born in Lagos, Nigeria
lives and works in Houston Texas, USA
2009 - 2013
Study at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf
Master Student under Prof. Rita McBride
2007 - 2009
Guest Student at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Prof. Tal R
2000 - 2006
School of Art Design and Printing, Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, Nigeria
Art X Lagos with Galerie Voss, Düsseldorf, D
The Bert Long, Jr. Gallery, Houston Texas, USA
Contemporary Portrait Exhibition, LHUCA Lubbock Texas, USA
Gruppeneffekt (Group Effect) NRW. Bank Duesseldorf, D
ITK goes ART, Muenchner Haus der Kunst, München, D
Goethe Institut Düsseldorf, D
An Insurrection of the Inconspicuous
On the Painting of Idowu Oluwaseun
The artist Idowu Oluwaseun was born in Lagos in 1982 and lives today in Houston, Texas; he initially studied at the School of Art, Design and Printing of Yaba College of Technology in Lagos and then under Rita McBride at the Arts Academy of Düsseldorf. His paintings convey a magically charged, sometimes even mysterious atmosphere, although he is no surrealist with a proclivity for the magical like René Magritte, but rather a passionate realist with
a certain predilection for details. Working from his own photographs, he does not simply content himself with making paintings look like photographs. Rather, he emphasizes their photographic effect, this strange “as if”. Indeed, although their similarity to photographs is so striking, it remains evident, that here, the painter is masterfully and subtly reproducing in paint photos in such a way that the pictures produced in the process can at the end indeed be viewed as comprehensive paintings. Here, a painter virtually simulates a photographer in a perfect way, yet at the same time deviates from the template. On the one hand, this has to do with his assertion of verisimilitude. On the other hand, it has to do with the fact that he is concerned with representing a moment and not a lengthier period of time. As a painter who dives into the wealth of nuances of photography, in order to come just as close to them as possible, he consequently insists upon the perspective of his medium. This means he wants to emphasize that his pictures refer to a reality and do not create any fictions. Subtly oscillating between the two mediums, he so awakens the paradoxical appearance that what is painted is photographed and real. At the same time, he says everything is painted, implying he required more time for the depiction than the photographer did to take the picture. He lets us linger in this intermediate zone. Precisely due to this, the moment captured by him gains a meaning cut out from the indifferent flow of time. He highlights them through painting by employing accents that be similarly emphasized in photography. All this forces us visitors to involuntarily ask, why is this moment captured? What is it referring to and what does it contain? What significance is ascribed to what is displayed? As a start, his genre is portraits of people from his Nigerian homeland, men as well as women, all of them young in age. The way in which he paints portraits of people is reminiscent of the style of portraiture of African photographers, especially Malian Seydou Keïta, who was born in 1923 in Bamako and died in Paris in 2001. Idowu invokes his work as a source of inspiration, and, sure enough, the parallels are noticeable. Keïta also had his models pose in front of the camera in his studio with their possessions or accessories like radios, clocks or motor scooters. With him, they too wear African outfits. Idowu adopted this idea. Yet in contrast to the people portrayed by Keïta, whose faces touch us emotionally and allow us to sense their psychological conditions and living situations, Idowu primarily shows bodies in their entire beauty but without any physiognomy. By concealing either part or all of the heads of his models with patterned cloths, so that only their noses and mouths peak out, he lends them a protective anonymity from any questioning. To the extent that he blends out everything we ordinarily associate with portraits, we can speak here in a certain way of an anti-portrait. Neither names are named nor are characteristics enumerated. In this way, it is impossible to gaze behind the outer appearance. Thus, we are prevented from forming a concrete image of the models. The facelessness is the idea, to the extent that reading traces of a life into the faces is not just pushed into the background, but rather limits are intentionally set on doing so. According to Idowu, “the faces are consciously covered in order to protect the bearers of my message. And in order to show how faceless the minority is”. This information about his intentions lends another perspective to his portrayals of Yoruba, who pose like for a photo shoot, but not with the intention of highlighting their individuality. He has something else in mind. In fact, with the help of the portraits, he directs our attention to the global public’s ignorance about his country, which is the most populous on the African continent. He himself sees in the potential of the mass of the impoverished, suppressed by the political leaders of his homeland, a possible beacon of hope for humanity. His concern is the way Nigerians are perceived at home as well as among the diaspora in other nations, together with the hardship and uncertain living conditions of his compatriots - impoverished en masse and threatened with murder - who suffer greatly under the political circumstances. Yet he has created no pictures out of the desperate daily life of Nigerians.
