The Nigerian artist created a new series of masked sculptures for a project titled "Stand for Something."
What is “African art”? Who are the creators? Who are the subjects? What is the aesthetic? If you ask Nigerian-born mixed media artist Dennis Osadebe, he’d tell you there’s no such thing as “African art” and there never has been. “African art is a very lazy term,” said Osadebe over the phone from his home in Lagos, Nigeria. “I think it just sets 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.”
For his latest project “Stand For Something,” Osadebe collaborated with Unique Board, a New York-based creative platform, to reimagine his signature masks in 3D as sculpture. The limited edition collection features yellow, pink, blue, and black 3D iterations of the glossy masked man usually found in Osadebe’s work. He inserted contemporary elements like a durag and racer jacket to provide a contrasting element that differentiates the masked sculptures of past centuries from his remixed contemporary version. For this project, he spent months researching traditional Yoruba masks, which he particularly sought out because of the expressiveness their features portrayed. He also pulled inspiration from contemporary sources like New York-based clothing brand and durag aficionados, L’Enchanteur.
The 28-year-old artist, who grew up in Nigeria’s Anambra State and now resides in Lagos, is one of many young African-born creatives working to reshape the media- and critic-driven narratives that currently mischaracterize their work. Osadebe has used his skills as a post-pop artist to not only creatively express his personal experiences but to proudly show the artistic variety the continent has to offer. His works and words over the years have sought to demonstrate that African nations are far too diverse for creative institutions and academic spaces to review all African-born artists within the broad spectrum of “African art”. “I’m from Nigeria and my experiences here are absolutely different than someone who is in Nairobi and creating,” said Osadebe. “Those differences have to be expressed in the works.”
In educational and professional art spaces, “African art” is typically defined by colorful rural landscapes and prints, intricately designed masks, and past and present depictions of African ethnic groups. The popularity and consistent use of the term “African art” have made it common for any African-born artist to be classified within this genre, regardless of whether or not their aesthetic fits within this traditional, and quite frankly, archaic stereotypical framework. Osadebe sees this miscategorization as limiting to the true stories and background of the work. “When I would hear the words ‘African arts’, it usually has no symbol of time, period, it’s just a collection of expectations and ideas of what it should look like and I don’t agree with that,” said Osadebe.
To further address his concerns with the way African artists are portrayed, Osadebe began to help drive the Neo Africa art movement, which seeks to rebrand and self-document the new diverse bodies of work from African creatives. “Neo Africa is an advocacy for the displacement of the term ‘African art’,” said Osadebe. “The movement is focused on reflecting today’s generation of creatives. These creatives are people who are happy to be expressive and not limit their creativity to the expectations of what African art should be or look like.”
Osadebe’s mission to leave the stereotypical images of African art behind does not mean he’s encouraging artists not to reflect upon their traditional heritage. In fact, his work prominently features a reworked image of West African inspired masks, which he uses to cover the faces of the brown figures he digitally captures engaging in everyday activities like reading or drying off in neon blue and pink rooms. “The mask is a repetitive narrative that I use in my work,” said Osadebe. “It’s a really essential feature of traditional culture and arts in Nigeria and in most West African countries. I always want to reflect my heritage as a Nigerian and a West African, and also juxtapose that with my experiences living in a city.”
The most interesting element of the sculpture is the masked figure’s pose. The figure’s right hand is stretched across his chest mirroring the stance of someone standing for the pledge. Osadebe added this element to further the discussion that was most recently sparked by Colin Kaepernick’s decision to not stand and salute the flag while playing for the NFL in protest of state-sanctioned violence against black people. “I wanted to question what does it mean to stand for something,” said Osadebe. “It is important to critique and understand what you’re accepting.” Just like with his work with the Neo Africa movement, Osadebe’s latest project is encouraging people to rethink and rebrand tradition in a way that properly reflects a new and transitioning world.