How Art Discovered Me – Yemi Odetayo

How Art Discovered Me – Yemi Odetayo

Saturday, December 7, 2019 11:29 am

Yemi Odetayo

Yemi Odetayo showcases his mastery of colour at an exhibition in Lagos


By Nehru Odeh

Yemi Odetayo is an artist in love with colour. Not only does he guard his craft jealously, he is driven by a passionate desire to express his emotions with explosions of colour. This explains why the Yaba College of Technology trained painter, who has been a painter for more than 38 years is unarguably a master of his art. He proved this in a solo exhibition held between Saturday 30 November and 6 December 2019 at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos.  Tagged Shades of Life, the exhibition was chaired by Olaitan Otulana, Director of Culture, Lagos State Council of Arts and Culture.

Otulana, an artist herself who lives and sleeps the art form, while declaring open the seven-day exhibition,  gave visitors and guests a glimpse of what to expect. 

“The exhibition will give us a window to see his innermost thinking, which he has been able to creatively put paint to for us to see. No doubt we’ll all be able to read it differently. And of course, he must be on hand to tell us what he means particularly by each art form,” she averred.

Odetayo did not disappoint. He wowed visitors with his panoply of colourul paintings , as he took them around and explained the art works in detail. Each of them documents the colour of the times and tells a story about life’s issues. The paintings exhibited that day including intriguing works such as The Celebrant, Indigenous to Lagos, Solitude, It’s Going to Rain, Sleeping through the Storm, Fashion,  Care, All Hands on Deck, Night Bliss, Market orms, lying Colours, Rest,  In a World of His Own.

Against all odds


Indeed, Otulana and the other visitors were thrilled. “I can connect with most of the issues, particularly the life’s issues that are expressed in these art forms. First, the paintings are very colourul. You can’t miss the sharp colours. They are solid, they are inviting. They are awesome,” she said.

A profusion of colours and an expression of deep emotions run through the art works which the artist said were inspired by everyday life and his intense desire to record for future generations. “I paint to record for future generations. I believe I have a function as a painter to use painting to state things, the way  I see them right now for future generations,” Odetayo told TheNEWS.

“My core interest obviously comes from activities and people around me, which include the colours and dynamism in everyday life”, the award-winning painter says in the catalogue for the exhibition.

The most intriguing aspect of Odetayo’s romance with colour is that, in a career spanning 38 years, he has refused to be lured by the love for mere lucre. This also explains the reason he refused to sell most of his works over a long period. “Shades of Life is a notable collection of selected works categorized not for sale over a relatively long time and some selected recent works,” he says in the catalogue.

When asked why he tagged the exhibition Shades of Life, Odetayo said: “My paintings cover different aspect of our lives, activities of people around me, what they do day in- day out, the dynamics of the works they do – that is everyday activities from different shades of life.”

Odetayo has received a lot of commendation from other artists. Tunde Olanipekun, who discovered the painter’s promising future 36 years ago at the Yaba College of Technology, said in a critique: “Since the artist’s first involvement in brush and oil paintings about three decades ago h has matured over the years and could without reservations get a seat among the young masters that Nigeria has produced.”

Peter J. Ighodaro said he recognized Odetayo’s imaginative spirit while they were colleagues at Grant Advertising. “There is a persistent distinctive rhythm flowing through all of Odetayo’s works, a quality that can only come from hard work of research and inquisitiveness. His dynamic dexterity and bold style resonates with art aficionados who are drawn to his drawings and paintings and they are always rewarded by pleasant and quiet changes in mood effected by his masterly strokes,” he maintained.

Odetayo, a man of many parts, has delved into the advertising, printing and publishing industries; and that has impacted positively on his artistic career. He has received many awards, which include the Federal Ministry of Education Award for Excellence. He is also listed in the “Who is Who” publication of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art Libraries in Washington DC, United States. 


Art Discovered Me – Yemi Odetayo

Yemi Odetayo, in this interview with NEHRU Odeh speaks about his painting and exhibition which held in Lagos between 30 November and 6 December 2019.


