Orange isn’t Blue
25 March — 16 April, 2023
Oliver Okolo, the Making of a New Renaissance Artist
“You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” –James Baldwin
Born in an agricultural area of Central Nigeria in 1992, Oliver Okolo had two dreams as a child: one of becoming a basketball star and the other of becoming an artist. Drawing Mickey Mouse and, later, Marvel Comics superhero characters to develop his hand in his childhood and formative years, he eventually combined his two dreams into a series of handmade comics of himself as a basketball star. Sharing his illustrated tales with his circle of friends, he showed his colleagues what he was capable of doing—through the application of a little imagination and a lot of determination.
Not able to fulfill a hope of studying art in college, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in labor relations from Caritas University, a private Catholic school in Nigeria, where he developed a compassion for the unfortunate and the oppressed. After leaving school, Okolo renewed his passion for art and decided to pursue a career as an artist. Drawn to the works of classical artists—especially the Old Masters, even though he had only seen them in books and online rather than in real life—he was accepted as an apprentice to Clement Nwafor, an Abuja-based Nigerian artist who beautifully mixes fabric collage and portraiture in his realist paintings.
Connecting to an online community of artists, Okolo improved his graphic skills by watching YouTube videos on pencil drawing and networked with his social media colleagues to promote his work and the work of other artists that he admired on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Repeatedly proclaiming that “The only way you can support your fellow artist is to comment and sharing their posts “with an image of a finished work or of a work in progress—and by retweeting and sharing the artworks of others—he became a part of a group of like-minded artists and attracted the attention of galleries and collectors seeking them. Okolo not only sold work and gained commissions in this industrious manner, he also found sitters for his future paintings.
However, it was in the art studio of Clement Nwafor that he was able to put these newly acquired skills to practice. Apprenticing with his mentor for nearly two years, he ran errands, prepped canvases, mixed colors, painted backgrounds and added still life objects to Nwafor’s paintings-in-progress. When he felt that he had learned enough to break free, Okolo opened his own studio in his home. With a unique technique of collaging his hyper-realistic, charcoal-penciled and painted heads on paper with more loosely painted bodies, objects and backgrounds on canvas, the art world began to take interest, and exhibition opportunities soon followed.
“I started making art with charcoal pencils, so when I began to introduce oils into the work, I thought to keep all of the materials that I loved to work with in the process of making paintings” Okolo recently shared. “I wanted to work with all of my favorite materials—charcoal, paper, oil and canvas—in a single painting. In the process, I came up with a collage method of painting the face of the subject on paper and carefully blending the paper into the rest of the painting to make the complete work.”
Inspired by such Golden Age masters as Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer; the 19th century American portrait painter John Singer Sargent; and contemporary artists like the renowned African American painter Kehinde Wiley, Cuban hyperrealist Cesar Santos and Irish-born American abstractionist Sean Scully (whose palette he appreciates), Okolo was invited to residencies in Chicago and Accra, which led to his inclusion in notable group shows at Gallery 1957 in Accra. One particular exhibition, titled “[West] African Renaissance”, organized in collaboration with Christie’s Dubai, was a standout for its examination of the contemporary art renaissance taking place in Ghana, Nigeria and other parts of the continent.
“Art is the only way I know how to speak and air my opinion about things” Okolo expressed in a post on Twitter in 2020. Commenting on his Igbo culture, many of his paintings challenge long-held customs and ancient beliefs. His 2022 allegorical painting “The rejects and a yellow guitar” captures three untouchable members of the stigmatized Osu caste system, who are treated like slaves by the dominant Nwadiala people, with a guitar player, who is soothing their souls with is music. The group sits in front of tall grass, which symbolizes their passage to the other side—to heaven. Okolo sees music as a unifying factor that brings people of all walks of life together and heaven as a place where everyone is treated equally. Beyond those concerns, elements in the painting point—the rejects and the tall grass—relate to earlier canvases, which is part of Okolo’s strategy of having a continuous thread throughout his growing body of work.
Another recent painting, “Disguised persona (William Hurley)”, is based on a photographed of a respectable African American man who was convicted of killing his wife and hung for the crime in 1909. Okolo sees him as a surrogate for corrupt Nigerian government officials and businessmen who dress and act like they have man3s better good at heart but are actually stealing the country’s resources for their own benefit. Meanwhile, a contrasting canvas, titled The absence of chaos, presents the opposite of a disguised persona. Portraying a young man in a serene setting (much like the peaceful environment surrounding the Mona Lisa in Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece), Okolo paints the man with a clear conscience and clear heart—a respectable person who knows who he is and who lives life with honor.
The artist invents the world on the canvas—the world that he wants to inhabit. Fascinated with telling stories through his art, Okolo pays special attention to the eyes and expressions of his sitters, stating that he sees his subject’s eyes as “a gateway to the truth that lies behind the soul.”
Working from photographs, which he shoots with his Nikon, or culls from archival and internet sources, Okolo filters his subjects through allegorical settings and poses from the past to express his societal concerns and hopefully impact some change. Calling his fusion of the past, present and future “Classical Contemporalism,” this talented, 30-year-old artist is challenging the Old Masters to be relevant again, and in the process—ironically—he may one day be hanging on the walls of revered museums, right next to them.
Dates: March 25 – April 16, 2023
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