by Koyin Gbenro and Nkemka Uche
Dipo Doherty is an artist currently working and living in Lagos. Following his debut at Red Door Gallery four years ago he has created a name for himself in the art industry and will be going to perfect his skills at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in August. We caught up with him a few weeks ago to have a chat about his journey so far, his experience with galleries, being an art entrepreneur, and his upcoming solo exhibition at the National Museum.
Koyin: What was your background before you went into art?
Dipo: Mechanical Engineering from the University of Virginia. If someone told me in 2010 that I would go into the art world I would have never believed it. I was one of those Tumblr guys that went online to look at pretty pictures of landscapes, architecture, paintings, and sculptures. So I had the enthusiasm for art, I appreciated aesthetics, and I had an interest but I never knew my interest would gain critical mass to the point where I would start engaging with art and become an active player.
Everything started in the United States from going to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and seeing the different works there. Just after secondary school all I knew was Nok art and Benin art. Benin bronze was probably the most sophisticated art I was exposed to and then I got to America and I saw Rothko. MoMA was the first time I saw an El Anatsui tapestry. Then I saw Picasso’s work and I started researching on it and I was wowed. Everything was very inspiring. I didn’t have any academic background in painting, I just winged it but for the record I enjoyed technical drawing when I was in secondary school.
I started technical drawing in JSS 2 (Year 8) instead of SS1 (Year 10). My mum used to bring extra deodorants I didn’t need and the technical drawing teacher, Mr Fan, wanted these deodorants. So I would give them to him in exchange for lessons. During break time or siesta he would tell me to do isometric drawings and it was therapeutic for me drawing those lines. I guess you can even see it in my works with hatching.
Koyin: I can see it. I can definitely see it.
Koyin: Do you have any interesting art theories?
Dipo: There was a time when abstract expressionism blew my mind. I saw a Pollock painting and it looked like people were dancing in it and I was staring at it for fifteen minutes. I admire the kind of emotion and visual presence that post-war American artists convey with paint. With Rothko, when I looked closely at his paintings, I was in landscapes of blue and red and they made me feel moody. Pollock as well had me engaging with very hypnotic emotions, and I thought is there any way I could do this?
Koyin: I think you evoke similar emotions with your art.
Dipo: Really do I?
Koyin: Yes, because Eden and the rest have that hypnosis thing where if you look at it for a long time it feels like you’re swimming. I don’t know how to articulate it well but it’s like you’re swimming in…
Dipo: Like your consciousness is swimming in it.
Dipo: I guess it’s a by-product of the fact that I try to enter a meditative state when I paint and also from specifically pulling inspiration from Rothko, Pollock, and Lee Krasner. I was looking at these guys and trying to see what they were doing because they started off with figuration. They drew figures boldly then they drifted towards abstraction until it got to a point where they balanced it out. It was like they played around with the foreground and background of the human anatomy, the eyes and the mouth and everything were shifting. Studying that method of push and pull with the surface I was trying to engage with it and bring it in but not so much that it would look like I was biting off these guys but to use it and spin my own artistic language.
Koyin: Who are your biggest influences in the industry?
Dipo: In Nigeria, one person I really resonated with a lot was Twins Seven-Seven. He was a bit more figurative but I loved the fact that he used really dark colours and rustic browns. I loved the earthy element of his palette. I definitely resonated with Picasso to an extent because I felt his work was modern in the sense that he sort of portrayed what I was trying to do. I love Frank Stella’s work because I resonate so much with geometry. The abstract expressionist in me can’t remove Pollock, Rothko and Lee Krasner. Chris Ofili too is someone I resonate with on so many levels. He explores sexuality a bit more than I do. Sometimes I sprinkle it around in my paintings but he is more intense and his colour code is more intense as well.
Koyin: Are you a full time artist?
Dipo: Yes, I’m full time.
Koyin: When did you become one?
Dipo: December 2017.
Koyin: December last year? That’s fairly recent.
Dipo: I was in and out of nine to five’s. I worked for eleven months in my last job. So, last year was very unproductive artistically. I was full of inspiration but I was never able to get to that point where I could do a painting. I just couldn’t.
Koyin: Was that a difficult decision to make?
Dipo: Turning down a steady pay check is always a difficult decision. It was a strenuous job but for the most part I haven’t felt more fulfilled than I am now.
Koyin: What is the main aim of your work? Do they comment on any social or political issues?
Dipo: Initially I was exploring possibilities of mediums, expressions, and learning but as I began to paint more it seeped into my work and I began to think about things that are happening in society today. These weren’t necessarily things that are typical artistic motivations and I’m not trying to throw shade like those movements aren’t important. Racism, classism and all those things are important but because I’m coming from an engineering background I see the world as a socio-technical synthesis. I like commentary that focuses more on infrastructure at various levels; information, knowledge, educational, power, and trade infrastructure for example. How these play a role in our day-to-day lives and how emerging trends in these areas are going to affect us in the next decade.
