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Studio Visit with Adewale Alli

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BmoreArt’s Picks: February 27 – March 4

“What happens when you ignite gunpowder on canvas?” This was the question multimedia artist, Adewale Alli, asked himself after a particularly inspiring lecture in an art history class he was taking at the Community College of Baltimore. Alli, then in his early twenties, had recently moved to the United States from Nigeria. He was an economics major, pursuing a bachelor’s degree he’d begun in Africa but that he’d been forced to restart in the US. “I was required to take an art elective,” Alli reflects, “so I decided to take art history.” Although it was a general survey course, the class propelled Alli into the fine arts world, permanently altering the trajectory of his professional career and life.

Alli’s interest in art emerged during his childhood. Fascinated with drawing, he recalls teaching himself what he terms, “recognizable art.” To be “respected as an artist in Nigeria,” he explains, “you had to be able to make art that people recognize” —“realistic” drawings and paintings, in other words. Moving to the US as a young adult exposed Alli to a wider range of aesthetics and forms of creative expression. “I finally had access to more of what was going on,” he says, within, not only the art world, but also contemporary society broadly.

Alli was raised Christian. His mom is, and has always been, “guided by religion.” Consequently, throughout his youth, Alli found inspiration in Christianity. This relationship morphed when he entered adulthood: “I [began] to view religion as storytelling,” and “[also] realized I wanted to be able to identify with more [beyond] religion.”

Treating ‘religion’ as a topic of interest rather than a way of life made space for the artist’s expanding curiosity in art. Alli considers his trial with gunpowder his first “leap into [the] fine art world,” but his explorations didn’t stop there. In fact, Alli’s practice continues to be defined by, and rooted in, innovation and invention.

 

What we struggle to see "The distance in-between" 48 x 60 in. Heated acrylic, oil pastels, fire, polyurethane and isocyanate on canvas 2022.
Image maker on overdrive. 36x 48in. Acrylic, oil pastel, glue, fire and charcoal on canvas, 2022.
Adewale Alli in studio. Photo by FAI Alli.
Though much of Alli’s art can be classified as “painting,” the work is boldly sculptural and performative, chiseled from layers of materials and subject matter that’s been thoroughly researched.
Isa Gold

Though much of Alli’s art can be classified as “painting,” the work is boldly sculptural and performative, chiseled from layers of materials and subject matter that’s been thoroughly researched. His paintings, which often involve chemical experiments, frequently allude to “the cosmos.” When asked why he’s drawn to outer space, the artist chuckles. The universe offers infinite inspiration and, he expounds, “there’s no limit or cap on how far your imagination can take you.”

Alli’s recent projects, such as his Cosmic paintings, echo his appreciation for fantasy and imagination. Many of his works appear to be snapshots of physical and psychological galaxies—landscapes and mindscapes that evoke glimmering stars, rainbow planets, and the enigmatic energy the artist senses when he peers upwards.

A fusion of unexpected materials and methods further imbues Alli’s work with mystical and spiritual undertones. Combining everything from house paint to insulation foam, his art is emblematic of creative collaboration. Interestingly, just as media are interwoven across his canvases, so too does the artist look to his surroundings—communities, organizations, and local spaces—for instruction and growth.

Although Alli is self-taught, his multi/interdisciplinary practice wouldn’t have expanded as rapidly without coaching from mentors he’s encountered throughout his life. A willingness to ask questions and seek creative guidance has prompted Alli to cultivate intimate relationships with other artists and specialists in an array of disciplines. Jobs on construction sites and in classrooms, to name a couple, have enriched Alli’s material experiments and investigations. “I have worn and wear a lot of hats,” he laughs.

These hats have empowered the artist to embrace what’s perhaps his most intoxicating motivator: play. Alli creates with a childlike innocence, his art sprouting from ceaseless efforts to quench an unquenchable thirst for the new and novel. He’s an explorer, a creative pioneer that’s found equal success as both expert and novice. Like his artwork, Alli offers a glimpse into the boundless potential of the human imagination.

Close to My Heart, 24 x 36 in. Acrylic, polyurethane and isocyanate on canvas 2021.
Nursery in Motion, 2024. Photo by Vivian Marie Doering.


SUBJECT: Adewale Alli, 30
PLACE: Studio House (residency), basement of building 2000 E 30th Street
WEBSITE: www.adewalealliart.com
INSTAGRAM: @walealli

What do you believe is art’s role and function in local and global communities? 

Art within any community should be a beacon of innovation, it should inspire a new possibility of imagination that mirrors the essence of its era.

If you could build your own museum, what would you create? 

