For Affen Oluwasegun Ojo, popularly known as Ojay, art has always been the perfect medium of expression, and it’s even more so now. While other boys in the Lafiaji suburb of Lagos dreamt of becoming the next Jay-Jay Okocha, Ben Carson, or Gani Fawehinmi, he longed to project his life experiences on canvasses with paint.
So when there was a scarcity of a certain edition of Supa Srika comics in his primary school, Ojay’s passion spiraled into overdrive and pushed him into filling the chasm.
An early-teen Ojay borrowed the scarce edition from a friend who attended another school and skilfully reproduced the adventures of the eponymous Supa Strika in detail with pencils and crayons into a N50 drawing book.
He made several copies of the knockoff and sold them to his schoolmates, who bought them in dozens to quench their protracted thirst for their favourite comics.
He became famous. And his reputation as a brilliant child artist began to spread as he won the school several art competitions across the state.
The passion that sprouted at St. David Anglican School in Lagos in the early noughties blossomed into universal recognition. Global stars like Wizkid and Davido amplified his creations and more of his artworks got sold in exhibitions around the world.
Then tragedy struck in 2015 when Ojay’s mother died of breast cancer. The loss of Aderonke Affen, the woman Ojay described as his muse, shook the artist to his creative roots. The demise of the woman that spurred his interest in Eyo and other aspects of the Yoruba culture carved a hole of grief in his heart.
And with that pain, he redefined and revolutionised his art with a “ghana -must- go-load” of Ankara fabric belonging to his late mother.
Ojay transcended his artworks from then on. His innate talent for aesthetics bleeds naturally into his selection of fabrics that complement and do not detract from the artworks. The radiance of the colourful fabric adds life to the paintings.
His journey has attained full maturation, and he will be hosting his first-ever solo exhibition titled “Omo Aderonke” in Lagos.
The exhibition, which is named after the artist’s mother to glorify the strength of African women, will hold at the Angel and Muse event centre from December 10 to 12.
In this interview with TheCable Lifestyle, Ojay discusses his journey and style as a contemporary artist and the promises of his upcoming exhibition.
Has contemporary art been your first love?
I didn’t start with contemporary art. I normally do paint ‘Supa Strika’ comics while in primary school. So there was an issue — I think issue 7 — that we couldn’t get that at the filling station where we normally get them. So I had one of my friends in the other school that has it. So I just took this N50 drawing book and merged it together, then I cut it to the same size as the comic. I now started painting it. I started painting every page in detail. So I painted it with postal colour and I went to do a coloured photocopy and bonded it together. I was now selling it inside the school, distributing it to other schools as well.
Our headmistress got the news from other schools that “there’s somebody in your school that’s selling or doing business in your school, that they’ll like to meet this person.” It was on a Wednesday, and every Wednesday we normally do debate on the assembly and everybody will be out. So before the debate, I was called out. Most people thought I was in trouble. Even I and my gang at the time thought I was in trouble.
So when I got out, they asked me to state my name and some of the teachers already knew that I can draw because whenever they’re teaching us and anything that has to do with drawing, I’m always called to the board and I helped them out. So, when they called me out, then they said they got a report from the school that I was doing business and I was already scared I was going to be punished. And the next thing was that I was given a prize then. It was wrapped; I think it was crayons and postal colours. So my mates were just cheering me after that time. I was very famous in my school and other schools. So whenever we have an art competition outside, I’m always the one going out to represent the school and we always come first in the art aspects.
You’ve talked about your foray into art via reproduction of Supa Strika comics like a typical Nigerian kid, what was your parents’ initial reaction to your dream?
They didn’t first agree to me being a painter. They just knew I could draw. But there was this roadside shop beside my primary school. They would paint and do screen printing. I noticed them and when I got home, I told my dad about it that I would like to know more about art and really be into that field.