I realised that there are knowledge and legacy infrastructures coming from the west that are going to define us if we let it. How do we grow our local content and capacity to catch up to what’s happening in the wider world? The work with rulers was purely an outcry to what’s happening in terms of our educational institution. There are so many trends that are happening and it’s almost as if we don’t notice. At our tertiary institutions there’s all this cultism going on and people are always trying to make fast money. Yahoo boys are graduating from universities; how is this going to define the work force of Nigeria? I was really concerned about this and the ruler works are where I found a channel to voice out that concern.
Koyin: Walk me through your career from your first solo exhibition at Red Door gallery in 2014 to now in 2018 that you’re about to exhibit at the National Museum. How did you get to this point?
Dipo: My journey hasn’t been…
Dipo: There are so many corners man. It’s crazy. Red Door was my confidence booster, where I got my self-esteem. I felt I could actually paint. Every artist needs to have that confidence over time. For fellows that went to Art school they built it through their academic practice. However, for self-taught artists like me it’s completely different because sometimes you doubt yourself and feel insecure about how people perceive your work considering you don’t have that academic background. Red Door was a defining moment for me because it gave me confidence to push further. I was so confident afterwards that I created a body of about ten or fifteen paintings.
Those paintings became my 'Coherence in Duality' exhibition at Nike art gallery. Around that time Rele launched and they were doing this Young Contemporary artists thing. They reached out to me and expressed their interest, so I joined in alongside Ayobola Kekere-Ekun, Dennis Osadebe, Eloghosa Osunde, Logor Oluwamuyiwa, and Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu. After that collectors started reaching out to me. A few weeks after the Rele exhibition I got a call from Joseph Gergel and he said Kavita Chellaram from Arthouse Contemporary wanted to meet with me. My response was: what? Arthouse? These were people I was trying to reach in 2014 to carry my work. So I met with her and she bought two paintings on the spot. Then she featured me in their Affordable Art Auction. They were trying to bring the young generation of artists into the spotlight and I think it was from auction performance that they gauged who had more market acceptance.
That was when a lot of group exhibitions started happening and I became a regular at modern and contemporary art auctions. Then Kavita put together the Arthouse Foundation and they were looking for inaugural fellows of the programme, so I applied. All these little things started building up and people started reaching out. I built a collector base from there. I never really had time to sit down and put together a new body of work because I was trying to fulfil demands with the group exhibitions and auctions. At some point it felt exhausting. It felt scattered, so I decided to sit down and reorient myself. This year I have been quiet but I haven’t been cool or lazy. I have been working.
Koyin: ART X, I saw you at ART X
Dipo: Ooh I even forgot about ART X. That was another interesting moment as well. I applied for the inaugural ART X prize and became a finalist. We had this panel that judged our work so that’s where I met Tokini Peterside, Bisi Silva, Papa Omotayo and Ugoma Adegoke. These were people that I had also tried to reach out to in the past so it felt good having that reassurance from the world that if you persevere you will go places. However, the interactive project at last year’s ART X was even better as I did a live painting and it was nerve-racking. All these moments in my career so far have set the stage for the works that we will see this year whether it’s through paintings or ruler works.
Koyin: Are you working on evolving your art style?
Dipo: That’s what I’m working at everyday. You always have to experiment, so I always challenge myself with every work I do because exploring new styles is like reaching new plateaus. When you reach one plateau you want to make sure you don’t move too fast and you fully explore what’s going on before you move forward.
Koyin: I think your style is already quite diverse because the ruler works are completely different from the paintings.
Dipo: Oh yeah, they are very divergent and it tells on the experimental character I apply in my practice.
Koyin: Okay this wasn’t part of my original interview questions but which group of people would you say buy your art more, expatriates or locals?
Dipo: Wow. Right now it’s locals. That’s not saying expatriates don’t buy my art but I haven’t seen any strong indicators of them buying more than Nigerians.
Koyin: Even at the Arthouse exhibitions?
Dipo: Even at Arthouse. You would be surprised but there are a lot of Nigerian collectors that pay top dollar for really good artwork. If they see it, resonate with it, like the personality of the artist, they will support you.
Koyin: If you don’t mind let’s talk about the money side. Would you say your career is financially rewarding? I mean I know it has the potential to be but…
Dipo: Potential is only potential until it is realized. In terms of financial rewards and art, luck definitely plays into it. Having a platform plays into it as well. I pride myself in being an all-round artist in the sense that I understand the creative side and it’s important you do. You can’t isolate yourself if not you’re going to get short-changed seriously. From what I’ve seen the business side always involves a lot of relationship building with collectors and you also need to be very strategic in knowing the different brackets of collectors. All these are things you learn while you are growing and trying to self-represent. I don’t have any manager; I don’t have any gallery representing me. I’m doing this out of my own passion and skills and trying to bring things together with my own resources.
