Deep End Dreams: Modupeola Fadugba / Text Rebecca Anne Proctor

In something we Africans got issue #6
In issue #6, find our selection on : Panafricanism in part 1 
Morocco’s intellectual and art scene in part 2
Cultural links Africa – USA in part 3

The figures in Fadugba’s paintings are the unsung heroes of today’s world of marginalised individuals. While mostly women, her recent series includes men for the first time. They too are figures that don’t give up. They continue swimming against adversity at all costs. Fadugba’s protagonists and richly meditative canvases are also indicative of a continual tug-a-war between Africa and its diaspora.

Modupeola Fadugba in the studio in front of works from ‘Dreams from the Deep End’. Courtesy of the artist & Gallery 1957

In her latest body of work Togo-born Nigerian artist Modupeola Fadugba reverts again to the theme of water highlighting synchronized swimming team The Harlem Honeys and Bears as a way to tackle themes related to identity and social justice

They hold their hands in unison, braving the depths of the water below. Their large, graceful bodies merge with the gentleness of the waves. Forming a circular formation, these elderly African-American women, with their hair drawn up into elegant buns, smile and converse, relishing in the water and the camaraderie that their regular swimming meeting entails. The work is Some Harlem Honeys by Modupeola Fadugba, produced over the artist’s recent residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York City, and exhibited on the farthest end wall of Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana. Shown at the exhibition, Dreams from the Deep End, curated by Katherine Finerty, it draws on the artist’s continual theme of water in order to explore issues of identity, democracy, game theory and race. The elderly women depicted are part of The Harlem Honeys and Bears, a synchronised swimming team of senior citizens who perform sensational water acrobatics and offer free swimming lessons to local children. 

    “As an artist we are always tasked with trying to marry that which is in internal to us—our own contexts and ideas of creativity—with the outside world,” says the artist. “So it’s not unusual perhaps to find yourself engaging with narratives beyond your own. In fact, I think it’s important that we always strive to do this.” For her residency, Fadugba decided that the collaboration needed to take place between The Harlem Honey’s and Bears and herself. “This was a direct result of my respect for this narrative being external to my own,” she adds. Through months of painting, multimedia documentation and research, particularly on issues of race and hierarchy revolving around swimming pools in the US and through primary sources, in particular Jeff Wiltse’s book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools, Fadugba depicts the triumphs and tribulations experienced by this community of African American swimmers. Such depictions, painted with the artist’s poignant brushstrokes and the incorporation of her signature burned paper, offer a gentle envisioning of the socio-political history of public swimming pools and race relations in America—histories that provide much-needed analysis even today.

Modupeola Fadugba, Deep Blue See (2018). © the artist & Courtesy of Gallery 1957

     “I decided early on that I would wait until meeting with the team before commencing a series of paintings featuring them,” explains Fadugba. “As it turns out, this was a wise decision: I invited team members to my studio to view the more abstract works of the young synchronized swimmers, many of whom lack facial features and rely on their large braided buns to be identified and numbered. Not to my surprise, the Harlem Honeys and Bears were not very fond of these (in their words) ‘arbitrary’ images, expressing their own desire to be depicted with more realism. Therefore I incorporated this feedback in my process of painting them; this certainly was a response to my realisation that I had a duty to tell their story in a way which they themselves recognised and responded to.” In Medallion Man an elderly man sits on the side of the pool wearing around his neck his many medals after swimming championships. His hands grip the edge of the pool in determination and triumph, around his head are his goggles pushed above his forehead so that we can see his eyes, gleaming steadily and with strong conviction and resilience. 

     As one walks through the exhibition at Gallery 1957, they will pass first Fadugba’s more abstract renderings of what appear to be younger women in swimming pools—akin in style to work she recently showed at Art Dubai in March. Moving to the next space, the faces, bodies and expressions of each swimmer become sharper and distinct characters emerge. Here too, is a documentary film on the artist’s experience in New York set up for viewing by way of a lounge chair—one we’d find typically aligning a swimming pool—and next to it a stack of books selected by the artist and curator on artists and writers who’ve inspired Fadugba’s work including author Zadie Smith and painter David Hockney. An immersive installation of four films of powerful black swimmers in circular frames are positioned on a separating wall of stairs that make their way up to the last space of the show where an impressive triptych by Fadugba reveals an elderly African American woman in water painted gold. Her goggles are placed on the red floor that transitions into abstract red, black and gold puddles of paint—the artist’s dreamy style coming to life as she endows a renewed sense of power to her portraits. Indeed, the swimming pool here is a nostalgic yet contested space. Here communities come together to play, rest, resist and ultimately, learn. 

Modupeola Fadugba, Medallion Man (2018).  © the artist & courtesy of Gallery 1957

     Portrayed with the artist’s rich and creamy brushstrokes, meditative monochromes and splashes of intricate detailing—such as the precise lines in each woman’s braids—every individual in these works is rendered with painstaking detail. Here Fadugba’s mission is reflected through her painterly aspiration to empower the bodies and voices of each swimmer so that her abstract forms transition into narrative representation—creating scenes that tell a story and a history again and again.

