Memoir IV: Layers

All images have been provided courtesy of the artist

So, what does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st century London? In the previous memoir, I focused on the history of Nigeria. So, for this memoir, I want to focus on London, specifically my upbringing in London. London is a unique city; my uncle in Russia calls it a cosmopolitan city, and others call it a multicultural city.

As a child, I grew up in Neasden, and I went to a school that had a good proportion of teachers who were black. Even my headteacher was black. The black teachers were of Caribbean descent. But nonetheless, black representation was present in my primary school. I didn’t comprehend concepts such as racism or colourism. Because I didn’t need to Majority of my friends were black, and even my non-black friends understood my culture to an extent. As well as that, people referred to me by my middle name which was Arabic. In terms of my first name, “Richard” people made fun of it, due to it sounding so “white”. As a child, I was comfortable with the identity, Black British.

I was also comfortable in my ignorance too; I had no clue about Nigeria. I knew I was half Nigerian, but I didn’t see the importance of learning about my culture.

Moreover, it was not until secondary school, that I fully realised I was “black”, and it was a massive shock. In my secondary school, a large majority of my teachers were white. It was so painfully obvious that some of them had never had a proper encounter with someone who was black, and especially someone who was black and working-class. What made it even worse, was amongst us black boys, we would ridicule each other about our cultures, our African names and even our skin colour.

Furthermore, instead of making fun of “Richard”, they made fun of my Arabic name. It was because of my environment, that I became so out of touch with my culture until sixth form.

When I look at my journey to accepting my Nigerian culture, it has been a very long and arduous process because I have lived with my mother for most of my life. As a result, in terms of being taught how to speak Yoruba or even understand Yoruba culture, that never happened. What I do remember was whenever my father would go to Nigeria, he would always ask me, “What do you want from Nigeria?”. As a child, I always wanted to say, money. Because it was easy, just give me some money and leave me to my own devices. But I knew that answer would be greeted by a lecture and a slap. Instead, I would say, “I want Nigerian clothes” and upon my father’s arrival he would bring a suitcase full of Nigerian clothes and I would wear none of them. I believe this was due to the sheer embarrassment and the fact I just wanted to blend into British culture. But In doing so I shunned my Nigerian heritage and I think because of this it had an impact on how I perceived my culture when I was growing up.

But what made me lose that ignorance, was that tile, “Black British” because it lulled me into a false sense of security. Whenever I would say I am Black British, I would always be greeted with, “But where are you really from?”. Translation: You’re not British! You’re black. Alternatively, when I would speak to my family in Nigeria. I would speak and they would make jokes about how I don’t speak Yoruba and my British accent. Translation: You’re not Nigerian! Or Yoruba! You’re British. So, it was a lose-lose situation and it left me in a confusing space because at the time I felt as if I had to pick a culture.

I think my upbringing in the UK coupled together with the fact my mother was not Nigerian, made it very difficult for me to understand my Nigerian heritage. There wasn’t this idea of instilling in me that I was half Nigerian. All I knew was that I was West African.

Today it is trendy, to be African. But back then, a vast majority of us were embarrassed and ashamed to learn our mother tongue. Because we all had the mindset of “What’s the point?”, along with “When will I ever use this language?”.

But after doing some soul searching, I see the importance of language and how learning one’s mother tongue helps. Well to an extent

But nevertheless, Nigerian or to be precise Yoruba wife or not, I will try to teach my children, my culture. Well, half of their dad’s culture

Because at the end of the day, it is my job as a parent to teach my children where they are from. Even if I have to look through the internet or buy multiple books, I owe it to them.

Because the journey to discovering the layers that make you as a person is complex and we all need help. So, for Memoir IV, I have enlisted the help of Sharon Adebisi.

During GCSE, Sharon studied Art, and she loved it. She enjoyed drawing and painting. But it was not until her last year of university, that she properly got into art.

Sharon studied Biological Science at university and during her last year, it was a stressful and tumultuous period. It was through her art, she found her solace.

