Dennis Osadebe’s Near Future Art in The Republic V3 N3

Works from Dennis Osadebe’s recent exhibition, ‘Work. Life. Balance.’, feature in our forthcoming print issue, which explores living and working in the digital era. Osadebe is an exciting artist known for images that exude the brilliance of Lagos, the mega-city teeming with hustle and fast-capital. Osadebe is among a growing number of artists thinking about African futures. For Osadebe, however, the future need not be distant nor flying car-centric. Instead, Osadebe works in what viewers may call the ‘near future’, a term developed by anthropologist, Jane Guyer, that invites thinking about the future as not only long-term, but also what happens next: next month, next day, etc.

Like Guyer, Osadebe’s images ask not the question of when, but how soon. And Osadebe’s, uniquely, is an outlook situated where past meets future, where tradition meets invention and innovation. Osadebe’s images speak to the anonymity and ambiguity that underlie our increasingly digital world but they are also rooted in traditions of masking and mask-making. His recent series, in particular, visualizes and evokes a sense of the frictions, in their quest for self-preservation, the African encounters amid western-dominated globalization. How, Osadebe often seems to ask, do we stay true to ourselves despite being surrounded by an ever-changing world? Recently, we talked to Osadebe about his practice.

WALE LAWAL

Something that strikes me about your work is how often you use masks as a way to comment not only on tradition but also on modernity. What do you think masks can tell us in the digital era?

DENNIS OSADEBE

We are in an era of connectivity and the masks in my works suggests a new type of spirituality bound by the technologies of our digital age. In that, spirituality does not necessarily manifest as religion, but as a primal search for connectivity.

From the Nigerian or West African point of view, masks are often used as vehicles for transforming into an extra-terrestrial realm. Legend has it that when the mask wearer puts on the mask and this transformation happens, what we (the viewers) witness is the ‘performer’ trying to communicate with the unknown. Now my question is this: if our masks have offered this level of otherworldly connection for all these centuries, is it not fair to say that the future has always been here in West Africa? I mean, I tried on VR goggles recently and I am convinced it is a similar experience that people who wear traditional masks and perform in festivals and ceremonies have. Because you see them reaching for things, dodging things, trying to make sense of this new environment that they have travelled into. My guess is we are only just catching up to this technology now.

We are also at a time where globalization is shaping the world and, in many ways, new cultures are being born. This is a result of the accessibility the Internet provides and how it allows us to instantly experience each other’s culture, as well as participate. In today’s world travelling is more accessible online; we can purchase artefacts from different regions because shipping across continents is now easier and cheaper; we have unlimited information; it goes on and on. I believe that, the more globalization happens, the more we start to drop what has not worked in certain cultures and pick up new ones that we have learned. This, in turn, will start to unify our practices, aesthetics, taste, architecture and, before you know it, we will be living in a world similar to the Matrix.

To further makes sense of this idea, I remember speaking to a collector and a friend of mine who is Indonesian and based in New York. As we all know, Indonesia is very well known for their remarkable coffee culture and he narrates how he visited Indonesia recently and how everyone now went to coffee shops that looked like coffee shops in Brooklyn, ripped off an image on Pinterest—and how the genuine coffee culture which is observed on the street level is going away.

Now, I am not necessarily against globalization; I notice it and I am proposing a new cultural identity with my masks.

WALE LAWAL

Are there any particular (African/Nigerian) masks that you are drawn to?

DENNIS OSADEBE

The festival emblem of the FESTAC 77, the sixteenth-century Benin Ivory mask. This is because I grew up in Festac, Lagos, and I always came across the image of this mask. It became a huge part of my childhood. I also love the Bwa mask from Burkina Faso and Mali. Design-wise, the mask is fantastic, from the patterns to the expressive facial features, especially the mouth area.

WALE LAWAL

Still on masks, I find that they can serve as both vehicles for anonymity and forming identities. How or why did anonymity become a space you wanted to locate your work in?

DENNIS OSADEBE

For me, anonymity presents a level of abstraction that allows the viewer to project themselves onto subjects.

WALE LAWAL

Asides anonymity, a major theme across your works is also that of futurity. What does it mean to imagine the future from Nigeria?

DENNIS OSADEBE

It is important for the people of Nigeria to start asking the question: What will Nigeria’s future look like?

I like my work to sit in that area of promoting positive imagery and planting new possibilities and ideas in the minds of my people. However, I understand that having a futuristic vision of the world is not about daydreaming an unrealistic, yet-to-come fairy tale. It is a matter of critically thinking about long-term developments, debates and initiatives that can create wider inclusive politics, on a global scale beyond genders, races, species.

Lunch Break, 2019 © DENNIS OSADEBE
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WALE LAWAL

You have said ‘For art in a whole continent to be limited to just one label – ‘African Art’ – is a problem’. Can you expand on why the label ‘African art’ is a problem?

DENNIS OSADEBE

The label ‘African Art’ does not have meaning. And categorizing all the works, especially important works from a massive continent under a meaningless label is dangerous.

Now, I am not saying that ‘African Art’ cannot have meaning, it definitely can. I have a friend who referenced a professor in a conversation we had—she said that an approach that we can take, in order to define what ‘African Art’ means is to bring different artists or representatives from each country in the continent together, and then they create a manifesto of what African art should mean. That view really had a lasting impression on me.

WALE LAWAL

What are you currently working on?

DENNIS OSADEBE

I had a solo show that opened at Jumee Kim Gallery in South Korea throughout August. For the show, I also developed sculptures using 3D modelling techniques and 3D printing, which excites me as a new approach to sculpting and mask-making. The exhibition depicts a vision of today’s attention-economic times and a culture in need of balance. I also have another solo show scheduled at Avenues Des Art Gallery this month, which is centred on contextualizing dreams.

WALE LAWAL

You described 3D printing as a new approach to sculpting and mask making. Can you expand on this?

DENNIS OSADEBE

I’ve always wanted to approach the Nigerian mask in the most innovative and modern way possible. So, for me, using the approach of digitally sculpting and fabricating the work reflects the time we are in, as well as the range of tools available to us in the 21st Century. In essence, the idea is not to disregard the traditional ways of mask creation, but to build from it, and continue the dialogue.

WALE LAWAL

Which artists today do you find yourself inspired by and/or in constant conversation with?

DENNIS OSADEBE

Some of my favourite contemporary artists today include Jeff Koons, who is brilliant. He turns banal objects into high art icons. I was really moved and confounded by Kerry James Marshall’s show at David Zwirner, in London several years ago, and have continued to engage with his work ever since. I love Abba T. Makama’s attitude towards film making and painting, and the level of satire he applies in his works. Alimi Adewale’s minimalism and abstraction evokes a type of soft intensity and feeling of movement, which is rare today. I love Victor Ekpuk. I think he’s incredibly accomplished and I love the way he builds connections with symbols from diverse cultures and forms a style of hand writing through these references. I think Osborne Macharia is a really interesting photographer and a futurist I would like to have a conversation with