Appreciating cultural heritage and using it to imagine a better future: this is one of the goals of self-taught photographer and visual artist Ade Okelarin.
Professionally, he goes by the name “Àsìkò” — the word for “time” or “moment” in Yoruba, one of the languages of his native Nigeria. Drawing on aspects of traditional Yoruba culture has been an important aspect of his creative journey. Through two recent series titled “Guardians” and “Of Myth and Legend,” he has portrayed Yoruba deities, or “Òrìshàs.”
In Yoruba history, the Òrìshàs were sacred beings with divine powers, and belief in them continued beyond West Africa, transmitted by slaves and their descendants to the Caribbean and South America, among other places. But growing up in Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s, where mainstream education about indigenous beliefs was not common, O’Killerine says her journey as an artist has been about deconstructing previous knowledge.
“The work is about exploring things and understanding things that I wasn’t taught in school,” O’Keleran said, “and making space for me to understand the legacy and create something with the legacy.”
His portraits and images of Òrìshàs combine traditional photography with artificial intelligence (AI), digital editing techniques and collaging, and Okelarin’s way of making connections between different world myths, through which he says , we are all connected in our deeply rooted stories. .
While researching the projects, he noticed similarities between elements of Yoruba and Western mythology, such as the Yoruba god Sango and the Norse god Thor, both gods of thunder and lightning, and Òrìshà Olokun, who represents the ocean, in his Greek Like. counterpart to Poseidon.
In this work, Okelarin reimagines Olokun, the Yoruba goddess of seas, oceans and wealth. Credit: Àsìkò
He says the basis of his work is to understand where Africans are from as a society and help shape the future “based on cultural ideology and aesthetics, not on Westernization.”
Okelarin moved to the UK in 1995 and says his research into his own culture changed his reference from a Western gaze to a “pretty different perspective” and helped him understand his heritage.
“In an increasingly globalized world, it is important to maintain a sense of identity that informs better social structures,” Okelarin said. “Westernization is not the answer to progress, but we need a fusion of who we are and what the world has to offer or we will lose what makes us ‘us’.” Creating and sharing these images using modern technology and techniques is one way to show that. “Our stories matter,” he added.
Despite having an affinity for art and photography for as long as he can remember — surrounded by African art in Nigeria that his father collected — O’Killerine studied chemistry and worked as a data architect in the pharmaceutical industry. Worked, which he says in part, led to “Nigerian parents who didn’t want him to be a starving artist.” But a change in mindset over time prompted him to focus on photography full-time by 2015.
Okelarin says that raising awareness about socio-political issues that affect his community and society is another of his roles as an artist. He says his travels, culture and experiences living in Yoruba are part of his work life, which covers themes of female genitalia, masculinity, mysticism, identity and race.
Her fictional imagery, as well as other projects, such as the 2020 series “She’s Adorned,” employ the concept of layering, with subjects literally adorned in layers of African beads and jewels. Okelarin also uses digital rendering, layering images with aspects of his cultural heritage, such as fabric and texture. This fusion of different processes — traditional photography with AI — has “opened up powerful imaginative possibilities” for him.
“She is embraced by the sun.” Credit: Àsìkò
Some of these new possibilities include painting and sculpture, he says. In 2022, he created a globe artwork for the World Reimagined project, a British art history education project around the transatlantic slave trade that featured over 100 globes across the UK.
His work has been exhibited in the UK, Nigeria and the US, and he recently launched his first set of NFTs with Bridge Gallery, a fine art NFT photography gallery.
With work that reaches back into the past, and that is always evolving, O’Kelerin says he continues to open himself up to travel to allow for experimentation and growth.
“As I grew up, I found the culture I came from had beauty and resonance,” he said. “Living in the diaspora, now more than ever, my cultural heritage is a big part of my identity and who I am. It’s a strength.”