What do we see then? In front of us two young men, onto whom the light falls from the left in such a way that half of their naked upper bodies are illuminated and shine, while the other half gradually darkens. One is wearing blue overalls, the other red jeans and has, in addition, a black suitcase. Their upper bodies are painted so accurately, that we visualize nearly every pore on their skin, every sinew and every muscle. When the one whose face is turned in our direction positions himself directly in front of us, we are on the one hand reminded of the dark chapter of slavery, when bodies were eyed up and traded like wares. On the other hand, we gain the impression that people are being presented here, whose individuality and personality are consciously being withheld from us. The confounding omission of the face can be understood as a criticism of the lack of recognition and the disregard with which the world treats the culture and the life of the people of Nigeria. At the same time, the faces in the representation are left out so that they are not subjected to our gaze. A distance is erected as a safe area, sort of speak.
As the heads are covered up to the neck, neither eyes nor nose are visible, and no mouth or ears can be seen either. Those portrayed remain absolute mysteries for us viewers that cannot be solved. The only things that indicate that we are dealing with twins here are that their bodies are similar as well as that they are holding hands. Their head coverings differ in color and in pattern as a symbol that both are standing on the threshold where their previous shared life path divides.
This is not the only image of a set of twins that Idowu has painted a portrait of. That he occupies himself with twins has to do with the fact that Nigeria has the highest birthrate of fraternal twins in the world. They are presumed to be a gift from god and bring luck, are treated with affection, love and respect and their birth is welcomed as a good omen. However, in pre-colonial times, they were interpreted as a bad omen, drowned or left to die of exposure and their mothers were often killed because one suspected they had slept with two men. Even today, the people in Yorubaland, in the southwest of Nigeria, believe that twins have joint souls. If a twin brother or sister dies, the surviving child will be given a wooden figure at his or her side, in which the second half of the soul is meant to live on. Clothed like the twin, it is given food and taken to the market by the mother. The belief is that otherwise, the living twin could not survive.
In contrast to the twin brothers, whose faces are hidden, the heads of the twin sisters Idowu painted - their arms propped on an old radio and their hands gently touching - are not completely concealed. Our gaze falls on the area between their mouths and chins, especially their shining lips. Their firm sensuality is yet underlined through their fluttering shirts. oth wear black tank tops over smooth skin, as well as black necklaces and monochrome hijabs which conceal their hair, neck and ears as usual as well as their eyes. Their intimate bond can also be seen in the fact that one sister has placed her hand under the hip of the other one.
There is a special reason why the radio, which suggests a deep, soulful connection between the two women, appears as a prop not just here but also in other pictures like “Explicit Content” or “Mopelola”. Idowu has spoken about its cultural significance in conversation. “When I was growing up, my father played a lot of music which has stayed with me to this day. Through its inherent power, the radio became an object of respect. In my homeland there has been no military putsch which has not first been announced over the government- controlled radio. I always wondered about how good as well as bad power is inherent in this medium, like in the case of the Rwandan businessman Félicien Kabuga, who used his radio station to spark the genocide in Rwanda. But music is also a weapon of the future as well as also of progressives and, in addition, a giver of life. Great revolutionaries use music in order to convey positive messages. Like the saxophonist, bandleader and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died in Lagos in 1997. He battled colonial slavery with his Afro-Beat sound, which he described as ‘Colo mentality’. Similarly, for example in America, when the internet did not yet exist, the musicians LL Cool J or Run DMC communicated with their generation through the boombox.”
From here on the picture “The Collector” opens up to us. In front of us is a young man, whose head is so wrapped in a cloth that only his braided locks of hair poke out. With his legs crossed, he sits in a green armchair on a tiled floor in red jeans and with a naked upper body. His left arm leans on the seat back and his right arm is propped up on a nightstand. On it is a record player and hanging behind him on the wall, instead of posters, are LPs and record covers of King Sunny Adé, who combined traditional with pop music or Haruna Ishola who, forgoing Western instruments, cited Yoruba proverbs as well as Koran texts in his songs. The cover of Fela Anikulapo Kuti with an iron chain around his neck appears in the ornamental window sunk into the nightstand like a discrete homage. The life of Fela Kuti illustrates that music can be the emancipatory mouthpiece Idowu demonstrates his respect for. In his texts, he criticized the social systems in Africa deformed through colonization and condemned the dictatorial Nigerian military regime. In his album “Zombie”, released in 1976, he criticized the soldiers of the government as zombies. He represented a threat to the ruling class due to his popularity amongst the Nigerian population, his international recognition and the radicality of his song texts. That is why in 1977 around 1,000 soldiers set fire to his recording studio in Kalakuta. Kuti survived with a basal skull fracture. However, his 77-year-old mother died from her injuries. Out of protest, Kuti had her casket brought in front of the presidential palace of Olusegun Obsanjo. In 1981, he released the album “Coffin for Head of State” and fled to Ghana with his band.
The deeper we delve behind the ostensible surface of his paintings, the more it becomes apparent that with only a few references and accessories embedded as symbols in the pictures, Idowu alludes to events in Nigeria. In doing so, his commitment to music is informed by the spirit of hope.