Unravelling Olagunju’s Mind

(Episode 1)

Photography is a major form of expression widely engaged by youths around the world. With the form, young artists fascinate, educate and puzzle themselves by exploring personal experiences, immediate spaces and societal issues. This new generation of photographers, with the aid of modern technologies, mediums and platforms, have proved over time that there is no end to creative possibilities when with the camera: scopes in photography is now even wider, with a continuously increasing mix of topics and themes.

In the country’s recent past — after George Osodi shocked the world with his Oil Spillage photos from the Niger-Delta region of the country circa 2001— photography as an accessible and profitable art form has since maintained a vigorous upward trend, influencing all spheres of the society; from culture to religion to politics and even to individual identities.

Lately, a close friend started taking pictures. What was more intriguing to learn is that, already, he has established a subject to work with — although not unfamiliar, his topic is unique in quite a number of ways. Photography is that large-hearted; that diverse and varied as individual life experiences themselves can be. One can almost immediately find a voice when (s) he knows exactly what to look for behind the lenses.

But this piece is not about my friend’s photography — in my opinion, he still has a long way to go in his just-starting career. This is, however, for someone who has attained an artful status worth acknowledging in the field. This is about Deola Olagunju.

With such depth in mystery, myth, spirituality and aesthetics — inspired mostly by her personal life experiences (which the artist doesn’t hesitate to tell in public spaces) — , Deola has created an oeuvre of enigmatic force and ardor that, in many years to come, we might still find ourselves contending with.

After a degree in Fine Art and a stint as Graphic Artist in a couple of Advertising Agencies in Lagos, Olagunju plunges into freelancing in photography. Her style as a performance artist in her photography has since earned her various awards in and outside the country. This is to take a glance — if truly it is possible to take a glance at Olagunju’s works without falling into deep reflection — and try to unravel the artist’s mind.

Unlike most of her contemporaries, Olagunju takes a not too glamorous abstractional path in most of her works: themes around fate, spirituality, death, healing and memory. Perhaps because these are experiences with the most indelible imprints in the course of her own sojourn through life. Perhaps out of share curiosity.

“Life is a journey”, she says in one of her interviews during a residency in Kenya, “and we learn through it.” In another statement on her work EVOLVE, she says she desires to use her art to uncover the truth about self and the world at large.

But no matter how dedicated our studentship to life is, human beings, weigh down by the heavy hands of mortality, will never have the ideas surrounding these themes as clear as they have, say, ideas around love, material wealth or happiness. And this, in summary, is why Olagunju remains one of the most important artists in this part of the world: her bold, uncomfortable and unconventional conception that such themes can be engaged and given artistic interpretations, and that by so doing humanity can further be enriched in its quest to living a fulfilled life. She is defiant in handling these themes as though wrestling the ephemerality of life itself. What should humans do with fate? Can we understand death? Is there an alternate life? How should we relate to memory? Can we master the ‘art’ of healing? –such shrouded elusive experiences tickling over every one of us like a time bomb, waiting to catch us where there won’t be any more place to turn. Should we just sit back and wait for these riddles to play on our weaknesses? Or can we, in our helplessness as humans, influence their effects on us. These questions are what make Olagunju interesting to discuss.

In one of her collections, an exhibition made in 2013 titled RESURGENCE: A MANIFESTO, even with cutlines around socio-religion and political decadence in Africa, the project — which are all in black-and-white images, featuring the artist in an old, solitary and disuse locomotive site — are promulgated through personal narrative of discovery, determination and escapades. Although the site — a grounded locomotive station, overgrown fields and abandoned rooms filled with old items — might be an exemplar of the African socio-economic state, with the artist personifying Africa (Nigeria, in particular), what we have is a single soul finding a way out of a cul-de-sac.

RESURGENCE: A MANIFESTO consists of 13 photos:

DREAMLAND 1908 is the artist asleep. A light is thrown over her, illumination from a source hardly reaching the edges of the image. Two monstrous engines, towering over her, are also at rest. She is oblivion of her surroundings; oblivion of all the awaiting challenges. As a far as I can tell, this sleep could be a dream; could be a fetus resting in a woman’s womb; could be a place with no human stain just yet; could even be a human going about living with total obliviousness of who (s)he really is.

BLOODLINE-BLOODLUST is the artist awake, sitting on a long petroleum tanker that has the inscription NNPC boldly on it. The artist herself carries a jerry-can filled with petrol on her head, the elixir to movement, to beginnings, to getting the journey of life underway. But there is still the problem of know-how. How exactly is power put to use after it’s been acquired?

EXCUSE ME has the artist squatting in front of a shack, reading a book of the same title. In the black-and-white image, the book is white and its whiteness looks as though to illuminate her face and her immediate surroundings. Knowledge is a prerequisite to consciousness, to freedom.

And then REVOLUTION has the artist hooded, with her face casting down while standing upright on one of the trains. On the face of the train is the graffiti REVOLUTION II emblazoned. This is a moment of realization, a moment of reflection; such spell of time one opens up at the bank of a sea or to the might of the sky; a moment of rebirth.

CAPTIVE MIND, BOOTLESS, TIME BOMB are series of actions taken when the state of consciousness has been reached; ways of fighting back and struggling to surmount loads of woes. In the images, the artist is anguished; weigh down with impossible quests the challenges of life. In Time Bomb she has the idea of time even if she can’t see it as it hangs behind her, just over her head. We all have a time frame on our heads, counting down irrespective of what we are; irrespective of what we have to weather through life’s storm.

And then there is calmness in WAITING FOR MANNA; calmness resulting from giving it all up. An inscription on a board reads: “sitting and waiting makes no person great.” But, ironically, that’s exactly what the artist is doing: standing on a wooden tray, a rosary laced her neck, with a posture signifying total submission; waiting, hoping — the only weapon left in the arsenal of a common man facing a quagmire.

Waiting could in itself be the end of the narrative. For many, life starts and ends while waiting. But one could be tired of waiting, thus SOJOURNER. In Sojourner, the artist is seen with a travelling luggage inside one of the broken trains. The train will never move, but she is in it anyways, ready to leave; wanting to leave. Or is she turning herself in as a part of the unending installation of woes engulfing life as she knows it; as Africa knows it? The expression on her face is that of sorrow, almost to tears.

The idea of leaving seems to have been cemented in IN TRANSIT, where the artist, for the first time in the series, features three other people. The image — which is the last in the series — has an aura not shared from the other images. Here, she is directly facing the camera with a confidence and a modest smile, as though catching the eyes that have been prying on her from the beginning of these experiences, the single eye that’s been there even before waking into awareness. And this has relaxed her to resolving on a part inevitable; a path everyone will eventually end up.

RESURGENCE: A MANIFESTO is not the most intriguing of Olagunju’s works. PATHS AND PATTERNS is even more convoluted with mysteries. There are several references to the Yoruba traditions and deities on their interpretations of life.

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