Bidemi Oloyede I Am Hu(e)Man

    Bidemi Oloyede, Lexson Millington, 2020. © Bidemi Oloyede. Courtesy of the artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery
Bidemi Oloyede, Lexson Millington, 2020. © Bidemi Oloyede. Courtesy of the artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery

Over the last decade, Nigerian-born photographer Bidemi Oloyede has made Toronto his home and the primary source for his series of nuanced portraits depicting members of the Black community. Three recent works, presented as large-scale banners on the façade of the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives (PAMA), focus on the Black male subject. Strong, vibrant, and inimitable, these men are immortalized at a massive scale.

Au cours de la dernière décennie, le photographe d’origine nigériane Bidemi Oloyede a fait de Toronto son foyer et le principal lieu de création de sa série de portraits tout en nuances représentant des membres de la communauté noire. Trois œuvres récentes, présentées sous forme de bannières à grande échelle sur la façade de la Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives (PAMA), se concentrent sur le sujet masculin noir. Forts, vivants et inimitables, ces hommes sont immortalisés à très grande échelle.

Shaquone, Lexson, and Ugonna, pictured at PAMA, are ordinary young Black men who are friends or acquaintances of the artist, and are just a few of the participants in Oloyede’s broader portraiture project. When his subjects arrive for their photo session, the artist tasks them with only one rule: to stay true to themselves. Each is asked to consider what he wishes to communicate through his image and what he wants to express through his chosen pose, attire, and accessories.

Purposefully embracing a traditional style of photography, Oloyede uses a large-format film camera, which requires substantial preparation, technical knowledge, and care to produce just one negative. Using this medium, he connects his images to the past, to a time when Black subjects were rarely recorded in photographs, except in contrived images that portrayed them as one-dimensional and generic, with the express intention of situating them as inferior to white subjects and as lacking in depth and character. Through his intentional act of picture taking, Oloyede reclaims the Black subject and affirms their participation in the world. The tonality of his photographs recalls historical documentary-style photography, thereby suggesting that these images are intended as archival records.

In undertaking this project, Oloyede not only allows his subjects to control their own narratives, but also to be portrayed as unique people, each expressing a personal sense of self over which they have full autonomy. Instead of photographing them in the studio, Oloyede captures his subjects outdoors, in verdant landscapes reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Using daylight, he composes his images so that these natural backgrounds become soft and blurred, while the bodies and faces of his subjects are in sharp focus. Centrally positioned and shown from the waist-up, these men adopt powerful stances and never betray a smile, only a sternness in their eyes as they stare back at the viewer, demanding recognition, respect, and acceptance. Each image is a testament to a singular presence in a community of people that make up the pulse of the city.

Curated by Sharona Adamowicz-Clements

Organized by the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives in partnership with CONTACT. Part of ArtworxTO: Toronto's Year of Public Art 2021–2022

Bidemi Oloyede was born in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria, and has called Toronto home since 2012. He graduated from OCAD University in 2019 with a BFA in photography. Also in 2019, he received the Verant Richard Award for his accomplishment in photography. Oloyede’s work focuses on the Black community he knows intimately, which he explores through portraiture and spontaneous images of people he encounters on the street. Using black-and-white, medium- and large-format photography, his work utilizes historical processes and archival documentation to consider how picture-making imparts meaning and importance to the subject. Oloyede’s work can be found in the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives; and Capital One. He is represented by the Nicholas Metivier Gallery.