In 2018, a greatly impressed Emmanuel Macron shared a video in which he praised 11 year old Kareem Warris Olamilekan after he had drawn a very realistic image of the French president in just under two hours, during a visit to Fela Kuti’s New African Shrine. The media buzz it generated shot the young artist into international spotlight and into the arms of millions of admirers all over the world. Locally, Olamilekan’s talent placed him sky-high above many of his peers and made him, temporarily, a celebrity. Yet, his precocity aside, his ability is not unique on the Nigerian art scene.
A growing number of Nigerian artists have come to prominence for their incredible talent in producing incredibly lifelike artworks- a genre known as Hyperrealism. Some are at the forefront and are by-and-large social media-famous, including Oscar Ukonu, Arinze Stanley, Israel Fatola, and others.
It seems as if their success which is partly through their artworks going viral on social media, has inspired a whole generation of young artists all aiming for hyperrealism. Everywhere you turn on social there’s a new artist going hard at increasingly hyperreal artworks.
Mr. Abiodun Olaku is an internationally celebrated fine artist from Nigeria. He has been in the business of creating art expression for almost 4 decades. He is a respected member of the Society of Nigeria Artists (SNA); a founding member, inaugural vice-president and trustee of the Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA) as well as co-founder of Universal Studios of Art at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, which he describes as a beehive for creative minds to grow and explore beyond their foundational knowledge.
Famed for his highly-finished and detailed depictions of Nigeria’s cities and landscapes, Mr Olaku is widely considered one of the country’s most accomplished oil painters. He has asserted that while he is open to innovation and exploring new possiblities within the boundaries of established techniques, he does not allow emerging trends to interfere with his artistry.
We asked him to share his thoughts on the budding Nigerian Hyperrealism movement:
Your art style features some realism, what sets it apart from hyperrealism?
Well, as the word connotes, hyperrealism means it is almost beyond reality. It is virtually supreme expression of realistic rendition. It is at the top range of an attempt to capture reality. In some cases, it is even beyond photograph, although it is difficult to beat a machine.
I have tried over the years not to cocoon or trap myself in any kind of classification that is premised on any easy definition. I do not want my freedom to be tampered with but, the experts who research, critic and analyze the things we (artists) create can. My professional upbringing gave me the ability to fully express myself, be versatile and operate within a relatively wide range of expressions. So, I have developed these attributes from my education at Yaba College of Technology and the amount of knowledge I have acquired outside school although, I don’t like to be compartmentalized but, I have my motivation and inspiration from nature generally.
It is giving interpretation to those experiences as a human being. I like to talk about stories within the human experience and the imagined because sometimes, the artist could be a visionary or a prophet. Sometimes, within the elastic range of expressions I find my reason simply through realistic approach to the other end of the spectrum which is absolute abstraction. There’s so much ground to cover. Also, the type of story I want to tell will depend how I get my message across convincingly.
Art relies on natural intuition, after a while, the way you express your art becomes typical and it will have its own defining features so that your work can be identified.
Hyperrealism is unquestionable with the way it is done. Although, I have never tried to do hyperrealism because I have never felt the urge to express myself in that particular. I was taught by one of the world most renowned art critic, Prof. Yusuf Bello so I try to approach my work as a reverence to him. Sometimes, as young artists those years should tell a story of an artist trying to find himself.
A popular criticism of hyperrealism is that it leaves little space for artistic interpretations, that it simply presents objects as they are. Do you agree with this assessment?
That might be a little harsh but all the same, it might not be too far from the truth because from observation and research it was discovered that it is a kind of mode that relies on technical assistance a lot. We observed that the references that are used are almost slavishly deployed, utilized or copied leaving a bit of room for flexibility in terms of interpretation or conception. For those of us that were taught in other ways, we could get pictorial references, you could go on site to prepare sketches for your final composition but that’s why even photography is part of the artist equipment because sometimes you won’t be able to work on-site. Thanks to the advancement of technology, we have mobile phones to capture interesting scenes but the use and deployment by the artist is key.
If you give 10 artists one reference, that reference could be interpreted in 10 different ways depending on the temperament of the artist which determines the message he’s trying to pass and philosophy behind the work.
I’m not trying to ridicule what they do but, anyone that is into hyperrealism should try to add to their armory by practicing direct studies because, if you noticed that the majority of those who practice hyperrealism are mostly people who didn’t study art or had art as their field of study in the higher institution. They are people who are trying to express themselves following the intrinsic instinct within them. We (artist) went through on an average 5 grueling years in art school which gave us some experience that those that didn’t go would not know. In my school for example, you take life drawing classes from the first day in the school to the last in the school for 5 years. We deal with live models which makes you quite acquainted with the human anatomy and can manipulate the form however I wish. Some of them do not have this training and rely mostly on technical aid but we are dexterous, I can use technical aid, direct observation or from imagination because the rudiment is very deep and I was made to understand that every work of art you are creating under the umbrella of fine art. I know that art is the marriage of design and philosophy and under your design, the technical consideration includes the materials and how you use them and the philosophy is the message. Every art work is supposed to say something no matter how it was rendered. Art triggers the senses.
