Memoir X: Figures

Disclaimer: Before we start this memoir, I would just like to state I do not own the following pictures. The aim of all these memoirs is to educate. Some of the content in this memoir contains offensive language.

Before we start this memoir, I would like to give a special thanks to both Rachel Hart and Adwoa Amankona. Rachel wrote the art analysis for The Beginning, Entwined and Loving You is Like Living on a Wave. Additionally, she helped with the editing process of this memoir. With regards to Adwoa, she helped with the introduction. So with that being said, strap yourself in, Volume II – Memoir X: Figures

When we say ‘Black Lives Matter’ as the Black community what do we mean?

As a child, growing up in a West African household, I was exposed to a barrage of toxic ideologies, often worryingly labelled as “African Ideologies”. I would hear phrases such as “Men don’t drink wine”, ”Stop being a girl”, “That homosexual sh**, it’s disgusting” and many more. These statements were said by my family members, especially the male members. As a child, I was unaware that these statements were drastically altering both my perceptions of masculinity and of people from the LGBTQ+ community. I always had this inkling that what was being said was rude, offensive and ignorant but because of my age along with the social dynamics of a West African household, I knew I had to keep quiet and “know my place”.

My views towards people from the LGBTQ+ community were also heavily shaped by my growing love for Hip Hop in my early teens. As a child in the 2000s, my main source of music was the TV, so that largely meant pop music with a dash of cheese. I didn’t have a cool older brother or sister who told me about Immortal Technique or MF DOOM or Skepta or JME. Instead, I had a mother who would go to HMV every Friday and purchase the album or single of the artist who reached number 1 in the UK Top 40. As well as that, I had a father who loved Fuji music. So whenever he was around and it was a Saturday morning, he would blast the likes of K1 and Pasuma Wonder around the house. So, when I had access to the internet around the age of 13, it was like I discovered a new world.

It was through the internet that I discovered Kanye West, Chiddy Bang, Lupe Fiasco and other artists. I also discovered rappers such as Eminem who was notorious for frequently using homophobic slurs. Examples include: “whether you’re a f** or les, or a homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest, pants or dress, hate f**s?” (Criminal, 2000). Besides the f word, phrases such as “no homo” appeared in some of my favourite songs. For example, in Run This Town (2009) by Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rhianna, Kanye states “It’s crazy how you can go from being Joe Blow to everybody on your dick…no homo.”

In addition to Hip Hop, my appreciation for Dancehall was also brewing, but again, this genre was rife with homophobia, with words such as “Chi Chi man”, “Battyman” and “Battyboi” frequently used. In 2001, the dancehall group, T.O.K., released the infamous song, Chi Chi man. The song contains the lyrics, “from dem a par inna chi chi man car, blaze di fire mek we bun dem”. “Chi Chi man” is a derogatory term for a homosexual man, and therefore, shockingly, what is being said here is that homosexual men should be burnt. Another example of this term being used is in the song Log On by Elephant Man: “Log on and step pon chi chi man”. Again, the lyrics here refer to homosexual men being stamped on.

Like “Chi Chi man”, the slurs “Battyboi” and “Battyman” are also used as derogatory terms for a homosexual man. In the song Weh Yuh Nuh Fi Do (2001) by Beenie Man, he states, “No man no fi have another man inna him bed, all battyman fi dead (Shot up dem bloodclaat!)”. The lyrics frown upon two men sharing the same bed and refer to all homosexual men being killed; even more disturbing is the adlib (Shot up dem bloodclaat!) which suggests they should be violently shot.

So, this was what teenage me was exposed to. Scary isn’t it. But this mindset eventually changed due to me encountering and making friends with various people from the LGBTQ+ community. By late adolescence, I began to challenge my family on their homophobic and transphobic views.

