Obi Agwam is a name you should by now be familiar with, especially if you’ve been a long time follower of this magazine. If you’re not familiar with the name, maybe you’ve seen his work online, colorful masterpieces displaying vignettes of a personal, black American experience. I recently got the opportunity to go to the opening of his first gallery exhibition, Sweet Lies From Lonely Stars to view the emotional and extraordinary work he’s created in 2023. Stars, tears, wings, flames, and halos adorn the figures of Obi’s paintings to personify pain, longing, achievement, and loss in ways more unfamiliar to the average viewer.
When I walked into Harawik gallery in Lower Manhattan is was first drawn in by the size of the pieces. Many of them were as wide as my wingspan and sat on the wall higher than me, giving a feel of them being larger than life. What I really love about Obi’s work is the imaginative nature of the compositions and their subjects. Tied in with bright vibrant colors from the oil paints used, each painting is dreamlike in appearance, like a Ghibli or Disney movie.
There’s a lot of attention to detail in the works too. These add to the cohesiveness of each narrative that is portrayed in a piece. Wispy brush strokes used to portray motion, as well as slight gradients applied to the fabrics, metals and lights create a convincing and striking visual story. Obi had told me that each piece started as a journal entry, and I think each piece has a lot to pull from it; assumptions to be made about what story they’re telling or what feelings the artist had when creating the pieces. One of the main things I think is on display with this body of work is definitely the artistic prowess that Obi Agwam has built throughout the years. Not only in skill and technique but honing in on a style, motifs, and a unique look that defines his work.
I got the chance to pick Obi Agwam’s brain and get an inside scoop about what this exhibition is and how it came about.
20XX: What did you want to show gallery visitors with this current body of work?
Obi Agwam: I want this show to be the best summary of my practice so far. I haven't been painting for that long of a time, but in the brief time spent I’ve learned a lot. Challenging ideas of black portraiture was also another priority. They are ways to depict black stories aside from the literal and that's where my artwork lies. I think about painting how the black experience feels rather than it looks. I hope that people can have their own interpretations of the artwork. Bottom line, I want visitors to leave remembering at least one of the works.
20XX: Why did you title this exhibition "Sweet Lies From Lonely Stars"?
Obi Agwam: The Sweet Lies and Lonely Stars title came about from the nature of the portraits. Firstly the ‘sweet lies’ has to do with the exaggeration of the characters in each painting. Proportions are off, features are exaggerated and colors become unnatural, all intentionally for the sake of creating an interesting image. Some of the actions the characters do or the backgrounds they inhabit are not real places, to me that's the sweet lies. Similar to a song exaggerating events into lyrics to make the listener feel something, I strive to do that with my artwork. The ‘lonely star’ part of the title has to do the major themes of isolation in most of the paintings. With most of the artwork in the show I depict one character by themselves, even when there are multiple subjects, it'll all be the same person.
20XX: When I visited the gallery, you told me that each piece really started as a journal entry. How important is storytelling in your work and how do you achieve that?
Obi Agwam: Storytelling is the basis of my entire artistic practice. Finding a creative way to achieve collective empathy when viewing my works is the goal for these paintings. It started because I wanted to learn how to make my artwork more personal. Once I have a theme or subject that makes sense I pull from my own visual library to create a composition that’s visually engaging. This visual library is based on my knowledge of fine art and animation iconography. Specific symbols and colors have specific meanings, I take what's relevant to achieve whatever emotion is priority, similar to how a movie director would choose the right shot for a scene.
20XX: Were there any troubles or challenges you encountered creating any of these pieces?
Obi Agwam: Not many difficulties, the only slow part of the process is the initial sketch for the artworks. Sometimes a composition takes 10-20 drawings to get to a stage where it feels right. Once the drawing is complete most of the artwork comes together easily.
20XX: What's one thing you love about oil paint as a medium?
Obi Agwam: What I enjoy the most from oil paint is the vibrancy of the color. Colors pop in a way unlike any other painting medium in my opinion. For me color choice is a large foundation for my paintings so choosing a medium that can show my choices the best is important.
20XX:What type of work are you looking to make in 2024 on the heels of Sweet Lies From Lonely Stars?
Obi Agwam: I'm looking forward to exploring art mediums beyond painting. Currently interested in sculpture and how it can be applied to the practice I have now.
Sweet Lies From Lonely Stars is on view until February 11th at Harawik gallery in Manhattan. Definitely go check out this amazing work from a talented New York artist.