Emmanuel Osahor is a Nigerian-born visual artist soon to be sworn in as a Canadian citizen. He is a keen observer of social and economic inequities, and one of the three shortlisted artists for the 2021 Eldon + Anne Foote Visual Arts Prize.
In 2010, at the age of seventeen, Emmanuel Osahor took an enormous risk: With his parents’ blessing, he left Nigeria to begin studies at the University of Alberta. After the dire poverty alongside extreme wealth of his home city of Lagos (population 21 million), Osahor expected to find nothing short of utopia. He envisioned beautiful houses set against verdant lawns and, as friends repeatedly told him, “You live in Canada so everything is great.”
Osahor’s new life in Edmonton flourished. The arts community welcomed him with open arms and he proceeded to win numerous grants and prizes, including becoming one of three shortlisted artists for the 2021 Eldon & Anne Foote Visual Arts Prize, established with the generous support of Eldon and Anne Foote at Edmonton Community Foundation in partnership with the Edmonton Arts Council and CARFAC Alberta, which supports Alberta’s visual artists.
While his own career blossomed, Osahor began to learn about Canada’s colonial legacy and was startled observe the same inequalities he witnessed in Lagos playing out in the middle of Edmonton. So, alongside his courses in the Department of Art and Design, Osahor also hoped to learn how things could be run differently. “[In Nigeria] I was middle class but felt powerless,” he says. “I couldn’t change peoples’ circumstances.” He began to address social inequalities in the best way he knew: through art.
In one of his earliest professional projects, The Valley (2016 – 2017), Osahor clambered through the North Saskatchewan River Valley to meet its homeless inhabitants and photograph their shelters. Some of the people he met had lost their jobs and expected to live under a tarp for a few days, while others lived there permanently. Despite receiving permission, the sense of being privileged and invasive still haunts Osahor. “They gave me the gift of photographing but I got to go back to my shelter,” he says.
Osahor’s recent paintings continue the theme of shelters and sanctuaries, but his motives have reversed: Now it’s he who seeks spaces of refuge and solace. Between the pandemic and the calamitous 2020 news cycle, Osahor found it increasingly hard to paint. “Part-way though spring, I realized that my mental health wasn’t the best,” he says. He was also having more conversations with friends of colour “thinking about the resurgence around anxieties of being Black in North America.”
To get some relief from constant doom-scrolling, Osahor began to take walks and photograph neighbourhood gardens. “Sometimes we are drawn to beauty as we are trying to make sense of very difficult things,” he explains. “The beauty provides a respite; it creates a space for you to begin to process the unconscious turbulence.” The resulting photographs, torn and collaged, formed the starting point for a series of immersive oil paintings exhibited at the Art Gallery of Guelph in 2021. This show, For a Moment, culminated Osahor’s Master of Fine Arts Degree at the University of Guelph.
As a 17-year-old-boy stepping off a flight from Nigeria, it would have been hard for Osahor to imagine the stellar career that awaited. And his accomplishments continue to mount: Osahor is about to enter a PhD program in Art History at Queen’s University. This trajectory takes him increasingly farther from Edmonton. Yet, No Place (McMullen Gallery, 2019), his parting show shortlisted for the Eldon & Anne Foote Prize, helps him remember his second home. “I made the show for people in Edmonton, so to get the recognition was really great,” he says. “I don’t know when I get to return so it’s nice to have something tethering. It’s not just done and dusted.”
For the past 10 years the Eldon + Anne Foote Edmonton Visual Arts Prize has recognized outstanding artists from the Capital region. To celebrate, the Art Gallery of St. Albert is hosting the first ever exhibition in association with this award. In Good Company features award winners Preston Pavlis, Lauren Crazybull, aAron Munson and Gillian Willans, alongside the artists from the 2021 short list, including Emmanuel Osahor, Sharon Rose Kootenay and Jason Symington. Work by these seven incredible artists hang side by side, connected by their shared experience with the award, while offering a glimpse into their individual practices.
In Good Company runs November 9, 2021, to February 5, 2022. Plan your visit here.