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David Olatoye: A Visual Artist Forging His Identity Through Pen and Canvas

David Olatoye: A Visual Artist Forging His Identity Through Pen and Canvas

David Olatoye - In Conversation with Afrocritik

“I believe every artist should have an identity, what would be seen in their work in the next fifty years.”_ David Olatoye.

By Deborah Ajilore 

The Nigerian-based contemporary artist, David Olatoye, creates hyper-stylised portraits with a digitised and ultra-modern edge in his chosen media; acrylic and pen. A native of Ogun State, but  born and bred in the brown roof city of Ibadan, Olatoye is one visual creative with a penchant for the written word. Since he launched his career professionally in 2020, he has risen through the ranks of emerging artists, which came on the back of completing his Bachelor of Fine Art degree at the highly regarded Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife, Nigeria.

A highly collectable contemporary artist, Olatoye’s work explores the concepts of reconstructed and idealised domestic scenes through a critical lens that examines his bittersweet childhood experiences and life expectations in traditional Nigerian society. Olatoye, being a positive and lovely soul, creates a bond between subject and environment, emulating filial piety and forging an emotional attachment between his subjects, himself, and the home life he dreams of.

It is inevitable that his lens on domesticity extends to the potency of women, an autobiographical stance, given the status of female family figures that exists in his culture and his own upbringing. In Olatoye’s recent works, he evolved by engaging male figures as well, in his words; “The male figures are a reflection of my current state of mind and interaction with my society.” In this interview, the artist shares his journey through taking up hiss art professional, opening up about the things and people who inspire him, and what he has in store for the future.

 To begin, at what point in your life did you decide to pursue art as a career?

I started pursuing art professionally as a career in 2020. I started art at an early stage of my life, around 2011 when I finished secondary school. I first learnt sign writing and from there, I went to a gallery to learn more about art. But, 2020 was my main year – when I had already gained some knowledge and I knew what I wanted to do. It was the year I convinced myself that I want to do art professionally. 

2011 to 2020 is a long time, and there’s a wide gap between before you considered art professionally. To you, what’s the difference between being just an artist and being a professional?

Anyone can draw. With the average understanding that we have of the art of drawing, it begins with a dot and ends with a dot. So far as you write every day, you can draw. And the normal name people call anyone who can draw is an artist. So everyone is an artist. But, doing it professionally is what makes you distinct. It is like a calling. It’s like knowing that this is what you can and have to do. It comes with storytelling and a message.

Thank you for explaining that. One of the things that makes your work stand out is your use of a pen. Why did you choose that medium?

Growing up, the pen was the medium I was most familiar with because it was affordable. I didn’t have money to buy other materials like paint, brushes, and so on. The only thing I could afford then was a pencil and pen, which  I was able to master very well. And because I had used it for a long time, it really gave me this mastery that made me confident about my skills. So when I started art professionally, the pen was that tool that I felt like I could add to whatever I wanted to do. My work shifted when I did art professionally. The use of my colour also changed, but I was able to stick to using a pen.

David Olatoye: A Visual Artist Forging His Identity Through Pen and Canvas - Afrocritik
David Olatoye working in his studio

That was inspiring, you using what you could afford at that time to create amazing works. So, what’s your process like whenever you want to start a new painting?

I believe that with advancement and growth, everything comes easy. Of course, every stage has its own task. In the past, I had to always sit on my works, whether it’s 5 or 10 feet, whenever I’m using a pen. I had to bend my back, switch off all the lights and work in the dark just to get details. But with growth, I think I’m able to work with normal light now, though not all the time. So, my process of starting a new painting now is not like before. Now, it’s just the normal priming of canvas, or I get a primed canvas, sketch on it, and start my work. The part of my work which I find really intriguing is the pen part, because that’s one of the places I pay so much attention to. I do give the other parts attention but the pen part takes priority because of the message of my work. The pattern is one of the things I preach in my work so it’s more like the main message in my work.

This means that you  pay more attention to the pen part of your work because of what it represents, which is your message and identity. Can you talk more about your message and identity?

I believe every artist should have an identity, what would be seen in their work in the next 50 years. How we can tell that this is the work of this particular person? Of course, some artists are spontaneous. But in this part of the world, when you don’t have an identity, you look like you’re not doing anything or you don’t know what you’re doing.  So artists need to know who they are and what they can do. 

When I just started, I could use any medium until I met Victor Ehikamenor [A veteran visual artist]. Mr Victor was like, “David, I know your work but something is still missing and that is something to connect everything together.” It wasn’t even about the storyline because then, I think I had a storyline that I was following. It was more of what they call an artistic language. It’s like, “What can you see in my work now that you will see years to come, and you will know that this is David Olatoye?” Back then, he gave me some instances of the kind of work I was doing.  I was doing the Diary series at the time and he asked me, what if it was just book spines that keeps appearing in my works so that when he sees my work years later, he can recognise it even without my signature. We have artists who don’t sign on their works. But once you see the work, you will recognise it. People like Kehinde Wiley don’t sign on their work. They have an artistic language that makes their works recognisable wherever in the world it gets to. 