Why do you paint?

I paint to record for future generations. I believe I have a function as a painter to use painting to state things the way I see them for future generations. We can start enjoying it from now. For example, I painted the Lagoon Front before the Third mainland bridge was constructed. You could see it is the same view. The only difference now is the Third Mainland Bridge, the one across the painting. But it was not there when I did it. And when you look at my painting entitled The Celebrant, for instance. In 200 years to come it will not look like this. But if you look 200 years back it was definitely not like this. So as an artist or a painter, you too are recording for posterity. That’s your mandate for mankind. Taking a look at my painting, In a World of His Own, for instance, this is the way palm wine was tapped in 2017. But maybe in 300 years from now, the palm wine tapper may not need to go to the top of the tree to tap. They would have devised another method. Because I believe we still look at paintings that were done 400 years ago. As you can see these paintings are going to outlive the buyer and the artist. So it is my function to record. These are what I have recorded from everyday life, from people around me, my own visual encounter with them, their activities and the dynamics of what they do. I have done my part to put it on record. First to entertain in this manner: having people come around to have visual contacts and eventually, the person who is most interested in a painting takes it home.

So is it right to say you paint the colour of the times?


For how long have you been painting?

I have been painting for 38 years. I say so because I remember what Tunde  Olanipekun,  the man who wrote a critique on my works describe very well. I had my first contact with oil paint when I was a first year student at the Yaba College of Technology. On a certain day I went to the final year students’ studio and saw them using oil paint. You know in your first year you use gouache.  So I was now looking at one of them, who happened to be Olanipekun,  using oil paint. I then asked him to tell me the difference between the oil paint he was using and the gouache we first year students were using. He said why don’t you use it and see for yourself what it feels like. So he gave me a board and oil paint. And I did a portrait painting. Olanipekun once told me that he loves the portrait so much that he still keeps it.  That painting was done 38 years ago. So I would say I have been painting since then. However, in Nigeria one has to have multiple streams of income. So I went into advertising. I worked in an advertising company as a visualizer. I later left advertising and went into printing and publishing. I have a printing press of my own.

So you have multiple streams of income.



Are you trying to say that one cannot survive on art alone?

That was the question some students of Yaba College of Technology asked me some time ago. They wanted to know whether they can survive on art or painting alone. I said yes you can survive on painting alone  because there are artists that are surviving on painting alone, even though they are very few. Personally I don’t like a collector dictating what I paint. But I you don’t have another source of income, the collector will dictate what you paint. He may ask: “I don’t like this white background, can you change it to blue and bring it to me?” If you don’t have other sources of income, you will be forced to do it on a blue background so that, at least, you can have something to take care of your family. I don’t like that.

That means by then you won’t have any choice but paint according to the dictates of the collector.

Yes, if you don’t have another source of income, you might be tempted to do that, to paint according to the dictates of the collector. If you want to commission me to paint, I would understand and accept. I would do it to your taste, the way you want it. But when I present a painting I have done, you either take it or leave it. For instance while I was painting the palm wine tapper, I focused on what he was doing. So I eliminated other things. But if the collector says, “Let me see the sky and other things that the camera can capture.” I won’t do that.

What’s the place of the collector in art? Can an artist survive without the art collector?

Who’s a collector?  I asked that question because we feel that people who invest in paintings and art works are the collectors. But I would tell you that the person that has only two paintings in his collection is also a collector. It does not necessarily mean those that invest in it alone. Those that invest in it know the secrets of the structure of art. They know what they stand to gain. When they act this way, they are not foolish. They know what they gain. For Instance, when somebody buys a work at twenty-five thousand naira and maybe ten years later sold it one million, five hundred thousand. So when someone says “Don’t you think that is too expensive? The question I ask that person is : Let’s put other things you want to buy at the same price side by side with painting and value them  after 10 years. May be you buy a fairly-used car or a television set. Ater 10 years the painting is still waxing stronger, still appreciating in value, whereas the other luxurious things are depreciating. Which means the only thing that can compare favourably with painting is probably gold. So painting is as good as gold. If you don’t vandalize it, the value keeps increasing. That’s why people invest in art works. And we have kind of regarded those that invest in art works as the collectors. If you have only one piece of my painting in your collection, I see you as a collector; because that’s the kind of person that supports my cause till date.

