Nigerian artist Yusuff Aina Abogunde discusses art from a multidisciplinary perspective, ranging from painting to sculpture to striking digital works.
Abogunde’s work is as experimental as it is exceptional. His art is made from the concept he calls “Ainaism” – a technique he sculpted from his name Aina. In the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, Aina is a name given to children born with their mother’s umbilical cord wrapped around their neck. Because her own birth experience had been one of struggle, Abogunde decided to make her work represent this ideology. The artistic concept of Ainaism is conveyed through textural lines, self-designed patterns and symbols.
Abogunde, who is 25, is mostly interested in illustrating experiential themes – telling stories of identity – and hopes that anyone who encounters these stories feels represented or has a beneficial relativity. Her art simply transcends race, sexuality and gender, expressing unity where it does not live and also exploring the versatility of human nature.
In a zoom interview, OkayAfrica spoke to Abogunde about discovering art, developing a niche, multidisciplinarity and finding a voice through his work.
Abogunde’s work is as experimental as it is exceptional.
Photo: by UNEARTHICAL (Ayanfe Olarinde)
How did you start making art?
It started when I was four years old. When I was in elementary school, my teacher gave us homework to draw a cake. Back home, I took my pencil and I drew [the cake] so I got a 10 out of 10. Because I got a really good mark, I realized I wanted to be an artist. However, I wanted to do other things, like be a goalkeeper or a dancer. But art was inherent to me and I wanted to do it – to draw, to paint, to do something unique that nobody does.
When did you decide to become an artist?
I started my career as an artist in 2016, it was the time when I was surrounded by great artistic energy and I felt it was the best time to share that with the world. So I came close to travel, discovering my niche, my style. And I wanted to explore it in a versatile way, in several mediums. In the long run, I was able to understand my artistic potential and it helped me create my character Eniyan in 2018, which became my most recognizable niche. I am happy that after several years of my career, I was able to use my Eniyan to capture many stories navigating human identity and emotions and it touched people’s lives in the most perfect way.
Your artistic approach spans several art mediums. Was it intentional?
I think I would call myself a multidisciplinary artist, that’s the best way to describe myself. I work with different modes of creation: I paint, I draw, I can work on any surface and any support. I also sculpt. My work spans different elements of artistic creation.
Tell me the inspiration behind your Ainaism concept?
Ainaism is coined from my name Aina. It is a name given to children born with an umbilical cord wrapped around their neck. Children born in this state always face moments of life and death. Each child who survives this birth fatality is called Aina because it is a sign of breakthrough and patience. My patterns came to me as I was trying to write something and I just typed toothlane in the moving lines but I didn’t know what to call it then because I didn’t even know my name was Aina at the time. So one day I was having a conversation with my mom and she started telling us our nicknames and she told me I was Aina. I started reading the meaning of my name and that led to my art style. I use the lines to represent the umbilical cord. I started to use my lines and movement patterns to express the possible pressure and breakthrough of life. I have incorporated it into my paintings and I also associate it with my character which is my dominant style of painting.
Who inspired your artistic journey?
My inspiration is myself. I am most inspired by the things I pay attention to. Over the past year I have started to pay more attention to myself and my desires, creating things that are personal to me. I am most inspired by the things around me, including the human spirit. My inspiration comes from my thoughts, the things I want people to know, but the zeal to learn more about myself inspires me the most.
“The Mask was a character I designed a while ago that I knew how powerful he was until I met a few mentors,” Abogunde said. “They’ve seen me create this character many times.”
Photo: by UNEARTHICAL (Ayanfe Olarinde)
I love that your work strongly embodies the theme of identity
My ode to identity themes is associated with my character who is Eniyan — the mask. The Mask was a character I designed a while ago that I knew how powerful it was until I met a few mentors, they saw me create this character several times. I had to look deep into what the character was, I started to see something beyond just a mask, I started to see life and humanity in it. I decided to use it as my voice to express unity in people’s identity. It is a mask that can be anyone and no one in particular. It was a link to unity. The mask is a phenomenon of relativity to several people. It represents everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality and race.
During the EndSARS event, you made a series of paintings referring to this tragic moment. What were your emotions doing this?
I created pieces during the EndSARS period. I called them “Unbound no more”. I was not physically protesting but I was protesting through my art and my space. It wasn’t even easy trying to be creative at that time, I went through a lot of subtle emotions. At some point I thought to myself that I had to finish “hairline plus” in a month because it was an overwhelming time and also get to October 20 where a lot of people were killed. I took it personally because I wanted to go to the physical manifestation but I got sick that morning. I began to realize how much this must have affected me because I would be there physically and could have been one of the people who died, were injured or went missing in the massacre. So, during this period, I could feel all the marks of ainism. I was creating with these pieces, incorporating my Eniyan. A lot of thought and imagination went into creating them. The pain was not mine, it was the pain I felt from government, harassment and police brutality, every day of my life in Lagos and also that my close friends suffered, where they were also mugged and put in jail for just looking good as a youngster.
Yusuff Aina Abogunde starts making NFTs.
Photo: by UNEARTHICAL (Ayanfe Olarinde)
Did you recently make some 3D Eniyans? Tell me about that.
I am now into 3D creations. I did a test on some of them through NFT and there are some works where I just introduce my mask as part of life and introduce the idea behind the character Eniyan. It’s just basically me trying to figure out what NFT is, I was also part of the NFT residency under voiceHQ. I did an animated piece because all of my NFTs are animated. I didn’t do anything major because I take my time to create my own community. Let’s see what the year unfolds and I will definitely launch a collection of Eniyan 3D. NFTs are a bit tricky. One of [the challenges] finds an NFT platform to download which was free but at an early stage. It costs a fee to mint NFTs. After the minting, I paid gas fees to rent the NFT because I had no crypto in my wallet. So I had to buy ethereum on the black market.
Do you have any ongoing projects that we should anticipate?
My new project, “Escape Room”, explores my observations and study of the human mind regarding our daily psychological issues of decision-making and how we process our way out of our problems. I use my Eniyan mask character as a way to represent humans and people by placing it between an open doorway in an unusual space, a space that represents my view of what the mind looks like using physical structure references real, like windows and door to get my message across. The idea of placing Eniyan between these doors is to show a stage of people’s confusion and indecision, a time or period where they just need to take a step and go through to the other side. The issues I explore are both physical and psychological like domestic violence, low self-esteem, ego, child
imprisonments, anxiety and many more. My goal with this project is to create a physical experience through installations and sculptures in large and small spaces, inside and outside around the world, as a way for people to confront their issues and find the courage to make their decisions, so that they end up in my plays.
This project is currently being explored in the form of paintings on canvas, but in the months to come I look forward to opportunities and ways to bring this idea to life.
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