That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to do with my work as well, which is the pattern I put on the skins of my subjects. I preach family and a sense of unity. This is something I grew up understanding while staying with my mother. This is one of the things I learnt from her. And these are the things I put in my work. But the place of the identity came when I was experimenting and exploring. And later on, I got to know that the style I use on my subjects’ faces originated from Owu Kingdom. It’s a facial mark that identifies the people of that tribe. I don’t know how I got to that part but I just know that it came to me and I used it. And I think to some extent, people will see that mark on my work and say, “This is David Olatoye’s work.”

David Olatoye: A Visual Artist Forging His Identity Through Pen and Canvas - Afrocritik
David Olatoye, Iya ni wura. Pen, acrylic, and fabric on canvas, 5ft by 4ft. Courtesy of the artist

Can you talk about instances of how your emotions have deeply influenced your works?

When I started all this work in 2020, I was just a dreamer. I just wanted to be something great. I wanted to rewrite my own story, my background. I wanted to be in that space where I’m comfortable and can give myself and my family a better life. The emotions that were tied to my work then was the knowledge I had about my family, living with my mom who was a single parent. So it was more of me painting ladies in my works because I’m familiar with my younger sisters and there was also the fact that we were hairy in my family. 

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I was painting the story of how I want things to change for me, of how I was growing into an independent person. The emotions back then pushed into that storyline. With growth and changes that came with it, those emotions changed. After I built my house and had my own family, things changed and this affected my work as well. I began to paint what I was closer to. It wasn’t like I deviated from my original story, but it was more like I was experiencing something else. The work of an artist is to document time for himself or his environment. My emotions changed from wanting a better life to having the better life because I’m living the better life already. 

If you ever have to start from scratch, what are the things you’ll do differently?

I believe we all start from scratch every time. When you learn a new lesson, you start again. So for me, I start from scratch all the time. Right from 2011, there was a way I used to draw and paint. In 2015, when I gained admission to the university, I changed, which is me starting from scratch. And in 2020, when I decided to become a professional artist, I still started from scratch.  Presently, the kind of work that I’m doing are things I’ve never done before. The things I would do if I was starting from scratch, knowing where I am now, would be to keep learning and getting better. Because no matter how long I paint, there have been thousands of painters. I can’t paint more than them. Like, when you check Da Vinci’s work of 500 years ago, you still get amazed at his mastery. You’ll be, “How did this man do this?” Come to talk of the ones in the present generation as well. They’re so many talented painters out there. The thing I wouldn’t do is to stop learning because you can’t even know your story without studying the people ahead of you. One of the ways I got to where I’m right now is by studying and reading. I did more than just painting. I looked at how they did it and got heard. It’s possible to tell your story and nobody notices you.

 This means that you learn a lot from studying people ahead of you. Can you mention some of these people?

Like I said earlier, I learn a lot from people ahead of me. It’s just like it’s said in this Yoruba proverb, “Ti ọmọ o ba ba itan, o ma ba arọba, arọba sí ní baba itan.” (If the child does not witness history, he will hear the folktales, and folktales is the father of history). One way or the other, you have to know your history. You have to know what you’re trying to do or talk about. And the best way to do that is from the people ahead of you because they’ve been through that stage you are presently in. Also, they’ve documented it. So it’s all there for you to tap into and find your way. 

One of the people that I really love is Njideka Akinyuli-Crosby. It will be my greatest achievement as an artist to have my works exhibited alongside Njideka. I also love Marcellina Akpotojor. Both of them talk about family and there’s this special way they create art and I feel connected to it. I study their storytelling and materials. Also, I study Victor Ehikamenor because he talks about Catholicism and the fabrics I use is connected to Catholicism. I study Ayoola Gbolahan. I love the way he tells his stories. I study David Hockney because I find the way he uses colour really amazing. There’s Yinka Shonibare too. There are so many I study, I can’t mention them all. I study people above me, on my level, and below.

David Olatoye, Days of no arguments, pen, fabric, acrylic on canvas, 5ft by 6ft. Courtesy of the artist
David Olatoye, Days of no arguments. Pen, fabric, acrylic on canvas, 5ft by 6ft. Courtesy of the artist

One thing I noticed from your IG page is your interest in collage. Is this something we should be expecting in your forthcoming body of work?

Right from time, I’ve been a big lover of collages, even though I’ve not started experimenting more on them. The only way that I infuse collage into my work is through fabrics.  I wish to go more into it because I remember when I was in secondary school and I was one of the few people who did Fine Art in the whole school. We were just three then who offered it for our final exams.  And my teacher used to say that I always find a way to glue pictures together for assignments. Back then, I didn’t know it was collage. Now I know what collage is. I love collage but I’ve not started experimenting with it the way I want. But I think I’m already gaining that artistic ground to do whatever I want to do in my work. With my current series, which I don’t have a title for yet, I’m experimenting on albinos. I’m just painting them, even though I don’t know why. I just had the feeling to do it. The only way I do collage right now is through the fabrics (Ankara) I add to my works. But there was a time that I was very inspired to print so many pictures and glue them together. And I think that opened a door in my heart for exploring collage. In no time, I believe I will explore more.

Deborah Ajilore is a Nigerian writer and photographer. Driven by a strong curiosity in art, she aspires to document African artists and their process of creating art. She tweets @deb_ajilore.

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