Additionally, it was through the Aleto Foundation’s leadership programme, Sharon met other talented individuals. She was in awe of their talent and how they were excelling in their specific fields. “These people are using their talents to really excel and make a difference and make a mark on this world. What do I have, that I can use to make my mark?”.

Sharon’s art was her escape, but it was through seeing the monetary value of her art, that she recognised that she had a gift, and she embraced her creative side. People were captivated by her work and were willing to pay a price.

So, Sharon began to build on this momentum and started to do commissions. But Sharon’s journey was also filled with obstacles.  During this period, Sharon’s life was filled with emotional turmoil, she wanted to study medicine, but her path was full of rejections. But these rejections did not dampen her resolve, it only pushed her towards her art. “With art, no one can tell you no. With art it’s your own thing, you are coming as you are, and people accept you for that. But with medicine, you have to be a certain sort of person.”.

During a time in which her life-long passion, medicine was rejecting her. Sharon saw art as something that clothed her and welcomed her during this period.

In the beginning, Sharon’s parents did not support her artistic side. During A-Levels, Sharon did Art along with Biology, Chemistry and Sociology. At the end of A-Levels, she achieved an A in Art and Sociology but received a lower grade in Biology and Chemistry, her parents were furious by this. They saw her art as a distraction, due to the time she spent and believed the time she was spending on her art could have been put towards her science A-Levels.

But when Sharon started to make money from her pieces, her parents changed their opinion and the praises started to come through along with the odd, “Can you do this painting for my friend?”.

With the money coming in from her pieces, Sharon saw an opportunity. This year Sharon secured a place to study medicine, and with the money she had amassed. Sharon wants to use that money to pay for her tuition and her parents champion this.

Besides the Aleto Foundation, Sharon is thankful for her friends and her ex for cultivating her artistic side. Sharon said in our interview, “When I showed my ex my work, he said to me, “Sharon what are you doing! You need to start selling these!”.”. Hearing such words made Sharon stop and think about the potential of her work.

In regards to artists who inspire Sharon. Her inspiration comes from multiple avenues. For example, the contemporary artists she sees when she attends exhibitions. It is through seeing other people’s work that her creativity is stimulated. Lola Betiku (from Memoir III) and the self-taught artist Sarah Owusu are other examples. She adores both Lola and Sarah for their use of colours. Besides artists, Sharon is also inspired by Black African creatives and feels honoured when she encounters them. “They’re so rare. We are so discouraged. Africans really discourage the arts. It’s only when they see the success. We need to change that narrative. It’s like they just expect you to be successful just like that.”.

This notion of West African Parents not supporting the arts has cropped up in Memoir II and III, and I always find it interesting hearing other people’s experience on this issue along with how they overcame this barrier. Just as Sharon states, as the next generation we truly need to change that narrative and cultivate a space in which these ideas are allowed to breathe, as Les Brown said, “The graveyard is the richest place on earth because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled”.

Moreover, Sharon describes her art as a visual journal. It is something that is personal to her and allows her to reflect on her life. As well as that a channel that allows her to show viewers what she was thinking and experiencing at a certain time.

For example, the piece In the World but Not of the World (painted 2019), is a piece that delves into Sharon’s faith as a Christian. Every year Sharon always tells herself as a resolution that she wants to know God more.

Every year Sharon explores her surroundings and identifies the things that stop her from doing so. During this period Sharon narrowed it down to three things; lust, lack of self-discipline and overindulgence in alcohol. In the piece, we see a blue faceless woman in a meditative state surrounded by those three things. With lust, we see a couple embracing each other on the left. With regards to lack of self-discipline, Sharon states that this was her not taking an active effort, in reading the bible and going to church, and we see this to the right of the piece. We see a figure who is relaxed with their feet up. Lastly, overindulgence in alcohol; this is getting drunk. Behind the relaxed figure, are a group of individuals gathered at a bar and enjoying a drink. What is interesting is that Sharon paints a paradise-like scene. The background presents this idea that although she is in a calm area, she is surrounded by so much temptation. Moreover, you could even argue that the figure is trying to block out the world by entering this state.