Now, to understand where these abhorrent views originate from, we first need to look beyond music and examine the law in both the Caribbean and Africa. In Africa, there are 54 countries; it is illegal to identify as LGBTQ+ in 32 of them. This includes Cameroon, where my mother is from, Ghana and Kenya, where a person can spend up to 14 years in prison if they are caught performing any homosexual acts. In countries such as Zambia, Uganda and Ethiopia, this sentence can be life in prison. While this is horrific, it gets worse; in Sudan and regions such as North Nigeria and South Somalia, if there is any reason to suspect that you are LGBTQ+, you can receive the death penalty.

The Caribbean is made up of 16 countries and 15 dependent territories. Out of those 16 countries, it is illegal to identify as LGBTQ+ in 10 of them. Unlike Africa, none of these countries has a death penalty – not that this is anything to celebrate. In countries such as Barbados, Grenada and Guyana a person can still face up to 10 years in prison.

It should also be noted that in both the Caribbean and Africa, these homophobic laws are strongly targeted towards men. For example, in Jamaica, the law specifies that if any homosexual man is found guilty, he can be sentenced to labour.

So now that we understand the current climate, it is time to ask the question, where did these anti-LGBTQ+ laws originate from historically?

Let’s start with Africa. In my opinion, the first factor to consider is the introduction of Abrahamic religions by missionaries. The Abrahamic religions consist of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and all three have a strong emphasis on the idea of family and its dynamic. The religions suggest that a “stable” nuclear family should consist of a father, a mother and children, with the father as the head of the house. It could even be argued that these religions introduced the continent to the idea of patriarchy.

But it is not just Abrahamic religions, we need to look at the impact Europe had on the continent too. During the early years of colonisation, the Europeans brought their ideas of gender and how it was linked to sex. To add to that the Europeans brought their laws, and some were anti-LGBTQ+. In the Caribbean, for example, transatlantic slavery played an important role because it destroyed the slaves’ African Identity. Ideas of African spirituality and culture were diluted with Eurocentric ideologies and Christianity.

One of the most disturbing ways European slavers enforced power during this period, particularly in the Caribbean, was through the ‘buck breaking’ of enslaved men. Buck breaking was a form of sexual abuse where the slave owners along with merchants would rape enslaved men. These acts became more prominent during the slave rebellions; after a rebellion, male slaves would be stripped, beaten and raped in front of a crowd. This was done as a warning to other slaves who dare rebel against their masters. The psychological effects of buck breaking were so powerful that those who experienced this punishment would often either flee from their families or take their own life.

So with the history of both regions, we can now start to piece together why ideas of homophobia and transphobia exist, and why they are so ingrained in both the Caribbean and Africa.

It’s easy to look at African and Caribbean history, and even the present day laws, and assume this homophobia and transphobia is far removed from us in the UK. However, we need to look at the black diaspora of today because both homophobia and transphobia are still rife. But why is that? I think this is again due to the role religion plays and its connection to the black identity. Depending on where you are in the diaspora, your religion plays an important part in your identity and culture, and I think this is very true for black immigrants. To those religious individuals, their religion gives them purpose, happiness and community. When you introduce the concept of LGBTQ+ rights and experiences, which as I said before, challenge the ideas of a “stable nuclear family” taught by Abrahamic religions, this can be perceived as you challenging their faith, identity and culture. This is potentially where we start to hear phrases emerge in the black diaspora such as “Homosexuality is not part of our culture” and “Homosexuality is against God’s plan”.

To believe that LGBTQ+ identities are a European import is a false argument. It is, in fact, homophobia and transphobia which are the original imports from Europe. Someone who I spoke to about this memoir eloquently stated, “It is absolutely ridiculous for them (Africans) to think being very Christian and therefore homophobic is African, when being Christian is not African, it is European and it was an import and a hangover of colonialism”. I think we need to understand that Black LGBTQ+ figures have always existed throughout Africa’s history; not only did they identify openly but they were powerful and well respected individuals.

