Ugandan poet and writer Gloria Kiconco explores his work in this biographical photo essay that’s based on a series of online Kampala to Lagos conversations she had with the artist.
Photo captions from Adeolu Osibodu
In this black and white image, a man is screaming. It seems he emerges from a pitch-black background. His mouth is stretched open, his eyes are clenched tight, and there’s a slight disfigurement to his upper lip. The image is Home Made Scars, a self-portrait that Adeolu Osibodu took after a skateboarding accident. The photo, taken on his phone, is an imprint of the pain of the accident, the recovery process and the blemishes left in the aftermath. Three years ago, when Osibodu posted the image on Flickr, it gained a lot of attention and was eventually used as the platform’s homepage background. This was the photo that marked the beginning of his career as a photographer.
‘My accident as a whole was a redefining moment,’ Osibodu said during a phone interview in May this year. The accident happened in 2016, the week he was supposed to take his third year university exams. He was skate-boarding downhill until he wasn’t. Along the way he fell and lost consciousness. When he woke up, he was in a car on the way to the hospital with a broken leg. After surgery, Osibodu needed five months to recover. With the days stretching out ahead of him, he turned inwards, meditating on the future and on what he wanted for himself. It was during this period that he shot Home Made Scars, screaming as he took the picture and trying to express exactly what he felt about the scar that marred his face. ‘I think it was a truth,’ he explained. ‘Those feelings I was going through back then, I wasn’t faking them.’
This brush with death gave Osibodu the determination to make every future moment count. He made up his mind to be a photographer and to bring to life many of the images he’d been dreaming up. The reception of Home Made Scars was reassurance that he was on the right path.
A year later, when Osibodu took the image Home II, he had a camera and was living the life he had dreamt about during the long months in recovery. In this image, a lone figure stands illuminated by a halo of light in the centre of an expansive field. The composition and lighting, which give the figure a feeling of destiny, present a strong juxtaposition to the claustrophobic darkness of Home Made Scars. When Osibodu described the period in which he shot Home II, he said ‘I had to create so much to satisfy my urge which had literally been paralysed for months.’ The possibilities were as vast as that spotlighted field.
By 2017 Osibodu was a prolific photographer. This was the year that he shot his award-winning series Losing Amos, in which he took self-portraits wearing his late grandfather’s clothes. In Losing Amos IV: Burial of an In-law he is wearing the Aso-Oke attire his grandfather wore in 1992 to attend the burial of an in-law. Osibodu leaps barefoot from the drying grass on a bright day and the vibrant green and gold fabric billows in the wind. The image elicits a light-heartedness not usually associated with the passing of a loved one. The photo won the portrait category in the 2017 EyeEm Awards – one of seven winning images selected from just over half a million submissions.
The award, like Osibodu’s accident, marked a defining moment in his career, but in retrospect, he had been building towards this, from the days when he was taking pictures on a 2015 Android phone. In one of his earlier images, Home, a figure in black stands on a gravel-covered lot facing out towards a hazy scene. The figure’s head is replaced by trails of black smoke pouring from the neck.
It’s the atmosphere of space and emptiness that draws Osibodu to locations, such as the one for Home II. He grew up close to open fields, which were near Redemption Camp, a church that his parents – both pastors – attended. This religious upbringing influenced his photography as much as the open fields of his childhood. The images Dear Father II and In the Hands of Men hold theological symbolism. ‘There is something about the church or religion that fascinates me. It’s the drama and theatrics attached to it,’ he said. The performative elements of the church lie outside the mundane activities of the everyday and if there is one thing Osibodu’s images escape, it’s the mundane. His work constantly brushes up against the surreal and the supernatural.
Less concerned with technique and structure, Osibodu prefers to work with what draws his attention. One of his acute fascinations is hands, which are the compositional focus of both Dear Father II and In the Hands of Men. ‘We are our hands because they really represent us’ he says. ‘I could see a picture of someone’s hands and so much of the person will be in them.’ Seen again in My Dear Valentine, it’s the hand and flower, both in mid-motion that perhaps represent discarded dreams.
Another strong emotional connection to Osibodu’s work is his colour palette. He works in high contrast black and white, in sombre muted hues, or warm, soft browns. Ezra is an intimate portrait taken as an extreme close up. Tender, warm light falls over the subject’s face. It looks as though he’s in the midst of a spiritual experience. A rebirth. Osibodu interprets colours as feelings and shoots or creates the kind of light that feels right to him. As he explained it, ‘these colours make me feel safe in a way. They make me feel at home. Comfortable.’
His subjects are also people with whom he has a strong connection. ‘I think it all happens with the relationship I have with the person; just the feeling in the air when we’re together. I really like to work with people I know already,’ and Tosin, a portrait of his sister, is a visual case in point.
The surreal is something that Osibodu likes to portray in his work. Saggios by the Door therefore holds representations of multiple selves. When creating these kinds of images, Osibodu has the power to control the photo, to take it apart and put it together again, creating visuals that sit slightly outside of their current boundaries.
Osibodu’s recent photography work will be exhibited as part of the Lagos Photo Festival in November. This will be his first showcase in Nigeria.