I recently saw Yisa’s work online www.yisagallery.com and was very intrigued by his abstract works which have great depth. I think his work is inspired and motivated by true purpose and search for meaning in life. We had a great chat about his origins in Nigeria, current life in Winnepeg, Canada and why art is so important to him.
MICHAEL: Hey Yisa, I love your mixed-media works, which we'll hopefully chat about in a moment. However, I wanted to start by asking you about a large, mosaic piece that you created called, "Peace and Purpose." I love the work and the name of the piece. What was your inspiration in creating it?
YISA: I thank you for your kind comments about my mixed-media paintings and mosaic works. Well, I have created a few mosaic works on commission in Lagos, Nigeria before I moved to Winnipeg, Canada. However, "Peace and Purpose" was initially created and installed on the front yard of my house for the pleasure of my family and for my lovely neighbours to enjoy. It was also a form of public art meant for those who would pass by our street to enjoy. On the day of the opening in 2007, I also exhibited my mixed-media paintings at my home studio for the neighbours and invited guests to view. In some ways, I used the event to introduce myself to the neighbourhood that I had just moved into in 2006. I used the event to inform my friends and art collectors of my relocation. To my surprise, neighbours and invited guests along with their friends and their families came. And the opening literally stopped traffic on the street as it was so busy. It was amazing! In short, what inspired me to create that mosaic was the huge wall space on the front of the house. And it was actually the wall space that motivated me to buy the house after I saw the house was for sale during a casual drive through the neighbourhood. I felt the layout of the house had an unusual design with a "blank canvas" in front. I chose the theme of "Peace and Purpose" because that was the appropriate message for the neighbourhood and the city from an immigrant that had recently been welcomed with love to the city. I'm glad that the message and the opening was well received. As you may be aware, I later donated the piece to Gupta Centre, Canadian Institute for The Blind, Winnipeg.
MICHAEL: Very cool. I also get a very strong sense of humanity and message in your abstract works. They're abstract in form, but I sense messages in them. What do you think?
YISA: My abstract works truly carry messages in them; whether personal or messages of social significance. I think this is what remains from my earlier discipline. When I was creating mostly figurative art, I used my work to convey my thoughts about social, military and political issues while in Nigeria. Now as I create in abstract, I symbolize human narratives in the form of shapes and forms in my work. For example in my paintings, 'If I Were A Circle' and 'Explorers,’ I engaged in human narratives. What is personal and really significant about my abstracts is that I'm able to express in a technique that is uniquely innovative. I do not only rely on the emotion of colours. Because of the diverse and competitive nature of the abstract art genre since it began in 1911, I have chosen to work to make a contribution by developing a recognizable technique unique to me within the abstract art genre. In doing so, I create in abstract form beyond its conventional boundaries particularly in the process and concept. I'm glad that the result of the 'memory and upside down thinking' process of my technique is engaging viewers and artists in meaningful discourse. And I'm even working to take it to the next level.
MICHAEL: Your work is clearly the work of an artist who has experienced very serious things. Why did you leave Nigeria and head for Canada? What was your life in Nigeria like?
YISA: Well, I had a remarkable life and experiences while I was practicing art in Lagos, Nigeria. From dawn until midnight each day, there was always dramatic situations; social and political happenings in the city that regularly attracted my attention and the attention of writers and other artists to put into expressions. Hence, there was no shortage of ideas for figurative expressionism. Figurative style of art was and is still the big art style of my alma mater, the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. In Nigeria, for example, I had encounters that led me into creating paintings such as The Mad Rush, Eyo Masquerade, Water Scarcity, Livelihood, Dignity of Labour, Motherhood, Illegal Arrest, etc. Social and political themes were very common to almost every practicing artist of my era. In 1993, I began to explore a new technique. I wanted with the technique to break another ground in artistic practice. I wanted to create what I could consider as my own visual language of communication. The technique was first inspired by the inner beauties, which I imagined were hidden behind the masks of street masqueraders or behind the veils of the Yoruba royal kings. Since I was a little child, I had imagined and speculated the true appearance of faces hidden behind those masks or veils. So, in 1993, I began using layers upon layers of paint or mixed media with paint-resistant substance in between to reveal the hidden colours and forms that lie beneath the topmost layers of my paint. At the inception of my experiment, I used limited colours. Over the years, I have expanded on my colour palette. This technique I also further developed while obtaining my M.F.A. in Visual Arts from the University of North Dakota in 2009.
When I first came to Winnipeg, Canada from Lagos, Nigeria in 1997, my intention was on sabbatical and study leave, hoping that I would return to Nigeria immediately after my studies. I simply wanted to be adequately equipped for the computer trend that appeared to be heading Nigerian shore. At Red River College, Winnipeg, I studied advertising art and became proficient in the use of computers. Within three years of my arrival in Canada, I also got involved in the art community and I began to enjoy the collaboration of my professional colleagues. In addition, the peace and regular electricity in my new environment engendered my creativity and increased my productivity. The political situation of Canada was also more predictable and quite a shift from the military regime of general Sani Abacha that was in Nigeria at the time of my departure.
