Oluwakemi Odusanya

photos by RAINEY ZIMMERMANN & GARY CHIEN
STORY by KATHERINE CHAVEZ

Oluwakemi spreads a long, loose piece of canvas out in front of me. It fills the entire floor of her single, so we stand over the work to observe. A woman fills the left side, her eyes downcast, left arm stretched out diagonally, separate from her body. Visible brushstrokes on the figure’s skirt elude to movement. She dances.

This is a self-portrait by Oluwakemi Odusanya, who goes by Kemi. She captures herself involved in one of her artistic passions: dance. In fact, Kemi, a Brown junior and computer science concentrator, has made an active effort to take either an art class or a dance class every semester to balance out her busy, tech-heavy schedule. She enjoys the combination of satisfaction in product (the completion of a CS project) and satisfaction in process (the creation of a painting).

However, Kemi’s art practice predates her interest in computer science. She fell in love with painting while in high school in Lagos, Nigeria, where she grew up. When she took her first art class, she claims her motivation came from an initial struggle with painting. It was difficult, which only led her to devote more time and improve, and to appreciate the freedom of expression nurtured by her art teacher. She remembers, “I just enjoyed going after school to the studio and trying to paint and make things make sense.”

“I just enjoyed going after school to the studio and trying to paint and make things make sense.”
Art has become a way for her to work through her personal questioning of western, and globally pervasive, beauty standards as a Black woman, and an African woman, in the United States.

Kemi describes her early work as surrealist, in which she questions nature and the natural environment around her. In comparison to her more recent work, she explains that it was much more subtle. When Kemi travelled to the United States and moved to Brown, her chosen subject matter began to change, for she found new feelings and concerns that she had not experienced back home. The move affected the way she thought about her life, and exposed her to new understandings of colonialism, particularly related to modern beauty standards and their effects on Black women.

While in Nigeria, Kemi recalls that beauty standards were not something she regularly thought about. Before coming to Brown and within her first two years here, she went through many transitions with her hair. Hair straightening using chemicals is a standard practice where Kemi grew up, and it wasn’t until the fairly recent past that she started to question this and began exploring natural styles with her own hair. These memories and experiences are preserved and investigated in the series of works she’s been creating the past 1 or 2 years. Art has become a way for her to work through her personal questioning of western, and globally pervasive, beauty standards as a Black woman, and an African woman, in the United States.

Because women are the subject of the majority of her recent works, she often faces the question, “Is this feminist?” She claims she doesn’t really think about it in this frame of mind. To put it simply, she says she paints what she paints because, “Women’s bodies are a very nice thing to draw.”

For Kemi, her work really comes down to her emotions and thoughts in the moment. She doesn’t extensively plan what she’s going to create, but begins a work with a loose plan that she allows herself to change over time. She loves the textures and layering she can create with oil paint, and most often works with a mix of chalk pastel and either oil or acrylic on canvas or paper. Her work is an expression of what she’s feeling subconsciously, usually assisted by some good wine and her favorite tunes (recently her go-to music for art-making has been Nina Simone).

In channeling her emotions into her work, Kemi often finds herself unintentionally using similar color schemes and never feeling finished with a work of art. This makes taking art classes at Brown a bit frustrating, since deadlines are an integral part of the class schedule. In taking classes with more artistic structures and standards than she had previously experienced, the inspiration Kemi finds in the work of Nigerian painters became even more important. The fluidity of their work and the general lack of defined criteria have always been of interest to Kemi. As a whole, her African heritage has been a major inspiration for her visual art and work in dance, and continuing her art practice has been a way to stay connected to the place she calls home.  With Kemi’s artwork, “It’s never finished until the feeling is finished.” And feelings can persist for a long, long time.