Nigerian artist Samson Bakare's time-travelling art reimagines Africa's past in an intriguing way
On the eve of his upcoming solo exhibition 'Let This Be A Sign', Nigerian artist, painter and sculptor Samson Bakare tells Creative Boom about his inspirations, process and unique approach to re-envisioning the history of Africa.
Nigerian artist, painter, and sculptor Samson Bakare's work celebrates black life and Pan-Africanism – but not in the way you might expect.
Rather than portraying his subjects as victims, his artworks feature vibrant scenes of black characters enjoying moments of privilege and leisure, challenging the traditional narratives of Western art and the dark side of Western history. He describes his paintings as "time machines" as they venture back into the past and depict an African society that might have existed had history taken a different turn.
As he prepares to exhibit 15 brand-new works – including paintings, sculptures and pictorial installations – at Dorothy Circus London, we chatted with Samson to learn more about his unique approach to art.
Approach to colour
One of the things we were keen to find out about was how Samson chose the palette for his paintings, which are bold, vibrant and characterised by a strong sense of contrast.
"I draw inspiration from nature and the vibrant colours found in flowers and flora," he responds. "In addition, I challenge societal stereotypes in the colour psychology of my African culture by using colours that are not gendered. Furthermore, I'm influenced by past art movements such as Pop Art, Impressionism and Dadaism, and how they use vivid and vibrant colours in their work, which I try to incorporate in my own style."
What about the people he depicts: are they inspired by real people, or do they just stem from his imagination? "When it comes to figures, various sources heavily influence my work," he answers. "I draw inspiration from East African Coptic art, which is often found in early churches in Ethiopia, and from the NOK art of Nigeria, one of the earliest forms of art in the country.
"I also have an appreciation for comics and manga, which has influenced my style in certain ways," he adds. "However, I'm not just limited to one style or genre of art: I am a multidisciplinary artist, and I try to be as versatile as possible. My work is also inspired by the people around me and the random things that I come across in my everyday life."
That said, for Samson, it's not just about 'drawing what you see', as if he were merely a human equivalent of a smartphone camera. Instead, he sees imagination as the channel through which his art can flow.
"I believe that my imagination is always at work, and it flows into my subconscious, which can appear in my dreams, according to Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis," he explains. "Overall, I am constantly pushing myself to explore different styles and techniques as I strive to create something unique and reflective of my personal experiences and perspectives."
Working at scale
On average, he estimates it takes him around three weeks to complete a painting, although larger pieces, which can be as big as six by eight feet, can take up to two months to finish. And he likes to utilise various techniques to achieve a wide range of artistic effects and expressions.
"The technique employed in a painting can greatly impact its outcome, and as such, it is essential for artists to master and experiment with various techniques," he believes. "Techniques such as the tripod dry brush technique, for example, can add a level of texture and depth to a painting, while the use of different media can also contribute to the overall impact and meaning of the artwork."
How he approaches a specific painting will depend a lot on his state of mind at the time. "At times, I may prefer to work in solitude as a writer or introvert, while at other times, I may embrace my extroverted side and connect with the public through my art," he says.
"The atmosphere and environment in my studio also play a role in my creative process. For example, if I'm painting a calm scene, I'll try to create a quiet environment, whereas if I'm painting something more lively and jovial, I may put on upbeat music to match the piece's energy."
Samson also likes to explore the mood and atmosphere of different places and locations through his work. "For example, in one painting, I imagined what it would feel like to visit London in the 1930s," he says. "Even though I'd never been to London before, I tried to imagine the mood and atmosphere of the city through the stories and pictures of my friends and movies, then tried to reproduce that in my painting. When I have an idea of something I want to paint, I immerse myself in my subconscious – where my idea is – and paint what I find in my head."
History meets imagination
This twin-mining of history and imagination is central to Samson's overall approach. As we mentioned earlier, the artist is known for venturing back into the past and depicting an African society that might have existed had history taken a different turn: black people in positions of power, in full control of their surroundings. It's an unusual approach, but he says it comes naturally.
