Babajide Olatunji creates mesmerising depictions of Nigeria


 An interview with artist Babajide B. Olatunji

I recently fell in love with the work of a visual artist who goes by the name of Babajide B. Olatunji. Babajide shared that his current mode of expression uses “dry media (charcoal, pastels…etc) on a canvas or paper, to create realistic portraits of imagined characters with tribal facial scars”. These tribal marks are usually inscribed on the cheeks of children by burning or cutting through the skin. It is said to have a variety of meanings which lie between ‘identification and beautification’. Some are more superstitious and believe in the mystical energy of such tribal marks. While the cultural practice does remain present in various ethnic groups in Nigeria, Benin and Togo, it has become most commonly associated with those living in remote rural areas.  It is very popular in the Yoruba community in Nigeria and even draws back to the slave trade. An article titled Tribal Marks – the ‘African tattoo’ recognises how ‘tattooing’ was used to identify slaves if they should ‘ever be rescued or freed’.

Tribal Marks series III no.21
Pastels and charcoal on archival paper 

To me, Babajide’s Tribal Marks series beautifully captures a cultural practice that myself and many others marvel at and don’t quite understand. He allows us to focus on the beauty of the individual and that still frame, looking past what we may not understand, seeing the carriers of these marks as mothers, fathers or daughters and many more. He quite cleverly gets his audience to “stand before the works”, challenging us “to look beyond the fascia of realism to the soul beneath” each person he creates. His Twins (Diptych) piece from his Tribal Marks Series (as seen in the main image) was selected to be shown at the Royal Academy of Art’s summer exhibition this year. The Twins (Diptych) ran from 13th June – 20th August at the Burlington House in London. Despite training as a Botanist – a student or scientist who studies plants, Babajide claims to have always “had a thirst for artistic expression” and drew “endlessly growing up”. He went on to say, “I decided to pursue art as a focus in 2011 when I was in university. It was the easiest means of making ends meet while I studied”.

“My art career took off officially when I went into partnership with TAFETA gallery of London, UK in 2014.”

I asked Babajide if he could name some artists that inspire him, he answered saying that his inspirations come from artists that “span a wide timeline”. He goes from “Jan Van Eyck in the early Renaissance to Carravagio, to Jacques-Louis David down to contemporary masters like Chuck Close and Gottfried Helnwein”. He then went on to reveal how he has been “enthralled” by works like “Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, Botticelli’s La Primavera, Picasso’s Guernica, Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Goya’s 3rd of May and Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii”. In the short answer, he claims his favourite art piece is “Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David”.​

​The artist also claims to stick to “large portraits purposed to pull attention”, although his other intents and purposes remain pretty “diverse”. While one is to use a “strong overtone to draw attention to some of the dying cultural practices in contemporary Nigeria”. Another attempts “to contribute to the ongoing discourse on the issue of identity”. It is very clear that Babajide is using his art to send a sincere and real message. To change the way we perceive people, to look beyond the outer layer of an individual.

“Realism is just a tool to other ends. It is never the end itself”, he explains.

I asked Babajide if he had any words of wisdom for young aspiring artists, he simply said “Find a niche and own it“. While he uses his Tribal Marks series as a means “of archiving these marks artistically”, you can also find something you feel needs to be put in the spotlight and find an artistic way of preserving it. So, what’s next for Babajide? Where does he see himself in the next five years? I asked the artist these questions and he replied saying, “In five years I’d have had my first museum show and my works would have reached a much wider audience”.

Tribal Marks series III no. 23
Pastels and Charcoal on archival paper taken from Babajide’s Instagram profile
Main image of Twins (Diptych) taken from Babajide’s instagram profile.