Olatunji Sanusi has always been creative. From his days spent crafting superhero belts and small boats out of paper as a boy in Nigeria, to afternoons spent quietly sketching away outside the Union Buildings for Pretoria’s tourists, creativity has always occupied a place in his life. Now, with his third solo show set to open in Cape Town this month, he’s more confident than ever that pursuing a career as an artist was the right choice.
It’s midweek in downtown Johannesburg and Olatunji Sanusi is hard at work. His studio, situated on the third floor of the big and bustling August House building, is filled with pieces of paper. Stacks of magazines rest against the skirting boards while the floor has long disappeared beneath a carpet of multi-coloured pieces of paper. Lining the walls of the studio are the artists’ works, part paint, part collage, and all in full colour.
‘I don’t think I go a day without pasting paper onto canvas,’ says Sanusi as he works on a large-scale canvas. ‘Even on the weekends, if it’s just for 5 or 10 minutes, I’ll be working with paper.’
With a new solo exhibition opening at the V&A Waterfront’s Art @ Africa Clocktower gallery, Sanusi is busy adding the finishing touches to a new body of work. Comprising a series of collage portraits on large-scale canvases, African Allures will look at combined African heritages using prominent musicians, artists and cultural icons from the continent. Sanusi explains how a conversation with the internationally-renowned artist Esther Mahlangu inspired much of the new body of work.
‘Esther Mahlangu incorporates the Ndebele heritage and culture into all that she does,’ he explains. ‘When I met with her, she urged me to embrace my own heritage more and that impacted me quite a lot.’
African Allures will feature three portraits of Mahlangu, all portraying her wearing a doek, something Sanusi is borrowing from Yoruba culture and working into all the pieces.
‘[Mahlangu] doesn’t wear a doek,’ says Sanusi. ‘The doek is something I thought of as a symbol of Nigeria. I remember all the women in my life wearing it and I think it’s the perfect symbol.’
Things are looking good for the artist. Working at August House sees him doing what he loves every day for a living, and the galleries are beginning to take note of his talent. ‘This is the dream,’ says Sanusi as he tears another strip of bright blue paper from a magazine. ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do.’
Getting to this point has been a long journey for the artist. After finishing his studies, Sanusi began work at a small studio of his own in Nigeria and producing what he calls ‘functional art’ – basic painted works and fabrics produced to be sold off quickly.
‘It was good for a while, but I knew I needed to travel and to see other parts of Africa,’ he explains.
October of 2009 saw Sanusi officially make the move from Nigeria to South Africa, where he began looking for work and experience in Pretoria.
‘I would work as an artist out of my flat in Pretoria, but I’d always go down to look for more work in town and I used to sometimes sit and sketch outside of the Union Buildings,’ he recalls. ‘One day, a woman from France saw what I was working on and asked to buy it. I was just doing it for fun and I didn’t even think of selling the works. The next day, another guy from Europe walked by and asked me the same thing.’
It wasn’t long before he was approached by someone to host his own solo exhibition at Pretoria’s American Embassy. From there, he went on to host his second exhibition Save Water in Cape Town, and in November 2016, he joined August House.
Another highlight throughout his journey as a writer was having two works featured in RMB’s personal collection after Carolynne Waterhouse paid his studio a visit.
‘There was an event here in the building and Carolynne stopped by my studio,’ explains Sanusi. ‘She loved my work, and later came back with RMB’s curator. It’s a huge privilege for me, I’m humbled. Having work in a collection like that can give you the courage and motivation to keep on doing what you do, even when you feel like you can’t.’
Before he says goodbye and returns to his work, Sanusi points to a box filled with magazines. ‘Those are actually all Creative Feel magazines that I was given by RMB,’ he says. ‘Those will keep me going for years!’