One might think that Samson Bakare has a hard time telling time. An hour late to the interview that has been rescheduled twice, he hops out of a black cab in central London, donning a purple two-set under a boxy leather jacket, and over coffee with "lots and lots and lots of sugar" convinces us, although indirectly, that he can tell the kind of time that matters, the time that has to do with past and present and future.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 48. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
One look at Bakare’s work that remixes the visual signifiers from Pop Art, Impressionism, Dadaism, comics and manga, Coptic art and NOK art, it is easy to rest assured that, yes, he can tell time and things about the kind of time we live in also.
The Nigerian artist calls his work “a time machine”, a portal that invites the viewers into the worlds of past, present and future, the worlds which are more peaceful and more joyful than our world of pains and troubles. And what tells time better than fashion? His vibrant subjects are clad in dotted scarlet red suits, Gucci belts, Klein blue puffers, yellow fur trims, Elizabethan collars and bright pink Converses. The artist is as bold in his sartorial choices as his subjects. “Some people don’t want attention, but I like it; I want it. I want to stand out in the crowd,” he says.
Following his successful collaboration with Gucci, where he was invited to illustrate Alessandro Michele’s Gucci Bamboo 1947 handbag, Bakare is in London for his solo exhibition Let This Be a Sign at the Dorothy Circus London. After the opening, we catch up with him and talk about all things time, Maslow’s hierarchy, signs that dictate our choices, his distaste for Bluetooth, and how you can live a more joyful life if you “give hope a chance.”
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Jumper and trousers AHLUWALIA, rings BLEUE BURNHAM.
How was the opening of your exhibition? Was it everything you hoped for?
It was amazing. So many great, great people came by. One of the most outstanding photographers was present. He is a great man who has been collecting my work for years. And it’s great to see him being part of my journey.
So let’s go back to the beginnings. You’ve said that watching your architect father has immensely influenced your outlook and curiosity in art. How has he influenced your work beyond your interest in arts generally?
When I was growing up, there was no architecture software. So it was more of a manual approach, drawing boards and such. So that was the time. And my father was an excellent draftsman: he knew how to draw and paint. He graduated from the University of Lagos, I think in the late 80s. At that point, the rules of architecture were all about being a good artist first. Unfortunately, now, the basic rule of architecture is to know more about engineering and technical stuff, but then you had to be an artist. Well, now you have to be more of an engineer. That’s the problem, the times are changing. I was inspired by my father. He was making 3D models out of cardboard and things he found around, even toy cars. And I was fascinated. But now you have to do 3D rendering; there are no limits. So much artistic decadence is happening right now, and that’s not how it used to be. There was so much discipline and proficiency in the field, and that inspired me. I would drop in sometimes to ask for advice, and he was willing to share the process.
Would you have become an artist had your father not been an architect?
There’s, of course, a possibility I wouldn’t have become an artist. Basically, everyone in the family could draw except for one person. It’s possible that if my dad was a musician, I could have picked the music gene. According to sociology, whatever we are exposed to from age zero to 10 to 15 will shape us into a particular pattern. So I’m not saying that absolutely everyone takes after their parents profession, but what we see as children certainly has a massive influence. And it is a significant part of the reason I am where I am today.
You said your curiosity in arts flourished further when you started co-creating comic books with friends. Can you recall some of the comics you created?
The name of the comics in English would be Unstoppables. It was about superheroes. There were different characters; we had Gnosis, which in Greek means knowledge. Gnosis could know what you were thinking, peek into your mind and read your thoughts. It is interesting because one of the things that are like limitations to human beings is that we are limited by our knowledge, we don’t know everything, and we cannot do everything, but we wish we could do many things. So the comics came from my quest for fantasy, imagining characters superior to humans. Maybe it was from boredom. Now we have AI and all these things. Before the world, there was a world we thought of, the world we imagined.
I think the excess of media content available at our fingertips today has decreased the necessity of exercising our imagination. Anything you want, you can find online.
Yes. I have been in the UK for over a week now, and I still don’t know my UK phone number by heart. It used to be that when you met someone new, you would exchange numbers and be able to just recite the numbers. We keep everything on our phones, in our notes now, and nothing in our heads.