Take, for example, figures such as Queen Nzingha (1583-1663) and King Mwanga II (1868-1903). Queen Nzingha ruled Ndongo & Matamba, which are regions in modern-day Angola. For four decades, she led a military resistance against the Portuguese. Queen Nzingha was revered for her intelligence, military tactics and diplomatic brilliance. She had an array of wives and husbands and only answered to “King” – what an icon. To add to that, she was known for wearing both male and female attire. King Mwanga II was the king of a region in Uganda and was openly gay, although some scholars debate he was bisexual. King Mwanga II was known to have multiple male companions. Perhaps one of the first African transgender icons was a musician called Area Scatter. In the 1970s, a man disappeared into the woods in Southeast Nigeria; after 7 months and 7 days she emerged and stated she was spiritually reborn as a woman. She had claimed to be endowed by the gods with musical gifts and was now going by the name “Area Scatter”. Area Scatter would go on to lead the band called ‘Ugwu Anya Egbulam’. As a woman, she was admired, praised and widely respected.

More recent LGBTQ+ activists include Simon Nkoli (1957-2008) from South Africa, who was anti-apartheid, an advocate for gays rights and an AIDS activist. He formed the first Black LGBTQ+ group in Africa, established due to the racism from the predominantly white Gay Association of South Africa. After being acquitted of his crimes against the apartheid government, he founded another group called GLOW, which organised the first pride parade in South Africa in 1990. Simon Nkoli also campaigned for the protection of South Africa’s LGBTQ+ community, and because of his work alongside other individuals, in 1994, South Africa’s constitution stated that it was illegal to discriminate against any individual based on their race or sexuality.

Looking towards the US, we see Black LGBTQ+ icons such as James Baldwin and Marsha P. Johnson. James Baldwin was part of the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Rights Movement; Baldwin gave us books such as Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room. Marsha P. Johnson spearheaded the Gay Rights movement in the US. She was a prominent, but sadly often overlooked, figure in the stonewall riots and founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) which provided housing and support to homeless LGBTQ+ youth and sex workers in Lower Manhattan. She also modelled for Andy Warhol.

If we move across the North Atlantic Ocean to the UK, we discover figures such as Pearl Alcock, Claude McKay, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Ivor Gustavus Cummings, Berto Pasuka and many more.

As a community, it is so important that we understand that before our interactions with Abrahamic religions and Europe, LGBTQ+ people always existed, and will continue to exist. You can’t say that Black Lives Matter and be anti-LGBTQ+. It just doesn’t work.

That’s why I think artists such as Sola Olulode, whose work showcases and celebrates Black LGBTQ+ love, are so important.

As a toddler, Sola enjoyed painting and drawing. During primary school, she felt an inkling that art was her speciality. The enjoyment she received from art stayed with her throughout primary school and into secondary school, and this led her to take Art as a GCSE.

Sola stated she wanted to make the most of the two years; she wanted to push herself and get the best grade. “I read that a C student would need to do one study and this amount of research. Whereas an A* student would need to do four. So I was like, if that’s the best, I’ll do six.” Sola loved Art GCSE; she saw her class as competitive but she saw this as something good since everyone in the class would push each other to produce good work.

After finishing her Art GCSE, she completed her Art A-Level and then completed her foundation year at the CCW Foundation (Chelsea Camberwell Wimbledon, University of the Arts London). She went on to study Fine Art at the University of Brighton, though interestingly she didn’t enjoy her time there. The curriculum was very Eurocentric, lacked innovation and was underfunded which further led to a lack of opportunities.

More crucially though, Sola didn’t enjoy the course due to it being an overwhelmingly white space. “Growing up in South London I had such a diverse class. I was always surrounded by different people from different cultures […] I never felt like an outsider, I felt a part of it […] So, when I went to university, I think that contrast of being one of only two black people in the year, I don’t know? I guess it forced into my head this idea of blackness. I considered myself as a black person. Whereas before, I considered myself as a person.”

This new perspective allowed Sola to revisit her past, and it allowed her to think about the number of black students on her foundation course. During her time at CCW, her lack of black peers was something she did not notice but another black student did. “I remember my friend who I went to secondary school with noticed it. He put up posters for an event that said, ‘Are you one of the five Black students on the course?’. I didn’t really get it at first because even though there weren’t that many black people, there were still a lot of people from different cultures. It was 50% international. So you had Asian students and students from all over Europe and America. So it felt kind of diverse. But he noticed that we were in an art school in South London and there were about 10 black people out of 600.”

