All images pertaining to the artist have been provided courtesy of them
What does it mean to be Nigerian? That is the question I want to pose across Memoir III and Memoir IV. Or to be precise What does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st Century London? As someone who is half Nigerian, I have always heard the phrase, “You’re not Nigerian?!”. What’s wilder is that I have even heard phrases such as, “What are you Nigeroon or Camergerian?”. But I digress Let’s ignore Cameroon and focus on Nigeria.
So, what does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st Century London? If I want to answer this question, I have to look at the country, Nigeria. Nigeria is an interesting country with a rich history, the country has been independent for 59 years. In its lifetime it has seen a civil war (The Biafran Civil war), coups and its own fair share of corruption. But if we ignore the egregious events, the country has achieved a vast amount of success.
Fun Fact, well-ish The word “Nigeria” was allegedly coined by Flora Lugard a British journalist. She created the name from “Niger”, the river Niger which runs through Nigeria and the word “Area”. What is also interesting is that she would go on to marry Fedrick Lugard who played an important role in the formation of modern Nigeria
So how does colonialism link to my question? Well, my point is Nigeria had a rich history even before colonial rule. So when I try to answer this question it’s difficult, because it’s multifaceted. I need to go beyond colonial rule and look at the country when it was divided into multiple tribes. So as a result, if I want to really answer the question, what does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st Century London? I technically have to answer the question, what does it mean to be Yoruba in 21st Century London?
For those who don’t know my third name is “Olanrewaju”, and if you are Nigerian or even West African, you can infer that the name is of Yoruba origin. Olanrewaju translates to, “My wealth is moving forward”. When I was growing up, I hated the name, due to people mocking me and laughing at it whenever it was said. But now it’s different, I’m not embarrassed by my third name and I actually like it, because it is part of my identity and going back to my true question, what does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st Century London?
Well, I say this, I can’t dance like a Nigerian, I can’t shaku shaku or zanku I barely eat Nigerian food I mostly grew up with my Cameroonian mum, so I grew up eating Cameroonian food and I have never been to Nigeria. But what I do know is that I know where the country has been, and I know where it is going. It is that “journey” to that destination that I want to be a part of, and I think that is what it means to be Nigerian in 21st Century London.
For me and other people from the Nigerian diaspora, finding out what it means to be Nigerian is always a difficult challenge, especially when all you know is Western culture. Someone who uses her work to describe her journey is Lola Betiku or Labet.
Lola has always been interested in art, and her interest in art stemmed from fashion.
With regards to Lola’s mother, she too plays an important part in Lola’s artistic journey. Lola’s mother is all about fashion; from selling lace around Africa and Europe to making jewellery, Lola’s mother is self-employed and a socialite within her circle.
Lola’s story starts in secondary school and during this period, Lola embraced all the different forms of art. She would do multiple graphite drawings With regards to colour which Lola’s work is known for, that would come later Moreover, her art teacher, Mr Bolt, played a vital role in her development. In Lola’s words, “When he saw you had a certain skill, he would tap into that. He would let you drift and when he saw that you had a particular style, he would nurture that”. Lola loved Mr Bolt because she bounced off his teaching methods.
As she progressed to GCSE, Lola began to capture emotion through her work. For her GCSE project, she drew someone who was trapped in themselves. This was a self-reflection piece because at the time she was facing multiple social pressures, such as trying to be cool.
For Lola, art was a release, and even in her teens, she would throw herself into her art, using both pastels and graphite pencils. Within her work, she would show multiple emotions, and it was at this point Lola started to focus more on her technique and showing human features, than experimenting with various colours.
Furthermore, during this period, the artist, Amedeo Modigliani was also a person Lola drew inspiration from. Modigliani used dead expressions in his pieces and this intrigued Lola.
But Eventually, Lola started to use colour in her work, but she still there was still an element of distrust within herself. Lola said the following, “It was oil pastels and watercolours I used because that was something, I could dip my toes in. But it was still dull tones, for example, brown and grey.”.
During her time in College, Lola knew she wanted to do art. But there was a barrier in place, her parents. Lola’s father always wanted her to be an engineer. What’s interesting is Lola’s father was an artist himself, but he never tapped into his artistic side. For Lola, this idea of being an engineer was always in the back of her mind. So, when she was choosing her A-Levels, she knew that in order to get into university, she had to choose subjects that were engineering-related. However, the subjects had to be engaging and they had to give her the opportunity to draw. As a result, A-Levels, she chose Graphic Design, as it involved elements of drawing, but it was not completely fine art and 3D design. In terms of what she wanted to study at university, Lola decided to pursue architecture and from that point on, Lola made it her mission.
Lola enjoyed her A-Levels; with Graphic Design, she was able to express herself artistically and with regards to 3D design, it was a conceptual subject. So for Lola, her A-Levels was fine art in disguise. However, in the back of her mind, she knew her time was limited, as she would have to venture off to architecture.
Before university, Lola worked at WilkinsonEyre, took part in extra curriculum activities related to architecture, and created sculptures for RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) exhibitions.