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First Time in London.
Do you think it’s still possible to have the kind of curiosity we used to have and the joy of learning things?
It is very possible. I am a humanist. And I’m also a conservationist. It doesn’t mean that I’m retarded in my thinking. It is just that I have never been a big fan of the electronic world. I feel like I have lived in space and time, way back, and I’m trying to reconnect to that. Sometimes, people slide into my DMs and ask me about NFTs. I don’t want you to tell me about NFTs, okay? I just want to talk about real art. Just get the fuck out. I believe in humanity. I don’t like Zoom meetings. Let me see you. That’s how I want to talk, to smell the perfume a person is wearing, compliment them. You can’t do that over Zoom.
To get the feeling of a person...
Yes. I think we need to revert back in a way because this evolution is taking us further away from communal living. We no longer look after each other. For example, I tripped and fell on my way here. It was so painful. Everyone around me kept moving forward; only one person asked if I was alright. No one cares. We live in a capitalist world, the electronic world where you are constantly on your phone, with your headphones on. So we need to go back to basic human life.
Is it possible to go back?
I have gone back to the gramophone. I am done with this Bluetooth. I need to put a disc on. And to mix this stuff here. But yes, I digress. 
I think we have all become quite individualistic, and technology allows us to create solitary worlds we can take with us everywhere, eliminating the necessity and opportunity to connect with people in the physical world.
Yes, everyone is on their phones. People think that saying hello to strangers on a train, for example, does not mean you are trying to woo them. It doesn’t mean that you’re trying to establish a relationship and it does not mean that you have an agenda; it just means that I am just saying hello to another person.
It is redundant to say that we do not live in the best of times, with incessant war, persistent inequality and climate crisis. Your work is utopian. There is an overwhelming sense of joy and hopefulness in the vibrancy of colours, confident strokes, and the power that your subjects exude. Is this your reaction to what’s going on in real life? Is it escapism?
I just feel that there should be such a thing as alternative living. How do we escape from this messy world with Russia bombing Ukraine, kidnappings, and everything else? For me, it’s about locking myself up in a different world, and my paintings are like portals to enter such worlds. I think the number one thing a painter should do when you go to a gallery or a show is to invite you into these worlds. And when you are there, in the worlds I create with my paintings, you will see it is peaceful and it is like a fantasy.
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How do you create and immerse yourself in this fantastical world while staying aware of what’s going on? Or is it important to you to keep in touch with reality?
Well, we automatically can not stay away from what’s happening around us; all these things still exist. And the fact that you decide not to tune into the news to avoid the constant stream of evil doesn’t mean you can not be a victim of the news. Some people say, I don’t want to be part of politics; I’m not fond of politics. I don’t know what’s happening with Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or the Prime Minister. But we can all be victims or participants of circumstances. So, no matter whether we want it or not, shit happens.
Shit does happen. But there are also good things that happen. This METAL issue is about joy. Tell us, what makes you joyous?
I try to draw strength from within. I think one of the reasons we are not joyous is that we don’t give hope a chance. And let me explain what I mean. If you encounter something or someone terrible in friendships, relationships, or family, you can decide that a certain person has not been a good person to you. And then you remember that person as not being a good person. I think you should not hold on to that forever. Because if you decide to shut the door to your heart, you shut the door to the possibility of someone coming along who will make you smile. I’m just saying. So the hopefulness, the openness is the first entry point to joy. I stay hopeful in good times and bad times. It doesn’t matter what’s happening at all times. We just have to put a smile on when we can. I can’t keep wearing a frown around; we have to recognise that good and bad coexist in the same world. So when you have that knowledge, you learn to appreciate the good when it comes. And you learn how to tolerate the bad when the bad comes. Because the bad news will always come, you and I, we cannot live forever. We’re going to die someday. We’re going to have loved ones who will die, and we will cry. There’s nothing we can do about it.
Another thing that brings me joy is music. I love jazz; I love indigenous music because they make me joyful and take me to different worlds. I love places. We are in London right now, and I’m not saying this is sweet heaven, but I am just having a bit of everything, having a chance to observe and process different things. I’m happy to be here exploring, going places, and observing people around me. It’s good to have good people around you. Life is short. I need to have good people around. Some people will envy and pull you down, but there are also good people. We don’t get to choose our roles in life, but we can surround ourselves with good people.
