I loved Modupeola Fadugba’s artworks as soon as I saw them. Known as the artist with ‘the big red balls’, she first hit the London public eye at the 2016 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair.
We viewed an exquisite large-scale painting of what can only be described as women swimming in a pool of gold, playing a sport – water polo perhaps – with a red ball.
And the paintings were instant stars of the fair as people clamoured to take Instagram shots and selfies of her golden girls – I later find out she calls these women her ‘homegirls’.
I do love seeing African women doing ‘bigst tingz’ especially when abroad in the international art market, and Modupeola is no ordinary woman, nor an ordinary artist. The Ivy-League, Togo-born Nigerian studied to be a chemical engineer. As soon as I saw her art and knew a little more about her, I wanted to meet her.
There is evidence of her scientific background in her works and it is obvious that she is not only meticulous with her technique, but also very strategic in what she is representing. She is not just painting women swimming in pools, y’all!
So here I am in the posh streets of Chelsea, walking to a lovely townhouse with an apple blossom tree in front on a rare sunny winter’s day in London. I can hardly contain my excitement.
Modupeola is currently in London for her first solo exhibition and inaugural presentation by the gallery Ed Cross Fine Art, which is curated by Katherine Finerty.
Endearingly playful, she smiles, giggles, and laughs a lot. I like her instantly
I enter the building and I am warmly greeted by her team and the artist herself. And she is super cute. A petite woman, dressed all in black with an abundance of hair on her small face, she has one of those big, sparkly, teeth grins; you can’t help but reciprocate.
Endearingly playful, she smiles, giggles, and laughs a lot. I like her instantly and decide to nickname her ‘Modups’ for the rest of the day.
You don’t mind if I call you Modups do you? I’m sorry, I have a friend called that. It’s okay, right?
[Smiles] Yes, you can call me Modups, that’s okay.
So quickly, tell us about your background. You were born in Togo
Well, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start [a Sound of Music reference!] Yes, I was born in Togo, and lived there for five years before moving to the States. I lived there till I was 11.
I then moved to Rwanda [her parents are diplomats] shortly after the genocide in 1996. And because the schools were still in such a bad state after the war, my siblings and I had to go to school in the UK.
I’m a woman: I can do science, I can do math. Why be an artist when I can be a chemical engineer?’
So when did the love of art begin?
I think it was while I was in secondary school here in the UK that it started. My school really encouraged us to take art very seriously. I always had an interest but then I began to conduct these very large-scale projects by myself at the age of 11 or 12.
I thought it was so interesting that we were able to dedicate energy, time and intellectual ability to the arts. But I was also very interested in and good at science subjects.
It was the stubborness in me that was like: ‘I’m a woman: I can do science, I can do math. Why be an artist when I can be a chemical engineer?’
[ We both laugh]
It was that thinking that led me to study chemical engineering at university. Which was fantastic; I am very happy for that foundation.
Did you work as a chemical engineer?
No, I never did!
You went through all that, the degree and hard work?
Yup, and my parents’ hard-earned money
So this is your first exhibition in London, correct?
Yes it is. Well it is my first solo exhibition as I was at 1:54 last year and I did something else in Knightsbridge two years ago
Thank you. I was the newbie – well, I still am the newbie – but I was the new new newbie then and there was such a great line up of artists like Polly Alakija, Ablade Glover, Omar Cyril, Adewale Fatai among others.
So your new works, Synchronized Swimming and Drowning what was your inspiration? Is there more than what meets the eye?
I am a very big fan of pools and swimming in general. I swim quite often, and I think everyone has a bit of a fascination with pools. It signifies fun and leisure; it can signify prestige and luxury… but it is just a big mass of land filled with water.
Water itself, has so many physical and spiritual connotations as well so water and swimming is something that personally draws me in. I also spend a lot of my free time in the pool…
It is… Anyway, my first works, the Tagged Series (2015) had a number of women swimming trying to get this red ball and the synchronised swimmers do still have the red ball.
What does the red ball mean?
The red ball is symbolic of the little red stickers they put on sold artwork in a gallery setting to show that it has been sold.
When I decided to be an artist, I didn’t realise that there was a strong commercial aspect to things. I thought I’d just get to make great work and talk about it. But the commercial element is there.
I mean art is one of those professions that you don’t really retire from. You paint till the day you die.
So the red ball is about trying to navigate your way through the commercial space and it also symbolises anything that has value. Not just an artistic value, but anything and everything.
I want the viewers to put their value on it, what do you need to do, how far do you have to swim?
