Yaounde Olu: Atomic Energies and Black Struggle

Yaounde Olu, Prize Fighters, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.

Yaounde Olu, Prize Fighters, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.

Yaounde Olu’s Prize Fighters, 1972, one of the ten artworks recovered from the 1978 art theft at the Center, remains in the Center’s collection today. Inspired by George Bellow’s 1924 painting of of a famous fight between Dempsey and Firpo, Olu’s composition reimagines the fight as an ongoing moment of collision between the two boxers. The figures’ lean musculature is flattened into a pattern of alternating neon colors clashing in front of an electric orange background. The painting’s original title, Conflict, hints at a possible broader metaphorical struggle between the black and white figures—certainly reflecting persistent racial tensions in the 1970s after the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

Yaounde Olu at South Side Commnuity Art Center exhibition "Black Art is Alive and Well in Chicago," 1973. Archives of the South Side Community Art Center.

Yaounde Olu (left) at South Side Commnuity Art Center exhibition “Black Art is Alive and Well in Chicago,” 1973. Archives of the South Side Community Art Center.

Olu’s paintings, illustrations, and sculptures were exhibited at the South Side Community Art Center in the 1973 Black Art is Alive and Well in Chicago, a joint exhibition of works by Olu and sculptor Douglas Williams (a current Board member of the Center). Olu’s graphic style is well suited to her imaginative compositions that combine tribal African designs and symbols with sleek, futuristic imagery, with totemic figures adorned in patterns and immersed in fields of color.

Yaounde Olu, Super Fly Revisited, acrylic, 50 x 40 inches

Yaounde Olu, Super Fly Revisited, c. 1973, acrylic, 50 x 40 inches

As in Prize Fighters, Olu has often put her visual language of spiritual and scientific energies to the task of developing sharp critiques of social conditions and cultural representations. Super Fly Revisited is a large scale acrylic painting that reimagines the main character from Gordon Parks, Jr.’s film Super Fly (1972) as a skeleton. In a recent interview she described the painting as a critique of Blaxploitation films and the drug culture they celebrated. The bright colors do little to ease the specter of death and violence, as the skeleton-pimp stands proudly over the figure of a woman cast down beneath him. In a smaller photomontage titled Atom’s Adam, Olu takes up a similar cautionary tone evoking the dangers of atomic bombs. A stippled atomic cloud rises from the horizon with black balls of radioactive energy, or “Atom’s Apples,” emerge from its core. A photograph of a young Olu, face adorned with painted symbols, appears as an oracle of the potential dangers of scientific knowledge.

Yaounde Olu, Atom's Adam, mixed media

Yaounde Olu, Atom’s Adam, c. 1973, mixed media

Today, Olu is ambivalent about using the term Afro-futurism to describe her work despite her associations with Sun Ra in the 1970s. She maintains that her imagery originates from own vision and imagination. Regardless, the distinct vision and imaginative forms in Olu’s artworks refer to a moment in the Black Arts Movement in which artists were looking to an African past and envisioning the possibility of black liberation in futuristic terms.

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