What is your happy place?
I like the seaside a lot. Sea, water, boats, cruise on a ship. The waves of water, sunsets, and ocean dangling, moving around. And it’s a different atmosphere, with the winds coming from different places.
You seem to be inspired by places and faces. Could you tell us about some of your favourite artists who make you feel how you want your work to make people feel?
Daniel Arsham, for example. That’s where I want to be in the future. Or Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Their work fascinates me. I’m not too big of a fan of Basquiat, and I have nothing against him, but I am just not crazy about his work. And, of course, I would like to mention Yayoi Kusama.
Did you see her collaboration with Louis Vuitton?
Yes, such a great take-over. It was massive and very powerful, and that’s the future I want.
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The Fault in our Stars.
You have said that being an artist means being a psychologist, a sociologist, and an activist and “the chiefest of them all is being Immortal... The memories of us cannot be forgotten.” While artists might not be forgotten, many are underrated. Who are some of the artists you think should be immortal in the eyes of more?
Basquiat attained that point of immortality because he had such a significant influence on many artists. I’m trying to put in the work now. So that when I die, my work keeps on living. Keeps speaking. Keeps talking.
Dotted scarlet red suits, Klein blue puffers, and yellow fur trims – your paintings depict a clash of evocative textures and colours that we usually associate with joyfulness. Do you intend your art to psychologically affect the viewers?
It is about colour psychology. Different colours represent different moods. Darker colours depict maturity. Some of them express sadness and mood swings. Seriousness. I’m not really a serious person. Even personally, I don’t have much dark clothes in my wardrobe. I always want to be happy, and colours tell a lot about my temperament and personality. I have friends who are extreme introverts, and they can’t wear pink, for example. That’s like a flashing red light, a premium spotlight. I am wearing purple today, and it’s always a nice day when I wear purple. I’m always the good vibes guy, at the epicentre of everything. And that’s the same energy I’m trying to approach my art with.
The clothes in your paintings are charged with concepts and meanings. For example, in Summertime in Kigali argyle jacket denotes a kite and the idea that sometimes we are at the mercy of winds and have no control over the direction life tosses us. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with fashion?
Looking at my past works, you will see I documented fashion. Elizabethan period, Victorian period. I want my work to be timeless. I’m trying to create such a scheme of work that could fall into the category of modern and contemporary art simultaneously. My work is evolutionary. I’ve been trying to put in these things. The Elizabethan collars are there. Fashion looks the way it looks in my work because I want it to act as a social commentator. And, as an artist, I’m not just a sociologist but also a good historian. A good historian and also a good futurist. I’m looking forward to collaborating with some big fashion brands following my collaboration with Gucci. You need to be aware of the present and fully know what happened in the past to predict the future. So if you don’t have a retrospective mindset and a perspective that is attuned to the present, you cannot detect what will happen in the future; you cannot design the future or innovate.
Why, in your opinion, is fashion such a powerful tool when documenting a specific period?
Fashion has existed from the beginning of mankind. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, you will see that we need food, shelter and clothing. Now, this happened before the capitalist ideology that you need to work, that you need to get paid, and that you need to pay taxes. Now, I said, I’m a humanitarian person and very much for retaining the identity and the core values of human beings. Starting from organic fashion, from leaves, from animal skins to what we have now. I mean, going down to the synthetic world right now. So you see the evolution happening. The evolution of fashion is interlinked with social theories. So fashion is vital. People will always wear clothes. I mean, I could have come here with my dick hanging out, but I would have been interrupted by the police, who would deem me crazy. They would say, this guy is crazy; we need to put him in an asylum or something. So fashion is essential, and it is important socially. It allows us to detect what kind of people others are.
Without having to speak...
Yes. They say that you should not jump to a conclusion and should not judge a book by its cover. But I can detect a vibe when I come across certain kinds of covers for a long time. Uniforms signal professions and belongings, and fashion depicts seasons. You know, I always say that my work is a time machine; it’s fashion that tells time. I could not show you an exact period in my paintings if it was not for fashion. Fashion is a whole lot of stuff.
