An award-winning artist, Awelewa used photography to turn his neurodiversity into an advantage. The Nigerian and one-time writer speaks to Antony Rahman about his creative process, using “regular people” as his models, and the highs and lows of his artistic journey.
Awelewa Charles has always had a unique way of finding meaning in his surroundings. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Awelewa grew up with a condition known as ‘Low latent inhibition’, which causes one's perception to be inundated with a sometimes overwhelming level of stimuli. Though to many this would be a burden, Awelewa turned it into his superpower, learning to channel it into a source of creativity.
By the age of 20, during his final year as a biochemistry undergraduate, Awelewa found himself hungry for a better means to express that creativity. His interest in taking photos began with an increased attention to the emotions of other people, with his condition aiding him in finding meaning and wonder in things that may seem mundane, or even insignificant, to others.
Rather than finding photography, Awelewa says that photography found him, providing him with a better way to express his ideas than writing ever was. “I started seeing beauty in desolate places, and in everyday objects.” Accumulating those experiences is what Awelewa believes makes his style unique to him.
The common theme across all of Awelewa’s photographs is that they are meant to tell a story from his own life. “I put all of my emotions and hidden feelings in them,” he says. “They are my autobiography, my life story.” He first started creating art as a writer, but he has since found that photography allows him to be vulnerable in a way that words never did.
He often receives messages from other people who relate to his photos and their captions, thanking him for conveying scenarios and thoughts that they could so closely relate to. “Being able to transfer feelings and emotions to others, being able to connect like that, is a gift I do not take for granted. It is what makes me feel truly human, and never alone.”
One of Awelewa’s recent pieces is his photograph, A Letter to Death. “I created A Letter to Death because I lost someone who was like a sister to me, and that was my coping mechanism.” Awelewa explains that the piece serves as a channel for the very rawest form of his own personal grief, a way to mourn, but the sincerity and honesty of that emotion spoke to a number of people who were coping with their own losses.
To communicate that feeling of connection Awelewa goes out of his way to work exclusively with regular people, non-professional models, as his subjects. “I work with regular people. My friends, my juniors, people from my church.” Oftentimes, the people who best portray the stories that Charles wants to tell are strangers he sees passing by in the course of his day. Like Tania Rivilis and Jam Baumgartner, Charles inevitably finds himself drawn to people he sees who inspire him, and oftens invites them to participate in his work. Astoundingly, Awelewa says that he has never received a negative response from anyone he has approached.
“I never tell someone modelling to pose this way, or stand that way. I only ever speak to them about what emotion I am trying to convey with the photograph, and ask them to remember a time in their life when they most strongly felt that emotion. In that moment, they become the most unfiltered version of their true self, and I capture that.”
In 2020, Awelewa won 35 Awards' Best Mobile Photograph of the year award for his piece Bare (Innocence). “It was incredibly meaningful to me,” Awelewa says. Coming from an organisation with 55,000 participants across 174 countries, the award provided Awelewa with recognition that he had lacked throughout his career. “There is no better feeling for me, as an artist, to be recognised for my craft; it gave me hope. it was the ray of light I needed at that time to keep going.”
Awelewa describes the beginning of his artistic journey as a lonely one. The style and subject matter of his photography were rather eccentric and sometimes difficult for others to relate to. It was also incredibly difficult at the time for Awelewa to turn photography into a source of income, as mostly the kind of photography that sold in the area was more focused on portraits and daily events.
Despite this, Awelewa could not stop: photography was not just a dream career, but a form of therapy. Web3 has given him the opportunity to directly connect with collectors and fans who deeply appreciate his creativity and the stories behind his artwork.
Awelewa was brought into web3 by his friend and fellow artist Wale Adebisi. “Awelewa, there is hope for us here,” Awelewa recalls him saying, before recounting his journey. “I have had so much success and met so many amazing people in the NFT community. I could not have imagined it before.”
Awelewa brings this introspective and thoughtful approach to all of the art he creates, and it shows in the vibrancy and intensity of each piece. His main goal for the future is to inspire people, especially young artists, to be their true selves. He wants his work to help people feel that they are not alone, that their feelings, whether exuberant happiness or heartrending grief, are shared by someone, somewhere.
“Don't lose your true self, and never rush greatness. Getting into this space can be a lot for anyone, it can be distracting, disorienting. But never stop believing in yourself, or why you started doing this work. Have patience, persistence and self-confidence, and never lose them.”
“There is no better feeling for me, as an artist, to be recognised for my craft; it gave me hope.”
— Awelewa Charles
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