Dallas contemporary art gallery SITE131 is showing a new solo exhibition through March 27, and its brightly colored works initially evoke a child’s imagination. This is partially because they are inspired by artist Jeremiah Onifadé’s memories as a 13-year-old living in Nigeria. But the paintings are not simply a remembrance of childlike bliss; they capture the time when Onifadé witnessed a riot in his hometown, which tore his neighborhood apart and shattered his childhood innocence.
The paintings draw from that particular moment in Onifadé’s personal history, which represents a general ethos in his work.
“I take stories that have happened to me before, and I merge them with present issues, to talk about future issues,” he says.
This makes Onfidadé’s work a perfect fit with the gallery SITE131, even though the gallery has never done a solo exhibition before.
“Our commitment has always been to what I call ‘here, there and beyond’ Texas, U.S. and abroad ... artists addressing a similar concept or idea. So we get to see how Texas stacks up with the rest of the world,” says SITE131 director and curator Joan Davidow.
Normally, this means bringing together artists from different places in the world; Onifadé’s work encompasses the gallery’s commitment all on his own.
“Here I was with this artist that was all three!” Davidow says.
By exhibiting works that encompass the “here, there and beyond,” SITE131 engages with issues that are much vaster than the ones present in our own backyard, but which ultimately connect intimately with our issues close to home.
One of these issues is how people experience the emotions of Black people, which is a problem Onifadé describes personally.
“I walk past a white person’s car, I might be listening to music, nodding my head, and you hear the car double lock," he says. "And I’m thinking, this person doesn’t understand, that’s just a Black guy who’s happy, listening to his music and jiving.”
Onifadé attributes this in part to the strong presence of emotional figures throughout the history of art that have been curated by white people. For example, Onifadé references Cupid and other figures from Greek mythology whose frequent occurrences in art have informed our sensibility of how people behave.
“I understand a lot about white people not because I’ve lived with them but because that’s what’s been taught to us, all over the world, in post-colonial societies,” Onifadé says.
The same cannot be said of Black people; unless a white person grows up around Black people, they won’t understand their emotional behaviors. This is because the emotions of Black people are rarely portrayed in art and media.
That’s where Onifadé’s distinct visual world comes into play. Each of his paintings features humanoid but certainly not human figures — the exhibition is aptly named Surreal Figures. Onifadé invented the strange creatures with human-like bodies, with a single eye in place of a head, in order to give himself a unique visual language with which to express the philosophical intentions behind his paintings.
“I couldn’t just paint people anymore, I had to have a visual language that was particular to me, I wanted to create muses that were particular to me,” he says.
The muses that Onifadé created evolved over time into what he now calls "Orbs," and though they look strange they breathe on the canvas with a distinctive childlike charm. They dance across backgrounds of swirling, colorful snakes, as visual representation of human emotion. In particular, the actions of the Orbs, the details in their surroundings and their emotional backgrounds capture the emotions of people of color.
Many of the emotions expressed in Onifadé’s paintings have to do with a riot he witnessed when he was 13. Because the emotions have a connection to childhood, they have a stark honesty; as a child, Onifadé was able to clearly recognize the sheer wrongness of the situation, whereas as an adult he might have attempted to justify it based on his knowledge of the political climate and the different parties involved. A child doesn’t meddle in the grey in-between of morality; they recognize when something is bad, and they express it.
Onifadé uses a food analogy to make this idea clear, recalling a Nigerian dish that he prepares often for his son.
“You have to cook it a certain way for it to taste good," he says. "If we cook it and it’s not good, [my son] tells me right away. ‘Ew, yucky.’”
Just as children are quick to point out whether food is good or bad, children can intuitively recognize whether a situation is good or bad and react strongly.
That same clear expression is present in Onifadé’s paintings, and it is also an element of the paintings that American viewers should carry with them into their own lives. That is, we need to witness our own situation, in particular the systemic racism in America, with the honesty of a child. Onifadé doesn’t intend for us to ignore the nuance of our political climate, but he does hope that we can regard it straightforwardly.
“In my paintings, I want to show that I come from a society that did the same thing," he says. "Politicians got into office, made money, became wealthy, separated themselves from the masses and treated them in a racist way. But what happens with separation in society. It doesn’t lead to anything good.”
When we look at Onifadé’s paintings, we are initially confronted by something unfamiliar. We are curious about the origin of the figures, what their situations are. As we sit with the works, we begin to recognize the stories of Black emotion that Onifadé is telling. Although Onifadé’s paintings are rooted in memories of Nigeria and Nigerian people, they bear a surprising relevance to our own lives in the U.S.
Through these powerfully transportive works, Onifadé connects the “here” of our own situation with the “there” of his childhood situation via the conduit of a world “beyond.”
Surreal Figures can be viewed in person (with masks and social distancing enforced) until March 27 at SITE131, 131 Payne St., open Fridays from noon to 5 p.m.
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