If I had the opportunity to build my own museum, I would envision it as an intergalactic haven, showcasing art that seems to have originated from distant worlds. Each piece would be a gateway to the unknown, reflecting the creativity and wonder of a universe far beyond our own.

You worked for six years as a behavioral technician with neurodiverse children. How did this job impact your perspectives on art and community?

It taught me empathy and how to love unconditionally. Although it presented its challenges, it was immensely satisfying and fulfilling. It shifted my focus from self to service, helping my understanding of the different ways we experience and interact with the world.

Where do you go when you need to clear your head? Do you have a favorite spot in Baltimore?

I find solace in two places: my studio and my car. My studio is my personal haven, it’s where I play and let my creativity flow. On the road, in my car, is where some of my best ideas emerge. I relish the freedom of driving aimlessly, intentionally getting lost, and then navigating my way back home. I use this time to reflect on new inspirations and perspectives along the way.

Oh! There you are. Heated acrylic, oil pastels, and charcoal on canvas 2024.
Wings of Seraph 102 x 102 inches. Acrylic on canvas. My Stand (Physical manifestation of energy). Phot by Vivian Marie Doering.
Home; my infinite playground, 2024. Photo by Vivian Marie Doering.
There’s something irresistibly delicious about red’s intensity and the way it dances on the spectrum of human emotions.
Adewale Alli

You have a complex relationship with religion that’s tied to your relationship with your mother. What role(s) do religion and family play in your creative practice?

My upbringing in the church, under the guidance of my mother, a minister, initially shaped my worldview. For years, I viewed life through the religious lens she provided. As I’ve grown, my perspective has shifted, I’ve developed a fascination with the cosmos which has led me to explore spirituality beyond traditional religious confines. This has led to clashes with my mother. She fears I’ve lost my way, but I see it as forging a new path—one that she finds daunting. Despite our differences, her approval remains crucial to me, given her significant spiritual influence in my life. But I also yearn for her to recognize the subjectivity of faith. It’s a universal thread in the diverse tapestry of human belief.

What motivates you while you’re working in your studio? Do you listen to anything while painting?

It’s all vibes in the studio, music on blast. Afro-beats and Amapiano, but sometimes I really enjoy listening to Alan Watts, his unique perspective on life resonates deeply with me. Also, I may not be an avid reader of text-heavy books, but I love books with images (I know, I’m a kid). I love art books and books about space, they really inspire me. In-fact, I recently published my own book, “The Celestial Cartography of Adewale Alli,” in December. It’s a portfolio that showcases my cosmic maps, each accompanied by a story that adds context. It’s a visual feast that I find absolutely delicious.

What’s your go-to comfort food?

Agege bread and sunny side-up eggs.

You describe “play” as foundational to your creative practice. How do you define the term ‘play’ in the context of your art? Do you feel playfulness is critical to art/creativity in general? 

To me ‘play’ is synonymous with joy and exploration. My practice is my way of having fun. Each piece is like a puzzle or a game, challenging and exhilarating in equal measure. The process of figuring it out, then starting anew with each creation, is immensely rewarding. This playful approach is fundamental, not just for my art, but I believe for creativity in general. It allows for experimentation and freedom, leading to outcomes that are as surprising as they are beautiful. Playfulness infuses my work with a sense of wonder and keeps the spirit of innovation alive in every piece I create.

What’s your favorite color? Why?

It’s hard to choose, I love black and red. Black is the ultimate enigma, it’s the color of midnight and mystery. It represents a universe of possibilities and resonates with the essence of the unknown. Red, on the other hand, fascinates me with its powerful duality: it’s the color of danger and yet also of passion. It embodies the vital life force within us, pulsating with energy and vibrancy. There’s something irresistibly delicious about red’s intensity and the way it dances on the spectrum of human emotions.

You grew up in Nigeria before moving to the United States. How did this transition impact your perspectives on art, the art world, and/or your goals as an artist?

Transitioning to the United States profoundly expanded my horizons as an artist. This move revealed to me that being an artist extends far beyond the ability to draw; it’s about the multitude of ways one can express themselves. In the US, I was exposed to new forms of expression, ones I couldn’t have imagined before. The access to a wealth of information and diverse artistic cultures broadened my imagination and aspirations. This journey imbued me with a sense of hope and a clear understanding that the realm of art is boundless. It reinforced my belief that, as long as I continue to push the boundaries, the potential for what can be created and achieved is truly limitless.

A Long Awaited Radiance 48x60 in. Heated Acrylic, oil pastels, fire and charcoal on canvas 2023. Photo by Vivian Marie Doering.
Adewale Ali. Photo by FAI Alli.

Portrait photo by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 16, with additional photos courtesy of the artist

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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