Adewale Kolawole John And The Music Maestros

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What would be an ordinary street on an ordinary road in Ibadan is much more than that. Behind one of the many wooden stalls lined up at the side of the road is a bare land transformed into the studio of Adewale Kolawole John, a young artist whose works have crossed the continent’s shores and are widely appreciated. 

From the street, the rusted zinc roof atop multicolor planks can easily be dismissed, but just beside the stall is a door made of zinc that leads to a whole new world of color and creativity. In this new world is a bare land; half of it is occupied by short and wild grass while the other half is a skeleton of a structure stretching the length of the land, with a plastered floor, a roof, and a wall – what would be the demarcation between this land and the next –  used to display Adewale’s finished and unfinished works, all big, bold and striking. 

Big, bold, and striking have not always been associated with Adewale’s work. Before he became the artist he is today, he was only a young man whose paintbrushes captured the beauty and landscape of his city. In one of his older paintings, “Oke Ibadan” he depicts the rustic vibe of Ibadan, the slopes of the busy roads, and its aged architecture. The image is beautiful, yet it cannot be compared to the work he now creates. He speaks of that time with laughter in his voice, remembering the subjects of his old painting and the time he sold a 3 by 4 feet painting of Bob Marley for #1,000 — a transaction that can never occur again. 

For Adewale, two things occupy his existence; his ability to paint striking images and his love for the music of his people. It is difficult to say which supersedes the other, and fortunately, there is no need to, as he has been able to fuse his love for both and create something outstanding from them. 

Music ignites Adewale’s spirit, but unlike the average 26-year-old in Nigeria, it is not the mainstream Afrobeats acts like Davido or Olamide that capture his attention, but classic Yoruba music like Apala, Sakara, and Juju. Growing up with his grandparents in Ibadan was the foundation of this subsisting love. They were huge fans of these genres, having listened to them in their childhood, and through their adult lives. Hence it was easy for Adewale to inherit their love for the music and become a connoisseur of it and the people who contributed to the genres. He speaks of them with an excited hitch in his voice and a contagious smile on his face, listing his favorite projects and boasting of the collection of vinyls he inherited from his grandparents. 

The relationship between his love for music and art initially existed as separate entities, and he was years of establishing himself as a painter he got the inspiration to combine them. He began his foray into the arts in 2011 after he was encouraged by another artist, Ade Love to develop his skills. After spending about 3 months learning under Ade Love and being exposed to other artists and skill sets, Adewale realized that he needed a bigger challenge and left to begin an apprenticeship at Saidor Creation Studio. His grandfather, seeing his interest and determination to learn, sent him to Technical College Ibadan to study painting and decorating, where he got the opportunity to take on his Industrial Training Attachment under Tope Fatunmbi at his eponymous Topfat Art Studio. He returned to Topfat Art Studio after completing his degree in 2015 and worked there till 2021. At the end of 2021, Adewale became a Studio Assistant at David Olatoye’s studio where he went to satisfy his curiosity about contemporary art.

It was in Olatoye’s studio, where his love for music was so palatable that Olatoye advised that he use his skill to tell the story of what he loves. Adewale received that advice and ran with it, inspiring his current series and the reason behind his growing audience: Music Maestros. The first part of the series documents the masters of Sakara music, a genre that originated from the Muslim communities in the Northern and Southern parts of Nigeria. According to Ruth Stone, Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington, when Sakara music was popularized, many traditional drummers were Muslim and some of its biggest patrons were Muslim entrepreneurs. The genre is named after the drum Sakara, and is a combination of instruments like the Molo and Goje, all led by a singer who performs a rhythmic adulation dedicated to revered people.  Sakara music is solemn, waxed with philosophical Yoruba lyrics and Islamic cantillations. In its heyday, Sakara was diverse enough to cater to every age demographic. Mustapha splits the genre up into three types; the Eso, which “commands a quick movement of action during dancing” particularly enjoyed by youngsters, the full Sakara, a form that toes the line between slow-paced and fast-paced and is referred to as Ijo Faaji, and lastly, the Agbala, loved by elderly people because of its relative slowness. While its relevancy has undoubtedly waned, Sakara is kept alive by people like Adewale, whose love for it invites people to experience it like he does. 