What do you think about the role of social media in giving prominence and validity to this hyperrealism? Are you happy about it?
My sentiment does not matter at this point, if I’m happy or not. It doesn’t really matter but I like to look at things through the positive. However it has favored this school of thought (hyperrealism), it has favored me also because it has offered everyone doing something positive within the art industry visibility. People can see what we are doing in this part of the world from every other part of the world and how it is evolving. It wasn’t like that in the past but technology has helped to open the space more. Hyperrealism is just one movement that has a following
For me, I like to think of it that it has empowered so many young people to find a vocation that is rewarding. You could also become an apprentice because hyperrealism is teachable. The one that is difficult is fine art, if you are not endowed naturally, you will struggle.
How has social media affected the art world?
Well, it has created more awareness, more businesses and platforms for people to engage in the intellect side of it. People can contact you and ask questions to dig beyond what they are seeing to understand the motivation behind it and amount of experience you have.
Also, it has helped in the critic of art. Because people can search more about anything you make. You can claim to be the best in your environment and it is discovered that it is not exactly so (laughs). An artist of a particular experience makes a claim, it can be verified by Google. Yes, it has given some value to art but the experts know how to go beyond what they see.
For every human enterprise, it has its good side, the bad and ugly too. Social media has helped to expose the criminalities and frauds in the art world. For example, this is not a title I’m proud of but, I am probably one of the foremost victims of art fraud in Nigeria. Every now and then I find my work being copied in Nigeria and aboard as well. Some do it unknowingly while some do it for criminal purposes to sell it as the original to shorten the process of recognition and relevance.
It opens people up to your work. At the beginning I use to be apprehensive of sharing my work but as the Yoruba adage would say “if you shut your eyes for the bad people to pass, you will not know when the good ones will pass too.” So I had to take the risk and expose my work. It is better to take the risk because you don’t know if you will meet someone that could help your career than being afraid of one criminal that the law could catch up with. There are laws in Nigeria that care of copyright issues in Nigeria, I had a cause to sue a company way back 1999 that bridged my copyright that was my first time in a federal high court for issues like that.
Next year, by God’s grace, will make it 40 years since I graduated from art school. I have been an artist all my life. I’m a co-founder of Universal Studios at the National Theatre. We train about 250-350 students each year from art school across the country which I believe is the only one of its kind in the country. It is a beehive of creatives and yet we get no relief from the government (chuckles). Some of our members were former students who have got married on the job and making steady progress in their lives. We are basically painters and sculptors.
Nigerian artists such as yourself have produced artworks of great merit and substance over the recent decades, crossing boundaries and setting high standards. Does the new surge of young Nigerian artist who are all about hyperrealism concern you, or does it make you happy?
That could be a misconception, I don’t think all young artist coming up today are all about hyperrealism. Yes, hyperrealism is a movement. It is coming as a strong wave in the ocean of activities but there are so many young artist who are expressing themselves in other manners too. I think the issue is the new interpretation of contemporary because the use of the word contemporary is a drive by the politicians within our space. Contemporary as defined by the dictionary is ambiguous but, now it is has been introduced into the art lexicon as something of a style and it has put a lot of pressure especially on the young impressionable minds that are coming out of the art schools. Unfortunately, some were not as prepared as we were. We were really taken through the furnace so I could defend whatever I created even as a young artist, I could defend my intentions without being bullied. Today, young artist come out and what they meet outside is that force that determines what they should follow. Hyperrealism is under the umbrella of this movement and it makes me wonder what’s so unique about hyperrealism that makes it so contemporary in nature that classical approach to art almost takes a back seat in everything.
I can name artists in my generation, before mine and after mine that have refused to take any dictation from anybody because the new bullies in the art industry are the curators. They are a very powerful element who determine so many things. Many young artists can’t stand up to them so they succumb to them and their shenanigans. No type of art is outdated. If there is a compulsion to research or experiment in a new form of expression, let it be from the artist himself not the curator but, unfortunately that’s how it is most of the time. You find young artists who just came out of school of an average of 5 years who have gone through serious training. The artwork they did before graduation, you won’t see any connection to what they are doing in the next one or two years. It should be a slow continuum, it is a marathon. I try to imprint in young artists that I interact with that it is not something you make overtime, you must serve and go through the process of self-discovery. As an artist, you should be able to explain and articulate the change in your style. Many artists today can’t explain their art because they don’t own it. They take a bit of this and join with a bit of that.