All these achievements were preparing Lola for architecture, but she could never quench her passion for art, as it would always crop up.
Lola would go on to do a foundation year at Chelsea College of Arts, and it was here that Lola got a taste of everything related to fine art. While here, her tutor tapped into her ability to spatial design and through her tutor’s support, she produced pieces for theatre productions. January that academic year, Lola chose spatial design instead of fine art. She then had the option to do either interior design or theatre design. She chose interior design and around October the next academic year, she wanted to do illustration.
By November, Lola wanted to change course and start illustration and this was without her parent’s consent. So, she turned to her friend, Sonia for advice, and Sonia told her to build up her portfolio. Sonia also set up a meeting with the head of the course and it was through this meeting, that Lola was told she could join the course but the following academic year.
This was a massive shock to Lola. explaining to West African parents you are changing course and you must wait a year?! It’s a foreign concept and I think Lola’s experience gives a good insight into West African culture. As someone who took a gap year, I received this apprehensive feeling too from my parents, they feared me being “behind” in education
After considering her options, Lola went back to study interior design. Here and then she would try to sneak in some art into her course. But by the end of her second year, Lola started to draw again.
By the summer of her second year, Lola was trapped in her emotions, she felt caged. It was at this point Lola realised that this urge to paint was something she could not fight, she had to accept it.
After graduating with a degree in interior design, that summer of 2008, Lola drew two pieces, one of the two pieces was Summer 08.2 (painted 2008).
Summer 08.2 is the Genesis of Lola or Labet; this is Lola’s way of communicating to us that she needs to produce art to survive. With regards to the creation of Summer 08.2, the piece was created from cardboard. Lola said in our interview, “I sat like a child and just painted like a zombie on these cardboard boxes we had lying around our house”. For Lola, Summer 08.2 was a way of exploring her emotions, as she felt trapped by her course. If you look at the piece the strokes are erratic, and this is deliberate because Lola wants to tell a story, her own story. The background is white, and I think the use of this colour further shows the isolation that Lola felt at the time. Even the tears, they are there to depict how she was mentally feeling, Lola was in a situation in which she did not know who to talk to.
Summer 08 (painted 2008) [Acrylic paint on recycled board 48 x 63cm]
With regards to the name Labet, it comes from her name, Lola Betiku, the letters L and A come from Lola, and the letters B, E and T come from Betiku. As well as that, the name comes from her father, “My father always wanted to have his own business so if he ever had a business, he would call it, Labet”.
During our interview, I asked Lola, “At what point did you consider yourself an artist?”. Lola responded to my question with the following statement, “I don’t think I feel like that now. I am just living and trying to be me. Part of being me is that I paint my feelings, I paint what I am about.”.
For Lola, the expectations that come with being called an “artist” brings extra pressure and having such a title means she must conduct herself in a certain manner. She does not want to be caged by such a title; she wants to be free in expressing herself since art is something sees as a part of her breathing.
With regards to her art, Lola describes it as an expression of how she feels and her response to certain moments in her life. Lola’s art is a medium she uses to talk about where she is from and who she has encountered. “My art is a representation of a life, somebody’s life, somebody’s journey”.
I applaud Lola’s work because it shows her cultural pride. She is an individual who is trying to connect with Nigeria just like myself.
In Lagos Special (painted 2017), Lola gives us a taste of Nigerian Culture.
Afrobeats is one of Nigeria’s many exports and Lola uses this appreciation to create Lagos Special. In November 2017, Lola had a solo exhibition called “HiGHLiFE SOLDiERS” and it was at this exhibition she showcased this piece. In Lola’s words, Lagos Special is her reintroduction into African culture, in particular, the nightlife. In the piece we see a group of people enjoying themselves into the late night. Multiple things are occurring in the piece, from people flirting to people sipping Guinness to people just dancing. When it comes to Lagos Special, Lola states, “All these things are parents do, we start to do them”, and she is right. We as the next generation are reaching a point where we are embracing our culture and holding on to certain traditions. Moreover, Lola states this was the piece in which she started to use blue. Lola uses the colour to create a mystical scenery. Lastly, if we look at the girl in the red dress, it is Lola, she is a bystander in all this enjoyment. If we look at her body language, she is relaxed and observing all that unfolds around her.
Lagos Special (painted 2017) [Acrylic paint on canvas 65 x 90cm] from HiGHLiFE SOLDiERS
In Home. Coming. (painted 2019) and Sundays Best (painted 2019), Lola uses the two pieces to discuss her life in Nigeria.
During her time in Nigeria, Lola was ill, and it was a frustrating period for her because it occurred during the Christmas period. In her own eyes, she had returned to the motherland and this was how Nigeria was treating her. But it was through those pieces and many more, that she looked retrospectively at her time in Nigeria. What she learned was that in Nigeria you can either, laugh or just be frustrated. But behind all the chaos and the hustle and bustle, people just get on. Throughout the chaos there is beauty, and through embracing that chaos and embracing who you are, you can appreciate life even more.
