Ólàjú expands awareness of African culture and identity with a focus on powerful photography | Art Stories and Interviews | San Antonio

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Wandile Xaba

My Ancestor, the SerpentWandile Xaba

After earning his undergraduate degree in International Business from UTSA in 2011, Femi Ogunleye returned to Nigeria, where his family is from, to deepen his connection to its culture and heritage.

As part of this immersion, he began collecting art, bringing pieces back to San Antonio.

“I was coming back to the States with the art, and people started to get interested and wanted to know more,” Ogunleye said. “I became a sort of middleman between artists in Nigeria and art collectors in Texas.”

More recently, Ogunleye – through his non-profit organization Ólàjú – exhibited the works of photographers from across Africa at The Brick at Blue Star Arts Complex in late January and February.

“Perspectives from Within: A Collection of African Photography” is still available until the end of the year via a virtual exhibition on the Ólàjú website. The online exhibition features the work of eight photographers from Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.

Currently, Ólàjú focuses on showcasing the work of African photographers due to the difficult logistics of shipping paintings and sculptures.

“There is a huge under-representation of African arts,” Ogunleye said. “Few people have seen African arts presented in a gallery. It really is an intercultural exchange.

Part of the reason Ogunleye started Ólàjú was to raise awareness of African arts and help eliminate misconceptions and stereotypes people might have about artwork from a continent they don’t know both in terms of its cultural contributions.

“Some even question the legitimacy [of the art],” he said. “When you present the work, some people are like, ‘OK, why is this here?’ So, I take this opportunity to talk about black history in San Antonio, so people can start to make the connection.

For the exhibitions he curates, Ogunleye said he looks for “young, emerging artists” who are “on the verge of breaking new ground.” It also revolves around artists who “push certain narratives” about their African culture and identity.

“I want the work to be challenging and different from what we are used to,” he said. “All the photographers of [“Perspectives from Within”] have a great eye for their subjects.

The artists exhibiting at “Perspectives from Within” are Wandile Xaba, Joy Eno, Fatima Zohra Serri, Ismail Zaidy, Marouane Beslem, Ogorogile Nong, Ohio Ohiwerei and Yasmine Kazeem.

Eno, a visual artist from Enugu, Nigeria, said her work examines gender, sexuality and self-expression. His six photographs in the exhibition speak to the stereotypical narrative of manhood in Nigeria. She hopes the work shows how diverse and complicated African society is, and that it goes far beyond the “lion and hut stereotype” or “Wakanda narrative” that American audiences might attribute to the content.

“The man is the ‘head’ of the family even though he has no leadership skills,” Eno said. “He is the only provider even if he earns less. He must mask emotions to show a position of strength. These rules put all gender in a box and leave a lot of men depressed.

Xaba, a photographer from Umlazi, South Africa who identifies as a queer activist, said she uses her photography to rewrite her traumatic history as a black queer woman.

“I look critically at how black bodies have been viewed historically, versus the colonial gaze,” Xaba said. “I wanted to flip this presentation to better suit the Africa I live in with an emphasis on my South African background.”

Xaba wants her work to initiate new conversations and prompt questions such as “Who is watching? “Who is the watching subject?” and “Who has the power in a picture?”

“I want my photographs to offer a chance to engage with societies’ perceptions while challenging everyone’s perspectives and assumptions,” she said. “Africans are generally portrayed as stereotypical binaries. It is essential that Africans tell intrinsic stories to avoid the danger of single narrative.

“Perspectives from Within” can be viewed online at olaju.org.

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