I have been invited by my alma mater to take up a lecturing job but I refused. I told them I don’t have the pile of certificate needed to lecture. I have a HND. I didn’t pursue a second degree because those that acquired their so-called master’s degree. I didn’t see how that additional degree impacted the work they produce. I never had the dream of acquiring a second degree, I just wanted to be an expert in my practice which has been acknowledged even beyond the shores of Nigeria of which I’m satisfied with although, it is still a journey in progress.
In the social media world of hyperrealist art, success is defined by if your art goes viral or not. Do you think this is a good and sustainable method of measuring success?
We have no control over it, social media is social media. Some people get their on high how many likes they get or how much their work trends. Those of us who operate more pragmatically, I have been a professional for almost 40 years now and I have earned my living through the practice of art so I know better much beyond the hype of social media. That should not be the value you are aiming for. Yes, there could be superficial value but, the people who pay know what they pay for. There’s perceived success and there’s real success. You could be a social media celebrity but it is different from what’s on ground. People who collect art, collect for many reasons which includes it being part of their estate meaning it is a form of investment too. They are not going to invest large sums of money solely based on internet hype.
What is true success for artist?
For me, I can define my own and everyone can define theirs.
For me, I think first and foremost it is fulfillment. Satisfaction gotten from something you really wanted to do not that you were forced to do it. There are people who are on jobs that there would probably wouldn’t do if they could find other ways to make an income. I was a cultural officer for about 6 and a half years earning salary and I walked away from it and resigned in 1989 because I felt I could find better fulfillment outside of it.
Secondly, earning enough income to take care of yourself as a young person and grow enough to start a family and settle down and take care of your responsibilities and obligations as a family man.
Third, how relevant are you to the society? Are you of any noteworthy work? Some people look at it from the point of financial enumeration which is good but that’s not all. We do not determine the value of what we do, it is something that builds up over time of which the value of your work is arrived at and there’s a consensus. It is not an overnight journey as I always stress. The art journey is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are lucky to have an unbroken length of practice and you find any kind of happiness and success in it. You should thank God especially in an environment like this that is out-rightly hostile to creative enterprise.
Classical art gets better and becomes more valuable over time. Do you think this new genre will experience this?
Well, I’m not a Nostradamus (laughs) so it is difficult for me to predict but, whatever I feel about hyperrealism, definitely there will be some that will stand the test of time. I think the ultimate test of any form of art is how long it can survive through different eras of human evolution and values. If it still represents and means something in different time eras. That is what I call timeless art. Can it be acknowledged as worthy?
I’m not with the school of thought that there’s no bad art. There is bad art as long as we can also agree that there are outstanding pieces. If we say an art is outstanding, on what merits? For everything good thing there is an opposite. If there’s something that borders on the line of genius that means there’s something at the other end. We can’t use that as an excuse to create appalling pieces, it is when it comes to visual art that people try to justify all kinds of nonsense. It has to be appealing to the senses. If you create something that causes confusion and you try to justify it in the name of freedom, I do not subscribe to that. Art is created by a consciousness. Sometimes it is instinctive, sometimes you have to prepare for it but if you say anything goes well, that’s their fundamental right to believe such an opinion but I don’t subscribe to that because even freedom should have its range. Total freedom can create anarchy. You don’t in your own freedom disturb another’s right. Freedom of expression should not defy rationality and logic or reason. Art is not senseless, that’s why the banana and duct tape was so controversial. That’s the new age madness which is tolerated in some circles. It is like the naked king that receives accolades for being very fashionable.
Do you have any advice for young Nigerians that wish to enter into the world of art as a practitioner?
Well, it is important to get prerequisite training whether formal or informal because some do not have the opportunity to attend art school that means you have to serve an apprenticeship because if you have raw talent, it needs to be nurtured and it is people who have more experience that can help you do that and understand the principles and formulae better. For example, if I ask you to define the principles of perspectives, you may never understand it if it is not broken down by a master. You might see it and even feel it but you won’t know how to make use of it when you want to create your own pieces so it is important to have grooming.
Mentorship is important which is what most young people don’t know. You don’t force mentorship on people. They have to be conceived enough that look, I need this thing because mentors are available but the younger ones are bold and confident. In fact, their confidence borders on overconfidence and sometimes, they think they don’t need these services that are available to them. Only an experienced person that tell you what lays ahead of a journey you are about to embark on. Apart from proper training, mentorship can make the journey more comfortable.
On behalf of the Nigerian youths, I want to thank you for standing with us during the #EndSARS protest. I saw on your instagram page that you made some pieces in solidarity to us.
(Laughs) Those pieces I posted are not new pieces, I had painted them a long time ago. Well, like I said artist are like prophets sometimes.