It's not the 1980s, but if Jean-Michel Basquiat could exist today, he'd be proud of the creativity of modern art experts. It's also not the 15th century, but there's something about Joshua Akinwumi of Motayo Gallery that reawakens the same level of passion for art in art lovers. Is it photography with Motayo Gallery? Is it done using digital pencils on canvas? Or is it a colourful fusion of approaches and mindsets that has continued to highlight the young Nigerian artist in portraying true and timeless African stories?
“I have always liked very weird stuff,” In between sentences, the young bohemian digital mixed media artist smiled. After exhibiting at renowned galleries in the United Kingdom and Nigeria, the art maverick is still making waves in the Nigerian art community as one of the early adopters of Artificial Intelligence technology in digital art creation.
In his interview with the Guardian, the art whiz-kid digs deeper into his experiences creating art using AI, as well as providing an exclusive look at his upcoming Orisha series - a commendable foray into the future of African art.
How were you first exposed to art?
I think my awareness started when I was little, seeing books like My book of Bible stories, some paintings in some bible documentaries, and my dad’s medical textbooks back at home. I used to flip through them a lot back then.
What kind of family did you come from?
You know the middle-class Nigerian families where the dad is a nurse and the mum is a teacher, church pastors; that’s the kind of family I am from.
Are they inclined to the creatives?
Ironically, in my primary school days, my elder brother was the one that used to draw; he was a very talented pencil artist, and my sisters too used to sing very well. I was the technical guy fixing damaged electrical appliances.
Tell us about an art project or series you worked on that you are very proud of.
I am currently working on the Orisha series which is an interesting project for me. It is demanding and challenging as well but I love it because I always want to do more. In Yoruba land, Orishas are supernatural deities. They are seen as messengers of the most supreme being and they once lived among us. Many of us do not know these today; whenever Orishas are mentioned, people see them as fetish things and run away from having the conversations. The effect of this is that it is erasing some parts of our cultures and heritage. I do not want our stories and values to be lost in thin air. I decided to come up with this as a project. I have done lot of research, I have read lot of materials that are helping me, I have attended numbers of festivals, Osun- Osogbo festivals, Ulefunta festivals, Egungun festivals, I have met some of the custodians of cultures that are still living, I have photographed Obaluaye, the current custodian to Osun goddess so I am not just putting together what is inside myself based on vibes and cruise. The aim is to allow younger generations to know these stories, see the images and pass it on to the forthcoming generations.
Another project I have in the pipeline that I am proud of is the arty representation of our names. Our names are deep, they have meanings, they are powerful. These days, a lot of Nigerians are embracing foreign names, meanwhile charity begins at home as the elderly ones do. I am proud of this project also.
I recently participated in an AI art competition at Agora Awards and my work was listed in the top 50 finalists, it was a proud moment for me.
What would you describe as your style and how did you discover it?
I’ve always liked very weird stuff, I only used to draw abstract characters with my pen when I was in secondary school because I knew I couldn’t draw the realistic ones.
Then in my university, I started playing with the Paint application when I had my first laptop. I think it progressed from there. But right now, my style is simple enough to express the message by just looking at it. It is mixed media with photography as the major medium.
Do you balance art with any other profession?
I used to work in I.T. but took a break from it for a while. I’ll be back in the ecosystem shortly.
How has that panned out so far?
It was challenging when I was doing both; I had to balance 9-5 with pools of stories and art ideas jumping into my head. Most were left dormant because of the demands, but my time away from 9-5 has given me opportunities to redress.
When did you leave Nigeria and why?
This is interesting, I’ve always known I could do more and I wanted to do more. I left in 2020, it was the peak of SARS cum police brutalities in the country, I was threatened to be shot by them several times and I didn’t want my dreams to die. I thought it was best to relocate to a saner clime. In addition, I moved to the U.K. for new exposure and more opportunities.
Is your art political?
