Tejumola Adenuga AKA Butler is a Nigerian born, London based artist and designer, whose work is characterised by a minimalist approach present in every medium he creates in. Predominantly positioning modern people as his subjects, Butler depicts their confidence and character in rawest form in a secondary source of how they primarily want to express themselves.
His influential social media presence brought him many successful commercial collaborations with brands such as Adidas, MTV VMAs, Dr. Martens, Beats by Dre, Soho House etc. Moreover, his signature clear lines and minimalist representation of complex features appealed to many people’s eyes, as skins of more than 250 of them are permanently inked with his works.
Just like these people, Butler’s characteristic modern and clear approach caught my eye during his exhibition at Oallery, in Amsterdam (2019). This time of isolation and virtual-only access to artworks and exhibitions made me reminisce of past cultural events I (physically) visited, so I met with Butler again, this time virtually, to talk about his art in more detail.
Mentioning ‘inspiration’ in an art interview is, I think, maybe even a bigger cliché than asking an artist what they plan to do next. I’ll start off with a slightly modified cliché: what medium do you think you derive most inspiration from?
Mostly from photography, because I use secondary sources for my work and I have to depend on photographs. So, good photographs - I’m always in. I use secondary sources mostly, as having someone else’s photograph is already a pre-approved way of someone’s perspective on themselves. For example, when someone posts their photo on Instagram or Twitter, etc. it’s basically a self-approved image of them as they want to be seen by the world.
Then, I create my version of how they want to be seen in the world, and I believe that kinda removes my own gaze and respects that person in a way of how they want to be seen.
That’s interesting, but don’t you think that presenting them in your works then also becomes your perspective?
It would be a lie if any of us said that this pandemic hasn’t changed at least some segments of our lives, or even us. Art being your core focus, in what way do you think corona-lifestyle changed your artistic expression?
Oh, everything has changed [in general]! In my artistic expression, I think it actually hit me right before the pandemic started, so last year in March. I had a life-changing experience where I almost died. So while the world was shattering, I also kind of went through the process of shattering myself [laughs].
The recovery process changed my thinking. I’ve always been a multi-faceted creative person, so I never wanted to just paint, but for the ease of people’s digestion, I decided to paint, because it’s simple and straightforward. It’s very easy to assimilate and understand. But I think after the healing process, I was like - why? If I did pass away, I would’ve been like - why didn’t I do this? And why didn’t I do that? So after that happened, I decided I want to do everything I can per a day, so that even at the end of the day I have a sense of fulfillment.
So you took a day as the biggest time parameter?
Exactly, it was like: what can I do today? What can I start and finish today? So, I started doing everything I creatively can - make furniture, painting, getting involved in some interior projects etc. And I’ve been lucky enough to have people give me their space where they live to transform. It has all been a process of making and learning, because I also took up things I didn’t know before - and that’s all different from what people know me before.
That’s a cool thing you mentioned, because I wanted to ask about your recent involvement with designing and crafting furniture. Does this change to applied arts allow you to express your creativity in a different way, and how?
Yes, it’s different, but I still use very simple materials as I use in my paintings, so that’s a correlation between the paintings and furniture I make. For example, I just take a piece of aluminium and wonder how I can make it look interesting, similarly as in my paintings I just use the black brush. That’s kind of a theme that goes across both.
So does that minimalist approach reflect only in the aesthetic form or do you apply it in different segments of life as well?
I say that minimalism has never been an aesthetic for me, it’s always been a convenience. It’s also a cheap way to do things - like my wardrobe: give me just black and white, and I know I can just do a black wash and a white wash, and that’s it [laughs]. It also makes it easier to move from one place to another; it’s just all these things that make life easier - if I don’t need something, then what’s the point of having it? So I think it’s more about convenience and making things simple.
It’s the same with my work. I cannot be buying several tubes of paint every other month [laughs]. I don’t want to spend a lot of money on work that I’m not sure if someone will buy it. I want to make things as simple as possible - so it goes like: black paint, white paper or canvas.
Yeah, I understand that. That reminds me of the interview I read with the French designer [Simon Porte] Jacquemus. After releasing his first collection, everyone was astonishingly asking him why he used minimalist motifs and what was the inspiration behind it, but he just said he didn’t have money for more. He used materials he had and made most out of it. So, I think all of these practical matters could actually be turned into an aesthetic.
Yes. It first came as a functional thing and then I turned it into an aesthetic...and I guess this is me now!
As you said, photography is your primary inspiration. That all makes sense to me now, because what especially caught my attention while observing your artworks, was the presence of the new-age elements, for instance: girls in very Instagram-ish mirror selfies. I think it’s definitely something we’re not used to seeing on canvas, yet it’s something we definitely see more in everyday life, while scrolling. Does the presence of these new-age motifs represent what you describe as an intention of presenting objects in their rawest form, in their most natural form?
Yeah, but I just want to translate the way that people present themselves to canvas, as I said-it’s already self-approved. This person probably took, like 30 selfies and one made it, you know. So I’m just presenting how they want to be seen - I’m just a super-fancy photocopier.
But do you then think that that is our reality or what we want our reality to be?
The construct of social media is already kind of a combination of both, meaning: “this is my reality, but also the reality I fantasise about”. That’s why people also follow a particular person, or movement or brand - it becomes kinda aspirational, because these people want the piece of others’ pie. So I think that when I make my work, I kinda condense both.
