Virtual Exhibitions

Dennis Osadebe: Inside Out — Reimagining Africa through bright and colorful Neo-Africa

Top Image: "The Nigerian Dream", 2020. Archival pigment ink and acrylic on canvas.

What have we done with our time stuck indoors? What is our identity when there is no one that can see us? Are we more ourselves when we are not in the presence of others or are we just a shadow of our previous lives?

These are but some of the questions we ask when we walk through the virtual walls of Dennis Osadebe’s solo exhibition, Inside Out, as presented by the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts. A large number of the works exhibited are conceived during the COVID-19 pandemic and feature one or two figures doing some sort of activity indoors. All the figures are also wearing some sort of mask, obscuring their true identity to the viewer. Contrasted with the supposedly private nature of their indoor setting, these masks feel even more unnatural. Why wear a mask when there’s no one to see you?

"Isolation", 2021. Archival pigment ink and acrylic on canvas.

The mask is a repeated motif in most of Osadebe’s works. To Osadebe, the mask is a way to obscure the true identity of the people depicted in his works, allowing the audience to project themselves as these figures. It’s also a way for him to incorporate Nigerian culture, by way of using traditional masks and colorful textiles within his paintings. The African masks also add some racial tension concerning the identity of Black people, especially after the political events of the past year. While Osadebe himself might be specifically driven by the #EndSARS movement in his native country, Nigeria, it’s a message that resonates with the African diaspora worldwide.

But other than the political potential, the absurdity of wearing a mask indoors adds to the playful humor that Osadebe injects into his work. With flat, bright colors, Osadebe creates surreal scenes with indoor horses or riding a bike in the kitchen. Osadebe coined the term Neo-Africa to describe this particular style. Frustrated with the limiting term “African Art”, Osadebe made Neo-Africa bold, bright, and exciting. This style draws many similarities to the post-pop art movement but specifically draws inspiration from African culture. 

Exhibition view of Inside Out. "Still With Pride", 2020. Archival pigment ink and acrylic on canvas.

With his Neo-Africa art, he wants to bring African art to the future, and that future is digital. Osadebe himself is no stranger to merging the traditional with the digital. His paintings are digitally composed and at a glance look like they came straight out of a printer. But on closer look, one can start to see the texture of the paint that Osadabe skillfully applied to the canvas. With Inside Out, Osadebe further blends the physical and the digital by having both a physical and digital exhibition of his past works. With his virtual presentation, it becomes less clear that Osadebe’s paintings are not just digital art and are, in fact, unique.

"Self Prtrait", 2020. Archival pigment ink and acrylic on canvas.

The presence of the virtual exhibition also allows Osadebe to lower the barriers for others to see his works. Osadebe is a proponent of removing the inaccessibility of the traditional gallery experience. Physical locations and conditions, like excessive “Do not touch” signs and multiple security guards, can prevent some people from truly enjoying and learning from art. With this virtual exhibition, the barrier of entry is lowered, letting people from every background from around the world access art by artists like Osadebe.

Exhibition view of Inside Out

But a virtual exhibition is not the only digital offering by the multimedia artist. Inside Out also serves as the debut of the Playful Rebellion, a video game Osadebe developed with game developer BisonPlay. Based on his past work, this game is “an interactive merging of art and gaming that reflects on the power of play in bringing people together, strengthening the community, and challenging injustice.” In the game, a young, Black child wearing a space helmet must collect toys and books while avoiding the police to earn his education. It’s a simplified but poignant look into the struggles of young Nigerians to learn and escape the brutality in their country.

Both physically and virtually, Dennis Osadebe wants to create a safe space for the viewers to reflect on their past and grow in their future.

Dennis Osadebe: Inside Out is on view from October 29, 2021, to February 13, 2022. View the exhibition online here. The in-person exhibition is located at MoCADA BK, 80 Hanson Place Brooklyn.

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