Ibadan, Nigeria – Less than a year ago, a painting by Oluwole Omofemi hung, unprotected, at the side entrance of the gray concrete building where he maintains his two-room studio.
Just stepping up on one of Ibadan’s busiest streets, the young woman in the portrait takes a confident pose, her face surrounded by an afro-like halo. She was hanged but not obscured by hundreds of passersby.
Earlier this year, Omofemi removed the painting for safekeeping in his personal collection after similar works in his Metamorphosis series sold for more than 100,000 euros ($96,000) in stores. auctions at Phillips and Christie’s. In March 2022, Invader, a painting with an estimated value of $10,000 to $15,000, sold for $189,000.
Like the picture, until recently, Omofemi, 34, has been hiding in plain sight in one of Ibadan’s most dynamic malls, where he founded his current studio space in 2018.
“I want it to be quiet,” Omofemi told Al Jazeera. “I want to live a normal life that an ordinary citizen [would] direct.”
He recalls a moment at a party when people were discussing Nigerian artists and the topic turned to him.
“People say, ‘There’s this guy in Ibadan. This guy did this, did that, and I was just there, quiet,” he said. “A lot of collectors don’t even know me.”
But hopes of staying under Omofemi’s control are fading.
In April, the third solo show of his career opened at the Out of Africa Gallery in Barcelona, with all 10 paintings sold and a waiting list of 75 buyers. potential.
Now, collectors send emissaries to Omofemi’s Ibadan studio, hoping to entice him to sell his works directly.
In May, Tatler magazine commissioned Omofemi to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II for its July issue, to celebrate her platinum year, taking his profile to the next level. It may be her last picture before her death in early September.
Omofemi’s rise is drawing more attention to his hometown of Ibadan – Nigeria’s third largest city by population, with more than 6 million people, located about 140km (85 miles) northeast of Lagos .
While Ibadan is overshadowed by Lagos as Nigeria’s cultural powerhouse, its legacy as an incubator for many of Nigeria’s most famous artists and intellectuals has long predated Omofemi, and he is just one. among the many artists sparking a nascent creative revival in the city.
‘Dreams go beyond money’
Founded in Ibadan in 1961, the Mbari Club, with its gallery space, library and performance venue, is not only the artistic hub of the city but of Nigeria as a whole. Members include visual artist Bruce Onobrakpeya and young writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Now, Nigerian modern art giants Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko are all active members.
During the 1960s, Ibadan was Nigeria’s most populous city and an international destination. Malcolm X taught at the University of Ibadan in 1964. Visual artists, including Somali modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi and renowned American painter Jacob Lawrence, joined the creative exchange at the Club. Mbari.
When drummer and visual artist Tunde Odunlade moved from Ife to Ibadan in 1973, the city remained “a melting furnace where contemporary art flourished.” [in] Nigeria has taken off… there is no artist from Nigeria that has not surpassed Ibadan – music, visuals, dance”.
However, during his nearly 50 years in the city, Odunlade has seen the country’s arts center shift from Ibadan to Lagos.
“Lagos has become the commercial center of the country, and it is easy for art to get there,” says Odunlade.
However, Odunlade and others have sought to revive Ibadan’s art scene in recent years.
A renowned visual artist, he founded the Tunde Odunlade Arts and Culture Connexions in the Bodija district of Ibadan in December 2020. The gallery space is full of works, having showcased works by more than 80 artists. doctor since opening.
Equally notable is that it provides a welcoming and accessible venue for young culturalists interested in revitalizing Ibadan’s artistic energy for theatrical events, meetings and workshops.
“Ibadan’s past glories are returning, and I’m glad I’m part of the whole story,” Odunlade said.
“I am not surprised by what is happening in Ibadan today, especially with Oluwole Omofemi. I’m not surprised he lives in a peaceful environment where your inspiration won’t just disappear because of hullabaloo around you. “
About a 25-minute drive from central Odunlade, the administrative and factory headquarters of luxury handbag designer Femi Olyebi occupies two floors in an unmarked building in central Ibadan.
During her 30-year career, Olyebi was selected to the sales mentorship program at Saks 5th Avenue, completed a PhD at MIT and founded the Lagos Leather Fair, and successfully expanded her business. business she founded from her home into a team of dozens of employees.
At various points in her career, Olyebi recalls wondering, “If I had been in Lagos, would I have succeeded faster? Did I succeed earlier? At first I thought “yes”, but now I’m wiser, and I know that the answer is absolutely no. “
Olyebi feels “the tension of Lagos does not exist in Ibadan. Ibadan gives you the ability to be creative because you don’t have to sit in traffic for hours… And then there’s the fact that, in Lagos, there’s [the] the kind of space that I have, will cost me an absolute fortune. “
Like Olyebi, female painter Modupeola Fadugba has had many successes in her career. The former Smithsonian and recent New York Emmy Award winner in the Long-Term Content category for her short documentary Dreams from the Deep End, made a conscious choice to practice in Ibadan .
“I have always been a person who dislikes being in the center,” she explains. “But I can have access to it if and when I’m ready.”
Fadugba chose to settle in Ibadan. “It’s quiet, so I can think and have more space.”
Omofemi also considers Ibadan to be an integral part of his development.
“I am very sensitive to the things around me, both tangible and spiritual – very, very sensitive, and I take inspiration from everything I see.”
Although Omofemi was influenced by Ibadan, it was the challenges it presented that made him an international star.
Omofemi’s current studio is less than a 10-minute motorbike ride from the roadside kiosk, where he used to sell authorized portraits for the equivalent of $10 to $30, a life he’s pretty comfortable with. at that time.
All of that was interrupted in 2017 when the Oyo State Government launched a citywide campaign against street vending, forcing him to leave the location where he sold his art. products from when I was in middle school.
Ibadan painter and gallery owner Tope Fatunmbi encouraged Omofemi’s career while in high school, while respected painter Ebenezer Akinola was also an important mentor.
Although Omofemi was initially certain that his artistic career was over, Akinola began to introduce him and his work to established galleries.
“He took me to Lagos, and he introduced my painting to [Alexis] Galleries, and galleries are delighted to work with me. “
He has exhibited at Lagos headquarters, including Terra Kulture and Thought Pyramid, but it was the Signature Gallery that saw his work survive on the international market. They kicked off their London gallery opening with a solo show of Omofemi’s work in March 2020. 12 large-format portraits have sold out.
Today, the growing attention to his work has led to numerous offers from the world’s top auction houses to broker the sale of the Queen along with bidding wars for exclusive auction rights. for his other works.
Back in Ibadan, with up to 10 young apprentices in his studio at any given time, Omofemi remains dedicated to nurturing the city’s next generation of artistic talent.
“My thoughts, my dreams [are] other than just having money,” he asserted.
“I’ve spent most of my life here… I’ve always wanted to give back to the environment in my community. I don’t want to be an artist without impact. I want to be an artist who makes a mark in people’s lives.”