So far, Adewale’s collection consists of at least 23 paintings of legends in Sakara music. In it, he honors the pioneers, Yusuf Ajao Olatunji as well as other significant persons like Abibu Oluwa, Jimoh Ojindo and his group, Salami Balogun and his group, and other pioneers. A few of the paintings are replicated from black and white pictures displayed on the back of their vinyl records. But rather than keeping the color scheme, Adewale paints them in bold and bright colors. When asked about the vibrancy of his paintings, he intelligently shares “You know, when you are trying to embrace something, you have to make it beautiful for people to gravitate towards it. I want to beautify the musicians for people to see.” Adding color to his paintings brings it to life in a manner that would otherwise have been lost. His artistic freedom is also explored in one of his untitled paintings, where Adewale depicts a group of female Sakara musicians. His decision to include this painting is a subtle rebellion to a history that only allowed women to dance to the beat of the Sakara drum, but not create the music. 

Sakara Maestro, Yusufu Olatunji

At first glance, Adewale’s paintings transport his audience to a period many may call simpler times, reminding them of their childhood in the 80s and 90s or trips to grandparents’ homes up until the 2000s. Although his paintings depict the 1970s (as seen on the calendars that feature in some), elements in them share characteristics of the early 2000s. In some paintings, it is the box television set, stereo, and lace sofa decorations hanging across the back of the sofa that keys you into the time jump. In others, the structure of the houses, windows, and layout of the compound bring this to light. Adewale’s attention to detail is highlighted in the other aspects. In a few of his paintings, a bottle of alcohol is featured in them, and when asked about its significance, he refers to the musicians’ love for drinking and Haruna Ishola who, according to Adewale, once mentioned that the music begins when the group gathers to have drinks. There is also the ingenious rough texture of the paintings in the Sakara Maestro collection which closely resemble the grainy walls that featured in every house from that period. His paintings evoke a nostalgic feeling for the past. You can almost hear the net door slam shut after walking into the living room, feel the cocoon texture of the couch as you sink in and taste the cold bottle of Coca-Cola. Aside from the emotions the collection provokes, it also serves as a history lesson about the legends who ruled the music scene in the 70s. 

The techniques that make Adewale’s paintings are years of practice and training under a few respected artists. While Olatoye was the one who advised him on using his hand to portray what he loves, Tope Fatunmbi armed him with the ability to draw faces perfectly – a skill that shows in his ability to duplicate a face on multiple paintings with little to no differences. Adewale’s success is the product of many artists’ nudges and contributions, some whom he has had the pleasure of learning from directly, and others, he has observed from afar. He names Peter Uka, Njideka Akunyili- Crosby, and Amy Sherald as a few of his inspirations. Citing the Nigerianess and mastery of architecture of Uka’s paintings, and the texture of Akunyili-Crosby’s as influences in his work. 

As he has learned from older painters, Adewale wishes to pour the same service into younger artists. He has reached the stage of his career where he has become a teacher, mentoring emerging artists the same way he was mentored. Seated in his studio are 4 emerging painters who take to his word. They speak of his generosity and the impact he has on their development. To them, Adewale is a very hardworking artist who expects and encourages his apprentices to possess the same thirst for greatness. 

The Sakara Maestro collection is the first of Adewale’s ongoing Music Maestro series, in which he plans to portray the legends of other genres like Apala, Juju and Waka. The series is a marriage of his passions and has opened him up to more recognition than he has received previously. With just two years into the collection, Adewale is awed by the change of pace. Now he is fielding requests from art collectors who wish to buy his unfinished pieces of work because they know the result will be astounding, and he is preparing for the next couple of years occupied by depicting his love for traditional Yoruba music.