caught up with him again in late March to see how he was adjusting his artistic practice to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Was it easy for you to assimilate after the move to McNeil? Did you feel embraced?

A little bit. … When I came from Nigeria, I was getting used to New York. … I don’t like crowds, but I love the creative space in New York. … I was getting used to that kind of environment when I [met and] started talking to my wife. … I’m used to New York, and boom, I have to come here. … That was like starting over a third time. When I [eventually] moved here, it was like a double cultural shock.

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What was the most shocking thing when you arrived in New York?

It’s a big city where any dreams can happen. I’ve seen things happen — my friend got a gig with Beyonce. … He came from Nigeria in 2015 or ‘14, and he got a gig with Beyonce in 2016. … He did some [tribal] marks on Beyonce for the video “Sorry.” His name is Laolu Senbanjo; he’s a visual artist, but he’s more of a commercial artist right now. 

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New York is a place where if you do your work well, you don’t even have to hustle your way up — your work is gonna just speak [for itself]. … I met Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, Busta Rhymes. … You know when you meet people you listened to growing up? This is Swizz Beatz! This is Pusha T!” … In that kind of space, you can meet anybody anytime. Just do your work and let it go — it’s going to flow like that. So that’s what I was getting used to when I left [for McNeil]. … So right now it’s like starting all over again … in this Southern space, which is closed. … You get a lot of no’s. 

Do you find the slower pace of life here conducive to your artistic process?

I have a lot of work time. It’s hard because you have to do all of the thinking yourself. … Most of the time if I’m stuck I call a friend of mine in New York or back in Nigeria to discuss — that’s the way I get feedback. … Questioning and critique for me is a very powerful tool. You know, as a self-taught artist, you don’t get that. … Most of what I learned is from trial and error, from [my own] experiences. 

What was that self-taught process like?

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I read a lot about art and kept drawing. I did a lot of sketches. … I always had the goal to have more sketches than Van Gogh or Da Vinci. … I started doing a lot of art competitions, and that really sharpened my skills. The competitions really groomed me because I got a lot of no’s, and it pushed me to keep [honing my skills].

Were you focusing on portraits then?

Yes. … To me, portraits speak volumes, more than still lifes or landscapes. … A face just tells me a lot of stories. If you give me something to talk about — politics or economics — I will find a way to put a face on it. 

What were your formative years in Nigeria like?

I’m from Oyo State, but I moved from Oyo state to Lagos state. … So I’m in between [the two]. My childhood was a little bit of fun and a little bit of discipline — no one wants a child to be an artist. They want you to be a doctor or engineer — those white-collar jobs. … I wanted to study architecture, and I couldn’t get in. … So I ended up studying computer science. But throughout my first year [of studies], I told my parents to stop paying my tuition, and I paid my tuition … with my art. So my parents were like “Hmmmm.” They were like “Ooooo, how can he do that?” And I got some big time jobs. 

Can I ask you about your process? In viewing your work, I became interested in how the adornment happens in the negative space around the subject. You leave some of the most decorative spaces as just bare paper coming through. 

I didn’t want to take away anything from their [the subjects’] shine. I didn’t want anything to distract you. So I didn’t want to bring in too many colors; I just wanted to play with space, contrast — using the paper as light itself. … I want you to look at this and see the subject, not the background.

Are these people you know well? 

These are my people. Most of them are from Nigeria. … They’re friends or people I work with as models, but they are normal, everyday people. … I sit with them and get a little bit about their story, take some pictures, add some jewelry if I have to.

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courtesy ACANSA Gallery
Oluwatobi’s “Metal God” (2017)

I wanted the image to look like the old fighters [in Nigeria], and when they do this face painting, they’re ready to go to war. I wanted that same image — that’s why he’s looking so mean. Before we set it [the portrait] up, I was talking to him about how he likes to be portrayed. I told him what the work was about, and then we shot [the photos]. I did a sketch of him before all of this. So there’s a whole lot of work and process to get what you really want.

courtesy ACANSA Gallery
Oluwatobi’s “Illumination” (2017)

This one [above] is about illumination — being the light. It has to do with the mind. … and fighting what’s in your head. You have to be the light: there’s nobody that’s going to save you. The only thing that’s stopping us as humans is our [thoughts]. If you want to be big, or you want to be the light, you’re the only person stopping yourself. The only block is yourself. 

I want to ask you about the women you depict. It’s almost exclusively women in this show of portraiture, right?

Yeah, their faces, moods, gestures, just strike me a little bit more than male counterparts. So most of the time, I tend to lean towards the female rather than the male models. 

There’s a tendency in Western art history to seat women as objects of beauty. Are you following that trajectory of depicting women because they’ve been placed as signifiers of beauty, or because their voices are underrepresented?

I kind of lean towards beauty — to me, beauty carries more weight. Women have some kind of energy. … To me, they speak volumes more — beauty can be part of it … but I can speak about them in more ways than the male counterpart. [They’re] more expressive.

