In an Instagram post announcing the show, Olulode made it clear this was exactly her intention for the exhibition. ‘This show is an ode all things sunshine and embracing a lover girl summer’, she declared, in a caption adorned with sun, heart, and dancing girl emojis. ‘I did really want to call the show that,’ Olulode tells me with a wide grin. ‘I was going to call it “Lover Girl Summer.”’
Show Some Love
The first word that comes to mind when looking at Sola Olulode’s new works, currently on display at Ed Cross gallery, is radiant. Every piece is a striking blend of yellow and orange hues, and across the works a romantic story seems to unspool. Against a golden background glow, Black women hold each other, and clasp hands, and walk towards a vast sunset that could also be a portal into a luminous new world. In one work, aptly titled In the Bubble of Your Love, inky clusters of bubbles float around a couple as they raise their joined hands in an ecstatic dance. In others, Olulode’s recurring sun motif seems to slip into a halo effect. Burning, like the star that showed us to our love is an immersive exhibition – Olulode’s glowing works hang on sheets of tie-dyed blue silk, which drape the gallery walls like curtains. The impression is of a softly clouded sky studded with many suns. Surrounded by halos and beams of warm light, it feels like you're in a heavenly space – a utopian dream state full of Black queer joy, tenderness and intimacy. The whole room simply radiates love.
"you're stepping into a different world"
The installation process was ‘really fun’, Olulode says, ‘because I didn't know how it was gonna look’. All she knew was that she definitely didn’t want to hang her sunny works on white walls. ‘Painting is quite traditional, and there’s a simple format that people are very used to seeing. It’s like, oh yeah, you hang a painting on a nice white wall and that’s that!’ She laughs, perhaps in acknowledgement of having gently skewered the Western modernist obsession with the white cube. ‘I just always want to be more creative with space. In previous exhibitions I've had different colour backgrounds on the wall, and extended the paintings around the wall.’ For this show, Olulode had some fabric, and wanted to try something she’d never done before. ‘I really like when you go to an exhibition and there's a real immersive feel, like you're stepping into a different world,’ she says.
"in their own little bubble of joy and love"
Like extending the paint onto the walls, this is also a way of expanding the life of her paintings, because the figures within them seem enclosed in a surreally beautiful, otherworldly space. ‘The figures in the paintings, they're often floating around in this world,’ Olulode says. ‘Sometimes I give them more of an outside setting, or inside a bedroom, but in general I’m focusing on this dream state of otherworldliness.’ In these new joyful works, the recurring couples are enclosed ‘in their own little bubble of joy and love,’ she says. ‘I wanted to have the same kind of effect on the audience, by having these intense colours and having an enclosing environment’. The viewer is invited in, in other words – encouraged to step into the sunshine, to walk Into the Tunnel of Love.
‘I've always been drawn to bright colours and painting styles,’ Olulode says, when I ask about her decision to create an all-yellow, all-glowing solo show. ‘I began by using a lot of blue in my work.’ Indeed, Olulode is already so known for her rich indigo and cobalt shades that, along with her striking yellows, they feel almost like trademark hues. ‘Indigo is obviously a really old, common dye, which expands across so many different cultures,’ she notes, ‘but I was particularly drawn to it as a Yoruba tradition, and the tie-dying techniques that they use in Nigeria. I thought I could use those resistance dying techniques to create the outline and the figures.’ Olulode is a third-generation Nigerian immigrant living in London, which she says means she doesn’t have many connections to Nigeria now, ‘but I have always liked different African print designs. So I quite liked seeing that little element, and trying to make a painting using a completely different craft, bringing that into oil painting.’
"I'm just stuck in the land of joy!"
In a similar way to how she wants to playfully undermine the white cube then, Olulode is also messing around with the tradition of painting itself. Having incorporated textile making into her works, they became increasingly mixed media. ‘I was dying, and then using the oil paint. And then I was using pastels and charcoal and collage, because I felt like, I have broken the rules and I’m free.’
This sense of freedom extends from Olulode’s chosen medium to her approach to painting more broadly. Again, the artist takes up a playful approach to tradition – getting under its skin, using it, but pushing back against it at the same time; making it her own. ‘There's such a long history of figurative and oil painting that when you are a new emerging artist, you're trying to find your own unique style,’ she explains. ‘You're always looking at how others have done it in the past, and thinking "how can I do it different?"’ For Olulode, the answer seems to come through grounding her work in pleasure. She clearly enjoys the process of making – an enjoyment that feels inherently connected to the work she makes, where joy is also put front and centre. ‘I always use the motif of the sun, and the sunshine, and that joy of laying out in the sun, just warmed through, which makes you feel good and smiley inside.'
"to depict Black and queer existence in a positive way, highlighting ostensibly ‘everyday’ moments, and elevating them"
Foregrounding intimacy and tender moments, Olulode’s work stands at direct odds with prevailing cultural expectations placed on Black and queer artists to make work that spins around trauma. In an important sense then, her works are political, even while they are also pleasurable, alluring and lighthearted. ‘It definitely feels that way for me,’ Olulode says. ‘In a way, the subject matter of my paintings is my own little political activism.’ She also agrees that ‘the whole making of art’ often feels defined by narratives of ‘struggle and strife’. Some artists certainly render these elements of life with nuance, she insists, ‘but I'm just stuck in the land of joy!’
‘I guess I want to see more of that,’ she says, after another burst of laughter. ‘More of that without the balance of the negative.’ In other words, she wants to depict Black and queer existence in a positive way, highlighting ostensibly ‘everyday’ moments, and elevating them. ‘Those things do get overlooked,’ she suggests. ‘Small moments of joy. I feel like we take them for granted, or we don't highlight them, because they're not huge moments. So we look past them, and that's why I like zooming in on them in my paintings. It's like, this was actually a really beautiful moment in life, and this is something positive that I have or could strive for.’
All this brings us back to the title of the Ed Cross exhibition. ‘I'd been making a list of lots of different titles and musings and song lyrics and emotional things that popped into my head,’ Olulode says. ‘You know, Lover Girl Summer was on there,’ she grins, ‘but nothing felt right.’ Then, she and her partner stumbled across a poem by the American writer and social activist June Jordan, titled Poem for My Love. ‘It was just perfect, the way it was written,’ Olulode says, beaming, ‘so we took a line from that.’ She digs the poem out, and sends me a link. It’s brief, and tender, and I immediately understand why it struck such a chord. The line Olulode and her partner chose – ‘Where are the stars that show us to our love’ – jumps out straight away, but what lingers is the last few lines: ‘I am amazed by peace / It is this possibility of you / asleep / and breathing in the quiet air’. One of Olulode’s paintings in particular swims into mind – Your Heartbeat Became My Neighbour, where a couple embrace, one figure on the other’s lap, their eyes closed, and their faces in a calm state of bliss. Amazed, at peace, breathing in the quiet air, and radiating love.
By Eloise Hendy
Cover image: Sola Olulode, Together Again, 2023.