So I told my dad and the next day he took me there and he talked with the man and the man said if I wanted to learn, I had to like pay a certain amount of money and how many years I want to like be under him. So everything was concluded. So when I got there, I was really taught how to like paint, draw human beings. I was taught how to do something entirely different from what thought I never needed: that was like a printing press, merch, printing on mugs, plates, handkerchiefs, and t-shirts.
At that time, did you think art was profitable? Did you feel like you could live off drawing? Did you feel like you would have a comfortable life?
I never had that picture that I’m going to feed off. The only thing on my mind was, “I want people to know me. I want them to know my craft.” I want to be able to like push my stuff out there.” People should know that this guy can paint and draw and stuffs like that. That was the whole thing that was in my mind. I never even thought I could live off it until I joined Instagram. So I started seeing artists taking commissions.
You’ve been able to find a merger between artistic expression and other forms of creative expression; I’m talking about music in general. Your art has been on the table of Davido, Wizkid, a number of them. How have you been able to achieve that particularly?
It wasn’t even planned. The whole idea was to draw a celebrity. That was the component I met when I joined Instagram. When you draw a celebrity, you either make a video of when you’re drawing it or when you’re done, you post it, you tag them, and then in your caption, you state that all your followers should tag them in your comment. That was the concept then.
So whenever I post a celebrity, I just see people tagging them, tagging them. Then I’ll now see the celebrity commenting, “Wow, I love this. I’ll love to have this.” The next thing, I get a DM asking when they can have the art, then we’ll schedule.
But some of them, I know them through, like maybe from a friend or show promoter. So they’ll just tell me that, I’m going to his place tomorrow; we’ll go together. So that was the whole thing. I think I’ll say my craft was actually what put me in that spot. That is the only way I can say it. It’s my craft.
I don’t think I’ve ever painted a celebrity that doesn’t like the painting or that doesn’t want to have it. Mayorkun is my close friend, same as Dremo and Peruzzi is my best friend. So whenever one of them gets a new house, they’ll call me in to come and help them paint their walls. So it’s been like that. And I get referrals too from them. They call their friends. And whenever I’m painting, they take it upon their social platforms and post it and I get a lot of attention.
What inspires you?
The question is ‘who inspires you?’ It’s actually my mom. I never knew she was going to be the one to inspire my contemporary style. After I started the drawing of this whole celebrity thing, and I now have that brand, people know that this guy is always drawing celebrities. Then one of my friends told me that, “Guy, you can’t keep drawing celebrities for the rest of your life. You have to start doing your own projects. That your name will go on it. That you’re an artist, so tell your story.” When he told me that, I was like, guy, I have seen a lot of artists on Instagram and I don’t think I’m a match for any of them. I felt this inferiority complex.
I realised I must come in with my own style because I’ve seen a lot of people. Some people will paint with pen, some people will paint will nail, some people will paint with window blinds, charcoal, some people will paint with newspaper. So I was like, what else do I want to do? Then, I saw a few people that were using fabric as well but I never even thought I was going to have that style until my mom passed in 2015. My mom is Yoruba, she’s from Ogun State. She usually attended to all this Owambe and was always buying Ankara and with the way she rocked it and at times. Whenever she wanted to cook at home, she was always wearing all these round-neck s and shed just tie them. So I grew up seeing her that way. I grew up seeing her as a working woman, and I also see her as a mother.
She made sure we were open to all these cultures — Eyo and all other traditions. Whenever she was going to naming ceremonies, she used to take us, so we have ideas of how these things are done in Yoruba land. And my dad is from Bayelsa. I’ve never been to my place before but I’ve read a few about that place and my dad usually tells us stories about that place.
So this is me taking up this role to represent where I come from — my culture, my background, my family, my friends — and to be transparent enough that people could see through my act. I don’t even need to explain that this is what this painting means. Once they see it, they just, you know.
My mum was a Muslim before she got married to my dad. She died of breast cancer. She had already told us that she must be buried the same day. She died on the second day on Ileya (Eid-il-Adha) in 2015. So she died the next day. So there was no Ileya in the family, then there was no killing of ram or anything. So she was buried that same day.
