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Opinion: Slawn’s Art Is Not That Deep

Slawn and the Three Brothers Painting

Slawn, born Olaoluwa Akeredolu-Ale, isn’t a basic Nigerian artist. What he creates as art isn’t his most impressive deliverable, either. Rightfully, he gets applauded for his achievements, but his provocation skill is what deserves lauds. Great art can be loud, though a panoply of colourful canvas and bold brushstrokes, and dilly-dallying with world-famous brands aren’t necessarily satisfactory metrics of what qualifies as great.

 

Slawn is an agent provocateur who doesn’t hesitate to hop on socials to call other dark-skin people “monkeys” or share an app idea that racists would pay to hurl slurs at him anonymously. Whether for the white gaze or not, that’s part of who Slawn is. He takes an offensive approach to his art, though disguised as the usual cruise of his problematic kid identity. Slawn’s art is more of a cool item than provocative and more unmoving than thought-provoking. But art is art, fuck what moral thinks. Just like music. Kendrick Lamar made a song titled “God Is Gangsta,” regarded as a deep, conscious record. Its audio and video are still getting deciphered on Genius and YouTube since the era of “To Pimp A Butterfly,” which won him two Grammys. Art is art.

 

You can’t tell Picasso what to paint. You can’t tell Slawn how to express himself. People interact with life and moments differently. For those without the knowledge of Slawn’s existence or art before the controversy and rage that put him on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter’s trending list for two days last week, he’s a 24-year-old artist, designer and entrepreneur straight out of Lagos. His depiction of Black people and stories in Golliwog art style became a discourse on the black app after his announcement via his account on March 22, 2024, that his painting, “The Three Yoruba Brothers,” was sold at Sotheby’s (the biggest auction house in the U.K) for £31,750.

 

Users began to point out Black degradation and psychological loathing of identity in Slawn’s art; all I can see is a hustler and performer who’s schemed out his climb out of the bucket. He once said in a tweet that it doesn’t matter whether it’s through fraud or drug dealing; anything is a way as long as money is the outcome. Slawn makes his name and fortune majorly off a racist style of art and still answers “nigga”, “my nigga” and other variants. It’s all performative, and it’s not worth this public’s outburst and the ones that come every four months we rediscover his grotesque art. If at all, direct to what the issue is.

 

Ignorance is the issue here. Slawn has answered severally that he doesn’t know what he’s doing whenever he’s asked about his art. True or an ordinary mystique, I won’t debate what the artist has said about his art. In view of that, it’s apparent how limited his knowledge of who the three Yoruba brothers he painted are. He doesn’t know who Alara, Ajero and Orangun are. Far away from Slawn’s allusion of the three characters to colonialism and blackness, Alara, Ajero and Orangun symbolise wisdom, advice and knowledge. More than just three triplets that became founding kings in Yorubaland, the three brothers are deeply rooted in Ifa corpus. But they’re just buzzwords to Slawn, like “Lagos” and “Fela” to Jay-Z and several American rappers who have slipped them into rhymes. 

 

Education and upbringings are also different. The knowledge and views that people are not accurate. They can be contradictory. Some are half-baked. Some are almost on-line. There are full-blooded Nigerians who have lived in Nigeria their whole lives, yet they know nothing concrete of their local language, culture, root and history outside revisionism. Not even a care. Especially in this new age, what most know about our culture and traditions are half-ass information they’ve heard from home or been taught in school. This issue we have is exactly the shortcoming that we locals bemoan about the diasporan folks when it comes to unadulterated African culture and tradition.

 

We say some of the diasporan born haven’t stepped into Nigeria since their birth abroad. Some don’t have the memory of coming back home. Many of those that have been home know a little more than Detty December and occasional visits to the “village.” Their parents only attempted to explain their lives and teach them what they knew about their culture and language. How a diaspora Yoruba kid sees and understands life differs from how a kid who grew up in Ifaki-Ekiti or Ogbomoso views and interprets life as a Yoruba person. It’s the same for the kid who thinks his/her native language is vernacular or hasn’t left his suburban estate. It is what it is. We cannot expunge them from the Yoruba tribe. They also have the right to express themselves as Yoruba people. Olaolu Slawn makes denigrating, and uninspiring art that’s likable in the art world isn’t the same as misinterpreting a culture in his artwork. He doesn’t know Yoruba history. Many of us don’t.

 

Many of us are the same. We barely and rarely know our eulogies and the roadmap of our ancestry, yet we’re chastising Slawn for the misappropriation in his painting. Many of us are hot critics of the Osun-Osogbo Festival and our forefathers’ religion, but Slawn is the bad son of the land here. If the painted Three Brothers had names like Dick, Tom and Harry, no one would probably bat an eye. Whether Slawn is ignorant or he intentionally made the art to provoke reactions, the public’s rage is making him greater. Golliwog arts will also go up in price.

 

Good or bad art need no permission to be famous or highly valued in foreign currencies. It can be inspired by controlled experiences but once it’s fully expressed and put into the world, the experiences it can effect are rarely under control. Basquiat, Picasso, and all the artists in the world paint what they want from their minds. They all express themselves just like Slawn. Creativity can’t be policed. It shouldn’t. It doesn’t even look like he deliberately disrespected the Yorùbá culture. He lacked awareness and did what he wanted to do.

 

Barring the publications that have done nothing other than hug a new young, black star and scratch the surface of his artistry, no one’s having a conversation with him or asking him the “whys” and motives behind his art. It’s just bickering, more bickering and rage on social media. In his provocative manner, he subtly fed into the conversation, screamed cyberbullying without toning down his weird, racist tweets and fueled more outrage from the public. Simply because of rage, his next painting, in addition to more money and clout, will now sell for £50k.

 

“The Three Brothers” is just one in his extensive collection of similar paintings. Public and political figures (all illustrated disrespectfully) are not exempted from his artistic expression. His painting of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle shows the famous couple in a train, a degrading sexual act that includes other men going over a single woman. Although he claims it’s a metaphor for Nigerians invested in the former Royal couple’s family issues. What an artsy explanation. This strengthens his persona as a hypocrite after complaining that his kid and girlfriend also receive the public’s unkind comments. But two wrongs don’t make a right.

 

There are divisions online. One group thinks the art is dope; art is subjective. Another thinks as long as he’s making mullah— “If no be money, wetin we gain?” Some people say that he’s doing it for a reason; flipping a negative narrative to take white people’s money in the art world. That’s the “Taking back from the White man what he stole from our forefathers” chapter of the Yahoo book. Another hates his art and his personality; mostly mob mentality and alarming screams of “coonery.” If it makes anyone feel better, there’s a point that he pawns himself in his art. No one looks like Slawn’s black face and bold-red lips paintings more than him. What if the faces are different emotions while he disguises himself as someone else? Even if so, it changes no damn thing.

 

It’s never that deep. People perish over things that are lesser in significance. Offensive or not, problematic or not, Slawn will keep being Slawn. The persona he gives to the public may not be impressive. What he creates as art isn’t his most impressive deliverable, either. But they work for him, and he’s just loud about it. Provocative or loud and ignorant, Slawn is just human, the first and only requirement to be an artist.

 

The Writer: Tomide Marv is a culture writer interested in everything music and art. Follow Tomide on his Twitter or X account, @akinnitomide.

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1 COMMENT
  • Gboyega Adeoya March 31, 2024

    This is insightful. The part I think may be missing is for Slawn to be made to see the disrespect his ignorance means and for him to fix up. Big ups, Marv.

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