Will you talk a little bit about why scarification is a theme in your work?

When I was doing this body of work, I was thinking about some cultural practices and values that I left back in Nigeria. … I wanted to go back a little bit to talk about my history and open up some conversations about it.

The scarification/tribal marks series is [about] one of the core practices in Nigeria. It’s going out of date, but it’s a core practice for some of the ethnic groups in Nigeria. I was thinking about why they do it and how it started. Some say they do it for beauty; some say they do it to distinguish tribes. Some say it’s for a spiritual cause. … I think it started in [ancient] Egypt. … I don’t know what they thought about scars in terms of beauty. It’s an [open] question for me. … I’m not saying I’m against it, but when they scar the kids they are so young, so most of the time they don’t have their consent … and it’s there for them forever. 

Is it still a ceremonial process?

Yeah, kind of, they have special people who do it. But it’s fading [away] in the culture of Nigeria now. 

Is it something that certain classes participate in while others don’t?

It’s just like getting a tattoo or body piercing [here]. I found out that they used to do black tattoos, too — my grandma has some on her hands. Most of the time, they considered it to be in fashion, and if you don’t have a certain class or money, you won’t be able to do it. I think some families like to do it just to identify with a clan. 

It’s just like the hair [style] in that painting “My Crown.” It’s the kind of hair that normal people can’t afford to do. … It gives you some kind of class [marker]. 

How is life in Nigeria now?

Economically, it’s bad. The gap between the rich and the poor is so wide. … I think if politically Nigeria is upright and good — they do what that they have to do — Nigeria can be one of the best countries in the world.

One of the profound experiences I had when I was in West Africa, in Ghana, was that as I would be walking through my rural town, and everyone would be calling me obruni (“from beyond the horizon”) they’d say “obruni, come chop with me” they would always invite me to come eat with them. 

Africans like doing that. 

What is your relationship to Nigeria now?

That’s something I was thinking about when I was doing this series, too. There’s no way you can forge your future, determine who you’re going to be … without looking back. … You can’t pull it out of my history — I’m always connected.

Oluwatobi Adewumi’s “Doublesided” (2017)

Something that interested me when I was over there is that I saw some Southern food, like black-eyed peas and okra. Southern cuisine and West African cuisine are connected. 

And the strong spices. … The cultures are a little bit connected. I wanted to do a series comparing the South here to the South in Nigeria. … I’m still going to do that. 

I’m interested how some of those traditions came through the history of West Africa and the history of slavery. People in the Southern United States have these traditions now, and I don’t know if it’s even realized how much of our culture is rooted in West Africa.

If they study their history, they will know. They should know. Sometimes people ask me, “Where are you from? You talk different.” I say I’m from Nigeria, and [they] say, “[why] do you speak English?”. … They should know the history. … So I see some connections when it comes to both cultures. … I’m here to figure it out. … From living in different spaces, different worlds, you can see those connections. 

Are there any stereotypes about Nigeria or West Africa that you would like people to understand aren’t true?

That Africa is a country. That Africa is a place they see on TV. … [that] the kids have flies on them. … 

And there are some rich, stylish Nigerians. Nigerians are some of the most fashionable [people]. It is such a rich culture. Nigeria has something like 250 languages, and I only speak one. There are a lot of languages, a lot of ethnic groups, a lot of beautiful places. I think I’ve only been to 10 or 15 states in Nigeria, and we have 36. 

[What follows is a subsequent conversation with Adewumi, held on March 26, 2020.]

A lot has changed since our last conversation. Does anything about the pandemic reframe your artistic practice?

I work from home already. The effect it has had is that everyone is in panic mode. … It looks as if everyone wasn’t prepared, even the so-called developed nations. It looks as if we invested in other things rather than preserving ourselves, the environment, our future. 

Everyone is in shock. Corona has been around since 1963, but this is a new strain. It’s just sad that we were not prepared for it. But some countries are rising to the occasion and taking important steps. 

It has shifted my focus. It’s making me think about something besides what I was working on before. I don’t want to put it in any context yet, but it’s about being prepared for anything. It’s just a big lesson for everyone. 

Your work is intimate; has your studio practice changed since you are now unable to meet subjects in person? Will you continue making portraits?

I have two separate bodies of work that I haven’t touched that are abstract. They don’t have anything to do what’s going on right now. But it’s another side of me. Even if I can’t do a video call to see what a face looks like, I can still do other work. 

How are you dealing with the isolation?

You can’t go to the store much, but I have art supplies I can use for the rest of the year. I need to shoot reference images, but I can’t. So either I have to stop the portraits or come up with something new. 

Are you feeling panicked?

I don’t panic like that. I just tried to read more about the whole thing. I have two exhibitions in London; one was postponed, so they’re going to do a virtual exhibition. The other they’re still contemplating if they’re going to do it.

It’s more a state of uncertainty?

You have to take the day as it comes. If I can work, I will work. If I can’t, I just sketch.