Something from Nothing: The Other Face of African Art


For many, the term African art conjures up images of deftly carved wooden sculptures and masks with intricate patterns, heavily beaded royal attire or elegant, brightly colored textiles. At Minneapolis Gallery 13, through John Olympio’s canvass paintings, we are introduced to a different side of African art.

Anyone looking for an obvious insight into African culture may be baffled by his work as the only recognizable images are the outline of a bull and some stick figures. The recurring painting titles: The Force, The Spirit and History don’t tell much either. Yet within this abstract form of artwork lies the nature of an African footprint.

Olympio has been an artist all his life and explains that his work just comes to him. Like many African artists, he places more importance on his work, which he explains is a message from his ancestors rather than on himself, the intermediary between the visible and invisible.

"When I paint I don’t think – it’s like a dream and you can’t plan what you dream," he explains. To keep the connection with the spirits of his home land, he works only with pigment from his native country, Togo.

He comments, "The pigments communicate well with me and are from the earth."

The exhibit ‘Something from Nothing’, which Olympio initially named ‘Everything and Nothing’, reflects on one of his life philosophies.

"Being a president and having power can be everything, but at the same time mean nothing," he muses. Perhaps it is for this reason that he gives life to an old neglected  purse that had been thrown away by using it for his piece, "My grandfather’s pouch". By the same token he observes that his art work, which means everything to him, may evoke different moods in the observer ranging from joy and happiness to nothing at all.

Because his work is spiritual, Olympio does not really look to any other artists for inspiration in terms of technique. He does, however, admit to admiring artists who work from their soul for expression. He names Jean-Michel Basquiat, the New York graffiti artist turned neo-expressionist as one such artist who Olympio considers an ‘artist-painter’ as opposed to just a painter. In the same way Olympio expresses admiration and respect for legendary reggae musician Bob Marley, whom he refers to as an ‘artist-singer’.

Steve Sugarman, gallery 13’s owner met Olympio about a year ago when he and a friend walked into the gallery and they immediately formed a friendship, which later turned into a partnership.

The difference in art representation in Africa as compared to Western cultures has made some interesting conversation. For example Olympio was initially opposed to the idea of extending the exhibit beyond the April 7th deadline to April 27th and was
eager to take his work back home, as is common with spiritual African art that is kept in the owner’s compound. Nonetheless, Sugarman was able to convince him to extend the exhibit.

"Something from Nothing," is a worthwhile experience for those new to African art and the old timers too. Find out what the message is in store for you before it comes to a close on April 27th.

Visit Gallery 13 for more information.


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