There’s immense strength in acknowledging and celebrating our truest selves — Akinlabi ‘Phisha’ Akinbulumo

Akinlabi ‘Phisha’ Akinbulumo’s debut solo exhibition is ongoing at Kokopelli Gallery until January 20. In this interview with thelagosreview, he speaks on how the showcase titled: “Half Mask: IndiviDUALity” transcends the visual to explore the intricate dance between public personas and private vulnerabilities, delving into the struggle to project our best selves while concealing insecurities. 

Terh Agbedeh: What was the inspiration behind the title “Half Mask: Indivi-duality” and how does it reflect the theme of your debut exhibition?

Akinlabi ‘Phisha’ Akinbulumo: The title “Half Mask: IndiviDUALity” describes the fact that as humans we’re not always being our full self or showing that full self to others because we feel a need to create personas that allow us to position such that we can integrate better into society. It’s a universal narrative, the struggle to project our best selves while concealing insecurities. Each piece in the exhibition exposes the dual nature within us — fear juxtaposed with majestic strength, sadness underneath the joy we project and more. 

With this exhibition, I’m inviting people to introspect and reflect on their inner self – the soul behind the mask. 

TA: Your background includes a decade as a story spotter, storyteller and visual artist. How has this multifaceted experience influenced the creation of the artworks in this exhibition?

AA: Storytelling is at the core of everything I create as an artist. My background as a writer and storyteller has played a pivotal role in shaping my artistic approach. When I approach a new piece, I often see it as an opportunity to convey a narrative, to tell a story that goes beyond the visual elements alone. In my artistic process for this exhibition, I began by developing a concept that serves as the foundation for the entire piece. This concept of “Half Mask” is essentially the storyline that I want to communicate to the audience. Whether it’s a painting, sculpture, or any other form of art, I always strive to infuse it with a sense of narrative depth. Ultimately, my goal as an artist is not only to create visually captivating pieces but also to evoke emotions and provoke thoughts through storytelling. I believe that art has the unique ability to transcend its visual form and resonate with people on a deeper, more emotional level, and storytelling is the bridge that facilitates this connection.

TA: The exhibition explores the delicate interplay between public personas and private vulnerabilities. How do you believe this narrative resonates with a diverse audience, and what do you hope viewers take away from the experience? 

AA: At the heart of my artistic philosophy is the belief that every individual harbours aspects of themselves that they selectively reveal to others. It’s a nuanced dance of sharing vulnerabilities and building connections. I strive to bring this intricate human experience into my art.  In each of my pieces, I aim to weave narratives that resonate with the viewer on a personal level. Much like how we choose whom to share our innermost selves with, I want viewers to see reflections of their own stories in my work. By doing so, I hope to break down the barriers that often separate us and highlight the shared human experience that unites us all. The stories I tell are a mirror, inviting individuals to see themselves within the narrative and fostering a sense of commonality.

TA:Utilising high-contrast black and white photography/art is a distinctive aspect of your style. How does this choice contribute to the storytelling and the emotional impact of your pieces?

AA: For me, high contrast black and white photography is more than just an aesthetic choice; it’s a deliberate decision rooted in my belief that this medium has a unique ability to capture the soul of a subject. When you strip away colour, you eliminate distractions and allow the viewer to focus solely on the core and essence of the image. In essence, high contrast black and white photography is my chosen tool to spotlight the soul of a subject, inviting viewers to engage in a more focused and introspective visual journey.

TA: In the context of your exhibition, what role do the installation pieces play in furthering the narrative or enhancing the viewer’s experience? 

AA: For me, installations are an integral part of the exhibition experience because they extend beyond traditional visual appreciation, offering viewers a chance to actively engage with the narratives I’m presenting. While displaying artwork on walls is essential, installations provide a dynamic dimension that prompts viewers to interact with the stories on a more personal level. Moreover, these installations play a crucial role in humanizing me as an artist. By offering a glimpse into my creative process, viewers get to see the behind-the-scenes aspects of bringing the pieces to life. It’s an opportunity to demystify the artistic journey, allowing people to connect with the work on a more personal level. 

TA:The exhibition invites viewers to consider the masks they wear. Can you share a personal anecdote or reflection that directly influenced the creation of one of the artworks?

AA: There’s a specific piece in this exhibition that I’ve titled “The Unveil”. “The Unveil” holds a very special place in my heart as it symbolises a pivotal chapter in my creative journey. For years, I’ve navigated through various skills and talents, honing my abilities in different dimensions. However, at my core, I’ve always been an artist. The title “The Unveil” encapsulates the essence of my journey, particularly the process of unveiling and embracing my identity as an artist. For a long time, I grappled with the idea that being an artist might not be enough, that I needed to define myself by a multitude of skills to be considered truly successful. It’s a celebration of accepting that being an artist is not just enough but is, in fact, the essence of who I am. The piece reflects the liberation that comes with embracing one’s core identity, unapologetically. This piece serves as a reminder not only to myself but to others who may be on a similar journey, that there’s immense strength in acknowledging and celebrating our truest selves.