On the first day of her university course in Brighton, she was the only black person in the room for the first five minutes. After all the students had arrived, she found out she was one of three black students. Ironically, the two other black students on the course had also been on her foundation course at CCW. For Sola, the lack of black students and the microaggressions she faced from white students massively affected her. “I think those microaggressions you do get, where people ask you, ‘Where are you from?’ and stuff like that… have a strange effect because you’re like ‘Woah!, I’ve never experienced that’. But when black people ask that, I feel as if it feels less aggressive[…] whereas when you get it from a white person in Brighton, it just feels a bit strange because you’re thinking, ‘What do you mean?! I’m from London.’”

Sola’s story is just one of many stories about the black experience in white-dominated spaces and I think now, more than ever, we need to ensure that there is black representation in many spaces. Sola and I discussed the impact of a lack of black representation within the art world, and she eloquently stated the following, “A lot of black people hesitate before going into the arts[…]I think it is because we don’t see ourselves as artists, we’re not part of that canon. We’re just not written about.” In my opinion this is true; we need to decolonise the curriculum. All too often we see Jean-Michel Basquiat portrayed as the only black artist within art history. This lack of education can have a serious impact on black artists, as it confines their work and reduces it to something that is a “copy”, “imitation” or something that “pays homage” to the work of one of the more well known black artists. Sola states that she too has experienced this, “I’ve had the same with Chris Ofili. He’s one of my faves. I like when people say this reminds me of his work, I get a little bit gassed but at the same time, I’m like I know that’s your only reference point, it’s the only black artist you really know so that’s why you keep on bringing him up around me. I recognize that.”

The erasure of Black art history is something that has come at the detriment of black people. When artists such as Sola risk being critiqued in relation to other black artists, and not as their own entity, it is evident that something must be done. For black people to feel part of the ongoing story, the next generation of black and non-black children need to learn about how black artists were always part of the narrative.

After coming to terms with her situation at Brighton, Sola knew she had to look elsewhere for opportunities, so she turned her attention towards London. During her second year, Sola would attend various talks and exhibitions. As well as that, she encountered the organisation Black Blossoms led by Bolanle Tajudeen. Sola loved Black Blossoms because it was a space that cultivated black talent and allowed Black women to express themselves. The attraction to the organisation did not stop here, as Bolanle would go on to curate an exhibition at UAL that consisted of black women. “I went, and I was like “This is it!”. This is what I want to be a part of! This conversation is so different because I felt the conversations were the same as the ones I was having with my work at art school[…]I was having this internal crisis of what it means to be black and exploring that through my work, and not feeling comfortable exploring it in that space. So seeing that space where it was all black people was just so good.” Sola went on to respond to an open call by Bolanle and was successful, showcasing her work in the exhibition titled If We are Going to Heal, Let it Be Glorious. Sola said this was an amazing opportunity since she was able to show her work alongside other Black women. After that summer, Sola knew she had been taught everything she needed from art school.

Once she completed university, Sola returned to London and became engaged in the capital’s art scene. After her final year, Sola took part in some graduate shows, such as the BBZ BLK BK’s Alternative Graduate Show. The show displayed work from black LGBTQ+ artists; Sola loved this experience because the collective organised events that combined club nights with art for the black LGBTQ+ community in London. Environments like LGBTQ+ clubs are sacred spaces to Sola, and her appreciation for them has also leaked into her work in pieces like And You Sabi Do The Dance Well (painted 2018).

The title is taken from the lyrics of the song “Do Like That” by the Nigerian artist Korede Bello. This, along with the title of another piece called Say I Like The Way You Jo, combine to make the lyrics, “Say I Like the Way Yo Jo, And You Sabi Do The Dance Well”. The two pieces are from the first series Sola made when she graduated. Inspired by adire cloth, Sola dyed all her canvases indigo to pay homage to the creation of the cloth. Adire, which is Yoruba for ‘tie and dye’, is a special type of cloth with an array of patterns that is worn by women. After learning how the patterns were formed; Sola used wax to create the patterns, which we can see in the figures’ clothes and hair. Sola states the creation of this piece was a fun experience, and once the wax was included, she felt even freer and decided to incorporate more materials into the paintings.

