Born in 1981, Nigerian artist Dotun Popoola holds a national diploma in painting and general arts from the Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State where he graduated as the best student (2004). Popoola would later earn a degree in sculpture as the overall best student from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He also holds a master’s degree in painting from the same institution (2014). Popoola presently works as a curator at the National Gallery of Arts, Osogbo and has executed several mural paintings in Osun State, as well as coordinated many workshops and seminars for orphanage homes and rehabilitation centres. His experiences also embrace stints at the Ara Studio, Lagos where he was a founding member and internationally at John Lopez Studios Lemmon, South Dakota where he completed a residency-training programme in hybrid sculptures.
You have achieved quite a reputation as a painter but suddenly strayed into sculpture. What inspired this change?
My training as an artist is dynamic. I received my first degree in sculpture from the Obafemi Awolowo University. I returned to do a master’s degree in painting because of my dissatisfaction and curiosity. This was possible because I had studied painting and general arts at Auchi Polytechnic, along with my exposure, having exhibited several paintings in different galleries. Coming to the Lagos with my first solo exhibition, I felt there should be a diffusion, a hybrid of art, which blends my painting, and sculpture together. However, I am exhibiting sculptures, as it’s my first major discipline, so it isn’t that I just deviated into sculpture; exhibiting paintings is just my passion. The recent sculptures I am exhibiting have a touch of colour on them, and that is one of the elements that make them hybrid.
What inspired the body of work for your forthcoming exhibition Irin Ajo?
I travelled to the United States to do a residency-training programme in hybrid sculptures. With my training as a welder and a sculptor, I saw a need to show people a side of me that they haven’t seen before. So I picked up junk from different mechanic workshops and began welding them together without even planning for an exhibition. Along the way, I felt I couldn’t show each separately so I began putting them together to showcase in Lagos. I have exhibited in New York, Florida and different parts of the United States, but it’s important to do an exhibition in Lagos.
How would you compare the reception of your art in Lagos to other parts of the world?
I think it’s the same because I did a show in the United States and had over six or seven thousand visitors— it was sold out. Imagine exhibiting 50 works and at the end of the show, selling all of them, as well as receiving commissions. The response here, due to online media and my strategies have been so crazy that it’s frightening. Artists are dominating social media, so the reaction is definitely serious. I think Nigeria is getting close in terms of awareness, and our status in the local and international markets is second to none.
Artists who usually work with found materials have a focus on environmental sustainability. Do you share the same intentions?
Directly or indirectly, most of my works tend towards that direction, but I do not really expatiate on that. I call it a hybrid sculpture because I combine natural junk with carefully controlled moulded sculpture and metal. So, it is not just the waste, because if you fuse only the waste what you get is static junk. I try to fuse much more with it.
Why the fascination with horses?
I have a friend in the United States who trained me in metal sculpture. He is a hybrid welder, so I went for a residency similar to an apprenticeship. As a cowboy, he grew up on a ranch and being an apprentice, I had to do everything they did, so I rode horses with them, branded, used the horses for trail and went for rodeos. During that process, I created several studies of the anatomy of the horse. You can’t be with a horse for 6 months without knowing all the forms, tendons, muscles and expressions, which all differ. As a sculptor, when I make a horse, I consider the breed of the horse whether it is African, quarter, rodeo or polo. During my time there, I was able to learn a lot about horses and do several drawings. I also saw horses as man’s best friend, followed by dogs, and you’ll see both of these animals in my exhibition. These are the two outstanding pieces in my exhibition. The other works are complementary to these two pieces. For me, the love of horses is like love in Christ.
Where do you source your materials from, are they from your immediate environment, or do you have to travel far?
Most of my materials are sourced from my immediate environment. My dad is a mechanic so most of the time I go to his workshop to pick up all the scrap irons, as well as some parts they change from cars. It is more like a tribute to my dad; he is still working at about 75 years old including rewiring. I also discovered that the guys that melt metal pieces don’t just allow people take junk, so I had to start buying from them. Some of the bronze pieces hidden in my works are carefully moulded. Buying allows me to select the best pieces and colours I need. I have some works that have dominant colours of orange, and blue. So, you’ll see the harmony in them. It’s not like they were painted, I was just able to carefully select them. Sometimes, I employ my experience as a master painter to mix in Auto Base (car paint), a particular colour of a piece of junk, and paint the others. There is a feeling of vibrant colours in junk, which allows me create a realistic and appealing effect and not just careless junk.
What are your expectations for the exhibition?
I only want to see how people react to it. I know that it’s going to be sold out. My expectations are that people have fun, relate with the works, take pictures, post online and get it trending. I also know that the works will probably create a paradigm shift in how junk is assembled and how sculptures are made here because several factors affect the assemblage of junk. This might be another level or shift for upcoming sculptors to get inspired, think ahead and see how people out there think outside the box. We’ve been used to assembling by just putting one or two things together, but now it’s about hybridity, assembling junk and seeking other ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and putting them together to create stunning sculptures. Those are my expectations, I am not so keen on sales because in my mind, due to the reactions I have seen, all the works are sold. Many people are fighting for the horse, dog, and chicken. I also have a sculpture of Fela with a double bass guitar. I have about 6 major pieces from a total of 15 works. I don’t believe in quantity but quality. The works are few, but to me they are good.