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Art Report Prize Winner: Exploring Self-identity with Kaleef Lawal

Upon moving to Berlin, Kaleef Lawal had a spiral of thought about his self-identity and culture. Balancing the adaptation to a new environment alongside myriads of emotional triggers that reminded him of his African descent, he reflected on some awakening questions. “Who am I? What am I doing here? Where do I belong? Most importantly, what are the things that I can share with others?" Kaleef admits.

His answer, initially a hesitant ‘Nigerian,’ felt incomplete. He continued, "When asked where I am from, or what connects me to my cultural or traditional identity, I didn’t know what to say. I just say I am Nigerian. But that is never enough. There were so many things that tied me back to my traditional and cultural beliefs or identities.”  These ruminations would later influence his artistic introspection and practices. 

Fingerprint picture - Kaleef Lawal, ika titẹ , Fingerprint, Amsterdam, 2022
Fingerprint picture - Kaleef Lawal, ika titẹ , Fingerprint, Amsterdam, 2022

Far from being assertive, as a photographer and visual storyteller, Kaleef Lawal’s motivation is to make a legacy through shared identity and the commemoration of the 'Nigerianism' philosophy - where he is able to preserve and promote Nigerian heritage and traditions in a global context without compromise; and to foster that sense of belonging and solidarity through his art. Here is what he had to say...

Tell us about your creative introspection as an African artist and What inspired you to become one (an artist).

My life was on a different path before I became an artist. I did not believe I had the flair for art at first. I had studied sciences and worked as a microbiologist, but I realized that it was not for me. I woke up one day and decided to focus more on photography. Along the way, I discovered different photographers and painters, and I was inspired by many different artists, from Salvador Dalí to Robert Frank. I saw different things, different work, different interpretations. I wondered what I could learn from these people, whom I encountered through books, videos, galleries, or in person.

As a Nigerian artist, I am constantly reminded of my detachment from my culture and tradition sepciially because I did not grow up with it in mind and I do not speak my language. I used to feel ashamed of that, but then I realized it was not my fault. Why should I put pressure on myself? It was the responsibility of those who raised me.

 INreverence_the prayer_ picture - Kaleef Lawal, IN Reverence, The prayer, Amsterdam, 2022
INreverence_the prayer_ picture - Kaleef Lawal, IN Reverence, The prayer, Amsterdam, 2022

Nevertheless, this reality was one of the things that pushed me into creating artistic photography. I started looking into traditional and cultural beliefs and practices that our ancestors followed. It was important to highlight Yoruba deities using face paints and masks to normalise the cultural traditions that they represent.

What art/artists do you believe changed your life and put you on the path to becoming a full-time studio artist?

That would be the work by visual artist Yasser Claud-Ennin. He was the one artist whose art inspired me the most.

His work gave me a shift, a very interesting pivot because I liked how he did not compromise his identity to cater to the art community. He brought in his Ghanaian heritage, his Nigerian culture, and his own perspective to create this beautiful body of work. You can see it in his unique canvas, the materials, the colours, and everything. That was what pushed me to do more, to explore myself, my tradition, my culture, and the objects and things that connect me to my cultural and traditional identity.

So I would say, Yasser Claud-Ennin's artwork gave me a huge nudge.

If you could pick a photographer and/or an artwork that inspires you personally or professionally, who would it be ?

I would say Erwin Olaf’s series called Chessman. His style was so shocking and challenging that it stayed in my mind. I wondered how someone could be so bold and daring. He made me question what I was seeing. His work was not only visually striking, but also socially relevant. He addressed issues like power, exploitation, and oppression. He wanted to expose how people can be used and abused by those who have more influence and authority. That was what fascinated me about his work.

What would be your advice to emerging artists who are having a hard time choosing what art form to explore?

I would say they should experiment with different forms of art. For example, I was never into painting. It was not my thing at all. But then I wondered, as a photographer, what other forms of art could I explore, that were not related to what I was doing? That was how I started developing an interest in painters, paintings, and also indulged in music. So I would say they should try new things and see what art form truly resonates with them.



Kaleef Lawal is a Nigerian photographer and visual storyteller whose creative process is rooted in extensive research, continuous learning, and a deep understanding of his roots, tribe, and tradition. This foundation has shaped and fueled his current exploration, which involves delving into traditional face paint designs, masks, and other culturally significant objects to engage with social issues, pay tribute to customary deities, and celebrate the essence of his Yoruba culture and Nigerian heritage at large.


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