Money wise, in the beginning it’s going to be a struggle. It’s going to be hard. When you start breaking in things will take an upswing but from that upswing you’re also going to meet a ceiling where it begins to get very difficult to convince collectors that you’re worth a certain amount. For you to get there you need to have performed some sort of shock value. You must have wowed them in some way, maybe by gaining international acclaim or putting together a critically acclaimed exhibition. Financially, I had a lot of things play out for me and I feel it’s got to do with the network, random acts of kindness, and referrals of people I knew. Lagos is a social city so word of mouth helps.
Koyin: How would you describe the Artist – Curator relationship in Nigeria?
Dipo: I never knew what a curator was until maybe 2016 when I began to discover this whole new realm of curators and it’s almost as if they are the cultural story tellers. They are the ones that explore what is happening and put a narrative together. Art is a very elitist industry; it’s like the luxury market. Right now in Nigeria it’s still very nascent. In our fine art ecosystem the curatorial realm is the slowest to develop. I don’t know whether it’s because of the intellectual capacity that it demands because it requires a lot of writing, criticism, critical reasoning about the work, background knowledge, art history and the likes. So you need to be learned, exposed, and connected to become an influential curator. That being said there are definitely curators in the diaspora that are doing a great job but connecting with them, as an artist here, is something I feel is still very broken. Few of them come down to scout and see what is happening. A lot of them just wait for an artist to become prominent in a particular region before working with them.
Koyin: Tell me about your July 8th exhibition. What’s the theme?
Dipo: The title of the exhibition is Shards of Time and it took me a while to come up with that. I was trying to think of something that would tie in all the lessons I have learnt over the past four years. Time is something I play around with in my work. I try to convey time using geometry. What is reality? How can I reimagine reality and not just paint a space as it is? But paint this space and this matter and our consciousness as we see ourselves. Even if we are stationary we are in a constant journey through time and I felt geometry allowed me to convey that feeling of movement, that feeling when you see a body that is not quite defined but it seems as if it is tearing through several dimensions. That’s where the hypnotic feeling comes from. There’s going to be a lot of exploration with that and you’re going to see it in three primary bodies of work; small paper paintings that I’ve been experimenting with, large scale paintings, and ruler works.
Koyin: Okay so you’ve completed the series?
Dipo: All of it isn’t complete but I’m working on it. The thought behind the show is pretty much concrete.
Koyin: Why National Museum? What’s the significance of the museum to you despite its present day conditions? The last time I went there I was underwhelmed. The place is quite run down.
Dipo: I see this show as an opportunity to bring or instil a level of hope into the mind of the museum visitors. It’s the national museum and there are so many advantages of associating yourself with a museum. Internationally it’s a no-brainer. If any gallery sees a museum showing on your CV it sets you apart. At the same time if we’re going to change any of the defunct infrastructure we have to take a deep dive and really work. I’ve spoken to a lot of the directors and people that work in the museum and they are very receptive. It’s up to us as the upcoming artistic generation to come in and decide how we want to raise the bar and bring back the prestige of what a museum should be into that place. It needs to be given a breath of fresh air and the youth are tasked with that and that’s why I’m doing this exhibition there.
Koyin: Congratulations on getting into MIT. Why did you apply for Integrated Design and Management and not a Masters in Fine arts?
Dipo: Whoa! MIT was tricky man. One of my career goals is complete resonance between my technological and artistic interests. For a long time I’ve been exploring both interests in a very split manner. I worked at Jumia for a bit, I did some shows, and I did a residency. I started searching for programmes that infused these interests together and I found integrated design. These programmes take pride in their students having an artistic, emotional or cultural value in society, realising that true breakthrough only happens when such faculties cross borders. Everything I had done played into putting together a robust application. I included the work I did in Jumia on mobile apps user experience, my art projects, and the residency. I actually got denied from most of the places I applied t
MIT was special for many reasons. They called me for an interview and I was like wow because it’s one thing to apply but it’s another thing for them to respond and want to hear from me. So I spoke to them. The director of the programme, Matt Kressy, understood the role artistic disciplines play in engaging communities on a whole other level and funny enough his dad was an artist. I didn’t know this till I got the chance to visit him in Boston. I never thought my portfolio would resonate with him on a personal level. It’s something when someone sees your work and starts drawing relationships with their own background. I think it was destiny honestly. It was just destiny. Everything was a planetary alignment. Going into the programme I want to come out with a specific set of skills that will allow me explore how I can create more installations and how I can use that to change society. This is where my headspace is in terms of what I want to achieve with this programme.
Koyin: Finally what advice would you give budding artists and curators?
Dipo: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Push yourself as much as you can but don’t be too hard. Gain as much experience as you can. Open your mind to as much knowledge, experiences, and people as you can because the more you engage with the world around you the more enriching you become. Be bold and daring. Get out there and do it.
Koyin: Thank you!
Dipo: That was awesome!