With regards to its theme, the piece explores LGBTQ+ nightlife. The figures are all enjoying themselves; some are standing and some are dancing. If we look at the two figures dancing with each other, with one whining on the other, you can truly see the joy in the figure catching the whine; their focus is solely on the other figure and no one else – the crowd doesn’t matter to them. It is this freedom – the freedom to express one’s self – which is why Sola sees such spaces as her safe and happy place. “These are such great spaces that I feel comfortable”. Say I Like the Way Yo Jo, And You Sabi Do The Dance Well and the other pieces in this series were created to celebrate these special spaces. “I was very interested in dance and catching the vibe. The freedom and the confidence of the figures that felt safe in this space, and felt that they could dance the way they wanted, express themselves, and wear what they wanted.”

And You Sabi Do The Dance Well (painted 2018) [Oil, acrylic, oil, pastel, wax on canvas 120cm x 180cm]And You Sabi Do The Dance Well copy

 

After the BBZ BLK BK show, Sola went on to take part in more shows, and eventually secured studio space with VO Curations. When I asked her about that special moment she felt she was truly an artist, Sola reminisced about when she first sold a painting: “When I first sold a work, that was the first time I felt, “yeah I could do this as a job”. I feel like as people, as humans, we’re all artists, we all have this creativity in us, we all have our way of expressing our creative energy and we don’t have to monetize it. But for me, I wanted that. So as soon as I sold my first work and that was after graduation, I was like, “okay this could be a job now.”

Sola thinks her work is best described as figurative paintings with the central theme being about people and the relationships they have with each other. Some good examples of this within Sola’s catalogue of work are The Beginning (painted 2019), Entwined (painted 2020) and Safety (painted 2019), which all depict different stages of a relationship.

The Beginning was one of Sola’s original paintings about romance, depicting what she describes as “that instant moment when you’re getting to know each other and getting more comfortable”. She wanted to show two black women on a date, a scene which is arguably less frequently portrayed in art and popular culture generally than heterosexual couples and even gay couples who are white. The painting clearly shows the start of something special, if the title is anything to go by. Beyond that, it’s hard to tell how the women have ended up in the situation we find them in; did they swipe right for each other on tinder, or had they been flirting at work for months? It really doesn’t matter when we find them absorbed in each other on what seems to be their first date. Whilst the detail in the painting is more minimal, the energy conveyed is unparalleled. The buzz of the couple hitting it off is apparent: from their body language to what could be interpreted as the fluorescent yellow glow of the lights, the atmosphere seems electric and bright. Sola has described how she wanted “yellow to be the theme of this romance series because of the joy and happiness” she experiences when looking at the colour, and the associations of this with the feelings elicited when first falling in love with someone. The use of negative space for the outlines with the yellow and red tones give the illusion of warmth and fire; a spark which might turn into a flame, perhaps. Their legs are close – maybe even touching under the table, but that is for them to know and us to never find out. Their focus on the conversation is apparent too – the woman on the right gesticulates as the woman on the left is leaning in intently, as if telling the best anecdote she has heard in ages. The title of the exhibition where Sola first showed the piece was Hold my Hand and we can see in this image that the women’s hands are close to touching, edging towards what Sola calls “that moment of engaging physically”. It is arguable that the lack of background detail is reflective of how everything around them has disappeared in their eyes. It is only them left in the room, falling for each other, which Sola describes as a “love bubble”.

