Seven years ago, I was invited for an exhibition at the National Museum, Onikan by an artist unknown to me at that time: Raoul Olawale da Silva. It was a good thing I decided to “risk” and visit the show. Surely, I was not the only one among the visitors that felt excited in front of Raoul’s works. The exhibition goer in Lagos –and there are a few regulars, out there- is rarely confronted with works of such intensity and character. Without knowing the artist, his background or his artistic trajectory I was immediately struck by the works before my eyes.
Just two years ago, when I was exploring some contemporary art collections in Lagos, I visited Agatha da Silva –Raoul’s mother- and was able to see in her house a good number of works left behind by Raoul. This time the experience was more intimate, deeper. These works -some of them uncompleted- were challenging me. I could not remain indifferent in front of them. A couple of months ago, thanks to the good efforts of Sandra Obiago and –of course- Agatha da Silva, we were fortunate to have him back in Lagos -the city he left in 1981, when he was just 12 years old- for another exhibition.
Raoul is a complex and intensely independent artist. His rich personal history is, no doubt, marked by the fact of having a Nigerian father (a Neurosurgeon from a well known Brazilian-Lagosian family) and a Swiss mother. His is a multifaceted creativity finding expression through different media: painting, photography, craftsmanship, music. Perhaps, I should add skateboarding, an activity he considers a true –though ephemeral- form of art. He is passionate about it: “I am street skater for more than 20 years now. Skateboards, boarding is an art and an art form always crossing borders and boundaries, influencing and being influenced, always developing and staying young for the young state of mind. Maybe just like dance or Asian martial arts, it is a most direct and sincere forms of expression”.
It is difficult to fit Raoul’s works into a neat, clearly defined artistic pigeon hole, to associate them to a recognizable name or qualifier. But, perhaps this search for “sincere forms of expression” provides the key to access the paintings, drawings and installations in this exhibition. His works appear as an externalization, an “expression” of a many-sided personal world. And in this process of expressing -of bringing out- inner realities, spontaneity plays a central role. This is the way he explains how he starts a new work: “I start from somewhere deep within almost on a subconscious level letting the canvas or working surface to get stained or “randomly” marked, trusting that there is enough material inside me to work with that will come to show an idea or at least a route I can follow… This process is being repeated over and over till I feel I have something that can evolve into meaning for me. Then I try to transport/transform that aesthetic to a plane where I now sharply observe and act and react to what is going on on the surface and around it. Taking off, scratching off, peeling off paint and then putting on, slapping on, dripping on, brushing on paint till a harmony or dissonance starts to create tension which is a sign that I am on the right path”.
More than 60 years ago, the critic Harold Rosenberg coined the expression “action painting”. He wrote in his well known essay of 1952, “The American action painters”: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter”. Rosenberg’s expression “an arena in which to paint”, seems particularly apt to refer to most of Raoul da Silva’s works.
In this exhibition Raoul juxtaposes works produced over a span of ten years (2003-2013). This allows the viewer appreciate the continuity and evolution of his oeuvre. Two formal elements call immediately our attention. First, there has been a progressive increase in the size of the works. The use of larger canvases (some of them over 2.00 meters wide) shows a much more self-confident artist, not afraid to face increasingly challenging works. Second, the “painterly” works of ten years ago, with their blurred contours, broken shapes and overlaid colours, have evolved into pieces in which lines and boundaries are more defined and prominent than in earlier works, when gestural brushstrokes had pre-eminence. The organic, fluid, dream-like creatures have given way to more defined shapes taken from the real world. While some of these older works brought to mind references to Osogbo artists (specially, Twins Seven Seven), or to de Kooning and Pollock, the recent ones are more akin to the explorations of Basquiat, Bacon or Ritcher.
In addition, there is a more subtle development: these new works engage the outside world in a much more distinct and direct way than the older ones. For instance, the insertion of four telephone handsets in one of the 2013 works would have been totally out of place in the ones produced ten years earlier. It seems there is a gradual shift from works emerging from an “inner”, self-referential universe to a messier, more real world.
But despite the development of his artistic identity, Raoul’s works still grow from inside out. Their strength -and they are undoubtedly, strong- continues coming from within. Perhaps, that is the reason why they are so intensely personal. Like with good music, or with dance, the viewer is not encumbered by the demands of meaning, rationality and context. His works need not to be “understood”, but to be enjoyed, letting them tell each of us a different story.
This is an exhibition to enjoy quietly. Raoul da Silva is allowing us a view of a personal, intimate, suggestive world of great formal beauty. This is a privilege rarely available. I am glad not to have missed the opening. The works are on display till August, 15. I might go to see them again.
His web site is www.rods.ch/home.html