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Boys Can Be Flower.
Yes, it is an instant mode of communication. How do you want to present yourself when picking your clothes?
Okay. First of all, I would like people to perceive me as a very fashion-inclined person. And second, I want them to comment on my clothes. Some people don’t want attention, but I like it; I want it. I want to stand out in the crowd. I want to be outstanding among people who are standing. I want to have my own fashion line. I’m waiting for the right time. I want to put weight on my name first, like Pharrell Williams, for example, I am not bragging, but hopefully, this will happen soon. I’m working towards it.
So how did the Gucci collaboration come about?
It all started with my work. You know, these guys have teams looking for people to work with, trying to see, okay, who are the great African artists, trying to see what’s happening. Before Gucci, I collaborated with WeTransfer’s WePresent magazine, and I think they saw my work and thought, this guy is cool; his work speaks fashion. See, I don’t need to be there. I don’t need to say more than what I communicate with my work. You should be able to tell from afar that my work speaks the language of fashion. The collaboration was amazing.
Most of the time, it is better to work for yourself, not for some external goal.
Yes, my work is for my own sake. I am not doing anything for anyone; whatever I am building, I am building for myself. And I think when your work is authentic, people want to taste it.
Tell us a bit more about your show at the Dorothy Circus.
I start with the theme. The theme is Let This Be a Sign. And I am the sign. A sign could be a person. A sign can be a sound. A sign can be a description. A sign can be a dream. A sign can be a voice. The inner whispers, the voice telling you what to do. I think we all have those voices, saying okay, I think you need to slow down; I think you need to put more pressure. Most of the time, we get signals from the universe saying: do not board that train, do not keep this friend, do not order this meal, you’re going to regret it. And here we are. Sometimes you just feel like doing the thing anyway because sometimes, we are overexcited to explore or are unable to discern the voices, the signs. Being able to recognise the signs is key. It is good to train your ear to hear these voices and know what your soul and spirit want. Because as human beings, we are not just bodies walking around the streets of London. We are spirits, we are bodies, we are souls. And we need to connect all of those parts, not just from a religious perspective but from a human and a divine perspective. There have been times when I have ignored the signs and faced the consequences. Now, a sign can be good or can be bad. Sometimes there is a string of good signs, and you start to think, oh, I’ve been happy for a few days now. I think my name is on the list of opportunities coming my way. You get the signs; you get these blessings coming. So let us be a sign; let things be a sign. It is an open check. It is relative and subjective. So the idea is that you do not need more signs. Let whatever you are experiencing be a sign. The signs we’ve got are enough. Pick up that job, go to that school. You don’t need any confirmation. Let the things you have be a sign you have been waiting for. Just jump on the train.
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Full look GUCCI, rings BLEUE BURNHAM.
Did you jump on the train?
I knew something big was coming from me. I have no idea what it is; I just see signs and opportunities coming from Gucci and all these other opportunities. I was in The Times, the BBC. I am in London. And these are positive signs. And the art world is looking for, waiting for a moment when someone like me emerges; they are looking for signs. And here I am, the Prince Charming of the art world they are looking for. I am the sign you guys have been waiting for. I am happening. So this is me; let this be a sign you don’t need another one. I’m grateful for this moment in my life. I saw the signs that I would have blessings in my life. And I’m lucky to have good people around me. They could see the signs too. They saw the energy, the vibe, the effect and the demand.
You have notoriously said that your work is “a time machine, it takes the beholders to the past and allows them to envision the future from the present standpoint.” How do you envision the future? Apart from being “the Prince Charming of the art world”, of course.
I read a lot and try to get what’s happening in the news, what’s happening in the art world, and the music industry. I listen to signs and can see where the future is going just by being a good observer.
What brings you joy?
The life I am living now. The fact that everything is happening now. In 2020 I created a painting titled When I Come to London, and it was raining like this, and now I am here, and it is raining. And now, if this isn’t joy, tell me what is.
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At All Cost.
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Shirt and tie GUCCI, rings BLEUE BURNHAM.
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Full look VERSACE.
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Victoria Ascerta.