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Meet: Tobi Alexandra Falade

Photo of a painting hanging in a room
Photo of a painting hanging in a room
Installation of 'Mirror Me' for The Salon exhibition at The Wing London. Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade
Written by
Eleanor Harvey
Published date
19 February 2021

Tobi Alexandra Falade graduated from BA (Hons) Fine Art course at Wimbledon College of Arts, University of the Arts London (UAL) in 2019 and has spent the last year and a half creating new works, as well as exhibiting and curating.

Born in Nigeria Tobi moved to England aged seven, and is now based in Liverpool and London. Her work explores narratives of being a Nigerian-British woman, and she also uses the term ‘shadow self’ to refer to a version of herself that she imagines has continued living on in Nigeria even after she physically relocated to the UK. She is exploring themes of memory, place and space within her practice by creating large oil paintings made by collaging photographs from family albums.

Tobi is also the co-founder of Platform Black, a creative community which "highlights the work of black creatives and connects with communities of professionals and resources, to transform institutions”.

She spoke to us about her creative process and what she has planned for the future.

Photo of a woman smiling in front of a painting
Image credit: Michelle Leaño

What was your time at Wimbledon like? What were your highlights?

My time at Wimbledon was full of growth for my artistic practice and I feel like I really embarked on a significant journey from the first to the third year of my studies, because prior to University I was using acrylic paint on paper to create really small paintings. At Wimbledon, I started to explore oil painting on large canvases, collaging, and using different methods of printing for the very first time. My time at there was full of growth artistically and these methodologies still inform my practice now.

A highlight of my time at Wimbledon was being selected to be a Student Curator at The Royal Academy of Arts (RA). I applied for an open call from the Arts Student Union which gave students the opportunity to programme a series of peer-led accessible events as part of the RA’s 250th-anniversary celebrations. After 2 rounds of interviews, I was chosen to be one of the 12 Student Curators out of over 330 applicants. During this role, I curated and programmed 2 large scale events including RA Student Night: The Birthday Partythe 250th-anniversary celebration of the RA and Dissections for Mayfair Arts Weekend.

However, the biggest highlight of my time in Wimbledon was starting a community Represent. Being one of only two black students in my year, I felt there was a need to have a more inclusive community and a more diverse group of tutors and lecturers. As a result, I decided to curate and programme a discussion of black women artists sharing their artwork and experiences. These experiences led to me co-founding Platform Black a visual artists community that highlights the work of Black Creatives and connects with communities of professionals and resources, to transform institutions. We have an on-going partnership with Creative Shift, - a UAL team shaping diversity in the creative industries - to programme events that inspire and educate.

Oil painting of a woman holding a baby
Gele Bébé (2019). Oil paint and bar on acetone transfers on canvas, 150 x 120 x 4 cm. Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade

You graduated in 2019, what have you been up to since then?

Just after graduating in 2019, I was awarded the Arts SU Summer Residency at their gallery space at the UAL Holborn campus. I was so happy to have won a studio space just after leaving Wimbledon as I was concerned about keeping up the momentum from my studies. I was also granted £500 to purchase art materials which helped me develop new methods of experimentation such as acetone printing and testing with oil bars. I had a subsequent solo exhibition titled Before Now with the works I created during my residency including 2003/Bright New World and Gele Bébé, a large oil painting featuring acetone transfer imagery from family albums I collaged together.

I was also selected for The Salon, an exhibition at The Wing London, a network of work and community spaces designed for women of all definitions. Here I exhibited my artworks Mirror Me and Be Seen from October 2019 - October 2020.

I also curated the Arts SU annual Black History Month Exhibition titled The State of Things at Copeland Gallery, London. This open call exhibition which is held every October is significant to me as it redresses the lack of representation within the creative industries by giving UAL’s black students and alumni the opportunity to exhibit their works to a wider audience.

Oil painting of two young girls
Be Seen (2018-19). Oil on canvas, 100.5 x 90.5 x 3 cm. Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade

Has what happened throughout 2020 impacted you and your creativity?

I had an amazing start to 2020, in January I was selected for the FBA (Federation of British Artists) Futures 2020 - the UK’s largest annual survey of emerging contemporary figurative art. Here I was also awarded The Hottinger Prize for Excellence, a purchase prize awarded for my painting Between Two Worlds, and bronze sculpture My Other moulded from my face replicating the several Benin bronze works stolen from Nigeria and now exhibited at the British Museum and other Europeans institutions.

The first lockdown in March 2020 was an interesting time for me. I lost my job at a gallery because of the pandemic and had to move back home to Liverpool. However, I felt fortunate to spend more time with family and I even found an opportunity to slow down, rest and find peace amidst a world that felt very unsettled. I built better habits and routines and found small ways to invest in myself consistently by reading and exercising daily.

