Demystified: How Khaldun Oluwa Shattered Perceptions With Latest Exhibit
Khaldun Oluwa is the type of artist who defies convention. For starters, he is a master oil painter but not the kind who was classically trained. Instead, Oluwa first learned the art of oil painting from a blind man he met while incarcerated. By all accounts, he is an anomaly that is not supposed to exist in the art world. He does not possess the type of pedigree that facilitates easy access into the bourgeoise circles of art houses and prominent galleries. With a towering six-foot-six inch muscular physique and accompanying six-feet long dreadlocks, Khaldun's physical presence is as disruptive to the status quo as the images he creates. His curriculum vitae reads more like the autobiography of a prodigal son turned revolutionary than that of a painter. Yet, since the year 2000, Oluwa has dedicated his life to mastering the craft of oil painting. Through a prolific body of work that is constantly expanding, Khaldun Oluwa channels his consciousness and imagination to interpret archetypal blackness into portraits of empowered imagery.
Oluwa creates the type of images that challenges the way blackness is often represented in popular culture. Oluwa's works, which are predominately reflexive of a shared African ancestry, are designed to evoke pride amongst black people. Many of the portraits depict images of royalty. Some of the images present ancient and mythical figures with Black origins. Other images serve as social commentary on the condition of Black existence in America. One glance at Oluwa's body of work reveals a bold and impressive catalogue filled with images designed to shatter the negative perceptions that render blackness in weak, inferior, morally deviant, and subjugated forms.
"One of the reasons that Khaldun Oluwa is so influential is due to his ability to force viewers to be self-reflexive in ways that are capable of rupturing the psyche and our realities."
On July 7, 2018, Oluwa debuted a selection of new works in the riveting solo exhibit, The Mystery of Eternity. Recently, I met with the artist to discuss the enthralling art show. The artist opened up to share the inspirations, frustrations, and motivations that influenced the exhibition. The interview, available on the Zanderland Productions new media platform and the Zanderland YouTube channel, gives a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into Oluwa's creative process. The Mystery of Eternity exhibit also featured a experiential digital installation from Zanderland Productions, which included scenes from the forthcoming "Mass Revelation" documentary and the Oluwa interview providing attendees with deeper insight into the exhibit via visual storytelling and social commentary.
In keeping with Oluwa's Eternal Blackness Art signature style and tradition, the artist's most recent exhibit presented dignified images such as "The King of Kings" and "The Queen of Kings," which are presented clad in gold and adorned with elaborate headdresses. Those intimidated by commanding Black figures would be wise to prepare themselves when engaging with Eternal Blackness Art, whereas, others might opt to forgo the experience in favor of more easily digestible works of fluff. I challenge art critics, historians, collectors, and aficionados seeking to invest in emerging artists to find any works more riveting, soul-stiring, and influential than those of Khaldun Oluwa.
Photographs of the artworks are incapable of fully encapsulating the awe-inspiring portraits especially considering some of the richly-hued figures soar above mere mortals with heights approaching nine feet tall painted in oil on canvas and framed in wood. Imagine standing next to a nine foot tall majestic, Supreme being, as an intense direct gaze stares down upon you piercing into the windows of your soul. Oluwa's massive renderings included visions of Black Gods and guardians, as well as, sacred sages and scribes displayed alongside 'ancient-futuristic' royals.
I employ the term 'ancient-futuristic' to describe Oluwa's aesthetic as it incorporates images of Black ancestry with interpretations of afrofuturisms that challenge the linear concepts of time through visual temporal abridgment. The concept of 'ancient-futuristic' is more than a take on Black aesthetics, it is the type of philosophy that envisions the future, present, and past as occurring within a continuum without a beginning or an end. Such ideology disrupts our understanding of how time is experienced and it is visibly present in all of Oluwa's work. Oluwa's signature style and aesthetic connects the experience of blackness within the African diaspora from Kemitic antiquity to modernity and beyond. Oluwa defines and brands the style as "Eternal Blackness Art."
