Kehinde Awofeso, a burgeoning talent in the Lagos art scene, is making waves with their thought-provoking artwork that challenges societal norms surrounding gender identity. Showcased in the exhibition Four Women at Revolving Art Incubator in Lagos, Awofeso's debut on the art scene brings to light delicate social and cultural issues, particularly concerning non-binary identities in Nigeria.

As a self-taught artist who previously delved into illustration for book covers in Ibadan, Nigeria, Awofeso's transition to painting has provided them with a platform for expressing the ambivalent reality of identifying as a gender non-conforming individual in Nigeria, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality.

In Tune by Kehinde Awofeso. Image courtesy of Artsy.

Despite growing calls for tolerance and the recognition of human rights, a 2022 report by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) shares how Nigeria remains a challenging environment where individuals outside conventional gender norms face pervasive threats and violence. Awofeso confronts this reality head-on, emphasizing the role of ignorance in perpetuating discrimination against non-conforming individuals, thereby shedding light on the systemic challenges they encounter in their daily lives.

In an interview with The Sole Adventurer Magazine, Awofeso discusses the complexities of gender identity and the impact of societal expectations on individuals. They express a preference for feminine pronouns but acknowledge the fluidity of gender perception, highlighting a need to challenge stereotypes and promote self-expression without fear of discrimination.

Hence, Awofeso creates self-portraits such as Self Love, which show themselves as what society would deem a masculine-presenting individual, with a flower slipped in their ear while embracing themselves. This particular piece aims to inspire conversations about identity and acceptance, encouraging viewers to embrace diversity and reject rigid societal norms.

Self Love by Kehinde Awofeso. Image courtesy of The Sole Adventurer Magazine.

Through their self-portrait paintings, such as Questioned to Shame, Awofeso confronts the public gaze while reclaiming ownership of their identity and body. In this painting, they intentionally use themselves as subjects, in a nude pose with their backs to the audience, in a sensual pose that would normally be reserved for feminine presenting individuals. This is a brave act that showcases how comfortable and proud they are of their nude body. 

Through this piece, Awofeso aims to inform and inspire others by showcasing the daily struggles and triumphs of gender non-conforming individuals in Nigeria, including their triumph in loving their body. The exhibition serves as a platform for initiating a discourse on gender equality and the importance of respecting individual autonomy by showcasing how non-binary individuals have human struggles and triumphs much like everybody else.

Questioned to shame by Kehinde Awofeso. Image courtesy of The Sole Adventurer Magazine.

Awofeso's other paintings, such as Valid, yet again offer poignant insights into the lived experiences of non-binary individuals. The painting showcases another masculine presenting person, this time they are trying on high-heels traditionally made for feminine presenting people. The person’s pensive look at the high heels gives viewers intimate access to their contemplation as if they are thinking if presenting themselves in this traditionally feminine item of clothing would bring them greater sorrow than joy.

This challenges viewers to reconsider their perceptions and prejudices, allowing them to empathize with the subject’s inner turmoils of self-doubt that has been instilled by society. Through these states of vulnerability that Awofeso’s subjects exude, each artwork radiates a sense of empowerment and resilience, emphasizing the importance of self-acceptance and self-love in the face of adversity.

Valid by Kehinde Awofeso. Image courtesy of Artsy.

In addition to their artistic pursuits, Awofeso has been vocal about the need to challenge rigid notions of conformity and embrace diversity in all its forms in their media interviews. Their commitment to questioning societal norms and promoting inclusivity has earned them recognition as trailblazers in the Nigerian art scene.

As Awofeso continues to push boundaries and challenge conventions, their work serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of representation and visibility for non-binary individuals. By amplifying their voices and experiences through art, Awofeso contributes to the ongoing struggle for gender equality and social justice in Nigeria and beyond.

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