In Conversation with Dennis Osadebe
Mixed-media artist Dennis Osadebe is all about interdisciplinarity. In the recent duo show, “A spectacular now,” that he shares with artist Evans Mbugua at Circle Art gallery in Nairobi, he explores the merging of traditional materials and crafts with technology. C& talks to him about his practice, the duo show, and why he builds on the past rather then clinging to it.
5. March 2019
Contemporary And: How did you get a slot at Circle Art Gallery?
Dennis Osadebe: It was very natural. We got introduced. They had been following my work for some time and thought my story was worth sharing. I had been following them and liked everything they were doing in promoting innovative and exciting artists. So it was a matter of how we could work together to create something impactful.
C&: Please walk us through the process of creating your artwork.
DO: To start with, I never sketch, so I have no idea what any piece will look like in the end. Most times, I have an idea of the vibe or feeling that I am trying to reflect in that moment. Then, I’d say intuition and curiosity drives the rest of the process.
Research is also a big part of it. When I’m working around a political idea or reference, a certain imagery or symbol that has formed a common visual language, like Christian iconography, I need to have an understanding of what it is all about, how it plays a role in our lived experiences. From that deep understanding of context, I can then break it down into a simplified visual language and add a sense of humor and lightheartedness to it.
C&: As an artist who has embraced the digital transformation in his work, do you think the mouse has replaced the brush?
DO: I don’t think anything has been replaced. I just think it is a new medium. My question to artists of today is this: What is your most effective means of expression? To answer that you have to trust in yourself and be as honest as possible and accept your own history. I grew up on things created through digitally made software such as video games and cartoons. I did not go to art school, my first foray into art and design was when I owned my first MacBook in university, studying innovation and understanding that radical innovation stems from building from the past and not clinging on to it. It’s important not to get tangled up into this idea of mediums and being pressured to create in a certain way. Art created through any medium, be it acrylic, ceramics, digital or even data, is important if the true vision of the artist has been expressed with it.
C&: Do you ever get comments about your work being an easy way out or cheating when compared to the manual application of paint on canvas?
DO: I never heard comments like that. I believe that no artistic vision is “easy” to be realized. And I take pride in my medium and the speed at which it allows me to work.
C&: You say you never attended art school. So how did you get yourself equipped with the skills you require as a contemporary artist?
DO: By constantly working on my craft. The beauty about being self-taught is that it is your curiosity that drives you to learn and improve.
Since I became a full-time artist, I have created every day of my career, except for when I’m traveling. That is when I take time away from painting and reflect on what I would like to start working on next. For example the idea for my piece “Field of Dreams” came while I was in Abu Dhabi and boarding a flight to New York. I was in New York for three weeks and haunted by this idea.
C&: I noticed your work has changed mostly conceptually since you engaged with Afro-futurism. What are you exploring in the collection at Circle?
DO: The vision of the work, I believe, is still the same. My works are being centered around the idea of reimagining Nigeria through the use of positive, provocative and progressive imagery and narratives. The works at Circle play with art history a lot and center the narrative around Nigeria’s art and culture.
For me, the repetition of the mask in all the works make it the center of the narrative within the historical frames and structures. The reason I do this is to shift the negative stereotype painted about Nigeria and recreate another reality that can be engaged with today – a reality that is full of aspiration and exposure as a result of access to the internet and to so much new potential.
C&: Talking about art history: Do you have a manifesto for Neo Africa as an artistic movement, have you built a club of members with a similar ideology?
DO: Yes, and that is the point. I believe that in order for us to own our narrative in history, we have to create and document everything happening in that artistic period. For example, when you hear about Renaissance, Impressionism or Pop art, you can think about a time and an aesthetic of work, the artistic spirit in that moment. However, when you say “African art,” what exactly does that encompass? I want Neo Africa to reflect on the period within which I am experiencing art from Nigeria. Furthermore, we have a manifesto and we are building the collective. Watch out for chapters happening in different cities around the world.
C&: What are you working on next?
DO: I recently collaborated with a New York-based publisher and producer of artwork, Unique Board, on a sculpture titled Stand For Something which calls for standing up and fighting for a cause you believe in. Essentially this year I want to focus more on collaborations and community engagement.
A Spectacular Now was on view at Cirle Art Gallery Nairobi until 18 February 2019.
Dennis Osadebe obtained a BSc in Business and Management from Queen Mary University of London and a MSc. in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the University of Warwick, Coventry. He has exhibited widely since his relocation to Lagos in 2013 and has also collaborated with international brands such as Diesel.
Matt Kayem is a contemporary artist, art critic and writer living and working in Kampala, Uganda.