Yisa Akinbolaji-The Trail Blazer

Yisa Akinbolaji, a Nigerian born Canadian, is a self made artist by virtue of his personal development and growth over the years, and his contribution to humanity is immense, having emigrated to Canada in 1997, and proven his mettle culminating in the recognition of his services and contributions by the Canadian Senate in September, 30, 2020.

Yisa at the opening of his exhibition
Yisa Akinbolaji

Before immigrating to Canada in 1997, Yisa was recognized with his inclusion in Nigerian Artists: A Who‘s Who and Bibliography (1993) compiled and edited by Bernice Kelly and Janet L. Stanley for the publication of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington. D.C. It was in 1993 that he began to experiment in a new technique of painting after many years of creating his work in the style of the impressionists. Yisa further developed his technique while obtaining M.F.A in visual arts from the University of North Dakota.

Yisa’s practice has spanned more than three decades, the artist has engaged in extensive art practice and exhibiting in solo and group exhibitions in public galleries and museums in Canada, the United States and Nigeria. His works can be found in private and public collections around the world including the collection of  the University of North Dakota, the province of Manitoba, Great-West Life, Cargill Limited, and the private collections of valued individuals.

Yisa talking with guests during an exhibition in 2013

Yisa who was elected to the membership of Manitoba Society of Artists in 2000, becoming its President in 2001 at the 100th Anniversary and serving until 2003. On October 12, 2010, he was appointed to the board of the Manitoba Arts Council by the Manitoban Minister of Culture, Heritage and Tourism and with two re-appointments to serve till 2018.

Yisa is the founder of Creative Foundation Inc, a not-for-profit organization  that empowers and motivate the youth of different cultural background and social groups for their academic success and for excellent life choices through mentoring programs offered in the arts, sciences and computer technology.

An interdisciplinary artist, Yisa has been featured on the cover pages of Art Business News, New York, and his works has also been published in Redemptive Art In Society, by American author and poet, Dr. Calvin Seerveld. He has received several awards including the following: the McElroy-EdwardsJackie Scholarship, USA of $45,000 (2008); the Winnipeg Arts Council Traveling Grant (2003); the Valerie Fostey Memorial Award, Canada (1998); and the National Youth Service Chairman’s Honour, Cross River State, Nigeria (1987).

Yisa spoke with Ayodele Ojo of onefinearts.com on his recognition by the Canadian Senate, his art practice and sundry issues recently.

Do you believe in luck, especially as it relates to your practice and success? 

Yisa in the Painting Studio

If I may answer your questions directly, I don’t believe in luck but I have been fortunate to be lucky so many times. Professionally, my own type of luck is one in which both grace and blessings of God are wrapped in. So the the grace and blessings are responsible for the revelation of the  luck like the flowers that blooms open up at dawn. Let me just keep it at that.

Can you tell us your struggles as a fresh immigrant?

Collage of images at the CFI kids works at holiday inn 2017

My struggle as a fresh immigrant in 1997 ended after crossing Nigerian boarder from Lagos to Ghana where I had to obtain my visa at that time. It could have been easier for a sinner to go to Heaven than for a Nigerian to obtain visa to Canada then. The first five individuals that were interviewed before me were denied, but I was lucky to be given my own visa. As soon as I arrived in Canada, apart from the very cold weather I had to adjust to, things immediately began to line up for me professionally. I was invited to participate in an international exhibition within my first five months and became the President of Manitoba Society of Artists in its 99th year, meaning that I was handed the responsibilities of presiding the affair the 100th year anniversary. Once that was very successful, navigating the artistic landscape within Canada and America was on my own terms. 

How do you handle success as one of the few colored artists in America whose works have become well known?

I see my success as merely another contribution to the field of art. Also, I feel good being a role model and ambassador of my home country of Nigeria at a time when Yahoo-Yahoo boys are not giving us a good image. It feels good that Africans in our community are very proud that I am adding value in some ways.  

Your art pieces  are quite symbolic, how do you arrive at seeing differently?

I find the word ‘differently’ in your question very key and explainable, even as I find it difficult to explain how my intention to do things differently often yielded result. I don’t know how important my curiosity is in seeing differently though thinking differently I can agree. I however noticed that when I was five years old, I preferred to draw with my mother’s eyebrow pencils and charcoal from her firewood though I had access to modern art materials. In the world of art, one might have great intention and so much experience, to be able to invent a technique as I have done, I could not say it was due to my efforts or brilliance. I will stay on my lane on what I have received and will always thank God for it. 

Pat Bovey during the Installation of Yisa’s recent work

It is said that the artist paints himself, how much of your works is a reflection of you and how much a reflection of societal influence?

First, I see myself as a human being before I see myself as an artist. Normally, it is the society that I first think about, in the end I see myself in the picture. When I arrived in Canada, as when I was in Nigeria, my contribution to the society was primary to me, later I realized appearing in the picture. When I practiced or taught while I was in Nigeria, it was the society and the students that were in my mind, in the end, I realized that destiny rewarded me through what I created or the impact I made. Hope that answered your question?

Manitoba Lieutenant Governor, Phillip Lee, at Yisa Akinbolaji’s exhibition.

How much of your works is influenced by the past, the present and the future? 

It may be surprising to you that my youth advocacy work is more important to me than my work as an artist. I strongly feel that the world can be a better place if children are properly nurtured. That way, we can build more successful ones, so they can develop the capacity to help those who will require assistance in the society. As far as my art is concerned, it is mainly for my own entertainment, but when there is need, I use it to address social issues. So, I would say that the past, present and the future are inspired and represented in my work in equal measure.

Is Art for you spiritual?

Art is somehow spiritual for me. If my art could talk, it would likely confirm my dedication, which in turn is for my sanity. So much that when I wanted to marry, I prayed that I would be faithful to my wife and family not less than I had been to my art. 



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