     Fadugba herself is an avid and lifelong swimmer. But swimming at first was a source of fear for the artist. Her recurring theme of water is symbolic of her journey as an artist as much as it is a reflection of contemporary socio-economic pressures. Growing up, Fadugba was scared of the sea. Its uncertain depths made her feel uneasy and untrusting. She always found the swimming pools in the US less threatening, but it was at a mandatory swimming class in the UK that she finally overcame her fear. Plunging tentatively into the water at first, the artist realised she could, with time, conquer her fears. Fast-forward 20 years later and she was in Ibadan, Nigeria, again at the edge of a pool. Surrounded by her family, she had decided to become a full-time artist. Her brother was about to dive from the highest platform. Fadugba found herself fearful again, but with encouragement from her siblings, she dove in. There was a round of applause. The event was significant not only of conquering her fear of swimming, but of her decision to give up everything for her art. She took the plunge, conquered the uncertain depths, and won’t look back.

      Born in 1985 in Lomé, Togo, to UN diplomats, Fadugba was raised in the US and Rwanda until she moved to the UK for boarding school. She continued her studies in the US where she obtained a BEng in Chemical Engineering and an MA in Economics from the University of Delaware, followed by an MA in Education from Harvard University. Her interest in art took place around the time she was eleven and had moved to the UK. “I was also good at math and chemistry and I thought, ‘Why would I be an artist when I can be a chemical engineer?’ As much as I enjoyed the art I never thought that I could do it full-time as a career.” In 2004, as a freshman in college, she had her first exhibition and sold nearly all of her work. While this was positive, it installed in her a new pressure that she hadn’t anticipated before. “One that almost turned me off from creating art because I wasn’t able to do it in my own time and there were these new demands,” she says. “I almost shut down entirely.” So Fadugba went in the other direction and took a break from art creation for nine years.

Modupeola Fadugba, Indigo Onlookers (2018). © the artist & courtesy of Gallery 1957

     Yet her love of art never left her. When she returned to Nigeria several years ago, she was inspired once again to paint. She had been working as a development consultant for a girl’s education programme teaching numeracy, literacy and business skills to young girls throughout Northern Nigeria. “They were girls who had dropped out of school for one reason or another and were hence termed as ‘marginalised’,” she explains. With her demanding job she remembers waking up at 4 a.m. to paint and then rushing to work. She was “consumed” with the need to create. She was working with women and trying to empower them economically—a theme that came out in her work in series such as Chief and his Wives, works that deal with five women coming together and revolting against a man, saying, “Take back your pearls and your riches and whatever you think you have given us to make us beholden to you in this way.” She couldn’t stop painting. It was time to make a change and take the plunge.

     Fadugba’s works in Dreams from the Deep End signal a maturation of her oeuvre. There is wisdom gained and instilled onto the canvases through real-life experiences with The Harlem Honeys and Bears. “The synchronized swimmers I presented in Dubai depict more professional swimmers—I was depicting and referring to performances at the Olympics whether they be under or above water in a specific formation,” says the artist. “In my new work I have transitioned to real-life synchronized swimmers. First of all, there is that jump between young adults to older adults and senior citizens. There is also a co-ed team so that you have the dynamic of both genders occupying the same space and also because they are older they have different body types and different stories and I wanted to pull this out, looking at the individual characteristics of each swimmer.” In one work, titled Gossip Girls, two women chat on the side of a pool: an elderly woman donning a swimming cap and holding a cane with a woman who appears to be middle-aged. “These are older swimmers and I was thinking about what the body could do at this age as well,” says the artist. “A lot of the paintings take place outside of the swimming pool to show the comfort that the swimmers have with the space and with themselves. I looked at ideas of age and of inclusion and exclusion when it comes to age and then race in America and the swimming pool as a space where such figures were typically excluded.” Fadugba’s works immediately please the eye; their dance-like moves are at once uplifting and joyful as well as courageous and determined.

Modupeola Fadugba, Pink Honey (2018). © the artist & Courtesy of Gallery 1957

      The figures in Fadugba’s paintings are the unsung heroes of today’s world of marginalised individuals. While mostly women, her recent series includes men for the first time. They too are figures that don’t give up. They continue swimming against adversity at all costs. Fadugba’s protagonists and richly meditative canvases are also indicative of a continual tug-a-war between Africa and its diaspora. A few whispers on the opening night of her show in Accra suggested that this body of works would have been better shown first in the US. Why? The works in Dreams from the Deep End were painted by an African of African-Americans, does the location where the works are shown matter? “I think this speaks to the larger question of who has the authority to tackle which subjects and how does one engage various audiences about the subject matter,” says Fadugba. “How do we grapple with this and do you defend it? I like the idea that these works were first presented in Accra. Maybe it was a surprise to people, but a good one. I think this show sets a model of what can be done on the continent.” In October 2018, Fadugba and Finerty will be in conversation at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London—the works thus get their chance to also shine elsewhere. “My paintings can travel but I think it is important that show originated in Accra—on the continent.” Fadugba references the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a story that starts in slavery times in Cape Coast in Ghana and then ends up in Harlem. Like Fadugba’s Dreams from the Deep End, there are many linkages, many places and times that connect a work of art. “There are linkages in my work over time and over space,” she adds. That’s the beauty of Fadugba’s work—unity is achieved across epochs, race and individuals. Long live her swimmers. 

In something we Africans got issue 6
  Rebecca Anne Proctor
September 2018

In issue #6, find our selection on : Panafricanism in part 1 
Morocco’s intellectual and art scene in part 2
Cultural links Africa – USA in part 3