by SHERRY SMITHER
photos by Walter Segers and Soko Negash
AS SOON AS the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair opened, business was brisk for painter Raoul Olou.
“My paintings were moving pretty fast, I sold two in the first hour, then three more. People came in and started asking about my work, especially about a crane painting,” says Olou. “The crane was at Dufferin and Queen Street where there used to be a lot of artist spaces that have been turned into condos and I wanted to document it. I made that, and there’s another painting of a crane that’s standing by itself and I called it, Former Honest Ed that was literally at the location where Honest Ed’s was,” explains Olou. “It’s interesting to show what is happening right now and I explained that to them.”
It turned out that one of people inquiring about Olou’s crane painting was Neil Brochu, curator of the City of Toronto Art Collection. The trio was going from booth to booth making pre-selections for the City of Toronto Mayor’s Purchase Award, presented at the annual art fair. Olou didn’t expect anything to come of it, until Mayor Tory stopped by.
“After I explained what my work was about and where I was working at the moment, he was really interested in the painting of the crane in front of Honest Ed’s.” Olou laughs as he remembers one of Mayor Tory’s jokes. “Don’t you know, the official bird of the City of Toronto is the crane,” Olou recalls. “Yes, they are everywhere,” says the artist. “To me, it’s very important to document how the city is changing.”
Brochu returned to Olou’s booth later that day to congratulate him on winning the Mayor’s Purchase Award and to let him know they were buying three of his paintings: Coincidence? but not really, depicting a box truck in a scene after dark; Former Honest Ed, the construction site where Honest Ed’s store was located; and I can see the moon from here, capturing the area where artist studios once stood. Each award-winning painting is 8-inches by 10-inches, oil and acrylic on panel.
“I was so excited,” says Olou. “When I delivered the paintings, Neil said they hadn’t decided where they will be displayed, but he will find a place in City Hall in the fall.” Olou’s paintings are now part of the City of Toronto Art Collection, displaying about 2,600 pieces in buildings across Toronto.
July was a busy month for Olou, as soon as he packed up at the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair; he had to prepare for his exhibit, An Index, at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) July 25 until September 8, 2019. Olou is one of 30 artists selected by the Akin Studio Program for their residency at MOCA that encourages artists to interact and share their expertise.
“It was pretty intense because the week before the show I had taken part in the art fair, so I was still working to finish pieces for that and for the show at MOCA. I was planning to do a small 24-inches by 36-inches painting, but since I almost sold out of all my paintings at the fair, I was left with almost nothing, I had to restart a new piece.”
Olou had little time to prepare for the installation for An Index, but decided to create a seven-foot painting, Melina, a portrait of the museum art worker who previously worked with him during their residency. The painting is part of his ongoing series exploring hierarchy, belonging and invisible labour in artistic spaces.
“In my head it made sense. I was so energized by the art fair and the direction of my work, I felt I had to make something massive and push myself,” says Olou. “I really like to exercise on speed, I don’t like spending too much time on a piece. This took seven days, working 10 hours a day.”
Olou knew he wanted to paint a portrait of Melina but didn’t want something too staged. “One day when we were finishing our shift and were walking downstairs, I said, ‘Ohhhh do that move again’ and I took the photo.” From that image he painted the portrait.
Although Olou’s background is in film and animation, he sees himself as an artist and a documentarian. “I like to take a record of things, that’s why I wanted to paint the art worker. There won’t be a museum without workers, they are very important but oftentimes when you go to the museum, you won’t notice those people. Painting is my way to document that dynamic,” he says.
Approached by Toronto Freedom School, a three-week program teaching Black children about their Canadian heritage, Olou made Africville, a moving six-minute animated film, documenting the displaced Black community of Bedford Basin, Halifax. The group was ultimately forced out of their homes by city officials in the 1960s. Rather than focus on the hardships residents faced, Olou calls attention to the beauty of the people and their accomplishments over the years.
The multi-talented artist left his birthplace of Senegal at 17 to work in London, New York and Paris, where Olou studied animation. Paris was the first place he really learned about the art scene. “Animation is such a rigorous art form and living in Paris taught me how to be demanding of my work,” he says.
Eight years later, Olou left Paris for Montreal, looking to bring new life into his animation. “I was working in animation, but I felt burnt out. When I moved to Toronto, I started painting when I met my mentor, Keita Morimoto and took classes at Studio West, which was only two-and-a-half years ago,” Olou says.
“With animation, I had to give life to something on the computer and I felt depleted. With painting, I feel energized,” he says. “I literally have 12-hour days, but I have so much energy. It’s hard to explain with painting – I feel so much love!”