"Oluwa's body of work ranges from aspiration to alarming. It causes the viewer to interrogate everything they believe and everything they have learned especially as it pertains to blackness."
Aside from stimulating visuality, "Guilty of Injustice" and "Come Out of Her My People" provided attendees with scathing socio-political commentary. These provocative images serve as counter narratives exposing the realities of American horrors and hypocrisy, which are shielded through appropriations of patriotic messages, in juxtaposition against the realities of the social ills impacting the lived experience of nationality. "Guilty of Injustice" features an image of Uncle Sam defiling Lady Justice on the American flag. This depiction of Americana and patriotic iconography is utterly disturbing to see and becomes even more disgusting when the viewer is forced to reconcile with the truth of the injustices that have been committed as well as those currently being committed by the nation in the namesake of American sovereignty.
Oluwa's political artworks exemplify the use of art as propaganda and reflect the historical use of Black art as revolutionary practice. Historically, the production of revolutionary art has served a vital function in the Black community often prompting cathartic relief from dire social conditions. As an expression of catharsis, Oluwa created "Come Out of Her My People" in response to the aforementioned "Guilty of Injustice." Oluwa depicts "Come Out of Her My People" as an act of liberation, which he posits as "the only resolution" for people suffering under an oppressive regime. I interpret "Come Out of Her My People" as a representation of the healing process for Black Americans who seek liberation from the anguish of racial subordination, discrimination, and acts of oppression.
Through the use of liberation ideology and revolutionary aesthetics, Oluwa produces counter textual references that form new realities for Black existence. Oluwa's body of work ranges from aspiration to alarming. It causes the viewer to interrogate everything they believe and everything they have learned especially as it pertains to blackness. Khaldun Oluwa is sensational and substantive in ways that many artist are afraid to be. His boisterous voice speaks as boldly as his paintings. He does not mince words or play it safe. He does not seek to appease or assuage. Oluwa does not desire fame. Nor does he seek acceptance into the elite circles of Black artists or the trendy realms of the Atlanta or national art scenes. Oluwa is comfortable being on the periphery but he is not obscure. Khaldun Oluwa may not be a household name, as of yet, but his style is so distinctive and influential that it can be seen in the works of many of his peers. I have witnessed artists enter Oluwa's Eternal Blackness Art studio as abstractionist and leave transformed into afrocentrist.
One of the reasons that Khaldun Oluwa is so influential is due to his ability to force viewers to be self-reflexive in ways that are capable of rupturing the psyche and our realities. Many artists avoid such provocation for fear of the risk of alienating some audiences. People do not like to have their identities or realities challenged. Oluwa does not seek to alienate but he also does not fear dissent. Oluwa is persuasive and welcomes discourse as he challenges viewers to engage with his representations of truth.
Oluwa is the type of artist who performs the work of cultural production. Cultural production is created to move, evoke, inspire, persuade, and challenge. Oluwa's works remind audiences of the importance of cultural production in representing the lived experience. We are reminded that liking artistic works is less important than the conversations they force us to have, first with ourselves and then with each other.
"Oluwa understands the power of visual representation and uses it to convey what many are incapable of conceiving."
Engaging with forms of Black cultural production like those of Eternal Blackness Art provides the subject matter that supports life-long journeys of introspection and self-excavation. Said cultural production has supplied material that inspires my creative expression, expands my consciousness, deepens my critical engagement, promotes empathy, and enriches my life. This type of cultural production allows us to better understand our place in the world and helps us create understanding through a sense of shared experiences and connectedness.
Just as fate had seemingly connected Oluwa with Jesse Owens, his blind mentor, it had seemingly orchestrated our connection. I first encountered Khaldun as I was walking through my eclectic and gentrifying intown Atlanta neighborhood with my curmudgeonly Shih Tzu in tow. I began to frequently pass by the long, lock-wearing man as I strolled through the neighborhood. Khaldun's commanding presence, which may be intimidating to some at first glance, is softened by a warm smile. We would greet each other in passing with the customary Black folk greeting, the ubiquitous head nod and a smile. We even began exchanging Black folk terms of endearment, "hey brotha, how you doing!" and "hey sista, what's good!" Always friendly. Always brief. As time would pass our conversations would evolve. He would compliment my sneakers. I would make wise cracks about his vintage and rusted Ford truck, affectionately known as Betsy, which he always seemed to be tinkering with instead of driving. All of that would change on July 6, 2016, the day our collective consciousness was shook by the news of Philando Castille's murder, which followed the news of Alton Sterling's murder the day prior. I felt like I was in a nightmarish rendition of Groundhog's Day except I wasn't Bill Murray and the horror was real.
