The Symbiotic Relationship Between the Past and Future: Interview with Foluso Oguntoye
Foluso Oguntoye stands between his paintings
Foluso Oguntoye is an emerging Nigerian artist who has described his work as 'dark' but also as a 'celebration of the past and future'. While there are themes of darkness waiting to be recognised in Oguntoye's depictions of African clay vessels, there are also symbols of light. The vessels, typically painted dark brown, are adorned with flowers and fruits which suggests that despite the assumed tension between light and darkness, both elements can ultimately coexist.
Intrigued by Oguntoye's still life paintings, which were first displayed at the Manchester School of Art Degree Show in June 2016, I reached out to him to learn more about his creative methods, motivations, views on African art, and upcoming projects.
Still Life 3 – Pride and Humility (2016). Oil paint, oil pastel, acrylic paint, sawdust and coffee. © Foluso Oguntoye
DESOLA OLALEYE: When did you develop an interest in art? And when did you start creating your own art?
FOLUSO OGUNTOYE: I had always been interested in art as far as I can remember. It was always my thing, my everyday go-to activity which I was known for. My uncle was an artist and had his art all over the place, and my immediate and extended family were into the arts in general so the environment was an active encouragement that fed the flames. Then, I knew I already wanted to be an artist. I started creating my art as early as I can remember as well. I used to just draw a lot. A lot of women and other figures. I often used to make massive sand sculptures of women as well when rain fell. I drew in my school books, in all the sketchbooks and all the pencils and coloured pencils and markers and paints I was provided with by my mum. But I would say I started making my own real art when I got to sixth form and I started painting properly. That was when my voice started to develop and I felt to express and communicate relevant things outside of myself and personal things.
DO: Which artists have inspired your art? What aspects of their work are you drawn to, and how does this influence your own art (if it does)?
FO: Artists who have inspired my art include Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Magdalene Odundo, Wangechi Mutu, Sara Golish, the unknown ancient traditional African artists and a few specific others. I’m drawn to how they represent the black-African body, identity, and diaspora and the conversation that takes place. They do something other than just painting a black person, but they do it in very different, striking ways that communicates effectively. I would also say that God is an artist that inspires my work; the nature, the people, the design and order of life, His ideas; everything is everything. I will stop at that.
Still Life 6 – Festival, Fertility, Love (2016). Oil paint, oil pastel, acrylic paint, sawdust and coffee. © Foluso Oguntoye
DO: What does “African art” mean to you?
FO: Oh gosh. I would just say African art is art of any form and style that is about Africa, Africans, African life – past and present, future. That’s all.
DO: Do you think the prefix “African” is necessary for describing this kind of art? Is art not, ultimately, art?
FO: Hmm. Well, without falling into the whole talk and debate of African art and authenticity and the history of “Art” and what it was before, to get my point across, I will say yes. Even though the label “African Art” can tend to come with certain ideas, images and stereotypes of what it should be. But call my art African art or rather contemporary African art because it reflects a part of Africa, my part of Africa, where I come from, presented in a different way and addressing certain issues to do with Africa and African people. I am African, born and raised in Nigeria. My art is my identity. I can’t separate it. I cannot give of what I don’t have or what I cannot see.
On the side, there is also more of a universal theme to it. Is art not ultimately art? I would say yes, art is art because we all operate within the same system and institution, and all arts of the world – though different – should be regarded equally and some not seen as “other”. That may be why I can’t just say art is art. But that is how it seems to be with (Western) Art and the “other” arts, as well as the people. Whiteness, Westernness and everything that comes with it seems to be the norm, while “other” arts are perceived as very different, exotic, oriental and so on – labelled. Things may be changing but we might as well embrace that otherness and ride that train to exhaustion till the “other” art and people become a norm. Arts of different people, and cultures and of different times have served and continue to serve different purposes and people. So, sometimes art isn’t just always art. Art should be deeper than that. It just being ultimately art seems like a bit of a dead end. I don’t know. I’m trying to find a way round it. Art is even a bit of a touchy subject to talk about. Sorry, I think I went on a bit of a tangent. Not even sure if and how well I answered your question.
Still Life 5 (2016). Oil paint, oil pastel, acrylic paint, sawdust and coffee. © Foluso Oguntoye
DO: So, you recently displayed a collection of paintings at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Fine Art Degree Show. These are striking paintings which involve interesting depictions of African clay vessels. What does this collection symbolise? What is the story behind it?
FO: Yes. The story behind it is nostalgia. Nostalgia for my longing and yearning for home and a lost, simple way of life and identity, a sort of paradise. The vessels which are a key element in my body of work, allude to earlier societies when life appeared less complex and more in touch with the forces of the earth and God. It involves the integration of two different traditions and cultures (which are Western still life and African way of life and aesthetics) with a history to re-imagine, re-contextualize and evoke visions, memories and myths of the Pre-colonial African past. It is also a celebration of the past and future as well as a mourning of the loss of a past way of life.
My art is about going back to old, traditional, cultural ways, values, nature, the earth, God and spirituality. It is an ode to the trueness, purity, simplicity and authenticity of life and being, as compared to the complex, broken, toxic times which we now live in where nothing is everything and everything is nothing. My art is a reaction to the displacement of people and their identity, of the spirit and body, disconnectedness from the earth, emptiness or voidness, discomfort, dissatisfaction, and yearning. My art is an act of resistance and a projection of ideals and aspirations against the Postmodern world we live in. In my art Darkness and tropical palms have come to symbolize placelessness, memory, imagination, myth, mystery and uncertainty, and the latter; nostalgia for the lost, a paradise and eternal life.
DO: Should art be moral? Would you say that all art must have a message?
FO: Yes. All art must be moral. When something creative is birthed from an individual, regardless of whether it is a personal reflection or expression, observation or commentary about external circumstances and situations in our world, at the end of the day it should seek to benefit people in a way that would lead them aright, for good, to enrich and possibly enlighten our people and society’s way of life and outlook on life. Art should take us higher and give others more understanding. I won’t say my art is quite there yet, but as I said, I am trying to find a way round it, to communicate more effectively to people. I’m growing and learning.
Back to my point, artists should be like priests. Don’t think about a Catholic priest. A priest is a person chosen to represent others, stand in the gap, to seek higher knowledge and understanding and to render it accessible to others who may not have the means or strength so that they can also come up higher. All art must have a message. Art should be for the people to see, and to understand and to learn and know. It should just be about, as it is nowadays, an exploration of space, or the object or pushing the boundaries or idea of what a painting can be or looking into the possibilities of what canvas and stretcher can be and exploring the nature and materiality of the canvas or the paint, or paper etc. Not trying to throw shade at anyone but yes, all art must have a message – it must speak to the viewer, must be relevant to them, to the times we live in, our society, and it must be relatable to the viewer not distant or unreadable. Where can this art take me? What can it do for me? What can I know? What can I see? And beyond? I am speaking way beyond myself and my art now. Look at music artists for example, great people like Nina Simone and Fela Kuti – to name a few – sang about relevant things, real life, the times etc. I can’t shout.
Still Life 2 (2016). Oil paint, oil pastel, acrylic, sawdust and coffee. © Foluso Oguntoye
DO: So what’s next for Foluso Oguntoye?
FO: Now that I am done with education, I would love to go back to Lagos, Nigeria to continue life and my art practice but for now, before that, I will be here in the UK doing an agricultural apprenticeship for the next two years because that is also what I am passionate about and want to go into. So that’s a whole other different chapter in my life. We shall see. I have only just started. God will show me the way.
This interview was originally published on omokerin.wordpress.com in July 2016.