Adébayo Bolaji on his ‘Bitter Nostalgia’ exhibition in London

How I got here: Adébayo Bolaji | Soho House

We meet the British-Nigerian artist to talk about the motivations and inspirations behind his striking painting practice

Wednesday 11 January 2023   By Soho House

London-based artist Adébayo Bolaji is a man who has already lived multiple lives. Graduating with a law degree from London Guildhall University, he shifted his sights to acting and directing, training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, before setting up his own theatre company named Ex Nihilo shortly after. Now, at 39, Bolaji is an acclaimed painter whose work has been exhibited internationally with artist residencies in New York and Margate in the UK, including one with Yinka Shonibare MBE Guest Projects.

With his latest exhibition, Bitter Nostalgia, currently showing at London’s Saatchi Gallery, we caught up with Bolaji to talk about his storied journey to becoming a multi-disciplinary artist. 

How I got here: Adébayo Bolaji | Soho House
How I got here: Adébayo Bolaji | Soho House

Tell us a bit about yourself.
‘I was born in west London to Nigerian parents. I’m an artist working mainly with paint, but other mediums too.’

What are you currently working on?
‘I have an exhibition called Bitter Nostalgic at the Saatchi Gallery at the moment, showing works alongside Hyangmok Baik. I’m also building my first public art piece – a sculpture for Acton Gardens.’

Did you always want to be an artist?
‘As a child, I was restless, but whenever I was in a creative space – whether it was a theatre or an art lesson – I’d settle and focus. So, I’ve always known instinctively, but that desire became clearer in the last 10 years.’

How did you develop your skills?
‘I think they’ve really developed through the difficulties I’ve faced. You can, of course, learn techniques with classes or via a teacher or mentor, but skills become defined when life challenges happen. Those are the times when we find out if what we have learnt actually works. They are not tricks, they’re purposeful tools to realise something.’ 

Where do you get your inspiration from?
‘I deliberately look for or create an environment that encourages inspiration for a specific context. I say that because inspiration arguably happens all the time. It’s like conscious bias – when you’re obsessed with something your mind begins to look for it.’

How do you keep motivated? 
‘When I have a vision. If there’s no clarity, there’s confusion, which can create a feeling of being overwhelmed or anxious, and leave me feeling debilitated. If I’m calm and I welcome and give space to clarity and ideas, I then invite ways to execute those ideas and ultimately have something pulling all of this forward.’ 

In your Instagram bio, you write ‘there was never a plan b’. Could you tell us what plan A was?
‘There was a point in my life that I gave up on my plan A. I was basically living out someone else’s idea of me. Later on, I experienced some misfortunes that would then bring me into a space that I always wanted to be in – an artist expressing his own ideas. This was my plan A. 

‘One way to think of that statement is that we have fixed ideas of how our dreams will play out, not realising the dots that will join to eventually bring those dreams to life. So, the plan B that I thought my life was going to be actually became the ingredients that formed plan A.’

How I got here: Adébayo Bolaji | Soho House

What do you like to listen to when you work?
‘I jump between genres, as I’m dealing with mood and my emotions a lot. Sound is huge for me. I sometimes listen to one track over and over again or one artist because of the tone in their voice, and then I’ll jump to another artist or genre because of the tempo. When it comes to music, I’m looking for how it makes me feel, what world those sounds create in me, so I can then use it as a resource, as fuel.’ 

Tell us more about your current exhibition, Bitter Nostalgia.
‘The show is a visual dialogue and response to the idea of nostalgia. In my work I try to answer: why do we experience it? And what purpose does or can it serve? The exhibition is interestingly and purposefully called Bitter Nostalgia to play on ideas about spectrums, directions and belief systems.’ 

How has community played a part in your career?
‘It’s played a massive part – I’m standing here today because of it. I think art can potentially make one very insular – introverted and inward, as it’s such a delicate process. That said, I don’t create out of nothing. And once creation is done, it’s not really done. The meaning of the work is then enhanced by its connection to others.

‘Also, I’ve been able to continue my craft because there have been communities throughout the years that have supported what I do. Without them, I simply wouldn’t be here.’

Why did you join Soho House?
‘You mentioned community – I think everyone needs community. You want to find a space that has like-minded people, as well as those who can show you something new. This is how we grow. Because of how Soho House is set up, it’s culturally diverse, creatively open, and there is always something happening. It’s encouraged me to keep evolving. Also, consistency is key. It’s a space that stands for something. This makes it a reliable place to spend my time, because I know and trust what kind of service I will get.’

Where in the Houses would we most likely find you?
‘I’m there every week having a glass of my favourite red wine, taking part in conversation or maybe looking through the design racks on the ground floor at 180 House.’ 

Adébayo Bolaji’s current two-person exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, Bitter Nostalgia, alongside Hyangmok Baik, is on now until 26 January 2023.