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Picture perfect

Artist, motivational speaker and TV presenter Adebanji Alade tells Renée Davis how art has framed his life

I didn't know where my next hope would come from

IN 1988, I lost my older brother in a car accident. In 1989, my dad, who was also involved in the accident, died. The following year, my mum could no longer cope, so she took her own life. In three consecutive years, I lost three important people in my life. I was 18 years old and completely mentally and emotionally shattered.’

It’s not the life Adebanji pictured for himself when he was young. Born in Hackney, East London, he filled his days by learning about football players and drawing them.

‘I discovered comics such as Roy of the Rovers and I’d constantly draw the players from the pages, trying to detail every movement,’ he says. ‘I loved to spend endless hours drawing. That’s when I discovered I had a very big passion for art.’

After reconnecting with an aunt, Adebanji decided to pursue art as a career.

‘After losing my closest family, I didn’t know where my next hope would come from, but then my auntie came on the scene,’ he says. ‘My family were traditionally Muslim, but this particular auntie was a Christian. She told me: “God has sent me to adopt you.”

‘Something drew me to this woman. She told me about giving my life to God and becoming saved. I’d heard about the Christian faith at boarding school, but it was nothing compared with what my auntie told me about it. She was like an angel.

‘One day, she asked me: “What are you going to do with your life?” I told her I wanted to be an architect and she replied: “Is that what God wants you to do?”

‘So I prayed to him and said: “What do you want me to do?”

‘He said: “I’ve given you a talent, go and use it.”

‘That’s when I realised that God can give people gifts and they might not use them. For ages, I wondered whether I would be at fault for not using my talent.’

Adebanji applied for the Yaba College of Technology – one of the top colleges in Nigeria – and was accepted.

His raw talent was nurtured and he won many awards. He achieved the best result in the college. The competition was high, but it was what Adebanji needed in order for him to become the best he could be.

‘I had served in the Nigerian Government for a year when my auntie suggested that because I was a British citizen, I should return to England and pursue my art,’ he says. ‘She thought I’d be of more use here, not realising that the art scene is very good in Nigeria too. When I came to the UK in 1999, I had the shock of my life because the art scene is totally different here.

‘At first I painted things from my rich culture. I was trying to put my work into galleries and exhibit it – but no one was embracing my paintings. It took me a while to understand the British scene. I had moved from Nigeria expecting to do well but it wasn’t happening. I went through depression.

‘I became a kitchen porter and took on different odd jobs. But I never stopped drawing. In 2003, still suffering from depression, I went back to Nigeria to discover that all my classmates and friends were among the top artists in the country. I thought: What am I doing with my life?’

Adebanji returned to London with a new mindset. Determined not to give up, he decided to learn his craft from scratch and enrolled at the Heatherley School of Fine Art. He began to understand the missing link between his art style in Nigeria and in Britain.

‘For the first time in my life, I was told I couldn’t draw,’ he says. ‘I was shocked. I was told that I wasn’t looking at the subject and drawing it properly. I allowed myself to be taught again. Going to Heatherley’s helped me to reposition myself. After two years, I left the school feeling as though I could take on art again. I was still able to bring the lovely rich African colours and brush strokes to my work; I just changed the subject matter. I started entering exhibitions and competitions and people started embracing me.’

Adebanji’s work has garnered many accolades, such as Chelsea Art Society’s Best Painting of a London Scene and the Buxton Spa Sketchbook Award.

Although a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Adebanji’s favoured art form is drawing. He describes himself as an ‘addictive sketcher’.

‘If drawings sold more than paintings, I would only draw,’ he says.

As well as being a full-time artist, Adebanji makes regular appearances on art segments for BBC One’s The One Show and has appeared on Eurosport’s Facebook Live doing portraits of athletes at World Championship events. But what does a normal day in the life of a busy artist look like?

‘I get up in the morning, jump on public transport to my studio and start sketching people,’ he says. ‘I love sketching faces. I’m fascinated by them. When I get to the studio, I continue working on a particular project or I go to secondary schools to do my motivational speaking. I help students to see the value of art in their education. To capture my audience, I use a white board or a flip chart and draw cartoons. It helps me to convey a message in a more powerful way. Art is woven into everything I do.’

So is his faith.

‘My whole life is a testimony,’ Adebanji says. ‘If it weren’t for my Christian faith, I wouldn’t be here. My life speaks through my work and if anyone who sees my work wants to know the deeper meaning behind it, I’m always willing to talk to them.’

Through his motivational speaking, Adebanji encourages people to embrace their passions. He paints a picture of just how important it is to use our God-given talents.

‘Before you start looking at anyone else, you’ve got to be confident in yourself,’ he says. ‘I tell people to look in the mirror every day and say, “I am beautifully and wonderfully made.”

‘Sadly, the fear of failure stops many people from putting their talents to good use. These days we have such an influx of information and you can easily log on to social media and see someone who is of a higher status than you, someone who is smarter than you or better looking than you. If you don’t value your uniqueness, you’re always going to think that you’re not good enough.

‘You have to believe that the gift you’ve been given is worth sharing and advertising to the world. God sees us as stewards of the gifts he’s given us. If we are faithful with what we’ve been given, he’ll give us more. We came to this world to shine and have a positive effect on other people.’

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