I asked Sharon, “Why does the figure in the middle have blue skin?”. Sharon responded with, “In this piece my skin is blue, it is of God’s creation. The colour blue, it’s extra-terrestrial.”. The title of the piece plays on the fact that although she exists in this world, she does not see this world as her final resting place. As a Christian, Sharon believes that her place is with God.

All in all, the piece is a depiction between Sharon’s battle with herself and her external surroundings. I think not showing the central figure’s face adds to the idea that at this point in her life, when she created this piece, Sharon felt confused and lost. Sharon uses this piece to communicate to us where she is going in a world full of temptations.

In the World but Not of the World (painted 2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 100 x 100cm]986A72BA-791F-4A5E-9464-10AD87500890

With regards to this piece and other pieces such as Satin Obscurity 1 (painted 2019), Satin Obscurity 2 (painted 2019)  and Satin Obscurity 3 (painted 2019). It is here that Sharon starts to paint pieces consisting of faceless figures. This is done to represent her obscure state of mind that she experienced during this point in her life.

But the pieces that initially caught my attention were Layers (painted 2019), Layers II (painted 2019) and Layers III (painted 2019). When I first encountered these pieces, I thought I knew the message behind them but when I spoke to Sharon, I was in awe by her thought process behind them and the complexity.

In all three, Sharon explores her identity as a Black British woman of Nigerian heritage. Sharon sees her identity as three layers. The first layer is her inherent blackness. “The first thing people see, when they see me is that’s a black person”. This is shown with the black background. The second layer is her Nigerian culture. As Sharon articulates, “My Nigerian-ness, it clothes my blackness”. In the piece, this is depicted with the use of Nigerian attire. In Layers and Layers III, we see what a Benin woman would wear at her wedding. The feather fan is an accessory she cools herself with.

It is the third layer, that left me speechless, and this final layer is her British culture. Sharon states that this layer, “tints” her Nigerian culture. When we look at all three pieces, the colour scheme is red and blue, with the shades depicted as light blue/white. This is deliberate and is done to represent the union jack flag.

I asked Sharon if the child in Layers III was her, and she said, that the pieces are a reflection of her and her family. “Through my parents migrating, they started a whole new life and being labelled as second class citizens, they created a path for me and I can now walk in my Black Britishness”.

In the piece, the child’s shoes are red, and in all the pieces in this series, her shoes are the only shoes you can completely see. This is done to pay thanks to her parents paving a path for her in this country.

Layers (2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 150 x 100cm]C011B4EA-55C4-452F-974A-4EDBDDC5EF74

Layers II (2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 150 x 100cm]7CF3E925-4600-4E89-8D5D-E0127D9E26E6

Layers III (2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 100 x 100cm]90A2B1A3-9321-422D-9C84-FC6CBDEF703C

It was this third layer, that tinted her Nigerian culture as she was growing up. Sharon stated, she did not know her own identity while growing up. She attended a secondary school that was predominantly white and at the time being African was not “cool”. At that point in her life, the word “African” was synonymous with “fresh” African accents and illegal immigrants. However, when she went to university and encountered other Africans who shared her experience. She saw this as refreshing and enlightening because she was not alone in her experience. Through encountering such people, it made her want to learn more about her culture.

While working in Cambodia, Sharon did a vast amount of reading and learnt about the country’s culture. But while there, it dawned upon her, “What about my culture?”. Upon her return to the UK, Sharon began to read more books by Nigerian authors and started to delve into her Nigerian culture.

With regards to what Sharon wants to tell her audience. It is the following, it is okay to share when you are not okay. In our interview, Sharon commented on social media, “With the age of social media, where everyone needs to be the best version of themselves and everyone wants to show all the good bits. It is actually okay to show people the negative bits and sometimes by doing that you actually touch people a lot more, than showing the positives.”.

During her lowest moment, Sharon created the piece, Loving the Elements (painted 2019) and she said the peace had a profound effect when it was first shared on Instagram.

In Loving the Elements, Sharon used the piece to voice how she was feeling about her previous relationship.

