Adébayo Bolaji is a London based artist. His paintings are colourful, figurative, deeply recognisable, and charged with a high dose of energy. The presence of Bolaji remains in each work, heavily rooted within the long, twisting lines he creates with acrylic paint and pencil. His library of rhythmic marks are combined to form densely layered surfaces. Weighty, light, fast, thick, thin, slow, block, heavy, soft – these are the ingredients that make up his compositions. He has such a visual language, that be it painting or sculpture, his use of shape speaks with the same voice.
So much more lies behind the surface of these canvases. Anyone who follows him on Instagram will see the breadth of his interests. Most people would be lucky to have one thing that they care about as much as Bolaji cares about art, however he is passionate about theatre, cinema, writing & filmmaking to name a few. I spoke to Bolaji about these interests, his work, and how he has been spending isolation.
Bolaji in his studio. Photograph: Amoroso Films
Please can you introduce yourself & your work:
In all honesty, I find introducing myself extremely hard to do. I think maybe that’s why I express myself through my work, as describing oneself or introducing myself is like putting a full stop at something that’s constantly changing. My gosh, what a pretentious answer, but it’s the truth!
Let’s let the work do the talking then! Firstly, I love the new sculptures, how did these come about?
Thank you. Frustration. I think, in what I do, I will hit a wall, and this wall is telling me to jump or breakthrough, or stay where you are and feel sorry for yourself. Well, I’m not going to do the latter so… I guess, I really like things to move, to feel like they are present. I have been wanting to do some sculpture and this isolation period has given more space to that. I really wanted it to feel like me though. And so, they started with doodling, lots of doodling that end up as designs and I build from there. Painting is at the helm of what I do in the sense that it’s a spring board, a platform that allows for other mediums to have a conversation with it. So hopefully they work as a cohesive whole.
You clearly have a connection with the medium of paint. Can you tell us about your pathway into it, am I right in thinking you are a self-taught artist and you initially trained as an actor?
Yes. Well, I used to draw a lot as a kid, cartoons, or images from comic cards and stuff like that. I always carried note pads around, but the kind of environment I grew up in, didn’t give any inner space to the idea that, being a virtual artist was even considerable yet at all possible. Other art forms, like music, yes… just about, but not art-art.
That said, I started in youth theatre, which led me into West End shows and after a strange detour as a lawyer, back again into drama school and acting professionally for some years. I didn’t have a bad career in the sense that I always worked and had good enough roles. The thing was, something was just missing, big time, and it revealed itself in the form of paint. I could seemingly be in control and express myself freely, execute my own visions. That’s definitely what painting and making my own work gives me… absolute freedom. I don’t think I ever had this as an actor because, I am essentially a tool for someone else’s idea regardless of how good I am, or how I interpret that. For my kind of personality, it was just too confining. I still feel actors are some of the best people to work with and I have the best life memories from being on stage. It was just not free enough for me.
I think the term self-taught can be deceiving because education takes many forms, to educate means to learn, the source of one’s learning is what we are differentiating. And it is not really coming from myself… I am just not attached to formal language or roots.
I say deceiving because, for some reason it also gives the connotation of one slightly lacking any formality. When the irony is, the forms that are being taught in formal education were not initially formal, by that I mean, it was first new to someone who went to experiment before it actually became formal.
I think what formal education allows for is the speed at which that information is passed on, since such information is already known. Also, it’s passing on the agreed upon idea, by which something is approached. Which I think is vital, even if you don’t agree with something, it does help to know what it is you do not agree with, which in turn amplifies your own voice and makes you sure of who you are. I’m digressing slightly but, in short, yes, I am self-taught. It works for me.
It’s completely true what you are saying, the first step is always on the artist to seek out education; be that from a university, online course, or immersing themselves in books, research, art galleries, however they choose. To this extent the term self-taught is meaningless. Your education however comes in many forms, and you have many strings to your bow including theatre directing. How do these extra creative outlets affect your artwork?
They help. I get bored very easily. But I also have an appreciation of these art forms. Meaning, I’m a fan. I love going to the theatre to watch, or look at paintings or go to the cinema just as a fan, not a critic. The last thing I want to do when I enter these different spaces is critique. I find that so exhausting. I want them to make me forget. I know how to be informed, I’ve been doing that my whole academic life. When I say escape, I don’t mean… numb entertainment. It can be political, provocative, whatever it is, it will lift me outside myself.
So they inspire me and make me want to get involved in the conversation too.
