For African painter Ibiyinka Olufemi Alao, art and diplomacy go together as well as the steamed rice and spicy tomato stew of his native Nigeria.
On Thursday night, Alao spoke to 140 Lee Elementary students and their families, while he was wearing a black pinstriped suit, a stark change from the vivid African robes he had worn at the beginning of the week as the school’s artist-in-residence. Using West African proverbs and humor, he described the stories he hopes to tell through his paintings, which emphasize themes of hope, unity and peace.
“The more you look at the art, the better you see,” he said to about 40 kindergarten and first-grade students earlier in the week. “With people, the more you see them, the better you know them.”
For an unfinished canvas titled “Grace: the whole world can pass through it,” the lesson was about harmony. Alao, 30, began working on “Grace” about three months ago when he first came to Missouri from New York. The painting, which he said sums up his experiences in the United States, features a brilliant mosaic sky that resembles a multi-colored quilt.
“I like to use a lot of colors, don’t I?,” he asked, drawing laughter from the audience gathered in the Lee auditorium.
“If I can use all the colors on this canvas, we can do it on the canvas of life,” he said.
Such messages through art helped propel Alao into the international spotlight in 2001, when he garnered the United Nations World Artist award. The first African to win the award, Alao was also appointed an arts ambassador for peace. Since then, he has traveled around the country, and was a professor at New York University.
While visiting colleges, Alao said, students were often surprised that such art could come out of Africa.
“It happens in every phase of professions, not just art,” he said. “You meet people and they don’t assume anything good can come from Africa.”
Alao, who plans to stay in Springfield until January, said he hopes to challenge media images that portray Africa solely through the lens of refugee, famine and war.
“There are so many beautiful things happening, but we don’t hear it,” he said.
Alao left New York, he said, because he wanted to experience rural culture and the Midwest. After attending a fall festival in Missouri, he was eventually contacted by Lee teacher Ann Mehr, who helped bring him to Lee.
As an artist-in-residence this week, Alao taught Lee students life lessons as well as painting techniques. The week also featured live African music performances and storytelling.
Alao regards children as his greatest audience. Earlier in the week, Lee’s students would touch his canvas, only to be warned by a teacher not to touch.
But by the smile on Alao’s face, it seemed he did not mind.
“Adults tend to reserve themselves,” he said. “Appreciation comes out in children uninhibited.”