Julius Agbaje

Interview with Julius Agbaje, Winner of the ArtX Prize 2023


Julius Agbaje is a conceptual artist based in Lagos, Nigeria and the 2023 recipient of the Access Bank Art X Prize. Born in 1992, he initially studied computer science but dropped out to focus on his career as an artist. Consequently attending a painting course at Yaba college of Technology, Lagos. 

Inspired by a diverse range of creatives such as Micheal Jackson, Odun Orimolade and Yayoi Kusuma, he works primarily with acrylic on canvas. Creating portraits which grapple with themes such as masculinity, religion and the political instability facing young Lagosians, using his art as a tool for social awareness.

Julius Agbaje

This led to some of his works being adopted as symbols for several placards and poster designs during the #EndSARS protests across the world. A motif across his paintings is the ”headless” male figure, removing the upper half of the figure’s face makes them devoid of clearly identifiable features. 

Julius Agbaje

This does not detract from the poignancy and emotive nature of his work as Agbaje often plays with the space to further explore the themes being puppeteered in his paintings. Julius’s often headless or decapitated paintings explore personal struggles, socio-political issues, spirituality and masculinity. With bright-colored hues, Agbaje has also been able to touch on stereotypical beliefs.

Following his recent achievement as the 2023 ART X PRIZE winner, we caught up with Julius to discuss his artistic process, the symbolism behind some of his paintings and the personal journey that led up to this big win.

Do you remember your first-ever artwork? What inspired it and where were you mentally?

Julius Agbaje: My very first acrylic painting was back in 2014, and I had just finished an academic session. It was a painting of a still-life object, it was a very chilled process. At that moment, nothing was really going through my mind.

What is your relationship with the muses in your painting?

Julius Agbaje: I am one of the biggest muses in my painting. I am the subject I know best since it’s quite difficult to talk about someone else’s experience or talk about my experience using someone else. I decided to start painting more of myself. For most of my work, I am the Muse.

For the first three years of my art, I explored mostly my struggles, social vices, societal ills, discrimination, political issues, and all. My work was very humanistic, although now I feel like it has grown beyond what it used to be, now it is more different because I now have a personal relationship with God which is the basis of how I see life now. Rather than a humanistic perspective which is flawed and can be very argumentative. 

Let’s talk about the headless and decapitated state of most of your paintings, what does it mean?

Julius Agbaje: It’s three things in total. One of which is wanting to obscure the identity of the muse in the painting – I didn’t want people looking at it and seeing a full portrait even if it is a portrait because I found out that revealing the identity of the portrait might be distracting from the message I am trying to convey, because my works are metaphoric and symbolic. So I took away the privilege to decipher who the painting is targeted at.

Secondly, there is a yoruba saying that goes“eni lori o ni fila, eni ni fila o ni ori” i.e. (who has a head doesn’t have a cap, and who has a cap doesn’t have a head). 

I discovered that it’s a common experience, as not everybody is perfect, everyone has a certain kind of flaw and that imbalance in our humanity is what the headlessness in my work entails.

Lastly, my works perceive the human body as a conduit that can hold and dissipate energy, life, transfer emotions and so many things. I believe that everybody has different experiences, which is why I also make the heads hollow to show it’s a container. We are all containers and can decide what energy, conversations, and thoughts we allow in our space, and also if we want these things to pass through other people as well. Because we are conduit and carry different things.

A few of your works center around masculinity. There is a painting of a man in a pair of heels (The Paradox), and in another, there is a man in a crop top positioned in a box (I’m Still A King), men crossing their legs (Boys are Flowers Too II). Can you tell me more about these paintings and what they stand for?

Julius Agbaje: The paintings were from my debut exhibition titled “Flowers Are Boys Too” and these paintings tend to address something as little as, for instance, the color pink- which happened to be my favorite color growing up, I began hearing how this particular color was for girls, this prompted me to explore this stereotype and more stereotypical notions with my work.

Julius Agbaje

The portrait of the man in heels tends to explore the delicate balance that exists between every one of us in the sense that we can be very tender like I said my work is very metaphorical and that was what heels stand for, the idea of lifting a dumbbell while on heels which isn’t the right shoe for such activity, the heels represent the balance of being completely strong and fragile (the idea) that I can be a man does not mean I have to be a rock, I’m allowed to be fragile, soft, vulnerable, and emotional. 

I am human and I want to be accepted in that state of being vulnerable, without being stereotyped in a certain way. I also discovered that heels were designed for men back then, however as the Renaissance happened, things shifted as the wearing of heels became a women’s thing. Same thing with the color pink. These were all the things I was trying to explore in this body of work.  

Congratulations on winning the Art X Prize for 2023, share with us what that means to you?, was it fulfilling in any way?

Julius Agbaje: Winning this year’s Art X Prize was more of a timely happening than it was by chance because I had been nominated in the past. I remember a period of isolation, leading up to this moment which was for a deeper learning of my relationship with God. Winning the Art X Prize was an emotional moment for me because firstly I remember flashing back to when I was still studying Computer Science and having to drop out from school to pursue art, it wasn’t the easiest decision for my parents, though I was the one making the decisions spontaneously they were the one financing my decision. Because back then it wasn’t a popular thing to want to be an artist. However, they were very supportive amidst the ups and downs. So looking at this sort of achievement now it feels like a pat on the back “like oh well done” I hope my parents are proud of me.

What’s next for you as an ART X Prize winner?

Julius Agbaje: I am currently working on Miniature paintings. One thing Miniatures has allowed me to do is invest myself in the work without the thought of monetizing the process or getting people to see the work. It’s more of doing what I want to do without the attention to detail that needs to be there when working on a larger scale. For now, miniature painting is allowing me to reach deeper into the well of ideas that God is currently giving to me at this time. What’s next for me as an Art X Prize winner… like I said, I am on a journey to knowing God and the more I discover my purpose the more I know the direction to take next.


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