The location of Ife Olowu’s art studio is a contrast; a secluded tiny street just meters away from the cacophony of Ojuelegba, one of the noisiest neighbourhoods located in Surulere, Lagos. If you are not observant and it is your first time, it is possible to miss the turn even with the help of Google Maps because the street is as unassuming as the artist himself.
It is in this quietness, inside an apartment far removed from the nonstop blaring horns from ‘Danfo’ buses and tricycle riders, the profanity from touts and revenue agency officers chasing down drivers for levies, that Olowu, a Nigerian visual artist creates his magic.
He is the first artist in Nigeria to integrate augmented reality (AR) into a painting. It is also one of the few commercial used cases for AR in the country and in Africa as a whole. One of his AR paintings goes for $10,000 (about N7.5 million at an exchange rate of N756). That is a big jump for an artist who a few years ago could barely convince customers to buy his art at N10,000.
Augmented reality refers to an interactive experience that enhances the real world with computer-generated perceptual information. Using software, apps, and hardware such as AR glasses, augmented reality overlays digital content onto real-life environments and objects. It differs from virtual reality in terms of depth. Virtual reality implies a complete immersion experience that shuts out the physical world. This means that reality or an alternative world is generated graphically.
Standing at about 5 feet 10 tall, Olowu in his lanky frame strikes you as a monk very pious to his reflective times. He speaks softly when ushering you into his world. It is a world where a painting of an itinerant Islamic trader smokes a cigarette, a painting of the Maryland tunnel at Kosofe, Lagos, suddenly awakens with vehicles honking and overtaking one another, and market women in a Balogun market painting begins to call the attention of buyers. All of these are captured using a mobile device and a code on each of the paintings.
Olowu’s journey into visual art began at the age of 10 when he discovered his passion for the craft. He would try to draw everything his eyes pounced on or imaginative mind could whip up.
He was fortunate to be born into a home where his parents could identify the innate gift and supported it early enough. They enrolled him into Yaba College of Technology where he was exposed to experienced art teachers who helped hone his skills. He was also fascinated by the sculptures and art at the school gallery. He will go there every day to feed his eyes. That experience and his unconscious sketching of any animate and inanimate forms have spurred his art to current heights.
“To me, art is the way I feel. What inspires my art are things I see, and things I experience. I had a childhood memory of Maryland. We used to stay at Ikorodu but I schooled at YabaTech. I paint my experiences, the way I feel,” Olowu said with a glint in his eyes. For him, art is also about storytelling. This is so critical that even without AR in his art, his ordinary paintings must tell a story.
His relationship with AR began between late 2019 and 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown period. At the time, his printing press business needed a boost to survive the pandemic. One of the ideas he had was directing customers to his website to print what they needed. It was while researching the idea he stumbled on AR. But rather than infuse AR into his business, he thought it would be better to use it in his art since he was also an artist.
He however knew his barely passable knowledge in computer science wouldn’t suffice. While he got some training in coding, he also needed some collaborators, professionals who code for a living. Hence, he engaged a software engineer and a project manager with the objective of infusing AR into his painting.
It took over two years to finally arrive at a collection that Olowu deemed ready for the market. His debut collection was aptly titled ‘coloured reality’. The artist did not just make the paintings spark with reality, the unique stories they each told coloured their reality.
Olowu sees his augmented reality works as art of the future and he is certainly ahead of his local peers in this thinking.
According to a report on Enhance, there has been an explosion of 3D and AR technologies in the art world, with artists, painters, sculptors, designers, architects, museums, art collectors, and public art initiatives embracing the trend to unlock new forms of self-expression, actively engage with their fans, and markets, and sell online.
As the world of art and technology collide around the world, it is taking a slower pace in Africa. Olowu who says he is 10-15 years ahead of his peers, predicts it is only a matter of time before the local artists catch up.
“The world is changing and integrating art and technology is the future. The gap is just the creativity involved in enhancing your work,” Olowu said.
However, the value placed on artistic work is often influenced by the quality people associate with the artist. Before he discovered AR and catapulted his work to famous platforms, people would prize his art at N10,000. After his ‘Coloured Reality’, Olowu has received invitations to be interviewed on global media platforms like CNN and BBC.
“After I launched, people have been open to attending exhibitions I take part in and want to visit my gallery to see my work in person,” Olowu said. “I’m banking on how people love my work and when they do love the work, they will eventually bring out money to pay for my work.
He has participated in about six joint exhibitions and says he is looking forward to his single exhibition. But he doesn’t want the first time to be in Nigeria or Africa. Olowu wants his first exhibition outside the continent and is willing to put in the effort to make this a reality. It is already paying off. He has a US exhibition planned which could happen before the end of the year.
“In terms of the future of art, others might want to stick to the traditional arts, but I am inquisitive by nature which makes me want to do things differently. When this kind of art becomes normal in 2030 and beyond, people will reference my work as the first of its kind and what inspired them to do the same thing. In the future, just as people found AI art, people will keep evolving in the craft to create more things,” Olowu said.