We have artists who belong in the school of Art for Art’s sake, those who are politically and socially committed and those who paint solely for business. Which of the afore-mentioned groups do you belong in?

Aside from those who paint for business, I belong in the rest. The work that the National Museum picked at my last exhibition, the one that I donated to them, was a critique on politics in Nigeria. The title of the work is Chameleons. I painted three politicians from the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, giving them various colours. You cannot say the Yoruba man was painted in blue. No. I painted him as well as the other with different colours. I painted Chameleons because the colours were changing. I depicted politicians as chameleons. So I criticize with my paintings. I try to set standards. But as regards painting for business I don’t subscribe to that. There was an era when art boomed, when banks were buying art works unadvisedly. The people in charge then were not knowledgeable about art. They were just buying. So they bought rubbish. They bought paintings  that were not going to appreciate in value. That is what I know as painting for business. When banks commission artists,  when they tell artists that so and so banks want eight paintings tomorrow, I know I can’t get eight paintings tomorrow. So I would tell them to give me the day after tomorrow and I would get the paintings done and then I go on canvas. I don’t subscribe to that. But I do criticize with my paintings. I also do paintings with deep meanings. I also record events and day- to-day life activities.

Are there elements of spirituality in your paintings? Are your paintings inspired by your religion or spirituality?

I am spiritually inclined, but that is not emphasized in my paintings.  You see, you would know the way I view things from my paintings, or instance,  Balancing Act, the work I told you about   as well as the one over there entitled, Indigenous to Lagos. Why I titled it Indigenous to Lagos is that you can’t see it anywhere else, home or abroad. You can see masquerades in the South-west, South-east and South-south. You can also see them in other West African countries. But this is peculiar to Lagos.


Why did you paint Indigenous to Lagos?

As I have stated before, when you take a look at the Eyo masquerade what do you see? Maybe what you see is not what I see. If you see me looking at Eyo you might think maybe I like something about them or I don’t know anything about them. And you see the white flowing gowns, the display of colours. Those are the things I see. I am showing you the Eyo masquerade through my own eyes.  Likewise, the painting over there is a market scene. When you go to the market you may be seeing the buyers, the sellers, the truck pushers, but I see different shades of colours. This is what I am seeing through my eyes, not just the buyers, sellers and truck pushers.

If what you just said is anything to go by, it means colours define your art…

Yes. My younger brother brought something to my attention in my last exhibition, something I had forgotten about.  Professor Yusuf Grillo, in his comment, said he liked the way I handle colors like a master. So when my younger brother was promoting my exhibition and mentioned it, that struck me and I exclaimed “Oh you still remember.” He just bought it to my memory. I like to lay clean colours. If I  put white  down, let it be white. Maybe my involvement in advertising influenced that because we don’t paint like this in schools. But over the years, my interaction with the textile industry, with the advertising industry where you must show creativity, and with the publishing world where you have to pay attention to details rubbed off on my painting.


When did you start having a passion for painting?

I started having a passion for painting in my first year in art school because I remember my lecturer took special interest in my painting and asked me whether I liked women. I just laughed. I didn’t answer the question. I was now wondering why he asked that question. He then asked if I knew why he asked me that question. I said no. He then said, “You did not forget to put a red lipstick on the lady’s mouth, and that made your painting more colourful.” That was my first assignment as a first year student. So I noticed it and put lipstick on the lady’s mouth. Maybe my imaginative power was strong then. Maybe my early childhood experience was an adventurous one, and that made me to be so interested. Really other people would have painted the market scene and forgotten that.  No. But when you go to the market you see ladies carry their bags, tie their scarfs. I saw it and I represented it. And it has always been so since then. It’s in my subconscious. It’s now part of me. I once painted a silhouette, a monochromatic painting, in which I used only one colour. But at the end of the day it still appears colorful. I only used different shades of blue. In act that is my star work in this exhibition. I titled that painting, All Hands on Deck.