In the piece we see two individuals embracing each other. The woman is made from fire and the man is made from ice. The fire is symbolic of the woman’s passion. If we look at the piece the fire engulfs the man. This is symbolic of Sharon’s past relationship, during our interview Sharon said, while she was with her ex, her emotions were all out. She smothered her ex with all her love. Just as the fire engulfs the man, so too was her love. Sharon learnt a huge amount from her relationship, and it is pieces such as this that show us the destructive power of love.

Moreover, I think having the man made from ice is also symbolic of how men express themselves in today’s world. In comparison to our female counterparts, some of us are bad at expressing our emotions and sometimes we can come across as “unemotionally available”. As a result, we exude this cold and unwelcoming exterior. So, when this cold exterior meets this fiery passion the two can co-exist for a while but eventually, one force dominates the other and the relationship breaks down.

Love and the Elements (2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 30 x 20cm]33FA1178-D9FD-413F-A06D-D59DAF55C613

In terms of what is next for Sharon. Sharon loves travelling and next year she wants to spend 5 weeks in Ghana, while there she wants to soak up the country’s fashion and culture, and use it to create new pieces. “The western way is not just the best way, and me trying to fight that ignorance and trying to understand my culture is what I am trying to do in my paintings.”.

With regards to this year, Sharon sees 2019 as the year she established her style. Sharon’s most current work have no faces and in doing so, Sharon wants to leave it open to interpretation.

Sharon’s newest piece is Free the Fro (painted 2019), the piece is a reflection on Sharon’s hair journey. She uses this piece to celebrate the beauty of her black hair. “The more I am starting to learn about my culture, the more I am starting to embrace my blackness.” It is through her research; Sharon is finding practical ways to embrace her blackness and understand what being black comes with. “I have read up on my blackness, and now I am making the actions”. Sharon wants to reach the point where she is fully comfortable walking out with her full afro hair. “We hide under these wigs and these western hairstyles. Let’s create our own standards of beauty. Let’s show them we can still show our afro and still look professional and still look beautiful”. Sharon’s words resonated with me because for years a black women’s hair has been the subject of so much controversy. Additionally, this idea of beauty being Eurocentric has been pushed and it is unfair because it can lead to the damaging of one’s self-esteem. With this piece, Lola wants to dismantle this idea and essentially give justice to black natural hair. If we look at the piece, the hair is a mixture of colours, we can see khaki, red and gold. The colours compliment each other, and they all work to show the richness of black female hair.

Free the Fro 2019  [Acrylic on Canvas 76 x 61cm]6B0E2F19-BA44-4C46-B95C-37C7F994628E

I chose Sharon to be part of this two-part mini-series because just like me, she was trying to answer that same question. What does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st century London?

As the next generation of people who are Black British Nigerians along with other Africans and Caribbeans. We must carve a new culture, that represents us in the UK.  Sharon eloquently said in our interview, “There is never really an end to the journey of discovering yourself. I don’t think I will ever reach a point where I know my Nigerian culture.” And I agree.

These two memoirs were all about answering the question, what does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st century London?  And I think to answer that question you must also ask yourself, what constitutes being a Nigerian? Is it being able to speak Yoruba? Or eating Nigerian food? Or simply being in the loop regarding Nigeria’s current affairs?

When I was growing up, I had the excuse of my parents not teaching me about my culture. But as I continue to grow and navigate my way through the world, I can’t blame my parents. That responsibility is now down to me.

So, in conclusion, what does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st century London? In memoir III, I said cultural pride thanks to Lola, and thanks to Sharon, I think the other half to that question is ingenuity.

We Nigerians are a lot of things, we can be audacious, unapologetic and sometimes outspoken. But the one thing we do time after time; occupy rare spaces and thrive, and that’s due to our innate ingenuity.

So, there you have it, what does it mean to be Nigerian in 21st century London? Cultural pride and ingenuity, regardless of where we dwell.

For more of Sharon’s art visit her website and follow her on Instagram @artbyadebisi

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