Barry Yusufu: The King Makers
When I first came across Barry Yusufu’s stunning work, what struck me first was the sheer strength and confidence that radiated through the charcoal and acrylic of his female muses. There was an unmistakable power and self-assuredness in the eyes of his sitter, that even if you did not immediately notice, you most certainly felt.
Why did this female aura and strong presence strike me as profound in Barry’s work?
Quite simply, because I was keenly aware of the context of the paintings, which were made by a young Nigerian male artist, who lives and works in a society that is engulfed by, and prides itself on patriarchy and the rule of men.
However, surprisingly, pleasantly, I might add; in Barry portrays women as the wielders of power and control, Kingship personified, and conversely, men are depicted as vulnerable, intimate and dare I say, even docile?
With this in mind, I was keen on exploring more about Barry’s work, his inspirations and journey as an artist to date. This way, I could begin to unpack his breathtaking work, and how a young, contemporary Nigerian artist came to be a champion of women and the type of feminist that Chimamanda Ngozie has called for men to be.
1. How long have you been painting, and at what point did you consider yourself a professional artist?
I have been creating since November 2017. I started from a sketch I made of a friend, and on seeing the reaction on her face after I handed the sketch to her, I believed there was more to art than just drawing.
At that point, I was basically drawing friends and family members; and the next month, I began taking commissions to draw. By January 2018, the next year, I made my first personal piece. I began to call myself a professional artist when I got into my first exhibition the following year.
2. Tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born and raised, and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Nasarawa State, Nigeria, where I grew up with my mother, stepdad, stepbrothers and sisters.
3. Where do you currently live and work?
I currently live and work in New Karu, Abuja, Nigeria.
4. Your work today pays homage to your African heritage and exalting dark-skinned muses, particularly women. Why was it important for you to depict women in this fashion?
While growing up, I watched my mum raise me with all her being. Even though she was married to my stepdad, she was literally the only one looking out for me. I saw my mother as my hero, and her struggles and how she overcame them made me realize that women were gods. My mum taught me almost everything I knew and provided me with everything I asked for. Money was an issue for my family while growing up, but my mother broke herself to provide for us. That's why today I exalt women with my art. I also grew up to have so much respect for women because of how my mum raised me.
I'm an African man, I love my skin, my people and the drive my race has for survival.
5. Additionally, your work also captures your male muses in a more vulnerable and fragile light, which tends to run contrary to the aged old notion of Black men being strong, aloof and impervious, especially across many African cultures. What inspired this?
I don't portray the physical strength of men in my art. No, I believe the world already knows men are physically stronger than women. I try to amplify the strengths of women. Women are literally the backbone of this planet. They raised kings, legends and many great men, and yet they're not celebrated. I am not talking about equality here, I'm talking about the important role women play in society and that without them it would be incomplete. A man, no matter how strong he is, would need the support of a woman.
6. I note with fascination that some of your pieces appear to reference writing and designs such as Nsibidi, whilst also referencing Christian iconography and motifs. How do you reconcile ancient Nigerian traditions in your work with Christianity?
I was brought up a Christian, and I have always loved African art and culture. My use of motifs is a result of my African background and I love creating patterns.
7. As an artist of African descent, what are your views on the surge of interest in modern and contemporary African art?
Modern and contemporary African art has gained its value because of the many relentless African artists that stood the test of time and were consistent. I personally feel there's still a lot to be discovered.
8. As the global art world has been impacted by Covid-19, how has the lockdown impacted your art?
The world is on a pause now, I believe, and I personally have been able to find myself more during this period. With a lot of pain in the world currently, one can only create his strongest works this period.
9. What is next for you as an artist, and what can we expect in the future?
There are a lot of projects I have planned. I have plans on working on my first solo show, hopefully in early 2021.