"My art is metaphysical in nature," he explains. "I'm fascinated by capturing things beyond what we see in the physical world. I'm also drawn to historical settings and try to document places that I might not have physically seen but where I feel a sense of recognition as a human being.
"This interest in the past extends to questioning things about life and how it has changed over time in terms of fashion, architecture, and human thinking," he adds. "I sample these things as a form of documentary. I believe one way to determine the future is to study the past, as history often repeats itself. So I pay attention to current innovations and technology and how this has changed. I find it interesting how certain people can see beyond what's happening in the world."
Samson's interest in fashion isn't just theoretical, though: it has a marked influence on how he paints. Samson's characters are typically styled with original outfits he has devised, and they often reference popular contemporary brands.
"Fashion is a powerful tool that can be used to convey ideas and make statements about society," Samson believes. "It is not just a way to cover one's nakedness, but also a way to make a statement about one's personal style and identity. Fashion plays an important role in my art, and how fashion is the future of art. In this way, the choice of clothing can be seen as an extension of one's artistic expression."
And he sees a revolving door between fashion designers and others in the creative industries. "Fashion designers often draw inspiration from various sources, including visual artists," he points out. "They're typically inspired by stylish personalities, including actors, who have an eye for how materials can be used to create elegant and fashionable garments. In my case, Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, was inspired by my work and reached out to collaborate with him."
Samson's work has become prominent at an interesting time when African art is experiencing a lot of attention from international collectors and becoming a leading movement in contemporary art. Samson certainly believes that the current shift towards inclusivity and representation in the art world, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, has led to greater opportunities and visibility for African artists. But he also feels there's still a long way to go.
"In my opinion, I believe that there is still a level of injustice and inequality present in the art world, specifically in the way that art created by people of colour is often labelled and categorised as 'black art', while art created by Europeans is simply considered 'art'," he says.
"This kind of labelling perpetuates the idea that art created by people of colour is somehow different or lesser than art created by Europeans. It can make it difficult for artists of colour to gain recognition and opportunities within the industry. That's why I am trying to exhibit my art in spaces that are not specifically 'black oriented', to bring my work to a wider audience and promote inclusivity and representation."
More generally, he adds, "The African art scene is relatively new compared to other parts of the world, so I want to take the opportunity to showcase African art and culture to the rest of the world to break down the stereotype and cultural shock that people may have when they see it. I want to make African art as familiar to people as any other art form so that it becomes 'us' and not just 'us African'."
That said, Samson strives to distance himself from any specific movement or cause and focuses on furthering his artistic goals and vision.
"I believe that originality and distinctiveness are crucial for the growth and respect of art, and I see the similarity in style among some African artists as a hindrance to achieving this," he explains. "I believe that African artists should strive to be unique and stand out in their work rather than simply replicating the styles and techniques of others. By doing so, we can not only create a more dynamic and varied art scene but also gain the respect of the international art community."
In his work, he says, he strives to represent and reflect the experiences and perspectives of people from his part of the world and showcase African culture's diversity and richness. "My work aims to challenge the under-representation and stereotypes of African art and artists and to promote the inclusivity and representation of all people."
That's not his only message, of course. "Since I started creating art, I have been aiming to always convey various messages and ideas through my paintings," he explains. "However, one of the most prominent and overarching messages I strive to communicate is inclusivity in all forms. This includes inclusivity of race, gender, sexuality, and colour.
"I believe that art should be inclusive and representative of all people, breaking down stereotypes and societal norms," he says. "Using textures, colours, and forms, I aim to create a sense of inclusivity and acceptance in my work. This message of inclusivity is important to me, as it highlights the importance of diversity and representation in the art world and reflects my belief in the importance of creating an inclusive and accepting society."
Samson Bakare's solo exhibition, Let This Be A Sign, opens at the Dorothy Circus Gallery, 35, Connaught St, London, W2 2AZ from today until 8 April.