Leading contemporary painter Ebenezer Akinola well known for his large-scale portraits was born in 1968. He graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Painting from the University of Benin, Nigeria (1989). While at the university, Akinola was honoured with several awards including the; Fasuyi Art Prize for Best Student (1989); Departmental Prize Best Student (1989); and a scholarship for Best Student in painting in 300 level (1988). He has exhibited his work severally in Nigeria, United States and Europe and has also completed special commissions for numerous art institutions in Nigeria. In this interview, he talks about his passion for painting, as well as his increasing engagement with portraiture.
What influenced your decision to become an artist?
As far as I can remember I wanted to be an artist; I guess I was born thinking this way. My father also wanted to be an artist. He told me he was at St Andrew’s College, Oyo with one Grillo. My five siblings could have studied art successfully because we could all draw. Some of my cousins could draw too; one of them, Kunle Adegorioye is an artist resident in the U.K.
Your recent works shows an increasing engagement with portraiture. Do you share a personal relationship with your sitters or are they part of your daily existence?
Portraiture has always been a part of me. I used to do portrait commissions even while I was at secondary school.
Usually, I work with a theme in my head, and then I look for interesting people who can fit into my idea. Sometimes I have a personal relationship with them and at other times, they are just a part of my daily life.
Some of the portraits depict contorted faces in monumental proportions. Is there a reason for this, apart from creating greater visual impact?
Maybe that’s the reason why I paint more men. Men have more forms and contours. I like faces in which you can see more abstract forms. To me, it’s beyond the beauty of the face. I love faces that speak volumes. The eyes and dark skin are also points of interest. The larger the piece, the more the impact. Moreover, I am more comfortable with large pieces.
In many of your paintings, young children are often seen in procession, against empty backgrounds. What role does migration play in your works?
Generally, people including men and women, not only young children. The empty background is for two reasons; one is technical. Sometimes it’s better to focus on the essence, the positive space; it gives better visual impact. The second and more importantly, the background shows the “unknowingness”, of the so called journey. Questions will be asked like; where are they going? Migration is constant. Man cannot remain, he must move.
It is difficult to decipher their tribal affiliations as they often adorn oversized turbans and garments while bearing staffs and calabashes. Do they belong to a particular sect or religious group, or are these costumes a creation of your own?
They do not belong to any sect or have any religious affiliation. I wanted to create something African without tribal sentiments— something neutral. So I make my own costumes and culture by studying different cultures and borrowing from them. However, what is of deeper interest to me is the flow of garments.
Sometimes, I do not show the faces of the people but paint them from behind because as far as I’m concerned, cultural or facial identity is not important. These people could be anyone.
What cultures do you borrow from?
I’m influenced by cultures from all over Africa. For example, my turbans are borrowed from northern Nigeria while the wrappers are from the south. My wife who is from the same region, helps me tie them on my models.
Are these paintings a result of personal experiences of migration or a search for identity?
Like I said, they are our own story. Man is constantly moving; everything moves. To not move is against human existence. The solar system moves at great speed.
Where are the children coming from and where are they going?
Where the people are going is left for the viewer to decide or decipher.
You also work in a highly stylized manner. Please tell us more about this and what challenges or difficulties you have in expressing yourself in these two almost unrelated styles?
I worked more on stylized pieces some years back for survival, but soon realized I was more comfortable with figures and should be true to myself. However, I still do them sometimes.
Please explain your working methods and techniques?
I normally work around a theme. I make an initial composition then get models, costume them and take pictures. I tone my canvas with a neutral wash of oil paints before drawing. Next, I work fat on lean. I work with primary colours and I mix my secondary colours from those.
What new project are you embarking on in the nearest future?
I have a group exhibition coming soon and a joint one next year