I use music, theatre, film, different materials as a way to get to an idea, so the idea will tell me what it needs. On the outside, we are putting them into categories, makes sense, I understand that. But, the idea will need what it needs. But again, because painting is my focus, the focus allows for freedom because wherever I decide to go, it will either compliment or challenge the focus. So it helps to have a focus… or better said, vision. What am I saying? I’m saying that, if you know what essentially it is you want to do or say, or at least have a feel for it.. this will guide where one goes, what mediums are used even if they are different, because the vision will always be at the helm. And people (because of the vision) will still feel grounded by what you’re doing and not lost. If that makes sense.
It does make sense, and perhaps what makes your paintings powerful is the wide-range of interests that they are composed of. The rate at which you make work is astounding; you get the feeling that works pour out of you, this is evidenced in your film The Line. Why do you think the works come out in this way?
Thank you, kind of you to say. Hmm, I think I seem to have this sense of rush or overwhelming feeling inside. At first it was because I was living a life that wasn’t me, not being myself and not being free, and then when I let go of those confinements, it all came pouring out.
But I think I am naturally curious… I think I am dissatisfied with all the answers I am getting. When I am making work, I am asking a question, I am searching for something new, something to give more sense to why we are who we are etc etc. The last piece gave me a piece of the puzzle or didn’t, in any case, I feel like it is speaking back to me. To have something speak back to you is life affirming… Why would I ever want to leave that space? That is a space I would want to stay in because as cheesy as it sounds, I make sense and so I want to keep making more sense and for things around me to make more sense, and the work is a by-product or rather an instrument of this conversation.
You’re all seeing an individual make work, that eventually is put into a gallery space, home, museum or wherever (if one is lucky), but on my side, it’s very different. I know I’m looking for something, I know I’m using the right tools, and I know I’ll finally stop when I’ve found it. It’s a bit more than just production, well, at least for me.
So one piece leads onto another and so on & so on. It’s as if ‘The Line’ continues not just through that one image but also invisibly through each of the works you’ve made. In terms of other inspirations, what are you reading at the moment?
A book called “The Cosmic Serpent” it’s about DNA and the origins of knowledge.
What artists inspire you?
Anyone with high discipline, larger than life vision, sincerity…. I am finding new people every day, not just the ones who are not alive anymore.
Bolaji in his studio. Photograph: Amoroso Films
How has life been since lockdown? Has your work been affected?
I’ve been lucky In the sense that, I have my health and have not lost any loved ones. It’s not been this way for many others, sadly.
I decided I wanted it to be very silent at first. So, different to what I was witnessing many others do, which felt like a kind of panic mode, high level work intensity. I just stopped. I thought, as long as I have a roof over my head and can put food in my mouth, I am going to use this time to look after myself. So that’s what I’ve done. Used it for personal development, the ones that are not immediately praiseworthy for people to see… so, the inner life stuff, nothing too deep, just taking it a bit easy, as I tend to go full-steam ahead. So for the first time in a long time, having nice long three hour walks, stuff like this has actually really cleared my mind. And then, after some time, I started going into the sculptures and luckily, working on a few commissions.
Constant making can be something that is hard to pull yourself away from when you feel pressure to be productive, it’s easy to forget this can come in many forms. Sometimes those periods of quiet can open up important space for new ideas. Lockdown provided a real moment of reflection, but it also put many projects on pause. Did you have any shows that had to be cancelled/postponed?
Yes. And I was so gutted. I was to be showing with my London gallery ( BEERS London) in New York, at Future Fairs. And I was also to be in South Africa in June, at The Melrose Gallery, but they were postponed. Future Fairs created some beautiful engagement online. But, I was still gutted I couldn’t show the work live.
The online projects were a really interesting evolution from the art world, but I’m looking forward to seeing work in the flesh. What’s coming up next that we can look out for?
In September I have my first solo show in Berlin, at Galerie Kremers. A great gallery, so chuffed with that. I’m also directing a dance film that premiers soon. The film is in response to the
Black Lives Matter movement. I will be dancing in the film with choreography by Nandi Bhebhe, who I met when I worked as an actor years ago with Kneehigh Theatre Company. What has happened has left a lot of people (mainly black friends of mine) exhausted, and simply put, tired of having to somehow explain our existence. I think I’m tired of unnecessary debates and discussions and so, the film is an expressive way of using another language to speak to concerns I and a lot of people are having.
Follow @adebayobolaji to stay up to date with projects, and for visual doses of his energetic work.