They packed some of her things, they wanted to give them out. But while I was looking for something, I stumbled upon a ghana-must-go that they kept all those Ankara; different breeds, fine breeds that I can’t even get now unless they’re reselling it again. So I just kept it. I never knew what I going to use it to do, I just kept it. So I was still drawing celebrities. I just don’t want it to be I’m not doing anything till I find my style.
Then one day, I saw a picture of her that she was trying the gele and I thought to paint this particular picture and add a little bit of artistic vibe to it. That was it. It was titled ‘Mama Africa’. I painted it and made a video of it and I posted it for the first time on my Instagram page and titled it the way those people that have been doing their own title project titled it and gave my story about the whole thing. I think the next day, somebody said she wanted to buy it. She’s from Canada but she’s a Nigerian. So I think she related to the story I was trying to tell. That was when I thought “this is my style.”
There’s a certain representation in your painting and I want to put your fabric aside. You paint with a very lush, darker shade; they are so beautifully black. Is it intentional, the way you draw blackness?
Painting in black and white is actually the easiest thing for me to do. I can paint in coloured too. I’m very good at painting colours but I’m trying to tell a story in my painting; and if I’m actually telling a story in my painting, I have to make sure people know where I come from, my background, and my family. So, I’m a black person, and I’m from Africa and all our prints, they’re from Africa.
So I’m a black person and I got these whole ideas from the black and white TV. We had that black and white TV. So with the black and white TV, I was able to witness that art. I will say it is art because television is an art, so I was able to witness it. I was born at that time. So I knew how we used to see people then, with black and white.
We don’t even know the colour of the skin or the shade of clothes and stuff like that. So, adding colour to the painting with the fabric is actually how I’m trying to tell my story and also tell the story of this whole thing I’ve had in the past. So I’m not trying to tell my own story alone, I’m also like trying to make people come along with the whole changes in everything.
Now let’s talk about the ‘Aderonke Exhibition,’ what should we expect from your first solo showcase?
First of all, I actually had something different in mind for the title of the exhibition. But my team had this brilliant idea that instead of making do with that title since I’m trying to like also tell the story of my mom, and how I got about this whole thing, going with “Omo Aderonke” will be better. That was how we got that title: Celebration of a Mother.
In this exhibition, I’ll be showcasing a lot of works — I think fourteen works — and I’ll be having a pop-up as well. And the works talk about fashion, being black and actually accepting yourself, beauty, and stories about children — like Ibeji. I have a painting that talks about twins and I also have a painting that talks about motherhood, joy, love, culture, hairstyle, and generally being an African person and being proud of your culture and your tradition. It’s not as if you’ll go out of the country now, they’ll be asking you something and you’ll be answering them in English and meanwhile, you’re Omo Yoruba. Be proud of yourself. I believe everybody coming for this exhibition – whether you’re white or black – as long as you’re in Nigeria; you’re here for a reason. You can’t be going to one country and you won’t know their story or won’t know their culture. Most of the white people that come to Nigeria; at times you see them in Ankara or all this Kente cloth like that. So I believe you being in Nigeria, or you being in Africa, you have the idea by staring at the paintings.
When you actually come to the exhibition, I think you’ll appreciate the love of your mother. You coming to the exhibition and seeing those works, I believe 80% of the people that are going to attend that exhibition that day, they are going to go back to their house, hug their mom, appreciate their parents and tell them. or actually show them my exhibition that truly this guy actually went all out to celebrate his mom. Not just his mom, but he’s proud of his culture and where he comes from. That is all I want. So even if you come to the exhibition and don’t buy a painting or you don’t buy merch, I believe I have left something in your heart already. Because you can’t get that picture out of your head once you see those paintings. So the moment you see those paintings, you know that “I have a friend that’s made this hairstyle before” or “I have a friend that dresses like this.” I just want you to come and see the daily faces that you see every day. Even online, I want you to come there, you see it. There’s no way you can forget that.
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