The occasion was to celebrate the return of 34-year-old Oluwole Omofemi to Nigeria, after being commissioned to paint the portrait of the Queen of United Kingdom in 2022. He ‘Nigerianized’ the portrait with black hair (which is Omofemi’s signature in painting. The portrait wasa special commission for the cover of Tatler’s Platinum Jubilee issue, which has been on newsstands since 26 May,2022.
Painted in oil on canvas in his signature pop-art palette, the queen’s portrait by Omofemi, according to Helen Rosslyn of Tatler magazine, will not only appear on Tatler’s cover, it will also be displayed prominently in the specially curated Sotheby’s exhibition Power & Image: Royal Portraiture & Iconography, alongside Andy Warhol’s screenprints from his 1985 Reigning Queens portfolio and the Woburn Abbey Collection’s Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I.
Omofemi was given his first exhibition in London in 2020. Now, his works are displayed in Mayfair at Khalil Akar’s gallery and Signature African Art, an outpost of one of Nigeria’s leading contemporary art galleries.
Oluwole Omofemi, shortly after he returned from the UK, spoke to VanguardNewspaper in an interview at Alexis Galleries, Akin Olugbade Street, off Idowu Martins Street, Victoria Island, Lagos.
Briefly introducing Oluwole Omofemi, Patty ChidiacMastrogiannis, founder of Alexis Galleries, described him as an artist who has made it big in the art scene. “He has become the face of every Nigerian artist. His work has actually drawn a lot of attentions to Nigerian art. Other artists should be thankful to him, because all eyes in the world now are on Nigeria. Oluwole Omofemi started as a young boy with me in 2012. I was trading and pushing his works. I believed in him, though we used to fight a lot. He is now a shining star, as you can see. Omofemi did his first solo exhibition with me in 2019. He also showed in many other group exhibitions,” Patty said.
Omofemi: I control my works
“One of the things that has helped me is that I learnt to control my works. Nobody, for instance can boast of having 20 or 30 works of Omofemi. Where did you get it? I am even looking for a way to buy back my works. I always tell artists that if you have sold your work to anybody, in the next ten years, you should be able to go there and tell them you want to buy back your work. If you have not been able to do that, it’s not good.
Giving reasons for his success, Omofemi attributes it to “God factor and human factor. God has been kind to me. I was lucky to have the right people around me.”
But “God helps those who help themselves,” Patty chips in.
Omofemi says in his career as a painter, he has produced about 100 works. “Over the years, I have been able to create an identity for myself. As an artist, you don’t need to put your signature on your works before people would know it’s your work. If you have gotten to that level, it means you have created an identity for yourself, a direction that can never be shifted.”
Omofemi also spoke about the role Alexis Galleries and the founder, Patty ChidiacMastrogiannis, played in his successful career as an artist: “The first person I need to thank is Mr. Akinola Ebenezer, through whom I met Mrs. Patty around 2012. The first painting I sold officially in Lagos was through Mrs. Patty. Mrs. Patty outrightly buys any artists she believes in.”Omofemi says if you are an artist and Mrs. Patty outrightly buys your works, that’s a signal to you that you are going somewhere.
“People have asked me why I am still working with Mrs. Patty. I keep relationships. I have two galleries, one in London and one in Spain, but I still work with her because of the kind of relationship between us. She was more like a mother to me, and I really appreciate it. I don’t easily forget people like that.”
Painting the Queen’s portrait
“Of recent, I have had some incredible auction results internationally, with Christies, Sotheby’sand all that. On how I came to paint the portrait of the Queen of the United Kingdom, I was contacted by Tatler, one of the biggest magazines in the UK. They wanted an African artist who would paint the Queen. One guy, MaroItoje (an English professional rugby union player), partnered with my London gallery,Signature African Art. They were having discussions on somebody who would paint the Queen. There were a lot of names on the table. In the end, I was the only one that emerged as the preferred candidate for the job.
“When they discussed the project with me, I was so excited. I said to myself: “God, what is this? Why me, an artist from an interior part of Ibadan, chosen to paint the Queen of UK? There are a lot of renowned artists from Nigeria they could have chosen to paint the Queen. Why me?
“So, they asked me to go and think about it; that they want to see what I can give as the portrait of the Queen. So, I came back to Lagos to meet with The Signature. We discussed a lot of things. I discussed with the son who is my representative in London. The queen has been on the throne for 70 years and she is 96 going to 97 years old.
“They first gave me a theme that is larger than life, to think about, to see how to depict the image. From my own research, I began to see the Queen as someone who has conquered life, someone who has seen all that life can offer. I saw her not only as the mother of the United Kingdom, but also the mother of the Commonwealth nations of which Nigeria is one. I was so excited. It’s not only for myself, it is also for Nigeria, which was chosen for the job. From the look of things, I might be the only black artist that would paint the Queen before she passes on. She is 96 now, remember.
“When I was chosen, I knew it was a rare opportunity of a lifetime for me, and also a great challenge. It was a cultural shift. I was used to painting black women. Then, I was asked to paint a white woman. I kept asking myself how I was going to paint the queen. “Am I going to paint the queen as a black woman, which is my signature?” I asked myself. I had to cry to God for inspiration. I said, “God, please give me an idea.
The inspiration comes
“After that, I began to think: The queen achieved all the great things she had achieved when she was young. At that young age, I thought, she had a black hair. That was when she had that power, the strength to move around and all that. So, I decided to capture her at that young age when she had all that power. So, my portrait of the queen signifies power, strength and liberty for women.
“I also decided that I wanted a reflection of Omofemi in the painting. So, I started sourcing for pictures. I browsed the internet for pictures of the queen. I went to my grandfather, who was there when the queen visited Nigeria many years ago, and asked him some questions. I downloaded from the internet and printed hundreds of pictures of the queen and pasted them all over my studio. I then started looking at the pictures every day. I haven’t met the queen, so I wanted to meet her through that kind of inspiration. I even pasted some of the pictures in my bedroom. I wanted the queen to appear to me in some kind of a spiritual way. I wanted to capture the very essence of the queen in the painting.
“Before I started, I had to seclude myself from my wife and family for four good weeks. At the beginning, my wife didn’t fully understand what I was doing. I had to tell her that I was doing the portrait, not only for myself, but also for my children and for posterity. I told her that the full value and essence of the work may not be visible now while I am still alive, but by the time I am dead, may be in the next 30, 50 or 100 years to come, the full value of the work will become visible. That way, my wife understood and allow me to continue with my ‘madness’.
“At the end of it all, to the glory of God, I was able to paint my truth as an artist, and it was accepted. We had a show for it which attracted hundreds of people – the high and the mighty. I felt like crying. How could someone like me, an ordinary person from an interior part of Ibadan, go all the way from Nigeria, to be the one chosen to paint the queen of the United Kingdom. I was also invited to the Palace. I met with Prince Charles. We took pictures.”
While Ebenezer Akinola, Omofemi’s teacher who was born in Ibadan, earned a Bachelor’s degree in painting from University of Benin in1989, he taught Omofemi as an apprentice