MICHAEL: That sounds like quite an adjustment. How has Canada influenced your work? And why did you go to Winnipeg and not Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto which are better known art cities? Nothing against Winnipeg.
YISA: I did not study much about Canadian Art until I arrived in Winnipeg. Once I began to associate and was welcomed within the artistic community of the city, I instinctively considered Winnipeg as my centre of the universe from where I could create and then travel to any other parts of the world to exhibit. Certainly, coming to Winnipeg from Lagos was initially a tough adjustment as I never before imagined the harsh reality of the winter weather. Interestingly, the climate keeps me mostly in studio as long as I have enough materials for my projects. With my new line of imagination and abstract works, it seems destiny has adequately prepared me. I don't have to depend on social issues or street performances for my concept. However, during summer, I occasionally love to witness the Native American gatherings, pow wow dances and other events, which are in honour of the Native American/First Nations culture. I'm most often fascinated by the dance movement and colour of the Pow Wow costume.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the ways that we classify art? You know, Canadian art, African art, European art, etc. Do you consider yourself a Canadian artist or Nigerian artist or contemporary artist or what?
YISA: I think the way we classify art is appropriate and relevant in so many ways. It will continue to expand even as more movements emerge. Classification surely helps provide structures within the practice of art and that helps bring some focus into the life of each practicing individual. In music for example, we have all sorts of classification as it is in every profession: medicine, sport, engineering, law, etc. In my case, while it is evident that I have been influenced by Western art education and African culture, in some quarters, I'm being described as an African artist. In a few quarters, I'm being described as a Nigerian artist. Now that I'm based in Canada, some quarters now describe me as a Canadian artist. Pablo Picasso was described as a Spanish painter who spent most of his adult life in France. If I were born and only trained in Canada, I would most likely be described as African-Canadian artist. Fortunately, being born and earlier trained in Nigeria exposed me to very valuable rudiments of African culture. As the blend of Western and African cultures continues to enhance my technique, I have noticed that it has become a great advantage for me not only in Canada, but around the world whenever my works are being exhibited. As a contemporary artist, I don't think I would be satisfied to be described only as such. I would like to establish an identity for myself that would be recognized by art lovers internationally. I hope that that identity will include the quality and originality of my work and the attention I have brought to the source of my influences.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? Where do you believe your talent comes from?
YISA: There was no record of an established artist in my lineage, Michael. My grandparents were farmers and my father was into small business. If any influence at all, it might be from my mother who practiced fashion design. But when I was growing up as a little child, I noticed that every woman in my home town who did not have formal education took to fashion design.
MICHAEL: And the source of your talent?
YISA: I believe that my artistic talent is God-given. My passion for drawing and painting began at the age of six by using any pigment available to express myself. I used my mother's coloured eyebrow pencils and even charcoal from her firewood to draw and paint characters from stories I heard from elders during their storytelling at moonlight. As I became a professional artist, my art concept started to evolve from extended sources. I also agree that hard work and constant experimentation continue to help fuel my talent.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world and art market and how they function? Living artists are struggling while Picasso and Rembrandt are doing great.
YISA: Well, there are still many loyal art collectors around the world and I believe that the investment tradition will continue to be sustained. However, the art world should improve the training of the current generation of youth about the appreciation and investment value. I understand your point. Unfortunately, it is not only Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt or Jackson Pollock who are benefiting from current art sales. The very wealthy dealers and art collectors who had the foresight and have acquired works from those great artists are equally doing well. In my view, every genuine living artist should find encouragement in the process, though it can be improved. Art dealers and art collectors who are not so wealthy should also be encouraged to do some home work and acquire works of living artists, hoping for greater appreciation for their works later on. In reality, most genuine living visual artists do not expect too much from their works while still alive. It is interesting to imagine that the value of one’s creation can replace the value initially placed on gold or silver. It is certainly great if artists could make a good living in order to continue the practice. That is a good reason for governments and private individuals to also continue to help fund the arts. I think the art world should also pay attention to how technology could help or harm art value. One would hope that the world billionaires who are now mostly in the technology sector would begin showing interest in art and consequently increase its value. I think the art training in high schools should improve and include a lot more of art appreciation.
MICHAEL: Finally Yisa, if your work could actually speak verbally, what would it say? What's the message behind your work?
YISA: A lady I never knew had an encounter with my art in a gallery in Winnipeg, where she posted on my Facebook page. I felt her experience explained exactly the purpose I want to achieve with my art. I strive for the effect of my work to continue to engage every viewer who experiences it. I also hope that my work continues to speak comfort, entertain and give pleasure to humanity. Thank you so much, Michael. It has been a pleasure to chat with you. Blessings!
MICHAEL: Thanks Yisa. Blessings to you too.
Check out Yisa Akinbolaji at www.yisagallery.com.