The Beginning (painted 2019) [Oil, wax, oil pastels, ink on canvas 102 x 122 cm] the beginging V4

 

Entwined is part of Sola’s series of couples in bed. We can instantly tell that the piece is about two people – who Sola deliberately made femme yet gender fluid – embracing, or as the name suggests, entwined, in each others’ arms. The painting was inspired by a tender moment Sola saw in the TV show, POSE, of two black men in bed, and Sola decided to make the gender of the characters more fluid to enable “anyone to be able to recognise and see themselves reflected in the painting.” Though at a first glance, the viewer may feel uncomfortable intruding on the couple’s bubble while they sleep, it’s hard to see the painting and not feel at peace witnessing the safety and comfort that the subjects are experiencing in each other’s presence. Sola describes the piece as being “about queer relationships and showing tenderness and love”, which is the feeling permeating the whole piece. The blue background tones are soothing and sea-like, giving the illusion that the pair are just floating. Sola has said that these blue tones help evoke the feeling of night time. Their body language is open and protective of each other; the figure on the left is spreading out in comfort while their partner holds them close. The intimacy is emphasized by the fact we can’t really tell at a first glance whose limbs are whose. Legs and arms are well and truly entwined under and over each other. Furthermore, the fact their faces are touching emphasizes their connection and desire to be near each other, even in sleep. Sola described how femme bodies are often highly sexualised when depicted naked, so this was a conscious effort by her to show balance; two people in romantic love together, without being hypersexualised by the male gaze. The calm aura surrounding them can even be interpreted from the white outlines of their bodies – a kind of glow which makes them appear comfortable and untouchable to the outside world. Overall the piece is a beautiful portrait of a couple in their most relaxed state.

Entwined (painted 2020) [Ink, oil and wax on canvas 122 x 152 cm]Sola Olulode, _Entwined_, 2020 copy

 

In Safety, Sola again uses the bed as the main focus. Unlike Entwined, the figures occupy their own space in the bed. In the piece, both figures are wearing a bonnet, an indication that the two are black women, as the bonnet is a staple part of a black woman’s nighttime attire. It is clear that the figures feel safe in each other’s company and trust each other. Sola described how she created the bed covers by stitching strips of canvases together; we see the incorporation of the adire cloth’s pattern in the design of the bed’s sheets. As in Entwined, Sola chooses to use a shade of blue to set the night time mood. However, the deeper dark blue/indigo background suggests we are viewing the couple even later into the night. By using these colours, we as the viewer are presented with this delicate scene that we just cannot interrupt, we can only look at it and appreciate it. Sola felt compelled to create this piece because she wanted to teach the viewer that the bed is a safe, comfortable and sacred space for her: “I love sharing the bed with someone like a partner. I think it is because I feel safe in that space. Falling asleep around someone you have to trust them completely.”

Safety (painted 2019) [Oil, wax, oil bars, oil, bleach, pastels, ink, indigo on canvas 102 x 102 cm]Sola Olulode, _Safety_, 2019 copy

 

Besides figurative pieces, Sola has used abstract art to show intimacy between couples. This is the case in Loving You is Like Living On A Wave (painted 2019), the first of Sola’s pieces where the title formed before the work itself. The piece shows the “ups and downs and the uncertainty and magic and deepness” felt when someone falls in love. The first things to hit you when looking at this diptych are the white waves across the dark blue expanse.  The feminine curves of the waves hint back at the blue tones used in Sola’s other paintings. It almost appears like a time warp, the curves are quite abstracted and we can see the couple in various positions. The first is passionate and erotic as Sola wanted to show “the sexual side” to love but without being too explicit. The second position mirrors Entwined in its depiction of calmness and solitude. The fact the images are so small relative to the size of the canvas gives even more of a sense of safety and security; the couple is enveloped in these calm surroundings on all sides.  Their eyes are closed in both images; they are in their bubble and not inviting the viewer in through making eye contact at all. The bliss radiates and makes the viewer seem very calm. Sola describes her process of creating the figures as being intentionally very simple. Not wanting to use paint on the canvas as she already liked the wax and paint background she had created, she opted to use just charcoal and pastel. This creates a translucent effect, whereby we can still see the ups and downs of the wave behind the couple; perhaps their love and journey almost transcends their physical selves in this way.

