A quest for stories drove the artist to travel across the globe before settling in Brooklyn.The Arts
Just over nine years ago, Abidemi Olowonira sat contemplating his fate in a holding cell of a police station in downtown Guangzhou, miles away from family and friends in Houston and Lagos. He couldn’t have envisioned himself, years later, immersed in Dubai’s art scene, exploring the ancient tanneries of Fez, or unpacking paintbrushes, straps of leather, and dusty blank canvases in his new home-studio in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. He couldn’t have seen himself waking up one Saturday morning to news that his floorcovering collection had just been awarded a 2019 Elle Décor American design award.
Thinking back to the cell, Olowonira remembers the consternation he felt the day of his detention. "Needless to say, I had this uneasy feeling because I had only been in China for about six months, and could barely communicate in the language and knew nothing of the alphabet," Olowonira said during a phone interview with The Mantle.
He said that while in his cell that afternoon, he replayed the scene earlier that day of himself and his mentor, Chicago-based painter Abiola Akintola, getting into a dispute with a local market trader. The police were called and requested to see their passports. Olowonira relived the dread he felt when the only officer who spoke English informed them the laminated copies of their passports were unacceptable. As the prospect of being swallowed by an unfamiliar bureaucracy loomed, he agonized about who they could call who might be willing to break into their apartment to retrieve their vital documents. Hard as he tried, he imagined the worst.
The guard circling their cell seemed visibly delighted at their predicament, making mocking gestures and occasionally spitting out a disdainful "Fēi zhōu rén," which means African, a refrain the artist had heard countless times already.
"I was distrustful and concerned that I was going to be held for some time," he said. "I had heard lots of misinformation about China because of its communist past, and to some extent, it still has lots of its vestiges clearly apparent everywhere I went."
Besides accompanying Akintola, who was contracted to exhibit some works during the 2010 All Asian Games, Olowonira had been drawn to China because of its ongoing artistic renaissance where young and old artists where showcasing barrier-breaking visions, which promised to liberate him from a creative purgatory in Houston, Texas, where he was governed by routine.
Before his detention, he had participated in residencies at Guangzhou’s Xu Mo Fan/Xu Hong Fei studio and at the US-China Business Association Art Residency in Shanghai.
"I recall having a conversation with the publisher of one of the sculpture magazines in Beijing, and he told me that besides traditional Chinese art and Western influence, local artists were also showcasing traditional African and Oceanic art in their works," he said.
Olowonira’s time in detention lasted about eight hours. But his trip to China lasted over a year and influenced the works he would later showcase at the 2012 Sikka Art Fair sponsored by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority. He claims the Element rug series, which he began working on after his return to the U.S., bears the marks of his travels in the preceding years.
The wiry-framed Olowonira was born in Ibadan, Nigeria in 1983, nine months before the coup d’état that ended Shehu Shagari’s presidency, the country’s first democratically elected president. The budding artist was raised by his grandmother in Nigeria’s bustling economic hub of Lagos after his parents immigrated to the United States for further studies. As a child, he would overcome solitude (a result of the polio he contracted at one year old) by helping his grandmother with her work.
"She was a market trader who made and sold tie and dye fabrics, and often asked me to help in the process as a way to keep me close to her and out of trouble," he explained.
At eighteen years-old, Olowonira immigrated to Houston to reunite with his parents and his American-born siblings whom he had never met. He hadn’t seen his mother since his early childhood and he had no memory of his father.
He enrolled at Houston’s lone HBCU, Texas Southern University (TSU) to pursue a Fine Arts degree in a program founded by famed muralist John Biggers. During this period, he immersed himself in the thriving art scene unfolding in the surrounding historic Third Ward neighborhood. Pulsating with drumbeats that hearkened to his childhood, living in Third Ward would also resurrect Olownira’s passion for music. Soon after, he was invited to play accompanying djembe for Wonlade Drum and Dance Company, a performance ensemble founded by Guinean-born Djembefola (master drummer), Mohamed Diaby.
To sustain himself as a student, Olowonira found work at a gun holster factory, which used leather and kydex (a form of plastic) to create holsters. "On a daily basis, I was amazed by how much of the unused leather cutouts ended up in the dumpster because I have always believed objects serve as transformative sources for the exploration of ideas," he said.
The sight of wasted leather inspired the artist to tap into his Lagos childhood where everything is recyclable. He began collecting the scraps and implementing them as a consistent component of his works. This fascination with leather accompanied him to Houston Baptist University where he enrolled and later graduated with an MFA in Sculpture. Years later, his work with leather would result in collaborations with the likes of Kyle Bunting, a rug designer with whom he shares the recent Elle Décor Award.
But before being recognized for his work, Olowonira traveled the world, beginning with his trip to China and then a four-month expedition to Morocco in 2017. "Though my works are influenced by reflections of characters or experiences from my childhood in Lagos, my artistic vision was broadened by exposure to different parts of the world, oftentimes in cultures that are different from mine yet bear an intrinsic similarity," he explained.
While reflecting on his travels in China, Olowonira recalls that besides meeting a Nigerian who went by ‘Daddy’, he does not remember seeing any other Black person during his first three months in Guangzhou, partly because he avoided straying from the route that took him from his apartment to the studio and back. But he also remembers a conversation he had with a Dutch artist, who had published a photo book about her experiences living in both Lagos and Guangzhou.
"She told me she had never seen as much variations of grey colors as she had in both cities," said Olowonira, referring to the greyness that characterized the visual landscape of the two places.
Notwithstanding the cities’ visual similarities, it is hard to imagine what went through Olowonira’s mind as he sat in the greyness of the basement detention cell watching the minutes turn into hours, and day into night. If Akintola hadn’t found an area in the cell where he could make a call from his mobile phone to request help from an acquaintance, it is hard to tell what would have happened to them.
Perhaps it is a quest for stories that drove Olowonira to travel halfway across the globe, and decide upon his return to Houston to shut his studio, pack his wares in a car, and make the drive to Brooklyn, a city that had always beckoned him from afar.
Now diving headfirst into Brooklyn’s hyper-competitive art world, Olowonira confesses he hasn’t quite settled into his new city—though it’s the most static he’s been in a decade. But he continues to create sculptures and mixed media pieces that reflect his travels and influences. "My goal is to reveal the transcultural dynamics embedded in stories," he said.
Olowonira views Brooklyn as his last stop on a meandering journey that began on his grandmother’s lap in Nigeria. Despite the scale of the city’s artistic output, he still views it as unconquered terrain and believes there is enough room left in it for him to thrive and leave his mark.
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