Lola Betiku, 33, is a self-taught Nigerian-British painter based in East London. She draws influence from her rich Nigerian heritage, with many elements of her work conversing with the ideas of belonging and femininity which she uses to reflect on how these evolve within cultural and traditional expectations.
Lola sat down with Bolanle Tajudeen, founder of the educational arts platform Black Blossoms, to discuss her art and what inspires her.
Watch: Black art, Black stories, Black voices
Bolanle Tajudeen: Tell us about how you got into painting
Lola Betiku: I've always been into art and creativity. However, I would say I have become a professional artist in the past six years. When I turned 25, I was dealing with heartbreak and disappointment, so I decided to move to Nigeria. If you are under 30 in Nigeria and want to get a salaried job, you are expected to serve in the National Youth Service. I wanted to start a new life, and this was an excellent opportunity to meet new people and learn more about where I came from. I look back and think, wow, what a crazy decision.
Whilst I was there, I got pretty sick, and I actually had to spend a lot of time alone. That's when I started really painting as I took a few tubes of paint and some paint brushes and canvas. I wasn't in Lagos (the capital of Nigeria); I was in Ekiti, in western Nigeria - it was tranquil. I had a lot of time with myself and my thoughts and the time to meditate and go inwards. And this really inspired me creatively, and I realised painting was therapy for me. I had a lot to get out. The time alone painting made me realise that I really loved painting, and I promised myself that I would take my talent and artwork practice more seriously when I got better.
Bolanle: Before you went to Nigeria at that time were you engaging with the art world?
Lola: I never really went to galleries. The whole time I was in Nigeria, I reflected on why I kept my love for art and my talent a secret. I put it on my bucket list that I would put on a solo exhibition of my work. When I got back to London, I started to visit art shows. I live in Hackney (East London), and so much is going on. I just felt a sense of urgency to get involved with the artistic community.
Bolanle: How did you develop the confidence to get involved?
Lola: I went to a lot of the art events on Brick Lane. I then came across the Truman Brewery they hosted the New Artist Fair, and I applied to take part and was selected. It was my first exhibition, and I exhibited pieces that I had made in Nigeria. Not only was it the first time I showed my work publicly, but I sold a couple of paintings too. It was an affirming experience, and it really boosted my confidence. Since then, I have continued to ride the wave.
Bolanle: I'm not surprised that you were selected to take part in the exhibition. Your work is vibrant, and the figures in your painting are so beautiful and familiar. Being Nigerian like yourself, I can see how Yoruba culture, music, beauty and fashion influences your work.
Lola: Yes, my mum is a massive inspiration to me. Since I was young, my mum has had a shop in Dalston where she sells textiles, African beads and aso oke (a hand-woven fabric created by the Yoruba people of West Africa) as well as more things relating to Nigerian fashion.
When I was young, I was actually embarrassed by mum because she was loud, and her style was African eccentric but very regal. When I went back to Nigeria, I appreciated how my mum kept her authenticity and culture in a foreign place. I also think when you get older, you just become more comfortable with yourself and your culture. Nigeria refreshed my eyes, and the women are so beautiful, and there is always a party or wedding to attend, so lots of reasons to dress up. The time I spent in Nigeria gave me a new appreciation for my culture as you see things first hand, which deepened my understanding of things; you know, just going to the local market in Nigeria is a whole experience.
For my 30th, I had kind of come to a point where I had quite a few art pieces, and I thought, yeah, for my birthday, I am going to have a solo show, and I put on exhibition as a gift to myself. The exhibition, Highlife Soldiers (held in Hackney), was a celebration. A celebration of my culture and the different sounds that have come out of Nigeria from Highlife to Afrobeats.
Bolanle: It's funny, my mum used to embarrass me too, but as I got older, I really appreciated her insistence on teaching me our culture. Your work mainly has women subjects. Why is this?
Lola: Most of my work is based on what I see. The people around me are mostly women - my sisters, my mom, so a lot of my artwork comes from conversations with them. I am also doing work that centres on my life experiences. I am around a lot of Black women, and the conversations we have influence my work. I also do paint men but usually when my work is referencing music.
Bolanle: So tell us a little bit more about what inspires your colour palette,
Lol: For me, you get a lot of different emotions out of different colours. My dad introduced me to Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, and when I was younger he used to tell me stories about the musicians he liked. When I was around five or six, my dad took us to see King Sunny Ade at the Royal Albert Hall. It was such a big deal to my dad that he hired a photographer to take pictures of the family. We were dressed up. In fact, we were overdressed to go to the concert. My family took a lot of pictures, and when I look back at our family albums, I am inspired by the colours in the fabrics, our posture and just the general vibe, and I try to emulate that in my artwork.
The Highlife series is all about nightlife. I wanted to recreate a mystique vibe. I started using cyans and metallic blues, I fell in love with it. I use bright colours in the background on the fabrics, and I play around with magentas and oranges. I think I have developed a signature style.
Bolanle: Earlier, you mentioned that painting is therapy for you. Can you elaborate?
Lola: I don't want to say I am a deep thinker, but I sit in my thoughts as I overthink. When I start to paint, it gives me time to process my thoughts. During the day, when I am working or socialising with friends, I note things in my diary, mainly things I can't say out loud, and I bring out these musings and ideas in my paintings. For example, a few of my friends and I have been talking about being in our 30s and how you make plans but following through and just sort of coasting through life but being overindulgent on certain things. So in one of my latest paintings, I recreated that feeling with a beautiful woman chilling at the bar with a glass of liquor in her hand, but you can see the room is slightly lopsided, indicating she has things on her mind.
Bolanle: Does your work intertwine with your art practice?
Lola: Yes, I am a newly qualified Design & Technology (D&T) teacher. I really, really enjoy it!. The energy you get from the kids, and the different stories I hear means I'm constantly learning. What I like about D&T is that I have to follow a curriculum, so creatively I am structured, and in my own art practice, I can be free. However, since doing the NFT workshops with Yahoo, I can see how the curriculum should be expanded to include new advancements in technology.
Bolanle: Are you excited about making your own NFT?
Lola: I look forward to experimenting with photoshop and layers. My usual work style is more fine art, but it is exciting to enter the digital space and push my creativity in a totally new way. The workshops we had with Lady Phoenix (a digital artist herself and one of the mentors involved in the Yahoo project) have opened up my eyes to the possibilities in the NFT world.
Bolanle: How incredible is it that Disrupt Space (the Black visual art agency founded by Paul Reid) has been able to secure this collaboration with Yahoo like this for their artists. What is it like being signed to an arts agency?
Lola: What is excellent about Disrupt Space is engaging with a great collective of artists. Although I have been working as an artist for a while now, it is still early days; I am still learning to understand myself and understand what stories I want to share and what purpose I want my art to have in the world, so it is great to be part of Disrupt Space and have Paul mentoring us.
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