A 17-Year-Old Nigerian Artist Using Charcoal for Hyper-realistic Portraits

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A 17-Year-Old Nigerian Artist Using Charcoal for Hyper-realistic Portraits
A recent portrait by Mayor Olajide.

At the grade school age of five, Mayor Olajide was drawing with pencils and crayons. The images he reproduced on paper were the ones around him: family and friends, cartoon characters on TV, and footballers, including those in the Super Strikas comics. Those amateur sketches were nothing like the masterly images that were shared widely on Twitter last month.

“I started professionally in 2015, that’s when my work started being realistic,” Olajide says. He was only twelve then. He recalls the definitive moment in 2018 when he saw a painting by Arinze Stanley. “He was the artist that inspired me to take interest in hyperrealism,” he says. “That his self-portrait, the one with water on his face, that was the one that inspired me the most. Kelvin Okafor and Ken Nwadiogbu, they also inspired me.”

A 17-Year-Old Nigerian Artist Using Charcoal for Hyper-realistic Portraits
Portrait of Burna Boy, by Mayor Olajide.

Stanley, Okafor, and Nwadiogbu are leaders in the wave of hyper-realistic art that took the Nigerian scene in the middle of the 2010s. Due to the social media effect, these artists have captured the fascination of the international media, bringing attention to a hitherto small arts scene. In 2016, Olumide Oresegun’s oil on canvas paintings of children and water went viral, with most people taking them to be actual photographs. In 2018, then 11-year-old Kazeem Waris was celebrated for drawing a portrait of Emmanuel Macron in two hours, during the French president’s visit to Nigeria. Last year, Eli Waduba sold his portrait of Kevin Hart to the famous comedian after putting it on Twitter. Others include Ayogu Kingsley, Silas Onoja, Chiamonwu Joy, Raji Bamidele, Ayo Filade, Babatunde Olatunji, and speed artist Fola David.

“I started using charcoal alone as at last year,” Olajide says. “Before, I was using graphite and charcoal but I left graphite because of the effect I don’t like. Graphite makes works shiny; when you look at it from some angles, it just spoils the effect you want. With just charcoal, I love the effect and speed; using it alone is faster than using it with graphite because of the blending issues. Charcoal blends easily.” An early graphite artwork on his Instagram is one of popstar Davido’s daughter Imade. A typical charcoal drawing is one of Lionel Messi. The longest it has taken him to finish a work is three months. “It’s a drawing of Wole Arole, a comedian. It’s the biggest one. Normally, depending on the size, it takes me one or two days.”

A 17-Year-Old Nigerian Artist Using Charcoal for Hyper-realistic Portraits
Portrait of Wole Arole, by Mayor Olajide. It took three months to complete.

His first artwork on Instagram, uploaded in April 2019, is an image of a faculty dean at his school, The Polytechnic, Ibadan, where he is currently an ND2 student of Architecture. The response at the time, he says, “wasn’t really encouraging. Zero likes.” I tell him that it now has 71 likes. “71 likes?” he says, sounding surprised. “People have actually scrolled down my feed in recent times and liked it.”

“I used to draw from memory, but most of the time now, I copy, so as to get the real life features,” Olajide explains. Every artwork he plans starts from a reference photo. “I use the Gridlines application to divide it into two sections and I grid the paper also. When I’m done with the sketching, I shade with the charcoal powder and the charcoal pencil, and blend them. After, I erase the grid and begin cutting out some parts.”

“People commission me to draw for birthdays and so on, just to hang in their office,” Olajide says. But he is looking to create more personal work. “I will try to use them and speak to people about what’s going on in society.”

A 17-Year-Old Nigerian Artist Using Charcoal for Hyper-realistic Portraits
Portrait by Mayor Olajide.

His drawing does not interfere with his studies. “My reason for studying architecture is to know more about buildings so I can collect contracts,” Olajide says. “After my ND2, I plan to study more, anywhere that is okay.”

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A 17-Year-Old Nigerian Artist Using Charcoal for Hyper-realistic Portraits

“I draw any time I’m in the mood. I don’t have a specific time, even in the night I draw,” he says. It’s “something I do when I’m less busy, after school, during break time. A hobby.”

At first, his parents were reluctant to support him. “Initially, they saw it as a low standard job,” he says. “As time went on, they began to see how things were moving. They are now encouraging. We aren’t rich but God is doing great things already.” His father is an agriculture lecturer at Wesley University, Ondo, and his mother is a gospel musician. “She taught me how to play guitar and I learned bass by myself,” he says.

He feels no pressure at all. “I even love the way I’m still young and I can do what I do,” he says. “I love the freedom.”

“I want people out there to feel how talented Nigerian artists are,” Olajide says. “Just for them to appreciate art in general in Nigeria. To raise our culture.” Does he want them to feel reflected in his art? “They can also feel that way, I love that, that’s okay.”

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