"Art is the only way I know
how to speak and air my opinion about things."
Born 1992, suleja, Nigeria.
Lives and works in Abuja, Nigeria.
Born in an agricultural area of Central Nigeria in 1992, Oliver Okolo had two dreams as a child: one of becoming a basketball star and the other of becoming an artist. He combined his two dreams into a series of handmade comics of himself as a basketball star. Drawn to the works of classical artists—especially the Old Masters, he was accepted as an apprentice to Clement Nwafor, an Abuja-based Nigerian artist who beautifully mixes fabric collage and portraiture in his realist paintings.
When he felt that he had learned enough to break free, Okolo opened his own studio in his home. With a unique technique of collaging his hyper-realistic, charcoal-penciled and painted heads on paper with more loosely painted bodies, objects and backgrounds on canvas, the art world began to take interest, and exhibition opportunities soon followed.
Okolo shared recently “I started making art with charcoal pencils, so when I began to introduce oils into the work, I thought to keep all of the materials that I loved to work with in the process of making paintings. I came up with a collage method of painting the face of the subject on paper and carefully blending the paper into the rest of the painting to make the complete work.”
Inspired by such Golden Age masters as Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer; the 19th century American portrait painter John Singer Sargent; and contemporary artists like the renowned African American painter Kehinde Wiley, Cuban hyperrealist Cesar Santos and Irish-born American abstractionist Sean Scully, Okolo was invited to residencies in Chicago and Accra, which led to his inclusion in notable group shows. One particular exhibition, titled “[West] African Renaissance,” organized in collaboration with Christie’s Dubai, was a standout for its examination of the contemporary art renaissance taking place in Ghana, Nigeria and other parts of the continent.
“Art is the only way I know how to speak and air my opinion about things,” Okolo expressed. Commenting on his Igbo culture, many of his paintings challenge long-held customs and ancient beliefs. His 2022 allegorical painting The rejects and a yellow guitar captures three untouchable members of the stigmatized Osu caste system, who are treated like slaves by the dominant Nwadiala people, with a guitar player, who is soothing their souls with is music. The group sits in front of tall grass, which symbolizes their passage to the other side—to heaven. Okolo sees music as a unifying factor that brings people of all walks of life together and heaven as a place where everyone is treated equally.
The artist invents the world on the canvas—the world that he wants to inhabit. Fascinated with telling stories through his art, Okolo pays special attention to the eyes and expressions of his sitters, stating that he sees his subject’s eyes as “a gateway to the truth that lies behind the soul.”
Working from photographs, which he shoots with his Nikon, or culls from archival and internet sources, Okolo filters his subjects through allegorical settings and poses from the past to express his societal concerns and hopefully impact some change. Calling his fusion of the past, present and future “Classical Contemporalism,” this talented, 30-year-old artist is challenging the Old Masters to be relevant again, and in the process—ironically—he may one day be hanging on the walls of revered museums, right next to them.
Writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer; Contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire; Founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine; Curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.