If you don’t keep up with the local art scene, you may not know him by name, but if you wandered around D.C. at all, then you have seen Aniekan Udofia‘s art. With the ability to vividly illustrate a complete narrative in a single work and create accurate portraitures using a pigmented palette, Udofia has created some of the most iconic murals in D.C., like Ben’s Chili Bowl mural, the Marvin Gaye mural in Shaw and the Fredrick Douglass mural in Anacostia.
Despite such success, Udofia is now on a new quest: to explore the unruly realm of watercolors.
“My interest in watercolor is the looseness and unpredictability of them because sometimes it’s about paint and other times it’s about the water flow” Udofia shares. “It is kind of a struggle to try to control it in a way because it’s just water doing its thing on the surface — the ability to work in uncertainty is what I like about it.”
Over the last five years, Udofia experimented with watercolors. Now ready to show off his new skill, he unveiled his first watercolor exhibit at Woolly Mammoth Theatre this September. Open through the end of November, the exhibit includes 17 pieces with many of the models depicted in the pieces being friends and fellow creatives Udofia knows.
We caught up with the local artist to understand how his new exhibit came to be.
District Fray: This series is named “Return of the Shaolin Pencil.” What was the inspiration?
Aniekan Udofia: It came about as a result of me reading up on the philosopher Joseph Campbell and his monomyth of the hero’s journey [a common template of epics], which is broken down into 17 small stages and grouped into three major primary stages. The primary stages are separation, initiation and return. That’s why in some book, movie and even album titles, it’ll be “Return of the Jedi” or “Return of the Dragon.” It has to do with the story arc of separation, initiation and return.
Why a Shaolin pencil?
I use pencils a lot in my pieces and is something I’m well known for, so I tied the theme into that symbol. Pencil [imagery] is shown in most of the exhibit pieces. I pull inspiration from steampunk, martial arts movies [hence Shaolin], action movies and fantasy. All these different ideas are coming from all these places.
Do you have a favorite movie that follows the hero story pattern?
The movie “Revolver” is one that I love. “The Green Knight” is another one. And of course, “Star Wars”‘ first three episodes, “A New Hope,” “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” — George Lucas worked with Joseph Campbell to create them.
As someone who already has an established and recognizable aesthetic, what made you want to explore watercolor?
My first love is illustrations, comics and fantasy art, like the works of Frank Frazetta and Norman Rockwell. That’s my first love, and that’s what kind of seeped into my mural work. To get into mural work, I had to learn from graffiti artists and take classes that they offered. The learning process is a part of the excitement, and I’ve always loved to experiment with different media. I like to learn from people who have a good understanding of those mediums so that I can then implement those mediums and then the public gets to enjoy the fruits of that labor altogether.
Are there any other mediums you are currently exploring?
Digital is another area. I’m taking classes to be inspired, to learn more and improve on my skill set. I have blind spots because when you’re so locked and focus on your work, you need outside critiques from other experts. And I get to work with artists that I really admire.
It seems like your own journey mirrors the monomyth.
Exactly. When I started doing the murals back in 2008, I was commissioned to do a mural, and I wasn’t really experienced. The person commissioning it told me most of it had to be done in aerosol, and I never had an interest in learning aerosol prior. That was my call to adventure to start using a new medium. So now it just happens naturally. If I’m interested in a new medium I answer the call right away.
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