"Afrofuturism is a key tool for African liberation and unity" Komi Olaf
Ottawa based Nigerian Canadian Komi Olaf is a visual artist, spoken word poet and architectural designer whose work has brought him into the mainstream of Afro-Canadian art. Originally from Kaduna in Northern Nigeria, his parents migrated to Ottawa, Canada in 2001 as the state of Nigeria's universities deteriorated and they sought opportunities for their children. After a Masters in Architecture from Carleton University, Olaf began his career as a visual artist evoking passionate ethno social conversations which cut across race, identity and futuristic concepts. As an artist who enjoys improvising, Olaf is most comfortable imagining people of African descent and writing about our stories into the future. A trailblazer, his artwork has been commissioned by afrobeat legend Seun Kuti, TD Bank, the Italian Chambers of Commerce in Toronto as well as numerous private collectors around the world. JacanaBooks is grateful to Komi for this interview.
JacanaBooks: What inspires you to paint, write poetry or produce art? Who are your artistic influences?
At this very moment, my inspiration to produce art both as paintings and poems has come from a newly discovered necessity to document the present, in the hopes of preserving the past and to contribute ideas for the future. I am inspired by the question “What if Canada had never been colonized?”. I am exploring different narratives that emerge through an Afrofuturistic tribe of characters I call the “Chikis”. I am influenced by the works of Caravaggio, Kehinde Wiley, Walt Disney and Julie Bell. But most importantly, contemporary artists like Ian Keteku, Bright Ackwerh and Harmonia Rosales.
Jacanabooks: Was it difficult to break into the Canadian artistic world?
Yes. Very difficult. We remain in a state of constantly attempting to break the mould. But I have come to recognize that it is still easier to do than it would have been in many other countries. Artists have a support system set in place by the government that encourages the production of artworks.
JacanaBooks: You have kept your African (Nigerian accent in some of your spoken word performances) is this important to the authenticity of your work?
I believe that in order for the work to be authentic, the artist must first be. I was initially very shy to introduce any form of an African accent into my spoken word. However, the stories I was choosing to tell through the poetry forced me to dig deeper. And like most immigrants with multiple accents, when I get passionate, my natural accent surfaces. In addition, the spoken word community in Canada is very welcoming of “otherness”.
JacanaBooks: May I ask please Why did you move to Canada from Nigeria?
Well, I moved to Canada right after I graduated from secondary school in Nigeria. My parents were wary of the constant strikes which plagued Nigerian Universities at the time and which led to 4-year degrees taking 8 to 10 years to complete. I was lucky to be privileged enough to have parents that had the foresight and selflessness to invest all of the lives work to making sure my siblings and I were afforded the best opportunities in life.
JacanaBooks: Where your parents supportive of your choice to be an artist?
That is a complex question. My parents have always taught me that the people we look up to in this life are human beings like you and I. They told me that I can literally be anything I want to be, and the only requirement is to focus and work hard. My dad taught me that it is important to always have what he calls a “Meal ticket” in your hands, meaning it is important that you can feed yourself off whatever it is you choose to do. As caring parents, they were worried about my starving to death as a result of my choice to live on my art, so they often advised me to support my Art practice with a stable job. That was where a lot of our conflict stemmed from, I had painted an image in my head that the only way to succeed as an artist was if I was completely committed to it. The back and forth forced me to bend at times and sacrifice my art in the hopes of building up better resources to fund it properly. They are my biggest fans and they have influenced a lot of the ideas that have manifested in my work.
JacanaBooks: I know some Nigerian parents push their children along definite career paths. They must be proud though, you are an architectural designer.
They are proud. I am happy that they believed in me.
Jacana Books: Many immigrants change their name, try to speak like Canadians born here, have you had to amend your identity in any way?
My dad's nickname growing up was “Olaf”. And subsequently, the next generation of Olafimihan children often adopt “Olaf” as the last name. It could be confusing because it appears there is actually an “Olaf” family from Russia I believe.
When I first arrived in Canada I lived in Fort Saint John, British Columbia. On my first day in school, I introduced myself as “Komi” to a classmate who loved basketball. I guess because I was one of two black boys in the whole school, the classmate chose to call me “Kobe”, after Kobe Bryant and the name stuck for a year. However, when I moved to Ottawa to start University the following year, I was really over the name. But it was fun while it lasted.
JacanaBooks: 'The language of creation may not be in English'… this was from a poem of yours. What inspires the language of creation?
I think that would be different for everyone.
JacanaBooks: You are a visual artist, poet and an intellectual. What would you like to be reminded by? Are you all three things at the same time? Or you choose and pick which part of you comes out?
I try to just “be”, and remain in a state of fluidity in order to adapt creatively to address the issues of the world. Some situations will require me to put on a different hat and some require me to be all that I am. I want to be remembered as a creative who applied himself and left the world a better place than he found it.
JacanaBooks: What does the future look like for Afro Canadians?
A physical cultural manifestation of the actual term “Afro-Canadian”. One, where elements of various African Cultures interact with various Indigenous Canadian Cultures to manifest a visual language of expression devoid of Colonial trauma.
Jacanabooks: Afro-futurism is a niche word, it sounds like a concept for rich people. How can you describe what this is?
Well, it has become a niche word partly due to the blockbuster success of movies like the “Black Panther’. However it is not a concept for rich people, it is an Art Movement created by black people to take back control of our stories, to safeguard our history and ensure we are not excluded from shaping the future. When the Impressionist movement started in the 19th century, they faced harsh opposition from the conventional art community of the time, because they did not accept what they were showing as art.
When we study art history in school, if we are lucky and get to discuss African art, the topics and works covered are often very limited and stereotyped into a very specific primitive format. In comparison to the depth of information covered on historic renaissance art.
Afrofuturism is a key tool for African liberation and unity. Marcus Garvey had an idea of reconnecting all Africans at home and abroad because he understood the power of the collective. Black people have been scattered all over the world and disconnected from each other, forced to till the land for various oppressors. The black star line was created for the very purpose of reconnecting Africans in the Diaspora back to the continent. With technology and the limitless opportunities afforded to us by the internet, the Idea of “Africa” can evolve and Afrofuturism can give us that platform.
JacanaBooks: Would you still say Canada is a land of opportunities?
Yes. Numerous opportunities. For example, this interview is an opportunity.
JacanaBooks: Would you say that African identity and heritage is important? What should we be hearing when we see your paintings?
I think all identity and heritage is important. It breaks my heart every time I see historic artefacts destroyed during war. I would hope that when you see my work you remember that we come from a long line of emotionally strong and resilient ancestors and we will overcome prejudice and succeed in once again illuminating our brilliance in the world.