In the past year, we were witnesses of many societal movements (re)activating. Across time, many artists stated an artist’s duty is to reflect the times. Our world, still more colonial than post-colonial, sees a great racial gap in representation of artists (as in every other industry). Do you feel that another obstacle POC artists face, besides their skin colour, is that their work is kind of expected to go in that direction of reflecting the unjust treatment, the inequality they face in their everyday life; and if they choose to go another way, that they will be judged for not reflecting the times and not taking what is said to be their responsibility?
If you’re a Black artist, you’re always expected to make art that is directed towards your struggle that reflects your pain or your challenges of being Black. However, I think that just your existence alone is already a protest, in Western context, and that’s the way I see myself. Being able to make art in this Western environment and for some people to be able to accept it is kind of my protest anyway. It’s because most of my work is of Black people and most of my audience and the people that buy my work is white, so I’m pushing this Black image to beyond what they see on TV, in the movies or in the music videos.
But I think that my end goal is to make sure to have a strong representation of Black population, if someone looks back and wants to see the paintings of this time. I want to be part of that broader perspective, and to join that conversation of the way people of present are presented music, media, movies, art. I think that’s become quite important, especially for generations to come, as museums are gonna become much more diversified. So, when you go to a museum, especially in Western world, you don’t just see a particular demographic - you see everyone. I’m just speaking to that future, in my own way.
To get back to the question, protesting doesn’t have to be addressing what’s happening in a certain context. I think me creating and presenting my art in this time, meaning talking to the art history of the future, is already a protest and challenging status quo, and also addressing the time. I think there are some artists talking about this time directly and also some artists who reflect what’s happening now, but thinking how to make art that, in 50-60 years, could inspire more people to make more work/art that isn’t from trauma or sadness or struggle. What I love is, looking back at photos from ‘50s, ‘60s of Black people, but just like - partying, posing in front of a car, being happy. You know, it’s not just like them being sad, but having normal life as well.
Exactly! It’s interesting how, even when presented, any minority is always shown through struggle, but there’s more to that. They also had their everyday lives.
Yes, and even if you want to find it, you really have to dig deep to find these sources. Black people, of course, existed before Jim Crow and slavery, there were whole civilsations. I just wish there were more sources from that era, so I hope in future with this representation of Black people now, people could look at it and say:”Oh, they actually had fun”.
As a Nigerian born, but London-based, how do you see the geographical parameter of shaping one as a person in today’s globalised, interconnected world?
I think it’s worth being in two different places, because you see the pros and cons of living in both environments, you have two different perspectives.
For example, if I live in Nigeria, I would probably have a bigger studio space and everything would be cheaper, I would have more resources. But the con is that if I wanted to show what I made to the rest of the world, it would be very, very difficult. I would have more hurdles, because there’s no system to facilitate, while in London I can ship my stuff, it’s easy to have an exhibition, and set everything up.
I’d say, what’s mainly lacking in Nigeria is infrastructure generally in gaining access to everything, but here [London], it’s just much more expensive to have that access, although is available. So I guess somewhere in the middle would be very nice.
Which of these two places do you think has shaped your identity more (if it has)?
I think both, because I spend approximately the same amount of time in both places. I lived in Nigeria for 15 years and 11 years in London. I’m glad I had both, because I think they together shaped me. There are ‘Nigerian’ things I appreciate more, for example - being more straightforward and direct, whereas here, you have this British politeness, where you don’t say how you feel, because you don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings, but there are some some good things I took from here, and that’s why I’m glad I had both. Being here is not perfect, and being in Nigeria is not perfect either. So, it’s just like trying to diffuse good from both.
As you have mentioned in some of your previous interviews, your influential social media presence has brought you many commercial projects. Besides being beneficial for artists to be spotted by some (big) actors, do you think popularising art on social media among mass audiences is also a pro or a rather a con for the artists and art in general?
I think, yes. As an artist, until like 15-20 years ago, you had to depend on a gallery, which would have to be your spokesman in a way, and you had to be signed to a gallery to make it, whereas now it doesn't apply anymore. There’s a general demand for your work, so the galleries don’t decide what’s cool - it became much more democratic.
That can have its downfalls as well, because people are also very stupid [laughs]. We make people that aren’t talented or don’t have any kind of skill celebrities overnight. Sometimes, the intellectual part of making work disappears, although you can also argue that making work that’s intellectual and has some backstory can be seen as outdated and classicist.
However, people produce media that can become popular overnight [laughs]. For example, the girl that used the gorilla glue in her hair is now verified and owns a hair salon and everything, while there are people who are trained in hairdressing who can’t even pay their rent at the moment
Yes, I think that the internet has caused us to question if there are any criteria for becoming successful or appreciated. I think that’s a trick that everyone’s still trying to figure out. I think it’s a good thing that art is so much more accessible now, but the question is who decides what’s good and what’s not good.
Yeah, I agree people deciding on what’s (not) cool is good and can be democratic, but when there’s no future, people just riot. For example, Bernie Sanders became a meme, not a president, you know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s like:”We don’t like this guy as a president, but we like him as a meme”, but how does a meme make a difference to our future?
Do you think that increased digitalisation of art will, except influencing the medium in which it is being created, also influence the way people perceive artists’ job and art?
Yes, sometimes people make some art because they think is gonna blow-up, but I think that that’s with any type of a trend, not just digitalisation. When people see a lot of artists coming up and getting all the attention and fame, some would try to emulate that, but I always make this joke when someone says they would like to do what I do; I ask them: ”So you like crying?” [laughs] Because it’s hard and it’s not some glamour. You don’t do it because you love it, you do it because you need it. You need to make work as you breathe - or that’s how it applies to me, at least. If I didn’t create art, I’d probably die [laughs]. So it’s more of a need than a preference.