Yes, my art is political. This misconception about Africa has been passed on from generation to generation from the West. My art is to address it, empower us as Africans, and allow us to effect changes.
What do you aim to achieve with your works?
Let me start this way, if you don’t know your stories, another person that knows nothing about it will write his own narratives of you and tell it his own way. I think this is part of what has happened with the African stories, culturally, socially, artistically, in many ways. I have seen different narratives in different places about my culture, values and I know they are not true because I know about my roots. I am very proud to be an African, a Nigerian and a Yoruba. Our stories are so rich and deep rooted. However, these days, young people do not value these again. You cannot blame them totally, the media has told them another thing about their roots, culture and belief system, they have abandoned these riches and incline to what the west has brought to them. Bear in mind that some of the arts and cultural heritage were stolen to the west and are sitting pretty in those galleries. In my own way, I want to enlighten Africans that they can be proud of their roots, their culture, their belief system and their heritage. I want to wewrite the wrong narratives about the black race using my art as a medium to change these. I want us to be proud of where we have come from and the goodness surrounding us.
I want my body of work to provoke positive thoughts and inspire us to do far better than where we are. I want to tell the story of Africa properly on the biggest stages.
Have you ever exhibited your works? Which one?
I’ve had a couple of my works exhibited. I had an exhibition at London West Gallery, university of Westminster in October 2022 for the Black history month. I recently completed an exhibition at SBartstudions in London in June, I am an exhibiting artist at Aphorism hosted by TheHolyart Gallery, I am also exhibiting at the 2023 edition of UK talent fusion hosted by OneartOneworld and quite a number of them; online and physical before the year runs out
How do you infuse AI into your process?
I moved to the U.K with backlogs of projects to be completed. It was a new environment for me, it was not very easy to settle in because I could not find the creative communities around me easily.
Though with time, I started making meaningful connections and became part of active art communities but it was still not like how it was for me back home. Lot of times, schedules would conflict with my creative team, another challenge was being able to translate my ideas to my Afro-caribbean or European creative teams. My ideas were a bit different from theirs. I can remember when I was going to shoot a series, I have been able to gather all resources with my team, it was a delicate shoot because we had to do in underwater with a mother and child. It was not every model that was able to do such. Two days to the agreed project day, the model pulled out. It was very difficult to get a competent replacement in such a short time so I had to let it go. Not so long after, AI started making the waves, I was so excited because it was like a tool specially made for me. The unavailability of a creative team and resources made me study how AI would be of benefit for me and incorporate it into my creative process.
Also, I have been inspired by a number of mixed media artists. Like I mentioned earlier, I always want to do more. When AI started making waves and became the big thing, I learnt as much as I could, I’m still learning but I incorporate the AI tools mostly when physical resources are unavailable or limited for me.
There is a raging conversation about how AI art isn’t real art, what do you have to say about that?
I understand the perspective but I think AI is just a medium. It is important to note that while AI can be a valuable tool for improving and enhancing creativity, unfortunately it does not possess human-like consciousness, intuition, and emotions. Our creativity as Humans remains distinct and valuable, relying on the unique perspectives, emotions, and experiences that we bring to the creative process. The true potential of AI lies in its collaboration with our creativity, where AI can support, inspire, and augment our creative expression as humans as a result of how we deploy it. The same way you have to use brush, paint, camera, oil, canvas is the same way AI is incorporated. If you cannot use it, then it would not work by itself. There is an artist behind the AI images expressing himself/herself. I will be speaking at a conference in London in September with the topic “Discussing the role of AI and the future of the creative industry” because it is a raging conversation and we should be able to explain the differences to the community.
How active is the art community where you are?
Very active, contemporary and 21st century art is blowing up in the U.K and globally. There is always one thing or the other going on but you have to be active in the community else you’d be lost and beyond being lost, because new forms of art and mediums keep emerging, an unfocused artist would get swayed away by distraction and loss of focus.