Loving You is Like Living On A Wave (painted 2019) [(Diptych) each piece Charcoal, pastel, pigment wax on canvas 122 x 122 cm]Sola Olulode 'Loving You is Like Living on a Wave', 2019 copy

 

Besides relationships, Sola sees her work as a portal through which she can express herself. She sees her work as a looking glass into her experiences and identity; a good example is Care (painted 2019). What I like about this piece is how the yellow and blue work together, they contrast each other but in a beautiful way. The presence of the blue seen in the figures’ clothes makes the viewer focus on them and nowhere else; this is further helped with the background painted entirely yellow. Care was part of the same series as The Beginning. Compared to the other pieces discussed, the nature of the relationship between the two subjects here is not obvious. By doing this, Sola allows the piece to be open to different interpretations such as a maternal relationship, a platonic relationship or a sexual relationship. Personally, I see a maternal relationship, one in which the mother is helping her daughter with their hair.

Sola wanted to use this piece to explore the relationship Black women have with their hair:  “I was in a relationship at the time of this exhibition, and when I was making these pieces, I loved the fact my girlfriend could do my hair. The same level of care but it was coming from a different person, and it was not maternal. It was coming from a different place of love[…] Black women have this beautiful relationship with trusting black women to do our hair.” As a Black man I share the same sentiment as Sola, and I think this notion is generally felt by Black men too. In general, Black people have a deep respect for people who do our hair and do a good job. I recently shot a photo series exploring this deep respect from a Black man’s perspective, and I couldn’t agree more – Black barbers and Black hairdressers are the unsung heroes of our community. For example, when a Black man gets a fresh haircut from their barber or when a Black woman gets her wig finished, I just can’t explain it, but for both parties, it’s a refreshing feeling. As Sola eloquently states, “Our hair is our pride and glory, there’s a big cultural relationship with our hair. So for someone to have that full control in their hands, the trust is important.”

Care (painted 2019) [Oil, oil bar, charcoal, oil pastels, pigment, ink on canvas 102 x 122 cm]Care V3

 

It is Sola’s excellent command of different materials which adds to the grandeur and
complexity of her pieces. She explains, “the subject matter of my work is actually quite simple; it is about simple subjects, simple relationships and just love. So once I have the idea I just have fun with making up the piece, so I’m just like “Oh! I’ll grab this!” and “I’ll grab that!”. “I’ll use this colour, this pure pigment” and I’ll be like, I don’t have to follow the rules of oil paintings, I can mix anything in there.” Personally, I think Laying In The Grass I (painted 2020) serves as a good example of what happens when Sola incorporates many materials.

In my opinion, Laying In The Grass I is my favourite painting by Sola, purely because of how it depicts two Black women simply relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. It is both beautiful and delicate. Sola was inspired by a piece shown to her by Bolanle Tajudeen. “How often do you see images of black people just relaxing, just chilling? When we see images of black people they are very active, they are protesting, doing some sort of action. How often do you see black people just laying around, laying in the grass?[…]I don’t see a lot of images of people doing that.”

I remember being at the private viewing for the exhibition titled Where the Ocean Meets the Beach where this piece was shown. What instantly caught my attention was how well the colours worked together, they are all balanced; nothing feels out of place. All the colours are given an equal presence on the canvas, and as a result, the viewer feels a warm and inviting presence from the piece, which is further facilitated by the backdrop of the piece being a grass-filled scene. “When people walk into a gallery space and they see my artwork, I want them to look at the paintings and feel that radiating warmth and comfort, and I hope that comes from a place of experience and they can be like, ‘that’s been me’, and If they haven’t, then that is something that they can be inspired to do. Imagine yourself living peacefully like that”. Besides the colours used, it is the attention to detail that Sola puts into this piece which makes it so impactful. If we focus our attention on the armpits of the black women, we can see their armpit hairs which have been drawn with pen.