In Home. Coming., we see Lola reach a new resolve after her trip to Nigeria, she accepts both her Nigerian culture and British culture. This piece is a culmination of Lola’s identity. We see the iconic molue bus, which is a symbol of Nigeria’s public transport and the hackney street sign which is a symbol of her hometown. It is here in Home. Coming., that the two worlds collide and standing in the middle of this collision is Lola. If you look at Lola’s left hand, you can see her holding a white cloth. The cloth represents her surrendering and coming to terms, that both cultures make up her identity. If you look at her body language, she does not hold the white cloth as if she is scared or as if she has been brutally defeated. No, she is poised and relaxed and she clutches the cloth as a sign that she has accepted the two cultures.
Home. Coming. (painted 2019) [Acrylic paint on canvas 21 x 30cm] from The_iNTERLUDE
Moreover, if we look at Lola’s work, she uses multiple colours for human skin, and this is deliberate. Lola states that she does this to celebrate black skin, “We are not just one thing, we are patches of different feelings”.
In Sundays Best, we see this, and this is the reason why, Sundays Best is my favourite piece by Lola, as it perfectly captures the essence of a Nigerian woman. If we look at the piece, we see two women who are strong and elegant. They both exude a no-nonsense attitude. To the left is Lola’s aunt and on the right is her mother, the woman with the shades and bag. With regards to her aunt, Lola sees her as her second mum. During Lola’s time in Nigeria, she stayed with her aunt. In Sundays Best, we see the two juxtaposed but simultaneously complementing each other. Starting with personality, the two are completely different from each other. Lola describes her aunt as someone who was always quiet and her mother as someone who is always outspoken and confident. If you pay close attention to the piece you can see the following being depicted, the woman in the front leading the two, is her mother. Next, their body language, Lola’s aunt looks to the side and Lola’s mother looks directly forward. But when we look at their clothing the two complement each other, they are both wearing the same colour attire and gele. These women are primed and ready, no camera in the world can catch them off guard.
Sundays Best (painted 2019) [Acrylic paint on canvas 30 x 30cm] from The_iNTERLUDE
It was Lola’s use of blue that captured my attention when I first encountered her work. Also, how she used the colour alongside other colours. You can see this from pieces such as Guardians (painted 2019), Lola has studied blue and all its shades to such fine detail.
Guardians is one of Lola’s most treasured pieces. In Guardians, Lola pays homage to her grandparents. During our interview, Lola told me about her grandmother and how she ran her mother’s shop in Homerton while she was in London. Lola’s grandmother would step out with her African attire and navigate her way around London, all without speaking fluent English. “My grandma would have in depth conversations with our neighbours and all she would just do is nod her head and say, “Yes Ma”. My neighbours would just know what she was thinking just through her body language”.
In Lola’s house, the piece is placed in the corridor and it serves as a reminder that both her grandparents are always watching her. If we look at both figures, they both stand tall, Lola’s grandfather wears the iconic agbada along with the ṣokoto and fila, and her grandmother wears an iro, buba and the signature head wrap, gele. If we focus on their body language, Lola’s grandmother clutches her handbag and her face is neutral. The same can be seen from her grandfather’s face. This neutral expression is further emphasised by the two wearing tinted shades, by them wearing the tinted shades you cannot see their eyes and as a result, cannot deduce their body language. But even with this neutral expression, you can tell that they are both confident in themselves and likewise in Sundays Best, nothing can catch them off guard.
Guardians (painted 2019) [Acrylic paint on wood board 55 x 60cm] from The_iNTERLUDE
Moreover, in terms of artists from the past who inspire her, Lola has a wide selection of artists she draws inspiration from. Beside Amedeo Modigliani, they are; Bridget Riley, Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Renee Margarite and Henri Matisse. With regards to Bridget Riley, Lola loves her use of colours and patterns. For Pablo Picasso, it is the African influence that appears in his work. Lastly, with regards to David Hockney, it is his portraiture and his recent command of different colours. If we look at contemporary artists who inspire Lola, then the list is endless, as she is inspired by an array of different artists, especially those who are new to the scene.
Lola’s mission statement when it comes to her art is for her viewers to have pride in themselves. She wants you to see her work and connect with it. In terms of what to expect from Lola, she stated the following, “Follow my journey. I like the organic process; I want it to be natural and I don’t want to put a time frame. In terms of planning, when the spirit leads me I am ready to do this. I want you to follow my journey and watch this space”.
All in all, Lola is an individual who is inspired by movements such as Fauvism and Expressionism, using the two and more, she is telling her journey through. Lola never shies from depicting female empowerment. In her pieces, she shows females as graceful, strong and elegant. Her art is a visual journal that tells a story of a woman who is proud of her heritage and someone who sees the opulence in being true to yourself regardless of where you dwell.
At the beginning of this memoir I asked the question, what does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st century London? And I think with the help of Lola and her work, I have one half of the answer, and that is cultural pride.
With regards to the other half, well I need Memoir IV.
To see more of Lola Betiku’s work visit www.labetmakesart.co.uk and follow her on instagram @labet.makes.art