I also spent significant time developing my creative practice by collaging photographs and sketches of myself and looking at images of my younger self from my old Nigerian passports. This experimentation enabled me to create a work titled 'We Will Come Find You' which was part of a recent group exhibition with Kanbi Projects titled Here, There, Nowhere: Dwelling at the Edge of the World at The Koppel Project Exchange. Within the chaos of 2020 was a strangely good moment to pause and research potential ideas. Having the opportunity to think about my practice and reflect on the works I have made and what I want those future artworks to convey was an interesting journey.

I finally got to go back to London as I won a studio scholarship at the Koppel Project Campus in Holborn from July 2020 - January 2021. Having this dedicated space to make new works was a crucial way for me to explore new ideas. Here I made a large oil painting that shows a seated female figure holding the viewer's gaze.

Photo of two paintings hanging on a wall
A Shadow is a Reflection (2018). Oil on canvas, 40.5 x 43 x 3 cm. Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade

Can you tell us more about your creative practice? Has your work changed from when you started at Wimbledon?

When I arrived at Wimbledon, I wasn’t really sure where my work would go but I felt that I wanted to develop and experiment within my artistic practice so I spent a lot of time at the workshops screen-printing and etching.

During my second year, I went on an Erasmus Exchange to Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain to study Bellas Artes (Fine Arts). Here I studied life drawing and life painting and I believe this really influenced the third and final year of my studies at Wimbledon. I  began to make more figurative works that explored themes of my identity, and narratives of my family’s history in Nigeria and I created oil paintings, screenprints, and sculptures engaging with narratives of modern Black British life and dialogues of African and post-colonial contexts.

It took me three years to build up the courage to explore sculpture on my painting course, and I did this by making a bronze mask of my own face at the metal foundry, something I’d wanted to do since my first year at Wimbledon on a visit to the British Museum where I stumbled into the African Galleries. The experience was truly magical as I saw a lot of life-size bronze masks resembling faces that I felt I recognised because of their Nigerian features such as their high prominent cheekbones, almond eyes and full lips.

Bronze casting certainly fascinated me because the processes were so different from how I usually make work. The cast was made directly from my face so I had little influence on how it would turn out – unlike painting where you have more direct input. It took over a month of daily visits to the foundry to complete the bronze mask titled My Other.

Oil painting of three heads at different angles
We Will Come Find You (2020). Oil on linen, 120 x 100 x 3 cm. Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade

What is your starting point for a new piece? What inspires you?

I typically create artworks through methods of collaging, putting images next to each other from family albums and my own photography, in order to build a narrative. This distinctive manipulation of materials allows me to join worlds together and tell my own story of being a Black British Nigerian woman through my artworks.

Bronze mask of a woman's face
My Other (2019). Bronze 30 x 20 x 10 cm. Coutresy of Tobi Alexandra Falade

Congratulations on recently winning 2 awards; a SPACE Artist Award, and The Very Special Fund by Hennessy in partnership with gal-dem. Can you tell us more about these?

I’m so pleased to announce I’ve been awarded a SPACE Artist Award! Out of 500 applicants, I was awarded one of the £5,000 Awards to support the next stage of my practice. The programme selects talented artists who are under-represented in the art world and supports them with a grant, a group mentoring session with John Akomfrah, and 1-2-1 mentoring with SPACE's Artist Development Team. I’m excited to develop my research and have this support for the next stage of my artistic practice.

I’ve also been awarded The Very Special Fund by Hennessy in partnership with gal-dem. Out of hundreds of applicants, Hennessy along with artist Faith 47 and gal-dem selected me to receive a £1000 grant to support my artist practice. I’m so excited to make new ambitious bodies of work with this grant which was launched for young and emerging artists.

It’s just February and I’m excited to see what the rest of the year holds for me.

Oil painting of a young girl standing at a table
Between Two Worlds (2019). Oil on canvas, 135 x 85 x 4 cm. Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade

What are your hopes for the future? 

I hope to develop my research into themes around identity, memory and place. Additionally, I hope to take a trip to Lagos, Nigeria when we can travel safely again, as I believe this will be an amazing opportunity to address the major themes in my work and finally visit my birthplace since I have not been back to Nigeria since I left the country at 7 years old. I really feel that an opportunity to travel to Nigeria and experience the culture and its vibrant cities, would transform and expand my work and inspire me in brand new ways.

I also want to show my work in more exhibitions around the UK, Africa and Europe as I would like to reach more audiences with my work.

Oil painting of an outdoor scene
Shadow Selves (2017). Oil on canvas on board, 72 x 65 x 3 cm. Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade

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