Laying In The Grass I (painted 2020) [Ink, oil, oil pastel, oil bar, charcoal and wax on canvas 122 x 152 cm]Sola Olulode, _Laying in The Grass_, 2019 copy

 

When it comes to the artists who have inspired her, Sola cites an array of people. In terms of European artists, Sola names Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, artists from the Fauvism movement and the pre-raphaelite artists. She also mentions an array of Black artists, including: Chris Ofili, Kerry James Marshall, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Faith Ringgold. Other artists that Sola holds in high regards are Joy Yamusangie, Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Miranda Forrester, Lina Iris-Viktor and Tschabalala Self. When I asked Sola about the people besides other artists or her family who fueled her passion for art, she stated that her friendship group played an important role. From GCSE to A-Level to her Foundation year; her friends were her competition and inspiration. If we fast forward to today, everyone within her friendship group is an artist.

But beyond the fine artists of the past and present, Sola states that music also has an important influence on her work. “I’m very heavily influenced by music. A lot of my work is about emotions and conveying a feeling, I’m doing it with the visuals[…]I don’t know how to express the way I’m thinking and feeling through words. But with music, I listen to it a lot while I’m working to kind of, I guess, make sense of what I’m feeling.”

With regards to her art’s overall message, Sola aims to contribute to her viewers feeling supported and free. She wants the viewer to feel loved, connected and warm: “I want people to know they can be loved that way and people can love that way. I want people to feel a sense of familiarity, recognise the scenes, and be like, ‘Oh yeah! I’ve lived that experience’ […] I want people to feel seen when they look at my artwork.”

So what can we expect from Sola? The artist states she is currently working on a series focusing on romance. She also has an ongoing print series which started during lockdown. Besides this, Sola is finishing off some of her incomplete pieces. When it comes to future shows and exhibitions, we’ll just have to be patient. In Sola’s words, “stuff is in the works, but it is not solidified”. All I can say is watch this space because Sola has a lot to say through her art, and I for one cannot wait to see what she next has in store for all of us.

I chose Sola as the focus for Memoir X because I wanted to start a conversation. When we say ‘Black Lives Matter’ as the Black community, what do we mean? As someone who is a black heterosexual, I know I have some privilege in the world we live in. I know I can love a woman and the world to some degree just won’t care. But for people from the Black LGBTQ+ community, this freedom of expression is not guaranteed.

I keep on hearing excuses from the older generation such as “It’s a taboo”, “I just don’t get it?”, “It’s immorally wrong”, “It’s a sin”, “God made man and woman”, “But what about the children?” and “It’s just not our culture”…Ultimately, all of these excuses are just dull attempts to avoid a conversation which I believe urgently needs to be had.

A person who is Black and LGBTQ+ in modern-day Britain endures double discrimination on a daily basis; discrimination due to both their race and sexual orientation. They can be sexually discriminated against by both a white person and a person of colour. Their experience of racism is not just limited to white heterosexuals, they can experience it from white people within the LGBTQ+ community. Dating apps such as Grindr use discriminatory phrases such as “no chocolate”, “no curry”, “no rice” and “no spice” which are code words for people of colour.

This discrimination is not only prevalent online; the statistics show Black people within the LGBTQ+ community face exclusion from public LGBTQ+ spaces such as bars. The terrifying results of FS Magazine’s ‘Racism on the Scene’ survey (2016) revealed that 80% of black gay men surveyed had received racism from within the LGBTQ+ community. In 2018, a YouGov poll surveying 5,000 LBGTQ+ people reported that 61% of black people surveyed had experienced discrimination from other people identifying as LGBTQ+.

It is clear that Black people within the LGBTQ+ community are some of the most vulnerable to abuse, stigma and discrimination. When we say ‘Black Lives Matter’ as the Black community, it is imperative that we mean ‘All Black Lives Matter’; the phrase must be all-encompassing, no one should be left out or be made to feel left out. Just as Sola wants  everyone to be able to look at her work and see themselves reflected in it, Black LGBTQ+ people need to feel welcomed and met with open arms within the Black community and beyond. The world needs to do more to better support the Black LGBTQ+ community: we need to educate ourselves, support Black LGBTQ+ talent and cultivate inclusive spaces.

After all, in the words of the wonderful late Marsha P. Johnson, there can be “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”

To see more of Sola’s work visit www.solaolulode.co.uk or follow her on Instagram at @solaolulode

 

 

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