How many exhibitions have you organized so far?

This is my third solo exhibition.

Do you believe art can represent reality? Do you belive it does something beyond that?

Yes, art does something beyond picturing reality. I said earlier that my function as an artist, as a painter, is to record. When you see things you have visual experiences and encounter and you let people see through your own eyes what you see. So the artist records these events. You read about Eyo. You know people can illustrate it in words but when you now see the painting, it will add to your knowledge of it. So art does more. We record for mankind. We can start to enjoy it to the full now. The oncoming generation will still meet it. For instance, an art work done in 1973 is being sold for millions of pounds now. They enjoyed the work then. We are still enjoying the work now. Today you will enjoy what I am showing now. This painting will outlive all of us, will outlive the painter. It will outlive the buyer. And future generations will say, “Okay what kind of drum is this?” Maybe they no longer play the drum the way they used to play it. They use computers now. These are our drummers. They play the drums simultaneously and there must be harmony. They must sound as one. When the drummers are playing, they hit the drums at the same time. They must achieve harmony in order to make sense to us. None of them can go out of place. In years to come these people might become jobless because with computerized arrangement, their services will no longer be needed.  They can use computer to generate their kind of music.

The famous Italian sculptor, David Michelangelo, while describing his work, The Angel in the Marble, once said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved it until I set it free.” On another occasion, he said “The sculpture  is already complete wihin the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” Does that also apply to you as an artist Do you believe art works exist independently of  artists. That they only bring out what is already there?

Yes, I do.  At times when you see something, you are not the only one that sees it, but it brings out the artistic instinct in you. Similar to what Michelangelo said, another artist also said, “Everybody looks. It is only the artist that sees.”  So when an artist is looking at something, curiously you may not be seeing what the artist is seeing. This painting, Fear Not was inspired by an incident in my house. I asked my daughter to go into the bedroom and get something for me. We were in the sitting room, and she stood by the door. She could not enter. I asked her again to go inside. She then said, “Daddy, I am afraid.” Then the younger brother just went inside and came out, saying, “There is nothing to be afraid of.” We all laughed. But from that incident, a painting and a message came to mind:  that when you are in your own house,  you don’t need to be afraid. Similarly If you are in any business don’t be afraid to venture forward. Don’t stay in your comfort zone. Go for it. Paintings can make you realize your dreams. And there are some kinds of painting that are therapeutic in nature.  For instance, when the preparation or my exhibition becomes so overwhelming, I just sit in front of my painting, It’s Going to Rain, and feel relaxed. That painting has a therapeutic effect on me.

Did you discover art? Or would you say art discovered you?

I would say art discovered me because when I was in elementary school, I did not have an art teacher. But I liked drawing. Then my mum, who was then a teacher, would spank me and say, “You’ve been drawing since. Go and read your book.”  At that point I felt drawing was a waste of time because she would always stop me and asked me to go and read my books. But she was so happy when I won a federal government award for academic excellence at Yaba College of Technology . She then said, “Now I believe it is your calling.” In secondary school we had an art teacher but it was nothing serious. Even When I was about to register for Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, I didn’t choose art initially. It was a man called Mr. E.A Akintade, a former art teacher at St Finbarr’s College,  that asked me “What is it that you feel comfortable doing? Which subject do you like most?” I said the only subject I felt comfortable with was art. You can wake me from sleep and I can draw anything. But, I told the man “You know, there is nothing I can do with art.” The man said I was wrong,  that there were so many thing I could do with art. He then went further to say the tea cup I use in the morning was produced by artists, the paper I use was produced by artists, that artists are also involved in the production of newspapers. He said artists are involved in every activity and all spheres of life. He asked me to choose the one I wanted. So when he said that I fell in love with textile. Bur when I got to school I discovered painting. So from the outset I would say painting discovered me

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