Aniekan Udofia does not like to be called an artist. He eschews at having his work be categorized by his ethnicity and he prefers to do solo shows because he does not like being told what kind of art to create. Udofia is a visual artist or painter—his preferred title—of immense talent who believes, as he tells me, that “art is nothing more than ideas and experiences told metaphorically.” Udofia is a welcomed and dominant presence in the urban art scene of Washington DC, a painter who merges socio-political themes with hip-hop aesthetics. His “photo-realistic” style of painting has gained him major attention and commissions from clients that include Heineken, Jack Daniels, Honda and Adidas just to name a few.
Udofia is a busy artist these days, but my hot pursuit of an interview has finally paid off and It was well worth the wait as I have long admired his public art. The murals that he has created throughout Washington, DC capture the spirit of resistance and freedom that embody the history of our Nation’s Capital. Among these are his mural of the great orator and abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas which is located at the “Bread for the City” building at 1640 Good hope Road SE in Anacostia, the Duke Ellington building mural which is located at 2121 Ward court in NW and the illusory gagged George Washington mural on U St NW. These prodigious pieces illustrate Udofia’s dexterity of the spray paint medium and his dedication to legitimize street art by way of commissioned public art pieces. I finally met him at his studio apartment and had an intriguing conversation with the elusive artist.
His studio is filled with comics, paintings, acrylics, oil paint, color pencils, charcoals, canvases and brushes. Udofia’s work is vibrant, colorful and pops out in your face; it has a meaning and a message. Before approaching a project, Udofia ensures that every idea is well planned, ” it’s a visual language that I speak and each piece must have a soul” says the painter. Udofia is serious about the message in his art; the painter examines political themes, social commentary and American consumerism through his art which is why his work is so provocative. He creates his artwork in “series”, which often takes several months to complete, “working this way makes my work easier for the viewer to comprehend”, he tells me.
As you can imagine, his controversial messages are not always welcomed by the masses. For example, his painting of former president George W. Bush Jr. carrying machine guns and wearing a shirt that reads, “Got oil?” ruffled a few feathers. Nevertheless, Udofia doesn’t overly-concern himself with the controversy, just the art. Udofia believes that being an artist should be about his ability to express himself and nothing more. He has a certain style of finding the truth through his paintings and says, “the world is desensitized to the truth but I am bringing the truth anyway.” His style embraces the hues of the color spectrum vibrantly and pushes them into the viewer’s face, evoking an emotional call to action.
Udofia feels that too many people take what they see literally, like super heroes and reality shows and says, “there is danger in that.” He explains that his Reloaded series is about switching up the concept, using the same provocative images to get the viewers’ attention but sending positive messages instead of negative ones. This series is an apparent call to end violence in the world and looks like super hero meets comics at the vibrant and colorful home of graffiti; it is pop culture at its finest.
The painter makes an intimate connection with the world through his innovative style of art and paints the face of diversity with every stroke of his paint brush. He does not rely solely on the myriad of influences he has in Washington, DC or his homeland of Nigeria or the Ibibio tribe to which he belongs. He only adds those influences when he decides is necessary or useful. For example, he paints the youthful face of singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone in the reloaded series and her curvy youthful figure stands pointing a giant pencil at the viewer. She is shrouded in vibrant colors and shapes and offers the allure of a seventies action movie poster and a hip hop concert advertisement all in one. I am immensely curious about the gigantic pencil that Simone points like a gun in this piece. In fact, (I notice) that the pencil has a trigger connected to it as well. The pencil is ubiquitous in this series and was in the mural he recently completed in the H street corridor for Jack Daniels.
As I sit at the painters art table listening to him talk about his limitless imagination and how it operates within his art, he suddenly pulls out what looks like a semi-automatic weapon; I am a bit frightened at first, but he kindly explains that he purchased it from a children’s toy website. He juxtaposes the machine-gun to the giant pencil that he paints into his work in the reloaded series, explaining that our society is enamored with violence, how else could he have purchased the authentic looking “toy” gun that he holds in his hand from a children’s website.
Images of this pencil fly out of each painting in his reloaded series; I am a bit amazed to learn that Udofia made the pencil himself using. a replica of a toy gun with the attached trigger and all. “Why attach a trigger to a pencil,” I ask. He explains, “I applied the ignorance to my pencil to get my point across; I had to find a way to get the people’s attention”. His message is clear—guns tear people apart, while pencils bring them together. He says, “The pencil is the weapon that can solve our problems and create solutions and ideas, whereas the gun has not a single good attribute; it only destroys.” Says Udofia resolutely.
He goes on to show me posters from his Can You Dig It series which was inspired by 1970’s movies like Shaft, Foxy Brown and Bruce Lee’s martial arts films and as well as the popular music of the epoch. Kaleidoscopic Images of singer Marvin Gaye appear larger than life in this series and the even larger 1970’s style collar on the shirt that the singer wears inspires jubilant nostalgia that lingers long after one views the piece. This series is a reticent reminder of what our culture values and the way that media effects us; the colors are vibrant, the Afros are perfectly symmetrical and the images of Fela Kuti the Nigerian musician, human rights activist, and pioneer of Afro-beat music and other artist of the era are lifelike and infectious, they speak to our love of art in every facet.
Next, he shares his Village B- Boy series with me, which is an emergence of African culture and the then au-courant Western hip-hop culture which he witnessed growing up in Nigeria in the early eighties. Photo-like paintings of boys of dark hue, with African features surrounded by African scenery wearing hip hop style clothing, flashing gang and peace signs with their hands, wearing hoodies and baseball caps etc. Looking at this series is almost an acculturative experience in the way that the different cultures merge into one on the canvas.
Udofioa was born in NW Washington DC, but his parents returned their young family to Nigeria after completing their education in the United States. His Mother wanted her children to be fully immersed in African culture; especially the Ibibio tribe of southeastern Nigeria where there are over 250 ethnic groups.
As a child, Udofia had many influences. His home was filled with books and the sound of music and he was deeply influenced by the musical genre “Highlife” which originated in Ghana and includes musical legends like Ibo. Highlife innovator Sonny Okosun and Victor Olaiya, a Yoruba singer and trumpeter who dominated this genre and had a strong cultural influence on the region; Hip hop however, resonated in Udofio in a more profound way. Udofia’s attraction to hip hop is evident in his work because Udofia respects and appreciates hip hop artist ability to use lyrics to reach people, in a similar manner to the way he uses visual cues to reach his audience.
Udofia probes into the ills of society in his series The Sickness which is a collection of provocative and nebulous pieces which express the negative influence of media on American by encouraging consumerism. Images of detached body parts, suicidal images of people with guns to their heads, overweight bodies gorged with food and trapped inside of television, their brains turned to mush meet me like a slap in the face. These radical images catch me off guard with their truthfulness. The painter tells me that he prepared for this series by watching television almost nonstop for two months. During this time, he observed that the News depresses people, commercials are contradictory, and the media sets a pattern for people to follow. He says, “they invite us to eat bad foods, then they offer medicine and exercise to correct the damage caused by overeating. Furthermore he states, “the exercise shows are sponsored by KFC and the media insists on defining our gender roles, prejudices, and how we spend our money” Says Udofia.
After our talk, I feel as if the painter has poured it all out for me and I take a moment to reflect, before I ask, “why art?” “Art has a voice, and makes people think” he replies with a smile more bright and beautiful than any of the paintings that surround me.