TA: Empathy and understanding are mentioned as outcomes of your artistic exploration. How do you believe art, and specifically your exhibition, can contribute to fostering these qualities in the collective journey of life?

AA: Empathy and understanding are not just themes in my art; they are guiding principles that I believe are crucial for fostering harmony and connection among individuals. In our complex and diverse world, I feel it’s essential to go beyond surface-level interactions and strive to comprehend the journeys and perspectives of others. Through this art exhibition, I aim to create a space that encourages viewers to step into the shoes of others. It’s about more than just appreciating the visual aesthetics; it’s an invitation to explore the narratives embedded in each piece and, by extension, in the human experience. Fundamentally, I hope to convey the idea that, despite our varied backgrounds and perspectives, we are all human first. When we recognize our shared humanity, navigating the complexities of life becomes more manageable.

TA: As a debut solo artist, how does it feel to showcase your work at Kokopelli Gallery, and what aspirations do you have for your future in the art world?

AA: Being able to showcase my work at Kokopelli Art Gallery is truly an honour. For me, creating art is not just a personal endeavor but a service to humanity and the world. I strive to ensure that, while I am the artist, viewers always see themselves first in the narratives I present. This philosophy aligns seamlessly with the ethos of Kokopelli, making our collaboration a perfect synergy. Kokopelli Art Gallery goes beyond being just a venue; it is a collective of artists who understand the profound value of storytelling. In any artistic collaboration, understanding the story I want to tell is paramount. The gallery’s commitment to storytelling is crucial for me because it ensures that my work is not just displayed but is truly understood. 

TA: The concept of integration with others is a central theme in your exhibition. How do you believe art has the power to bridge gaps and create connections in society?

AA: The beauty of art lies in its inherent ability to exist in shades of nuance and complexity. It’s never confined to a black-and-white perspective, rather, it provides a canvas for multiple truths to coexist within a single frame. In the world of art, there’s no rigid dichotomy of right or wrong; instead, there’s an open space for diverse perspectives and interpretations. It’s a celebration of the multitude of ways individuals perceive and experience the world. This open-minded approach is, in my opinion, a reflection of the world we should strive to create – one that embraces the richness of diverse viewpoints. If we could cultivate a global culture that values understanding perspectives without the constant need to convince others of our own rightness, it would undoubtedly lead to deeper connections.

TA: How does the immersive space of the Grotto at Kokopelli Gallery contribute to the storytelling experience in your exhibition? 

AA: ”Phisha’s Studio” is a special installation for me, as it allows me to peel back the curtain and invite viewers into the inner workings of my creative process. The grotto space at Kokopelli Art Gallery provides the perfect setting for this installation, allowing me to re-enact my art studio and share the journey from ideation to final artwork. The concept behind “Phisha’s Studio” is to create an immersive experience that showcases the blueprints, sketches, and ideas that constitute the foundation of my creative endeavors. It’s a way of demystifying the artistic process and, in essence, saying, “Here’s how I think, and here’s how I create.”  It’s an invitation to understand how I think and create, and it aligns with my broader philosophy of transparency in art. By sharing this process, I hope to inspire others and foster a deeper connection between the audience and the artist.

TA: The opening and closing events include an Artist Talk and a Tales & Cocktails evening. Can you provide a glimpse into what attendees can expect during these sessions and how they complement the overall exhibition experience?

AA: The “Tales and Cocktails” event is an exciting facet of our exhibition journey, designed to offer viewers a dynamic and immersive experience. It’s a performance showcase that aligns seamlessly with the exhibition’s theme of vulnerability and authenticity. The idea is to provide an opportunity for attendees to delve even further into the narratives presented in the artwork. The emphasis on creating a space for people to connect and feel a sense of belonging is at the core of this event. We want attendees to not only appreciate the art visually but also to engage with it emotionally and intellectually. Through “Tales and Cocktails” and the fireside chat, we hope to reinforce the human aspect of the entire exhibition journey. It’s about creating an inclusive environment where individuals can find common ground, share their own stories.

TA: As an artist who engages with the tradition and dialogue of storytelling, what advice do you have for aspiring artists looking to convey meaningful narratives through their art?

AA::One piece of advice I would emphasise to aspiring artists is the importance of being crystal clear on the story you want to tell through your art. Before putting brush to canvas or starting any creative endeavour, take the time to define the narrative you wish to convey. If the story isn’t immediately apparent, don’t hesitate to dive deep into research to fully understand and embrace it. It’s also crucial to remember that the art you create is not about you, it’s about the people for whom you’re creating. Invite them to see themselves in your art, to connect with the narratives you present. Rather than dictating a resolution or interpretation, offer a canvas for viewers to project their own experiences and emotions onto your work. By relinquishing some control and allowing your art to be owned by those who experience it, you foster a more inclusive and meaningful connection. I believe that Art is a collaborative experience.

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