We are experiencing the terrorization of Black bodies on instant replay. Suffering from a case of PTSD, I was in need of a reprieve and healing. The day called for catharsis. The day called spiritual connection and camaraderie, the kind you can only get from commiserating with your people. The day called for all the intangible things black cultural production provides for black people, but I did not know how to articulate it in that moment. Instead, I grabbed a six pack of beer, my wife, and our sometimes-social Shih Tzu and headed down the street to spread love and bond with my neighbors. Upon arrival, we found Khaldun and his wife, Michelle, sitting on their porch. We greeted each other and made our formal introductions. Until that moment, we had never actually met and we didn't even know each other's names but on that day we became friends. I learned that Khaldun was an artist and he learned that I was a filmmaker. He invited me into his studio to see his work and the images held me captive.
"Khaldun's generosity is rare and one of his most endearing characteristics. Everything Oluwa does is because of a profound sense of love for community and family."
At the time, Khaldun was working on a painting entitled "The Justification," which featured the image of a statuesque Black woman. She wore a glorious crown in the form of a beautiful afro, the kind that would make Angela Davis proud. She stood tall and defiantly hoisting her left arm with a powerfully clinched fist raised towards the heavens signifying the call for black people to rise, unify, and fight. In her right hand, she gripped an automatic weapon. Her eyes spoke to me. What is the justification for state-sanctioned violence? How are we going to defend the fragility of Black lives against White terror? Without having uttered a word regarding how I was feeling that day, the painting articulated my feelings. The art spoke for me and to me. I left that evening with a fire ragging inside of me. I was inspired. I returned two weeks later with a small crew and shot a short documentary, featuring Khaldun Oluwa, entitled Art: Unmuted. The film centered on the artist, his works, the power of art as a universal language, and its revolutionary use in the struggle for Black liberation. Fast forward two years later, we have worked on several projects together, including five art exhibits, an experiential feature-length documentary, and we have become more than creative colleagues. We have developed a deep and resounding respect and appreciation for one another that fuels our collaborative relationship, which is enriched by our shared commitment to community.
Everything Oluwa does is because of a profound sense of love for community and family. Khaldun's generosity is rare and one of his most endearing characteristics. He opens space for others to develop their talents and grow with him. When Oluwa isn't painting or building canvases, he eagerly shares his knowledge of the craft and carpentry with young artists just starting their careers. He also mentors young Black men warning them of the traps and pitfalls that have led so many into the vortex of the prison industrial complex, which is unforgiving and virtually impossible to escape from after one has been sucked into it. Oluwa shares the type of messages that, admittedly, he was reluctant to heed as a youth. However, Oluwa uses his platform and artistic talents to stimulate consciousness through visual imagery, which communicates in ways that spoken word cannot.
Through the power of visuality one can see the inconceivable and, thereby, create in ways greater than originally perceived. Visual mediums such as painting, photography, and film provide the ability to both imagine and create new identities and experiences capable of defying the limitations that society places on marginalized and oppressed lives. Cultural production endows us with power to represent our experiences and ourselves with authenticity and veracity. Black cultural production legitimizes our collective experiences as well as our rights to express them through our own voices. I am a firm believer that we should support the artist community that is performing this necessary work and we must nurture, celebrate, and preserve the work itself. Artists and cultural producers, like Khaldun Oluwa, are needed now more than ever as our society demystifies truth from fiction while navigating through this post-truth, alt-fact, world of illusion. Now is the time for us to seek them out, promote them, and support them at all cost and by any means necessary.