“I’m just trying to survive,” Jeremiah Onifadé says. “That’s the motto for 2020.” The artist says this while corralling his infant son, squeezing in some after-work painting, providing for a family in a pandemic and preparing for the second art show of his career.
His voice carries no sound of duress. Even as he’s trudging through multiple 16- and 18-hour work days, painting vibrant canvases that capture his Nigerian hometown, the 33-year-old artist sounds grateful: Grateful to be working, grateful to be painting, grateful to be alive. It is mid-June, mere weeks after George Floyd’s death, and Onifadé is trying to find his place amidst the outcries, pain and rage roiling the nation.
“It’s a weird time to be painting,” he admits. “You want to be in tune with what’s going on, because it’s life or death out there.” He pauses, either to calm his chaotic 2 year old, take a breath or both. Then, he repeats himself. “It’s life or death.”
Despite the pandemic, the show, Blue Dot, is going on with original work from Onifadé and artists Charles Gray and Jess Tedder. The 96-hour exhibition runs from Juneteenth (June 19) through June 23, and it takes place at 2727 Rochester St., in a house in Bonton, a historically black neighborhood in South Dallas.
The location is significant. By choosing a house in a perpetually discarded neighborhood in a perpetually overlooked part of the city, Onifadé emphasizes one of the show’s central themes: perception. For example, one of the paintings depicts a young Onifadé clutching a chocolate candy. In his hometown, he explains, people would judge you simply based off of the kind of chocolate you ate. If you ate Cadbury, your family was probably middle or upper class. If you ate toffee, people considered you poor.
“Because I’m a black man, perception has been my whole life,” he says. “People see me, and they think I’m one thing. If people see you driving a certain kind of car, or living in a certain part of town, they’ll think you’re one thing. They don’t understand that you are so much more than what you look like. You’re more than where you live.”
By housing the show in Bonton, Onifadé hopes to introduce Dallas to a forgotten corner of their city, an area worthy of attention and revitalization. And by keeping the doors open for 96 hours straight, the artist hopes the show will be accessible to people with unconventional schedules.
“The people living here work multiple jobs,” he says, referring to Bonton. “They can pop in whenever they can, enjoy it, and go home.”
Onifadé was born in the Nigerian city of Kaduna, where his family experienced violence and hatred literally right outside their door. After fleeing the country and toiling for years as an unknown painter, Onifadé had a banner 2019: He celebrated his first art show in the summer and received a grant from the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs. Onifadé was intent on using the grant for his second show.
Then all hell broke loose. COVID-19 hit North Texas, and what seemed like a seamless path to Blue Dot was now a jumbled mess of red tape, permits and dozens of details. In order to host an art show in the middle of a pandemic, the painter had to prove that patron safety would be a priority. To that end, he added a hand washing station and bottles of hand sanitizer throughout the house, and will also be providing masks to patrons who do not bring their own. Keeping the house was its own challenge. Onifadé had to justify why the show should be 96 hours, and eventually dipped into his own pocket to keep the house through June.
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“I just want to show paintings, now I’m moving into urban planning,” he jokes. Even after he received the permit he needed from the Dallas Office of Special Events, Onifadé still grappled with uncertainty.
“I had to ask myself, ‘Is this essential?’” he says. “I had to justify it to the city, and I had to justify it myself.”
Ultimately, the protests spanning the nation were not an impediment, but an inspiration.
“Maybe this can be a part of the conversation,” Onifadé says of the show. “I want people to come here, talk about perception and gentrification. I want them to talk about humanity, then ask, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’”