Nigerian artist Ayanfe Olarinde seeks to revive age-old Yoruba folktales through her latest project In The Beginning, And So It Goes – breaking through the noise to source original voices. Featured at Outernet in London, her work aims not only to both preserve and regenerate history and culture, but to teach us more about ourselves and each-other.
Now I Know Why Birds Fly
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Ayanfe Olarinde (Born 1996) is a self-taught multimedia visual artist. She obtained a BSc in Microbiology from the University of Lagos in 2018. Her journey into art stems from her love of ‘scribbling’. This is the way she has come to understand the world: an art form she describes as “creating harmony from disharmony”, and finding beauty in imperfection. She sees her work as a way of communicating with herself, with the world around her, and with the place she comes from.
Ayanfe’s forms of expression have evolved to include photography and mixed media collages, and the underlying theme throughout all her work is the interrogation of society and governance. In May 2022, she had her first exhibition: Now I Know Why Birds Fly, a showcase with pieces that reflected her surreal signature motifs, mixed with a kaleidoscopic intimacy, vulnerability, loss, and euphoria, amidst a tribute to aesthetic beauty.
Her latest project focuses on telling the history of Yoruba heritage and folklore, “largely because I feel the people who can tell these stories, like our great grandparents, have passed away, and a lot of the information we’re given on the internet is written by western media. I don’t think any white person can truly re-tell our history to us, so this is my way of intuitively exploring my heritage for myself.”
As a Yoruba woman, Ayanfe senses the incoherence and gaps in history: “I was doing research on folklore and noticed how much the stories are often manipulated… With the sheer number of times these stories have been told and revised by other people, they’ve been watered down”, but re-visiting, re-telling and reviving still matters.
In The Beginning, And So It Goes…
In the Beginning And So It Goes, Ayanfe’s debut solo exhibition in London offers a visual narrative of the mythological traditions of Yoruba: one of the most prominent and widely recognised cultures in Nigeria and West Africa. With stories that pose questions and ignite curiosity, each painting presents an opportunity for viewers to take a journey of discovery, by challenging perspectives.
“My stories are inspired by things I’ve heard of, or things I dream of, or things that unconsciously surface from experiences: so it’s either re-telling a story from sources and scraps, something I made up or I’m picking up stories from other people and things that happened in the past. Most of the time, when I create, I always have to go back and re-look at the piece again later down the line. It’s only after I’ve created a piece that I become more aware of what really inspired it. I’d say that my work serves as time stamps.”
“I listen to every kind of music, which influences my work – collective history, and self-image – these are things I know play a vital role in these melodic journeys. Some of my pieces focus on Yoruba folklore, and in some ways, Yoruba culture. But I paint the stories based on my own view of them, and the result is open to further interpretation.”
“For example there’s a story that says that Obatala [a Yoruba spirit] was too drunk, and started making people with disabilities. This is not something that resonates, because it’s unkind to describe people being a result of ‘drunkenness’. So my re-telling of this piece focuses on taking away those things I feel are unjust, while emphasising the things that have been lost to modern history. Like, a story that talks about Obatala being genderless, and how that has been completely erased or misinterpreted from the original stories.”
Freedom, Flight And Finding Fluidity
The Yoruba people, in South-West Nigeria today, believe in a vast pantheon of deities, including major gods known as “Orishas” and numerous smaller gods or “Egun” who assist the Orishas. These gods control everyday prayers, serving as intercessors between the world of humanity and the divine, spiritual world. Each one represents a specific idea, object or natural phenomena in Yoruba culture. Overall, the Yoruba religion emphasises balance and harmony between humans and nature, with deities purposefully managing this balance.
One of the famed Orishas in the Yoruba pantheon, Ọbatala – is the sculptor of mankind, and features in this project as an example of the impact that these tales can have when re-told in a new light. “In some versions of the story of Obatala has two genders, and in others he’s genderless, but in the popularised western version he’s known as a man,” Ayanfe explains. “During my research, I found that there are many Orishas who are genderless, and if you imagine a gender-fluid young person today reading a story like that from their heritage, they can find peace or resonance through recognition – knowing that they’re not alone and that our ancestors were not so different from us.”
For Ayanfe, telling these stories of the Yoruba orishas is her way of preserving her culture’s rich history, as well as immersing herself in a learning process vital to self-discovery. Because some of these stories depict perpetual nuances in the human condition, re-telling them through a modern lens has the power to morph how this generation tells them to the next. “My favourite piece right now tells the story of Sango and his three wives. His first wife Oba, was tricked by his favourite wife Osun into cutting off her own ear in search of Sango’s affection. I’m just interested in this piece because it shows how flawed we are as humans; I picked it because I know I’m flawed myself, and these imperfections make me who I am.”
Form And Function Through Sacred Scribbling
As a process of unpacking her emotions in playful and intriguing ways, Ayanfe Olarinde has brought a broader description to the world of scribble art. What began as a self-taught process – from a love of the process – has over the years, turned into a big deal and one that has brought both local and international recognition.
“My own approach to shading and creating things through scribbling has been present since my teens. The intention wasn’t for them to take any form because I was just doodling, but I realised that I could find patterns in what I was doing, and I started building on them. It wasn’t a conscious thing initially, but I eventually turned greater focus towards it.”
“My friend’s brother had a health condition when I made my first ever scribble, and we were really close, so l was just in class and needed to vent… I can say that my art serves as a form of therapy for me when I’m scribbling… it’s like building something from crooked lines, and by the time you’re done, something emergent has taken shape. I feel every piece I’ve ever made has in some way connected to a part of me; what I was going through, or what was happening in the world around me, at the time.”
A good example of this came when Ayanfe introduced cubism to her figures in the form of their prominent, pointed noses, prompted by many years spent being taunted by bullies at school. “People used to make fun of my wide nostrils and insult me,” she says. “and this made me insecure, but I started including big noses in my work to learn to love myself and be resistant to the insults.”
“Unrealistic standards are not functional for the society we live in, so in as much as I’m trying to tell stories, I’m also trying to share nuanced morals that are helpful and not limiting,” she says. For Ayanfe, art is a tool for challenging restrictive constructs and longstanding societal biases, in order to aid present generations, as well as those still to come.
A self-proclaimed explorer, Ayanfe is always seeking new mediums and means of expression, some of which she has brought to life through her mixed portraits and photography. Through the dynamic nature of her work, she connects her viewers to multiple perspectives on various themes. Ayanfe aims, through these mediums, to advocate for the marginalised, raise awareness, and impact society for good.