“The Why” With Artist Adébayo Bolaji

There is perhaps no artist more culturally prolific than Adébayo Bolaji, a self-taught painter hailing from London, England whose vibrant works are displayed worldwide. Captivatingly intricate and colorfully bold, Adébayo’s pieces address a variety of themes spanning from race, human observation and anthropology, amounting to a canon of work that will, without a doubt, define a new era of storytelling through art. Stoned Fox was gifted the absolute pleasure of chatting with Adébayo, learning more about his inspired vision, gaining insights into why slowing down to reconnect with ourselves is, in actuality, the only way to discover our true “why.”

Overall, there has been a revolutionary spirit which I think needs to keep going and more so stay with the individual first, which then becomes us. Everything is connected.

Curiosity is a gift. If one loses that, then the overly intellectual mind — or rather a mind that thinks it knows it all — gets involved in the work and then, sadly, the work dies.

You just had an incredible exhibition at the most recent Art Basel — congrats! 2021 was a revolutionary year in culture and personal growth for many; what aspects of your life played a role in cultivating the spirit behind your latest work? 

I think a lot of art in general was impacted by what was happening culturally. I also think it could’ve been easy for me to force my art to somehow speak to what was happening. There’s a tendency for us to do this for all the wrong reasons, one of them being manipulating the work for the sake of wanting to be relevant. 

The voice of an artist is so special because, on one hand, it can mirror society, and on the other, it can mirror an inner world that is so different from what we’re experiencing. And so we get to escape or indulge in something completely new, irrespective of what is happening in the world at large. 

Personally, my life was cultivated by the need to stay curious. To me, curiosity is a gift. If one loses that, then the overly intellectual mind — or rather a mind that thinks it knows it all — gets involved in the work and then, sadly, the work dies. 

A child is curious. A child wants to know why something is the way it is. When we grow up, we assume too much and rush because we think we know what something now is, how something now works.

And so beauty hides itself from us. Knowledge hides itself from us because we rush, we assume, we stop asking questions.

I had to cultivate my curiosity because we were forced to isolate, to limit our access to what we normally have access to. This led me to believe I wasn’t being inhibited but rather encouraged to stay curious and question what I think I know, to question my current ideas of things that I feel familiar with. So, I would ask myself, “Is there another way I can look at this thing?”

I have to say, the Black Lives Matter movement had a surge of relevance because of George Floyd, but to me, it wasn’t a new narrative. It’s one I’ve had my whole life, so it didn’t cultivate anything new, per se. 

What was new was mainly my non-Black friends realising how fragmented and structurally corrupt our world is from a racial standpoint. Ironically, to prove my point, four months before George Floyd was murdered, I painted a piece called Black is Beautiful. The painting was based on Michelangelo’s Pieta. I wanted to bring to light this image of a Black mother holding her Black son who had been “crucified” by society. I painted this before the protests, because I think about these things constantly. And then look what happened after…George Floyd died. 

Overall, there has been a revolutionary spirit which I think needs to keep going and more so stay with the individual first, which then becomes us. Everything is connected.

Black Is Beautiful by Bolaji 2020

Acting, law, painting, directing, writing, percussion, sculpture; you’re a polymath to say the least. How do you balance your time between all of your passions?

There has to be a vision. And by vision, I mean a reason. A “why” someone is doing what they are doing. Actions do not exist in a vacuum. What gives direction to flow is direction and focus itself. This allows for creativity in absolutely any circumstance because you know why you decide to move, pause, create, and so on. If you see things as separate entities that serve no overall purpose, then you pick something up because you think you have to or you have been told to, but it then lacks movement or flow, because it has no idea what it’s for.

You often work with “found,” or as you’ve previously said, “lived in” materials. How do you know when you’ve “found” an item? How does it spark inspiration for you? 

That’s a good question. I think it goes back to this idea of vision. Vision, as I said before, is your leader, your “why.” It’s your world that has a philosophy, a belief system that governs your way of seeing just like how every culture believes in something, or what it stands for.

Once you know what this is for you, anything you come in contact with will naturally align or not because you’ve spent time with your vision and know what you stand for. This is why my advice to you is to pause each day, too reconnect with who you are. It’s a daily practice, like eating, like breathing. It’s a lifestyle.

Your vision can also change the closer you get to it, but it’s about having a focus. A person who is aligned, who is focused, is not intimidated by other ideas because they know who they are and where they’re going, so they’re free to play more, experiment more.

What do you wish to leave behind as a gift to the world?

An idea that has presented itself in a creative body of work. This idea empowers the individual, it builds them up. I think I’m passionate about changing the state of things, from the negative to the positive, from a mind that thinks it’s lost to one that is not.

If your life were a film, what would it be?

I think it would be a hero story. And not just for myself, but for all of us. I think that’s the story we should all have. The story of the hero is one of becoming, reaching one’s full potential, and ultimately, making this place a lot better.

Favorite place to view art?

Literally anywhere. It sounds cliché, but the more art you force yourself to see, the better you get at seeing. It’s a muscle, physically and spiritually. This means you start to see things differently, which in turns informs your work, opens it up. For this to develop, start with a place you’re naturally drawn to and then follow the rabbit hole. Experiencing art becomes different.

A piece of advice for us?

Everyday, take a moment to pause. You can afford a moment, however small it is.

What does a Stoned Fox mean to you?

Artists @adebayobolaji

Photography provided by @adebayobolaji

Written by @kellyMcCarthy

Produced by @stonedfoxmedia