Dennis Osadebe has explored Nigerian heritage, advancing technologies, and collaboration to construct an innovative experience that invites the viewer to discover their role as both instigators and witnesses within the powerful transformation of a shifting digital scene.
In his unique signature style and fascination with interior spaces, Osadebe has generated a virtual room that draws inspiration from the linear perspective of Renaissance paintings, akin to the style of Paula Rego's Crivelli’s Garden (1990‐1). The objects occupying the space also signal the influence of Rego's historically rooted work, as we find symbolic relationships through symbols of statues, references to childhood, performance, and mythology.
The Angel in the Story
An essay by Dr Edson Burton
Dennis Osadebe is one of three artists selected for the micro commission The Rules Do Not Apply. The text describing his contribution reads ‘Osadebe's response encourages a vital discourse surrounding the potential of virtual creation in considering the relationship between the past and the present.’
The past here challenges notions of the artist’s relationship to national canons and national identity. The commission invites artists to respond to the work of visual artist Paula Rego and dancer choreographer Kristen McNally which are in turn inspired by Biblical narratives of iconic women. In his response, Osadebe wraps the ballerina in the Iro a traditional outfit worn by Yoruba women. But witnessing a parallel dialogue between past and present, Osdeba’s Iro‐inspired outfit harks back to the 1960s when the ‘dress was worn as mini‐skirt rather than around the waist as intended as an act of liberation.’
In essence Osadebe is part of a conversation between traditional and contemporary art, which can be seen as perennial and mainstream. Prefix art with ‘African’ and too often a set of assumptions arise. Curator Tosin Onile‐ere explains:
Being termed an "African artist is a two‐edged sword because you are labelled, the thing that binds them altogether, their common denominator, is that they are Black ‐it’s not their styles are the same styles, the same issue; it’s because they are black but are they really a movement in that way? Their work is seen as sort of other, not quite mainstream".
In a previous interview Osadebe has said much the same. "African art is a very lazy term. I think it just sets up expectations that limit the growth, the expression, and the real artistic dialogue of artists from the continent and it doesn’t represent everybody and their diversities".
Speaking to Dennis over Zoom, I sense he is less concerned with being an African artist than with finding his own unique voice. Osadebe grew up in FESTAC, an area of Nigeria’s capital Lagos that was originally built for the Second Festival of Black Arts and Culture FESTAC held in Lagos 1977. FESTAC was a celebration of Black arts and culture from across the continent and its diasporas. FESTAC took as its symbol the mask of Queen Idia. The original is one of many contested ‘artefacts’ held by the British Museum. But FESTAC and its legacy were not the original spur to Osadebe’s artistic career. Son of a Nigerian entrepreneur, Dennis came to London to study business. He was introduced to the art scene – "shows, galleries, fares, Shoreditch, Brick Lane", ‐ by a Ghanaian friend and mentor. They explored the galleries, art shops and artists. During this period "I began to register the arts I was into and the spirit I liked". His friend and mentor pointed to the elephant in the room: "Dennis you’re actually an artist". Mindful of his own business trajectory and family scrutiny, Osadebe remained unconvinced. "As a Nigerian who’d never seen any artists it’s not an option". An encounter with a taxi driver ‘The angel in the story’, brought about his epiphany. "He was telling me about his background and telling me do whatever I enjoy and forget the stigma involved in it. That encounter was very important to me."
Partly to justify his own precarious conversion, Osadebe voraciously read art history alongside creating his early works. "Coming across modern art changed my life. The whole approach to it. The whole context around it". Osadebe cites Duchamp as a particular influence. He was "saying the most important thing is the why. My context, my creation is the most important thing".
He was also drawn to the "spirituality, the energy" in Basquiat’s work without first knowing he was a Black artist.
It is this sense of context and the ‘Why’ which drives Osadebe. His intellectual context is transnational, his identities formed in Lagos and London. Both cities are conversations with past, present and future. But his present is fired by "the vibrancy, the commotion" of Lagos. However, the residual imposition and internalization of European expectations were such that he questioned whether his work was African enough.
Wrestling with these questions led Osadebe to evolve a new visual language inspired by traditional arts, elements of design, and artists such as David Hockney, Michael Craig Martin, and Victor Epuk. The mask offered a congruence between his Yoruba heritage, and his personal interest in the head as the seat of limitless possibility. He brings these elements together in humorous and surreal juxtapositions ‐ the mac book and the mask, the shiny tennis ball. The overall effect is a forward‐looking futuristic portrait of urban Africa. Osadebe advocates a neo‐African art that liberates artists from all expectations, in particular one feels those expectations that concern constant rooting in the past.
"As a young artist working in Nigeria if you want to paint teddy bears. Show us why it’s important to you." To do otherwise is to accept an intellectual straitjacket. Osadebe offers a whimsical example but there is an urgency to his appeal.
Artist, author and curator Ytasha L Womack defines Afrofuturism as "an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation." Osadebe has welcomed his inclusion in the movement but one senses Osadebe is wary of labels even this one.
"As an artist my most important tool is my freedom to express", what he shares with Afrofuturism is an abiding sense of hope despite the realities of contemporary politics. In finding a voice he is both anchored within Nigerian and European art traditions drawing, intersecting never beholden to either.
- Amira Rasool, Dennis Osadebe thinks the term African art is lazy’ https://www.documentjournal.com 05/2019
- Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism The World of Black Sci‐Fi and Fantasy Culture, Lawrence Hill Books, 2013
- Martin Kemp(ed), The Oxford History of Western Art, OUP, 2002