Artist profile: Shola Akintonwa

A story in every stroke

For modern contemporary artist Shola Akintonwa, paintings are an emotional story-telling experience. Rajeev Nair met her in Dubai, where she hosts her first exhibition in the Middle East at ArtSpace gallery

Photographs: Chandra Balan

That Shola Akintonwa narrates a story in every painting couldn’t have been accidental. A Nigerian, who grew up in London, she discovered the essence of painting in the story-telling tradition that marks African art.
The rest of her life, she says, has been a series of happy coincidences… (even her first exhibition in the Middle East, now on, at the Artspace Gallery in Dubai. It was a series of incidental meetings with people, one leading to the other.)
She recalls drifting through her formative years in London. She ran a model agency fully aware that it wasn’t what she ought to be doing.
She was always into colours but not art per se, and eventually discovered her strengths through her association with a formidable trio: Her former boyfriend Simon, a singer with an Irish band; and his friends, Bono of U2 and Guggi Rowan, “a fantastic Irish artist.”
An untrained artist, Rowan was the first to convince Shola that she could paint. And so she tapped into interesting emotional experiences from her own life. “Those were things common to women, things that happen to them, no matter where they come from,” she recalls.
Her first piece was purely instinctive and totally unrestrained. She had no audience to play to, none to impress, and she simply hung her painting on her living room wall, unsigned.
The responses encouraged her; so did the £2,000, it fetched in less than two weeks. “I was very charged,” says Shola. “I can’t believe that people are allowing to me to make this (art), which I love so much, my profession.”
However, she says the influence of the threesome in her life has been formidable. “I am awed by the fact that these three people came from nowhere and they are all accomplished in different ways, being the most excellent in their kind of work.”
Following her first painting, some ten years back, she returned to Nigeria. “I examined the paintings, the pigments, the carvings, and realised that in everything they do, there is a story. Art in Nigeria is a very living thing, not something you do to be bought or sold for the living room,” she says.
Shola took that learning back to London and subsequently integrated that with her learning on the chemistry of painting, of mixing various media.
For the last five years, she has been living in Rome, opting for the more relaxed Italian lifestyle than the hectic UK one. The artist in her too demanded the shift. “I like to use natural daylight. In London, half the year, I do not see natural light,” she says.
Shola says an African influence — “the fact that there is always a story” — in her works is rather sub-conscious. “If you look hard enough, you could interpret the story, perhaps more related to women. Even in the abstract pieces, there is a very meditative thread.”
Her primary palette comprises red, black and white. “Red is strong, makes people happy; white is clean, pure and just so right; and black, mostly as a tool, a background,” she explains the logic.
An instinctive artist and human being, Shola paints what she feels and sees, often starting without any idea. “Whatever I have got in life and painting, has been through my instincts. And often what I paint, comes out as an inner feeling with a story.”
Shola says she realises that she is an African, a black woman, wherever she is. “It isn’t a negative thing. It is part of my identity. And this thinking never leaves you, and it perhaps reflects in the paintings too.”
She combines a variety of textures with oil to create a sort of three-dimensional feel to her works. “A blind person can actually feel the contours of the paintings,” she adds.
Sure enough, for Shola, art is to be seen, experienced and lived. After all, aren’t her paintings stories from within?

Shola Akintonwa exhibits her paintings at ArtSpace Gallery on ninth level of Fairmont Dubai. The show, sponsored by EFG-Hermes, runs through Oct. 26.

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