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January 9, 2024

Speaking With His Hands

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ABIOLA AKINTOLA LETS HIS HANDS SPEAK for him. “I am a man of few words, but I love to say whatever I mean in my sculptures and paintings,” says the acclaimed artist whose creative form of expression transcends language and culture. “I want to touch people through my experience… to be inspired.”
Originally from Nigeria, but now based in Chicago, his distinctive work—often employing discarded materials he repurposes—can be found around the world, from Ghana to China. Among the celebrity homes in which his pieces can be found is actor Jackie Chan’s in Hong Kong. Soon after this interview, he was headed to England to study the late Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen’s husband, who died earlier this year, for a piece commissioned for the Royal Family.
Described as “a true hybrid of different art generations” for his mix of “realism, fantasy and sensuality,” Abiola—he goes by just his first name—doesn’t like to give everything away in his work. Using what he calls “esoteric symbolism,” he hides meaning for viewers to find. “I don’t say too much, but I say a little bit… but I’m hiding in all of these things so that it doesn’t become too obvious.”
While observers can mine their own meaning from his work, Abiola hopes they discover joy and appreciation. “Every day I just have to thank God and praise him for what he has given me,” he says. “The more I praise him, the more blessings I believe I receive. Not physical blessings, to say, but spiritual blessings” he gets to share with others. “I’m in the business of making people happy through what I do.”
There is another dimension to what he does. It’s not just “art for art’s sake,” he says. It’s about “something that can speak volumes and touch people and move them to do great things.”
Time to shine
Abiola discovered a love and a gift for art when he was about nine years old. “I had a brother that used to paint; he was my first teacher,” he recalls. “He started seeing that I had a little bit of concentration when it comes to art, different from my siblings, and he encouraged me and started teaching me perspective and anatomy and so forth.”
Pursuing that talent, Abiola studied for a degree in fine art and then got an unexpected boost from Peju Wilson, someone he calls “a very beautiful mother.” She told him what he was doing was good, but that she wanted to help him take it to the next level. “Meaning that I had to get out of the country,” he says. “She wanted to expose me to the rest of the world.”
Wilson helped Abiola make his way to Chicago, where he came through “many ups and downs” before establishing himself as an artist and a sculptor. He has since tried to be that same kind of waymaker for others, encouraging young artists who are part of his studios.
Abiola draws creative inspiration from other artists and his own experiences, such as the time he visited the “Door of No Return” in Ghana—the castle from which Africans were forced into slave ships bound for America. “That touched me a lot,” he says. “It let me feel how African American or Black people in America had to struggle… to not have a voice.”
Abiola is encouraged by what he sees as a new wave of Black and people of color artists. “They’re telling their stories in a unique way,” he comments. “We don’t have to copy anyone, we just have to tell our stories.” By way of example, he points to an acclaimed sculpture immortalizing George Floyd by a Ghanaian artist. “Nobody can tell our stories better than we can,” he says.
It’s not just his work that stands out. He does too, personally, in China, where he found himself to be the only Black person in the entire province he was visiting. At first he felt like a fish out of water, he admits, but came to see himself as “a rose in a valley of lilies.” By which he means, he had been given “an opportunity to shine as a Black person and not disgrace my people; that we have a story to tell and unique and valuable things to offer.”
Time to train
Abiola gives a glimpse into his creative process in describing one of his most striking pieces, the abstract “Ballerina,” a mixed media sculpture for which he drew inspiration from his daughter.
“I’ve taken a lot of ideas from the way she moves around,” he says. “I used a lot of organic shapes, meaning shape that you can’t easily see. This is called God’s fingerprint. That is, you look at nature, you see a tree, for example; it’s not symmetrical, it is organic. And the cloud is organic. Everything that God made is, so I used organic form to make that piece, to express the dance.”
There’s more behind the success he has enjoyed than just inspiration, though. “Practice,” he says. “If I’m on the phone talking to somebody, I’m always drawing because that is the way I can say what is in my mind.”
When Abiola is asked to name his preferred guests for a special dinner, the first three names are no great surprise: the widely admired Barack Obama, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey (“I’ve learned a lot of things from her in terms of where she came from and where she’s taking people to; it’s not just about her alone, it’s about where she is taking people.”)
The fourth is unexpected, acknowledging someone who also used his hands to great effect, but rather differently to a sculptor—former world champion fighter Floyd Mayweather Jr. “I love boxing,” Abiola explains. “I love the tenacity, the endurance, the time spent in the gym, the preparedness. And they get in the ring and they just do what they love to do. And I love this guy because he is not really scared of anyone.”
That example reminds him of Roger Bannister, a medical student in England who in 1954 did what everyone said was impossible—run a subfour-minute mile. Soon after, others followed suit “because once somebody can do it, they believe they can do it too,” Abiola observes. “That’s what I learned from all these people, from Oprah and the others.”
He tries to pass that sense of possibility on to those who work in his studios. “I’m pushing them, but I don’t push them with hard… whatever. I push them with love—that, ‘You can do this, because I am doing it.’”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of WayMaker Journal.