Olagoke: Taking the art of charity to prison inmates

Members of Mission Direct (U.K), led by Lanre Olagoke, working as art charity group at Mutazi Falls, Honde Valley, Zimbabwe, August 2017

Informally trained as artist, London, U.K.-based Lanre Olagoke is a practical example of how youths, who are at the crossroads of life can find escape route from the jaws of self-destruction. Currently shuttling London-Lagos-Harare-Abeokuta and setting up creative empowerment projects for youths in Africa, Olagoke, 55, as a teenager once walked through the thorny paths of life and lost his way when parental guidance refused to recognise his talent. But he recovered his real path through self-discovery on the landscape of art.

From being on the wrong side of acceptable moral values in his place of birth in the U.K. and getting opportunity to be a studio assistant to one of Africa’s top modernists, Olagoke has every reason to give back to his immediate environment. Five young Nigerians – across the arts discipline – would benefit from ‘Open Door’ project, Olagoke disclosed during a chat recently. The ‘Open Door’ project, which germinated from the artist’s personal and professional experience in the U.K., he said, “was designed for youths to rescue them from crimes.”

Before ‘Open Door’ was launched, Olagoke founded a charity group, Art-Alive Arts Trust, with several thousands of youth beneficiaries and Soho Arts Fair, also aimed at empowering young artists, all in London. Also, a few weeks ago, the charity work was in Harare, Zimbabwe, where it engaged “75 youths from 1 to 18 years at Orphanage Home.” The Harare work was done in collaboration with a group known as Mission Direct. Before leaving for Zimbabwe, the charity work had collaboration with a Lagos-based not-for-profit group, Omoba Yemisi Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF). The project with Prince Yemisi Shyllon’s OYASAF involved 25 upcoming Nigerian artists with the Turkish School, at Ikeja in Lagos.

Art, for Olagoke’s parents, was never in the radar of possible professions, particularly growing up in a middle class Nigerian family. “And you dare not mention you want to be an artist,” Olagoke recalled his growing up period. But the young Olagoke knew where his future would be. “Since I was young, I knew I had this gift and it was with colours; there is something about colours that I just couldn’t explain that changed the whole conversation for me.”

At seven, he set out on the rudiments of draughtsmanship. Sadly, no one was interested in young Olagoke’s prospect until he was a teenager. “The only time I got my first compliment was in secondary school, when my art teacher called me aside one day and told me: ‘Lanre, you are very talented!”

Despite further hostilities towards his creative prospects, the encouragement he got from his secondary school year was the fuel available to keep the flame of art passion in him burning. From an attempt at enrolling at army school in Nigeria, to going back for study in England, art would be the final destination for Olagoke. For not being submissive to the dictate of his mother to study Economics, it meant he had to leave home. “I eventually became homeless and started squatting in a hostel,” where he stuck to his painting constantly “letting out all my emotion, pain, rejection” on the canvas.

He stayed away from home in 1989/90, squatted with friends and by 1992-1995, he had become homeless. “When I eventually got a place, I was kicked out again and put in Parker Street hostel, Holborn in 1996-1997.”

Part of that hostile journey, he explained, was living in the den of drug addicts, where death became as cheap as in animal slaughterhouse. Art, he said, became “my salvation, rehabilitation” in an environment infested with drug addicts. “I always had my shower in a swimming pool where I paid £1 at Parker Street hostel in Holborn from 1996-1997, as the state of the cubicle showers in the hostel was like hell: littered with syringes, needles… all around you.” More scarily, he recalled how the “hostel recorded deaths of drug addicts nearly everyday.”

However, Olagoke kept his head above the troubled waters of hard crime despite being exposed to the volatile and hostile environment. “Fortunately, I was never in prison, committed any crime nor did I have any criminal record,” he boasted. “All I wanted was freedom and I had it; but drugs and gambling were my worse enemies.”

The other side to the coin of life for Olagoke was being privileged to be a studio assistant to one of Africa’s greatest artists, late Prof. Ben Enwonwu. Perhaps, Olagoke’s experience of working with Enwonwu would change the common narrative being circulated in Nigerian art parlance about the late master. Enwonwu was widely believed to have built an aristocratic aura around his personal and professional life, such that ‘he was not accessible,’ so many followers of his career would argue.

How did Olagoke find his way into Enwonwu’s studio in 1983? “Apparently, he doesn’t allow anybody to be around him, but somehow he allowed me.” Then, Olagoke had got hints that Enwonwu wanted a young artist who would assist in both studio and domestic needs. “I found myself inside Enwonwu’s studio at Swiss Cottage in 1983.”