It almost seems like the red ball is always just out of reach in your paintings
Haha yes I guess so… In the Tagged Series, I had different players, competing to get the ball. My works are largely centered around games so the two rules of the game are, first: ‘Stay in the pool’.
This refers to art being a long thing. Art is one of those professions that you don’t really retire from. You paint till the day you die. So that signifies staying in the ‘pool’ because it is a long road ahead.
The second rule is ‘pretend to ignore the red ball’. Don’t get too caught up with the selling of the artwork and the monetary aspect because it takes a lot of focus. I feel like my art work takes the best of me as it is.
Oh I see your work with a new light now! Everyone clamouring for the red ball, the value. Is that the art industry?
It can be. The funny thing about this particular painting [pointing to the large scale Buy My Lot/ Marry Me Next] is that it relates to me a lot. The title alone refers to art auctions and buying the artwork, ‘the lot’. But the secondary title shows the red ball almost like a bouquet being tossed.
All these women, and you have this one ball or one bouquet and everyone pushing and competing to get to this one thing.
How to do a Double Platform Lift is different because each person in the painting is individually strong. They are competing as a system and it is a structure. That idea comes from my development and wanting to see indviduals, particularly within Nigeria, coming together and building structures that are sustainable.
Buy your Lot/Marry Me Next is a great title for this work
And I mean, if you are high maintenance, well I am not high maintenance but…
High quality darling
High quality–haha–thank you. I like that! Well if you are, it also refers to someone buying your lot as in your everything. So there is number of things going on. By the way, there is a hidden tattoo on one of the bodies in this painting. Only one person has pointed it out so far, first time in five months.
Is it your tattoo?
No, I don’t have any tattoos. I’ve never thought about getting one before actually
I get the sense you put yourself in these pictures, I mean one of them is most certainly you
Let me tell you why I do this – in the Tagged Series, I used to paint other people, working from photographs. And even though it wasn’t me, people would see the painting as say ‘That’s you isn’t it?’ and I am like, no it is not, it is someone completely different! So after while I decided that I was just going to start painting myself. ‘Cause it is easier. And do you know how hard it is to get a bunch of black women in a pool?!
[we both giggle]
I love swimming!
Yes but I need a group, it can’t just be like me and you!
Everyone can swim in Senegal
I mean there are many reasons, women don’t enjoy swimming, not just black women. The pool for example can wreck your hair. This is why I painted the women with braids, it protects women’s hair from the destruction swimming brings.
I like that little touch
And of course, breaking the stereotype that black people can’t swim. I mean in Senegal, I gave a seminar speech and people were like ‘What is she talking about? Everyone can swim in Senegal’.
So it is situational, if you grew up by the river then most likely you can swim.
Breaking down stereotypes: you are an unfathomable woman Modups! So what is next for you?
I have a small show in Paris at the end of my residency at the end of March. I will be showing as part of Ed Cross Fine Art in New York during 1:54 , and then I have my exhibition in Lille that I have been working on since last June. It’ll be curated by Simon Njami and there are going to be some other great artists there too.
One more question, if you could pick three artists that you look up to, dead or alive, who would they be? Other than Abe Odedina of course [he came to Modupeola’s exhibition opening and is also represented by Ed Cross].
Oh I love Abe! It’s going to sound super cliché but Picasso. He was the first ever exhibition I saw when I was 11 years old, here in London. I loved his playful, I-don’t-give-a-crap attitude in his works and his African influences.
And then there is MC Escher. He had a lot mathematical and geometrical references to his work and he was probably high all the time. I mean have you seen some of his works?
And then lastly, Wangechi Mutu. She has this beautiful letter that she wrote called ‘They Eat Because You Grow The Food’ , a seven-part letter that I then rewrote by hand and I read it all the time. It felt personal to me.
It is pretty much an open letter to young artists trying to find their way, and artists understanding their position in the art food chain. Because art is tough. I have been extremely lucky, but art is tough.
Thank you Modups! I think this is just the beginning for you and I wish you the utmost success.
[And she flashes me that wonderful smile]
© Modupeola Fadugba, courtesy of Ed Cross Fine Art
Modupeola will be showing at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris titled ‘PRAYERS , PLAYERS & SWIMMERS’ 27 Mar – 3 Apr 2017
She will also be exhibiting at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, NYC edition 5 – 7 May 2017 on behalf of Ed Cross Fine Art
Artwork images © Alan Roderick
Video by Charbel Bou-Antoun