It was during the lockdown in London that Nigerian-born Olaoluwa Slawn immersed himself in painting. It was a newfound passion for the popular skatewear designer and co-founder of Motherlan, a Nigerian streetwear brand, who moved to the United Kingdom in 2018. The 21-year-old self-proclaimed “scam artist” likes to play with the concept of reality through large-scale canvases filled with a blend of cartoonish-like pop figures, bold colorful forms and stylish shapes defined with vivid hues, that beckon the viewer. At first seemingly playful and descendants of street art, it is upon closer inspection that we see the intense human element that Slawn endows to each work, where he explores human psychology, politics, race and other hard topics and issues still challenging society.
“During lockdown I passed an art show in Shoreditch and thought, ‘I’ll get a canvas and some paint and try,’” he recalls. “My painting then became a ritual. I couldn’t stop. It felt right.”
When Slawn moved to London, he enrolled at Middlesex University to study graphic design in 2019 but when his artistic career took off during Covid-19, he paused his studies and devoted himself entirely to creating his art. Slawn recalls doing a bit of drawing growing up and always being interested in the creative scene.
He started selling his loud canvases himself and quickly garnered a following. In September 2021 he had his debut exhibition at Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery which saw the likes the designer Mowalola and model Iris Law in attendance.
While street culture seems to be the obvious reference to Slawn’s lurid paintings, he confirms that he derives his influence more from contemporary society, pertinent issues, and even storybook characters. In his studio, located in Camden, where numerous boxes and paintings fill the space, he shows one work inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
While at first glance, Slawn’s work has a child-like and almost naïve character, upon closer inspection one takes in the complexity of the subjects he paints, the maturity of the topics that are pertinent issues to our contemporary society.
“Childish but not childish,” he says of his work. “The first time you look at the work you see the character but then if you look deeper, you see the blood splatters and the reference to violence.”
Viewers of his work might be comfortable at first with the scenes he portrays, and then when they look closer, they might be shocked, alarmed and even upset.
Another painting, for example, was inspired by Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Islamic terrorist group organization.
“The subjects of my paintings usually come from whatever I am feeling at the moment, but they also explore the politics of our world and are also based on very old racist cartoons,” he says.
Slawn, also a prolific skatewear designer, also used to explore important topics revolving around colonialism and racism on his skateboards. He once painted a slave ship on one of his skateboards. Backlash and criticism came, he says, mostly, he believes because people aren’t comfortable to face these still challenging and upsetting topics.
“I just want to be an icebreaker for people through my art,” he exclaims. “After a while, after viewing my work, people begin to feel comfortable with the topics I am painting and that’s all I want.”
Slawn emphasizes how through creating art we also might be able to better understand and come to terms with our past. Art is a way to reckon with the pain of history, the residue of the violence that still haunts.
From the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, Slawn says, his traditional background also influences his painting, leading him to at times incorporate various symbolism and other references to Yoruba beliefs and rituals into his work.
All these references, traditional, contemporary, Nigerian, and western, come to play in Slawn’s work and lead his to address and grapple with issues that he himself has wrestled with like racism.
“The only thing you are ever really in battle with is yourself and this idea helped me to better come to terms with the idea of racism,” he says. “Coming to London, I am still wearing the same streetwear, trousers etc… that I wore in Lagos. Anyone who changes their dress code or what have you when they move to a new place is because they aren’t comfortable with who they are and where they are from.”
Slawn’s larger-than-life personality, creative prowess and entrepreneurial and creative spirit has inspired a cult following of collectors and other creatives like Skepta, Angelo Baque, Tremaine Emory, Iris Law, Asap Rocky, and the late Virgil Abloh.
“People just want something to interact with and I feel I know how to make people interact with my work,” he says. Slawn does exactly this in a way that is both fun and deep. There’s always something new to discover in his bold canvases. They challenge our reality, the way we read life, culture, and our past—offering ways to transcend the mayhem of life through art, through something higher, creative, and bold in all senses.