A self-professed London boy through and through, Adebayo Bolaji has had “quite a complex, or better said, eclectic” background in the arts. A child actor starring in West End shows, the Edinburgh festival and such when he was young, Abebayo then went on to study Law “due to parental pressures and the sorts”, which led to a breakdown from the stress of working in the city and fundamentally “not being myself,” he tells us. “Although I didn’t know this at the time.” At one point he found himself in a bookshop and realised his body needed a way to express itself. As acting was the closest form of creative expression that he understood, he auditioned for the Central School of Speech and Drama, he got in, and started acting professionally again.
Looking back on this period retrospectively, Adebayo remembers feeling “constantly restless.” It was apparent something was missing. “I would get these insane headaches,” he tells It’s Nice That, “whenever I would perform I felt dissatisfied.” In turn, he tried writing which didn’t cure this feeling of agitation and eventually the headaches became so bad he literally cried out “God help”. Somehow and some time later, he heard the words “go and buy paint”, which he did, and the rest his history. He’d always doodled, piling up countless sketchbooks filled with drawings, but it wasn’t until this moment that Adebayo considered himself an artist.
The headaches stopped and all the creative outpourings that he’d felt throughout his life culminated in the act of painting. Now, with a flourishing painting practice underway, Adebayo has retuned to other mediums – like directing and writing – with the flow of his output complimenting and informing one another. In his strikingly energetic paintings, an exploration of Adebayo’s heritage reveals itself organically. It's pushed him to go on a personal journey to see how his past connects with his present – a rich history stretching to Yoruba, Nigeria. “And I love it,” he adds.
Painting seemingly provides Adebayo with all the things he is instinctively attracted to: a sense of control, immediate expressiveness and colour. “For years I could walk past something that had a great use of colour and I would feel helpless inside, really pulled by it, wanting to be part of the conversation and not knowing how,” says the artist. “But when I came to paint it was like several light bulbs were going off and going crazy, like bingo bingo bingo.” Instinctive and organic, Adebayo’s paintings ebb and flow with the now, responding to what is happening with him personally or in the world. These topics range from a great number of themes, from sexuality to race.
He shares two recent artworks with us; the first titled Black is Beautiful is based on the compositions of Michaelangelo’s Pietà, “one of the most beautiful images,” in Adebayo’s opinion. The sculpture in Pietà depicts a crestfallen Mary holding the body of the crucified Christ and, in Black is Beautiful, the artist hints to the powerful image but through the Black experience. “When I paint bodies, they are almost always in full black. Sometimes pertaining to race and other times, a soul, so the skin colour is irrelevant, it’s symbolic.” In the case of Black is Beautiful however, the painting came about as a response to the unlawful violence and murders inflicted on Black communities.
“With the discussion of race, mainly Black, my own, there is this sad fact of Black men being killed at an alarming rate and by the police (especially in the States). I couldn’t shake this feeling of how Black life, life that is just as beautiful as any other, has been devalued.” Since the unlawful killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the painting has taken on a new, “more vital” meaning for the artist. “It becomes even more special because well, what has happened?” Adebayo adds: “We all saw it, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, by someone who is meant to protect and serve.”
In addition to painting, the artist has also been making sculptures as a three-dimensional exploration of his painting work, as well as a new film that he’s currently working on. It’s a dance film featuring Adebayo himself. “I want to use my body to respond to what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s funny, I feel race by default is in my narrative and now the world – again – is talking about it,” the artist goes on to say. “I’m tired of explaining my existence, that’s not my duty. And so I just feel like I want to express this, maybe out of anger but not pitiful anger, because I do not oppress myself. I don’t feel sorry for myself, why should I? It is the mind of some others that have the problem, not mine. I’m free.”
Adebayo Bolaji: Black is Beautiful
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.