Perhaps to the surprise of Olagoke, the relationship between him and the master was an instant cordial one, as he recalls, “When we met for the first time, he was getting ready to take some art pieces to the Nigerian High Commission. He asked me: how much do I think he should charge them for a piece!”

Olagoke must have been stunned: “I was like: ‘I don’t know…’ and that was how I started a great relationship as his protégé!” Again, some art historians and enthusiasts, who have fixed thoughts about Enwonwu might need to consult Olagoke and get a balanced view of the late master’s life.

“I once took him to my mother for lunch,” Olagoke disclosed what was then another surprise to him. “I was surprised that he came, and my mother made him food that I took to his studio.” Most importantly for Olagoke, “Enwonwu has been one of the biggest mentors in my life when I most needed a direction.”

The relationship was, however, suspended in 1987, when Enwonwu returned to Nigeria. Staying back in the U.K., Olagoke stumbled on what would later be his main focus till date – using his art for charity. An Irishman, who claimed to be in and out of prison for 20 years, had some advice for Olagoke.

He recalls, “I told him I am an artist. He said something that changed my life. He said, as an artist, they need me at the prison. And that was it for me.”

The charity art of Olagoke took off from Wandsworth Prison, where “I spoke to over 50 men.” Enthused about the new calling, he set up a charity organisation called Art-Alive Arts Trust. At the last count, the trust, he claimed “has worked with over 10,000 youths over the last two decades.”

Pushed further, he set up what he describes as the “first ever Soho Arts Fair,” a space for young artists to exhibit in the heart of London. The charity work has taken him beyond its birthplace as well as afforded the founder opportunity to engage with professionals and leaders from different parts of the world. For example, early this year he had an exhibition at the American Embassy in London, organised by EPG Arts.

“At the event, I spoke to over 250 delegates, diplomats, art lovers and collectors during the Black History Month, February 2017. The event also afforded me an opportunity to exhibit my paintings for three weeks.”

IN Nigeria, Olagoke has been building the charity structure gradually by collaborating with others. Basically, he has a future plan to set up a centre in Nigeria that would, perhaps, be a central point for his mission in Africa. “My joy is to establish an academy that will give our youth, especially those who have come from dysfunctional homes, been in prison or even remand home – a sense of hope and belonging. The centre would be a place where skills, such as shoemaking, weaving, designing/sawing, filmmaking, acting and painters could be acquired as vocation.”

He hoped that between September and October, “I will be launching a fundraising event for the programme in Abeokuta at the Remand/Juvenile home!”

Olagoke was born on August 18, 1962, in London; he has six siblings. His parents left London, when he was three years of age, and tooke him, an older brother, Dapo, and younger sister, Bola, to Lagos.

He lamented having “very hard upbringing” being victim of separated parents. “I never had the privilege of sitting down on the table and eating with my parents like most of my peers when we visit them at their homes.” However, as a an artist, he is rewriting his past by extending love through art to those who needs attention.

Two years ago, 45 volunteers from the U.K and Jamaica were said to have been engaged under the Open Door project of Olagoke for rehabilitation work in Haiti after that country’s 2010 earthquake crisis.

The artist, few years ago explained his mission to Haiti. He raised over £150,000 for projects through Ruach Ministries. Olagoke said he has been returning to Haiti every year with thirty volunteers and ensured that the £150,000 they have raised from 2010-2014 helped to build a primary school and a clinic centre.

Also, two years ago, the artist said his wife joined him to visit Jamaica, “with 40 volunteers to help and support deprived, disadvantaged and disabled youths.”

After founding Art Alive Arts Trust to provide a broad range of arts based classes and activities for young vulnerable inner city people, the group runs workshops in painting and printmaking. Works produced are sold at the Art Alive annual exhibition, with most percentage given to the artists. “This gives inmates a sense of achievement and purpose as well as place to go for support when they leave prison, reducing the chance of going back to crime,” he explained during one of his visits to Lagos. “Art Alive has helped over 5000 young adults to find a sense of pride and an alternative lifestyle to crime.” Art Alive, he disclosed, also worked with the Centrepoint Soho in London to develop a programme that teaches homeless vulnerable young people the skills and value of art.

In specific terms, Olagoke has a broader mission plan for Nigerian art. Art Alive, he assured, will promote Nigerian artists in the U.K through “my galleries,” based in London. He also has plans to establish a Museum of African Arts in Diaspora, to be built in Nigeria.



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