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          Ayotunde Ojo - A Glimpse Through an Opening
          Ayotunde Ojo and the aesthetic politics of Black rest

          1 Feb 2024 (6 min) read

          In the early days of the lockdown, amidst the global turmoil sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigerian artist Ayotunde Ojo faced a career-defining moment. Having left his job at a design firm in Lagos, Ojo – known for his hyper-realistic pencil drawings – turned to canvas and paint during this period of isolation. Alone in his studio, he began creating paintings, finding inspiration in his immediate environment and the introspective nature of the times.

          Ojo’s paintings, despite their scale, exude a quiet and restrained elegance. Figures lounge over furniture, capturing the stillness and reflection of the artist’s indoor isolation. In Reclining Man, a body in yellow rests its head against the wide back of a grey armchair, elbow crooked on a cushion, legs balanced on a wooden crate. The colours are muted, reminiscent of viewing the scenes through a hazy veil created by the Harmattan winds. These works, like a deep exhale, convey a sense of calm and contemplation.

          Ayotunde Ojo

          The artist, who recently completed a six-week stay at the GUILD Residency, found his subject in solitude: “I was alone. I didn't even have friends coming to see me. It was just me in my studio, with canvas and paint. So I started painting, making compositions with myself as the subject.” He finds significance in representations of repose and rest, drawing inspiration from conversations, experiences, and canonical works by artists such as Lucian Freud and Pierre Bonnard. His focus on figures at rest reflects on the pace of life and introspection.

          Ojo’s journey, from sketching on any loose sheet of paper he could find to becoming a painter during the pandemic, contains a twist. His uncle, who worked at a radio broadcasting company, also used to draw. “If you were to pick up a pencil and paper, you would be drawing all day,” the uncle would shout, “but if I were to ask you to tell the time, or do something useful…” His uncle saw drawing as an exercise in idleness. But it is this uncle who introduced Ayotunde to the arts, who encouraged him through support, and his own work.

          Ayoyunde Ojo - Powernap
          Ayotunde Ojo - Waiting

          This irony finds an echo in another broader one: the acknowledgment of the exclusion of Black artistic practices from the art world has prompted a moral reaction toward their inclusion. This sentiment is often expressed through the emphasis on the “importance” of their inclusion and has contributed to an anti-intellectual engagement with Black Portraiture. In the world of Black Portraiture, there is a heightened pressure to concentrate on the black body appearing in spaces where it once was absent.

          At the time of Ojo’s isolation, when he turned to the canvas for company and consort, the world erupted in protest and pain over the extra-judicial killing of George Floyd by a uniformed police officer. While large numbers of people bucked lockdown regulations to gather in resistance, the art world pushed works that responded to the moment.

          Arthur Jafa’s 2016 split-channel video work Love is the Message, and the Message is Death went viral. Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race were widely quoted. It appeared that there was a rush for institutions to position themselves in history. Companies published rushed press statements, urgently denouncing racism (or pretending to) and Black figuration gained even more of a foothold. Critics, however, observed an “anti-critical disposition” in response to the rising prominence of Black portraiture. The moment calls for a qualitative criticality.

          In her collection of critical essays, Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks engages in a rigorous interrogation of conventional narratives, advocating for alternative perspectives on Blackness, Black subjectivity, and whiteness. Central to her exploration is the concept of spectatorship, where she delves into the nuanced experiences of Blackness and Black individuals in various mediums such as literature, music, television, and notably, film.

          Ayotunde Ojo - A Glimspe Through an Opening
          Ayotunde Ojo - Reclining Man

          hooks’ writes: “For some time now the critical challenge for black folks has been to expand the discussion of race and representations beyond debates about good and bad imagery. Often what is thought to be good is merely a reaction against representations created by white people that were blatantly stereotypical. Currently, however, we are bombarded by black folks creating and marketing similar stereotypical images. It is not an issue of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The issue is really one of standpoint. From what political perspective do we dream, look, create, and take action?”

          It is the dreaming that concerns Ojo. The quiet allure and anxiety of speculation and possibility. Hazy, liminal spaces of becoming before things harden in the middle and crisp on the outside. The things that are allowed to manifest when the body and the mind are at rest. For the artist, the paintings are a call to pause. “It’s in contrast to the hustle and bustle of everyday activities,” he says. “I think these depictions offer a visual and emotional pause, something that can encourage reflection. A slowing down of things.”

          “I think about the dream space as a place where all information isn’t provided or clear enough,” Ojo elaborates. “One that leaves room for interpretation and speculation. A place where multiple realities coexist, familiar and unfamiliar, that move seamlessly without boundaries.”

          Ojo recently completed a six-week stay at the GUID Residency in Cape Town. Of late, he’s been approaching his paintings with a loosened grip on realism, shirking precision to create space for imagination. The paintings appear incomplete, but very resolved. In some places, the paint thins until the drawings underneath emerge. Light sepia strokes merge with fine graphite linework. A suggestion about the organisation of light and space. “What I’m trying to convey is a feeling, rather that exactitude,” says Ojo.

          Exploring rest as a call to action through inaction, Ojo's artwork poses the question: What constitutes rest within the context of Black existence ­– amidst upheaval, historical stereotypes of laziness, social inequity? What constitutes rest when the Black body has always been understood as both object and commodity? The phrase “stay woke”, in usage since the 30s, speaks to a conscientisation around issues of social justice. Recently, it has come to serve as shorthand for liberal ideas around identity politics. Repopularised by musicians Georgia Anne Muldrow and Erykah Badu, staying woke (awake) is tantamount to staying alive.

          In 2022, theologian Tricia Hersey, co-founder of The Nap Ministry, published her best-seller Rest Is Resistance to critical acclaim.The text sheds light on our complex relationship with rest and envisions a future where rest is revered. She challenges the notion that our value lies solely in productivity, especially within systems that exploit and dehumanise us. Instead, she posits rest as an act of resistance, reclaiming our inherent humanity and asserting our worthiness.

          Ojo's artistic oeuvre echoes these sentiments, delving into the intricate tapestry of human emotions and the profound dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Inspired by the subtleties of intimate moments and the nuanced language of gestures, his work transcends representation to suggest possibilities for a different future.

          The city of Cape Town has crept into his work, in a new series of multi-panel paintings completed during his stay at the GUILD Residency. “The studio space I created from had a wonderful and natural connection with my work in terms of the tone of colours that I’m currently exploring and I was able to feed off of this energy while I created,” he explains. “The residency in Cape Town was a great experience for me ­– networking and connecting with other creatives, discussing potential collaborations, gaining fresh perspectives and new experiences.”

          Selected works from this new series were included in Southern Guild’s presentation at the 2024 Investec Cape Town Art Fair, while earlier paintings will be shown in 'Mother Tongues', a group exhibition inaugurating the gallery’s new Los Angeles location, opening 22 February.

          Text by Lindokuhle Nkosi