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The Nigerian-born artist overcame extraordinary hurdles to put himself through art school.EXPAND
The Nigerian-born artist overcame extraordinary hurdles to put himself through art school.
Emily Berger

Jeremiah Onifadé Fled Violence in Nigeria to Make It as an Artist in Dallas

As night descends on the wooded hills surrounding his home, visual artist Jeremiah Onifadé gets to work. While his garage studio is his usual stomping grounds, tonight Onifadé is working in the kitchen of his two-story house in a middle-class neighborhood near Grand Prairie. A glass table facing a sliding glass door looks out on Onifadé’s backyard, and to a scattering of trees beyond.

“I like this spot because I can see some of Dallas,” he says. “I can see where my son plays, and I can see this place that’s our home.”

As Onifadé works, his father watches. His parents, who live in Nigeria, are visiting for Christmas, and his dad is jetlagged from the long flight. Bayo Onifadé is a terse, serious man who embraces practicality and who's never understood or supported his son’s artistic ambitions. But tonight he looks on as his son continues a painting he has already spent weeks creating.

“Why did you do this line this way?” he asks. “Why is it that color?”

“Because it is,” his son answers. “Because that’s the story.”

Onifadé spends roughly eight hours working on this painting, staying up until 3 a.m. His dad stays up with him, occasionally asking questions, but mostly just watching. Every few minutes, Onifadé looks up, meets his father’s eyes, and thinks he sees something that he has never seen before: Bayo Onifadé understanding why his son makes art.

Jeremiah Onifadé was born in Kaduna, the state capital of Kaduna State in northern Nigeria. He and his brother call Kaduna the “New York of Nigeria.” Onifadé loves to tell stories about his time in his home country and his life after, even if those stories are tinged with poverty and violence. He often punctuates these stories with metaphors like, “It was like our life was an old car, but I was dreaming of a Tesla!”

Onifadé's life in Nigeria started well. He grew up as the oldest of three in a middle-class neighborhood. His father was an engineer, and his mother was a teacher. His earliest memories are filled with morning cartoons. His favorite characters were Spider-Man, Tom and Jerry and Speedy Gonzales, which became his first subjects.

“He was always drawing,” Onifadé’s brother George says. He calls his brother “Jerry,” like many of their friends. “I tried to mimic him back then, but I was never as good. I still try, though. Mimicking Jerry is my default.”

Life for the Onifadés changed drastically with the 2000 Kaduna riots, which erupted after Kaduna's governor announced the introduction of Sharia to the state, mandating adherence to Islamic law in a region where over half the population was Christian, including the Onifadé family. A Christian association planned a peaceful protest, but violence broke out between the two religious factions. Onifadé was home at the time.

“We heard screaming, and the first thing I saw when I looked outside was a man, stabbed to death by a machete,” he says.

His friend, Ernest, also witnessed the violence.

“There was lot of killing on both sides,” Ernest says. “My neighbor tried to flee, and was shot. His pregnant wife went to help, and she was shot, too. That’s one of my earliest memories.”

No official figure exists, but Human Rights Watch estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 people were killed during the 2000 Kaduna riots. Onifadé, his mother and his two siblings fled to southern Nigeria, while his father stayed behind to work and send money when he could. George remembers the “hustling” he and his brother had to do to make sure the family could eat.

“Jerry as the first son became the breadwinner,” George says. “We had to go out and find any job we could.”

While George fixed computers, Jeremiah used his art skills to create logos or letterhead designs for small businesses.

A sample of Onifadé’s work, which he'll debut in JuneEXPAND
A sample of Onifadé’s work, which he'll debut in June
Emily Berger

His friend Abiola remembers Onifadé using his art to help his friends, too.

“He would make drawings on our shirts to make it different,” Abiola says. “If we’ve been wearing the same clothes for years, he would help spruce them up a little bit.”

Despite his parents’ insistence on a career in engineering, Onifadé harbored aspirations for art school in the United States. He ordered magazines and brochures from art galleries in New York City, and set his sights on The Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. To apply, he would go to a nearby internet cafe, wait until a patron who paid for an hour of internet was about to leave, and ask to use the last five minutes of that patron’s time. He earned admission and a scholarship, yet had another hurdle to cross.

“Getting the visa was the miracle,” he says. Onifadé had to raise funds to pay the visa fee and pay for transportation to the visa office, then arrive early, and wait hours in line for an interview.

“I knew if I could get in the interview room, I’d be fine, because they’d have to listen to me talk so passionately about the arts,” he says. He was right. The interviewer was convinced, granting Onifadé a visa. His parents took more convincing.

“I told them I would be studying commercial design. I told my dad, ‘You know those graphics you see on CNN?’ I’ll be making those. That was the only way to get him to support it and let me go.”

Onifadé spent a summer semester in Savannah, working various jobs to help pay tuition he could never afford. After just a few months at the vaunted SVAD, Onifadé had to drop out.

“I used to think school was the way to be an artist,” Onifadé says. “And when I couldn’t have that, I was ready to rebel against art.”

After moving in with a friend in Dallas, Onifadé joined the National Guard, and supported various U.S. forts as a medic. The military funded his education, allowing him to earn a bachelor’s in business information systems from the University of North Texas, and a master’s in engineering from Southern Methodist University. While his income dwindled as he studied and started a family, Onifadé started hustling like he'd done at home, by designing and selling T-shirts, and helping businesses with their logos.

“In the Renaissance, artists used the tools of the time,” he says. “So I learned how to use all of the Adobe programs, and people became walking billboards for me with their Jeremiah T-shirts.”

Then Onifadé started creating original work, paintings that told stories about his turbulent past.

“I think he needed art,” George says. “It went from a hobby to a passion to an identity.”

His friend Ernest, who now lives in Dallas, too, has some of Jeremiah’s painting hanging in his house.

“When people come over, I get to show them part of our story,” he says. “Together, Jerry and I have tried to find peace. We’ve tried to find our ways to heal the pain. This is his way.”

But the paintings are not just for him. Onifadé hopes his paintings — vibrant collisions of dark imagery and festive color — can show others how to survive even the most dire forms of despair.

“That’s why I want to be in a museum by 2024,” he says. “I’ve always believed that you either contribute chaos or happiness. I want to contribute happiness.”

In many ways, Onifadé is living the life his parents wanted for him. At 32, he has a house, a wife, a 10-month old son and a stable job as a cybersecurity engineer at Verizon. He often pulls 16-hour days: eight hours at his day job, then eight hours painting at home. His wife is supportive, and Onifadé thinks his parents are starting to get it, too.

“I keep on remembering that night with my dad in the winter,” he says. “And I remember how he had to stay in the north for us. I think he saw it that night. I think he saw this is what I have to do.”

Jeremiah Onifadé’s debut art show, A Prelude to the Beautiful Unknown, will take place Saturday and Sunday, June 8-9, in the Dallas Design District from 6 to 9 p.m. He will be creating a piece live, and in addition to his original artwork, it will include a DIY station for visitors to create their own work.

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