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Why this artist won’t quit on Lagos

By Kaito Au, CNN

(CNN) — Abdulrahman Adesola Yusuf, the artist also known as Arclight, recalls growing up in a Lagos characterized largely by systemic issues and economic inequality. Despite this, he says the very same city contained boundless optimism. Capturing that contradiction has become his motive and the city, his muse – combining dark thematic undertones with vibrant colors to portray Lagos’ unique identity in his collages.

Yusuf describes his own distinctive style as a mix of surrealism, pop and figurative art. An introspective artist, he also sees his collage work as a version of journaling, albeit one done publicly, and shared in a way that might connect others with similar ideas or experiences. “It creates that kind of open conversation and a community,” he said.

The artist is keen to spark conversation about everything from the upkeep of the city’s infrastructure to the personal freedoms of its millions of citizens, laying prompts within his works.

Wealth, poverty, consumerism, politics and religion ­– nothing is off the table for the young Lagosian. And Yusuf’s paintings and collages, every bit as multi-faceted and restless as the sprawling city he calls home, are creating quite a stir in the art world too, with his works exhibited at ART X Lagos and in several international galleries.

Finding inspiration

Yusuf, 26, was destined to become an artist. In primary school, he drew alongside his peers, developing his own style, kickstarting a passion that would continue into adulthood. “It just kind of stuck with me,” he said.

Becoming a professional artist in Lagos meant going against both familial and societal expectations. Rather than viewing this as disrespecting one’s parents, he instead takes the perspective of persevering to achieve personal goals, and hopefully making them understand during the process. “It’s about doing what you want to do (and) believing in yourself,” he said.

Today, Yusuf finds inspiration through the internet on platforms such as Pinterest, where users can scroll endlessly to find art being promoted by growing artists. He credits one such artist, Cuban-born Magdiel Lopez, as propelling him into collage-making and influencing his heavy use of color to portray Lagos.

Sometimes taking two to three weeks to finish a piece, Yusuf’s multiple-step approach mixes different mediums and is characterized by a keen attention to detail. First taking his own photographs, Yusuf works to digitally manipulate them on his computer. In the final step of his process, he transfers his work onto canvas, bringing all the elements together.

In “ORDER & LAGOS: (come on fly with a broken wing),” Yusuf contrasts a bright blue sky as a backdrop with a Black man sitting with arrows piercing his wings. Using symbolism, much of his art aims to highlight government mismanagement, the stark contrast between lower and upper class, and the hustle and bustle of Lagos, he says. While the exact meaning for Yusuf’s art varies from piece to piece, what remains consistent is how it acts as a reflection of his environment.

Nigeria has grappled with a cost-of-living crisis, fueled recently by a steep rise in fuel prices. The cost of food, transport and other essentials have also risen sharply. Although the government generates a lot of money, not much of it ends up in the hands of the public, contributing to uncertainty in the country, said Yusuf. “That chaos in my work, it shows,” he added.

Despite the challenging circumstances in Lagos and Nigeria as a whole, Yusuf also wants viewers of his art to know that it isn’t just the negative that he hopes to highlight in his city. For positives, he looks to the people of Lagos.

They are going through a lot, Yusuf said, yet “people are really trying to work together to make sure things are better.”

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