The work of Dennis Osadebe has an alarming sense of confrontation. Characters stare out at you, paused in their activity, as if to question the premise of your gaze. On his canvas, the past and the present are married through the combination of digital and physical processes. “It speaks to my fascination with combining the past with the present, in order to examine the future,” he tells us. Born and based in Nigeria, the artist left a career in business management with no formal art training, but a confidence in the craft as a means to express himself. Having always had a fascination with the philosophy of modern art, and the favouring of experimentation over tradition, his style embraces experimental methods while platforming his heritage. “That intrigue is still the driving force behind my practice today.”
Dennis’ work takes obvious inspiration from the pop-art movement; he approaches scenes with a Hockney-esque flair. But, his infusion of the recurring masks in his work is a unique addition expanding on the style’s usual playful nature. “Its design was inspired by the emblem of my childhood town of Festac in Lagos, The Festac ’77, a carved replica of the 16th century Benin Ivory mask, and the design of other masks across Nigeria,” he tells us. “The mask acts as a true reflection of my heritage in the context of its future and possibilities,” he adds. The character looks out and it feels as though a fourth wall is being broken. It gives us the feeling that Dennis isn’t only stretching the style, but questioning the premise of art and its surrounding world when placed in his cultural context.
The scenery in Dennis’ artworks appeal to our basic understanding of shapes and forms; a man sits at a table in an office in front of a bookshelf full of blank books of varying colours; he sits in the park on his laptop surrounded by pink blotches that represent flowers in grass. He creates these compositions digitally, before printing them onto a canvas “an archival inkjet technique” and then painting on top of specific areas by hand. “Each step of the process adds another layer of vibrancy and dimension to the finished piece,” he tells us. For Dennis, inkjet printing is one of the greatest ways to achieve this level of detail, but he is also interested in the work in its basic form, stripped back. “I’m fascinated by technology and seek to employ its innovation in my works, such as a figurative sculpture that I recently developed that gives it the appearance of breathing, but I’m conscious of not relying on it completely,” he adds.
One thing that sparked our interest was that, on the surface, Dennis’ works appear visually homogeneous, but after a closer look they carry an individual weight. In Universalism, he explores personal relationships, belief systems, religion and the nature of prayer. Maybe audiences originally see it as a reflection of a summer’s day, out in the sun with their laptop (barely) working, but it’s an example of Dennis’ penchant for imparting symbols discreetly in his work. “The character seemingly browses the web, perhaps researching in a peaceful environment, but he’s also wearing angel wings and has a totem beside him.” And, in Composure, furniture flies in what seems like the casualty of a natural disaster, but the artist claims this one as a surreal self portrait. “I made it in response to the pressures of being an artist today, particularly in relation to the constant demand for and expectations of my output.”
On the whole, Dennis’ oeuvre presents us with a masterclass in balancing the symbolic with the more literal and everyday. Having explored new avenues for his work in the past year, thinking about how and where they exist, the artist has embarked upon new collaborations such as a scarf with Hermès, and an upcoming collaboration launching a print release. “These projects give me the platform to explore totally new mediums and techniques, which results in the kind of expansion that I crave.”
Dennis Osadebe: Knowledge Seeker (Copyright © Dennis Osadebe, 2022)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) is a staff writer at It's Nice That, with a particular interest in Black visual culture. They have previously written for publications such as WePresent, and worked as researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.