Meet the Moroccan-Ghanaian artist exploring Black identity through surrealism

CNN  — 

Sunsets in marigold yellow and fuchsia pink; metallic-hued skulls nestled in deserts of cotton-candy sand. Silhouetted panthers prowl, whales are suspended in azure skies, and hands twist together, watched carefully by an all-seeing eye.

These are just a few of the signature motifs in David Alabo’s surrealist artworks. Like the genre’s most famous pioneer, Salvador Dali, the Moroccan-Ghanaian artist’s work is a tapestry of symbols, which he uses to explore themes of death, isolation and the future.

But while Dali worked with mediums including oil paint, sketch and film, Alabo’s work is created in a virtual reality space. The artist, who is currently based in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, uses 3D sculpting software, VR headsets, and a suite of digital editing tools to create his striking images. It’s a fitting medium for his sci-fi imagery, where African landscapes take on an alien quality, with moons and planets looming in star-spangled galaxies or faded dusky skies.

Although he explores Black identity through these alternate, unconventional landscapes, his work is not about escapism, but empowerment, Alabo said.

“Sometimes, the nature of being a Black person in this world can be a surreal experience on its own,” said Alabo. “I feel like it’s empowering when you can see a Black person thriving in an unexplored place.”

Folklore and the future

While Alabo’s work spans genres, his art is often labeled “Afrofuturist,” a creative style that combines a science-fiction aesthetic with history and fantasy. Marvel’s 2018 movie Black Panther drew attention to the genre, creating a flurry of interest in work like Alabo’s.

While he doesn’t reject the label, Alabo feels his work falls more into the surrealist category. “I’m not bound to conventional ideas of what Afrofuturism or Afrosurrealism is, because I’ve situated myself in a position where the work can be surreal, but then the medium in which I work it through can be futuristic,” he said.

Exploring the subconscious and dreams, his preoccupation with myths and legends is another hallmark of surrealism — but unlike the European artists who dominated the movement in the 20th century, Alabo is focused on African folklore, rather than Greek and Roman mythology.

“African culture, at least in Ghana, and the folklore and stories I grew up hearing as a child are super surreal or abstract,” Alabo said. “They still serve as inspiration for my work.”

"Divine Opulence" was used by HBO in its virtual reality event for fans of the TV show "Lovecraft Country."

He sees his art as, “reinterpreting African culture or heritage through new media,” pushing the boundaries of traditional art to create immersive experiences. Last year, Alabo’s work “Divine Opulence” was used by HBO (owned by CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia) in a virtual event for fans of the TV horror show, “Lovecraft Country.” Using a VR headset, guests explored the artwork, which had been “translated into this whole world with music and dynamics and sound,” he said.

While many Afrosurrealist works from the US focus on themes of colonialism, slavery and racism, such as Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” and Jordan Peele’s film “Get Out,” Alabo’s work veers more to the aspirational. “I don’t want to do a disservice by not trying to incorporate that into the art, but there are (other) artists that can do that,” he explained. “I’m imagining futures or imagining realities where we’re thriving.”

But in exploring Black identity, these topics are often unavoidable, and Alabo says they are “common threads” that unite Afrosurrealist work around the world. One of his works, “Justice,” was created in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests in 2020. The symbolism of the artwork — a black panther, a raised fist, a sword, a tear drop and a rose — encapsulated the grief of the Black community around the world, while still marching forward in the fight against systemic racism.

"High Priestess" (left), designed for a range of tarot-inspired t-shirts, explores mysticism and spirituality. "Justice" (right), was created in 2020 to offer solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests.

While still acknowledging these important issues, Alabo said he wants his work to walk the “fine line between paying respects to the past, but also not allowing it to dictate your future, or your perspective on the future.”

Isolation and displacement

The otherworldly landscapes Alabo creates in his art are inspired by the different countries he grew up in, he said. His father worked as a diplomat, and Alabo was born in Rome and spent his childhood years in Italy, India, and Russia.

“I feel like it’s a reflection of me navigating these strange places or these places where I wouldn’t necessarily even see another Black person,” Alabo said.

His art is filled with small, lonely figures, standing in vast, empty desert landscapes that echo the geography of Morocco, where his mother is from. “I think my art centers around these themes of isolation, or reflection, or displacement, because it’s tough to be in that kind of situation,” he added. “Art is like a gift for me to finally share my own strange upbringing.”

But this isolation isn’t necessarily negative. “Solitude can be extremely empowering and it can be a tool for positive change,” said Alabo. “When you really sit down and you clear the noise, I feel like that can be our purest moments as humans.”

‘Beyond the digital’

In November 2021, Alabo fulfilled one of his long-time ambitions with a solo exhibition at Nigeria’s international art fair, ART X Lagos.

Covid-19 restrictions and travel disruptions meant that many audience members could only view the exhibition online, so Alabo extended his physical display into a digital one. By using the gyroscope function built into smartphones, he created a virtual reality experience that didn’t require goggles.

Having worked with several international brands, such as Amsterdam-based streetwear label Daily Paper, Alabo is hoping to collaborate with more Ghanaian creators. For his most recent project, he created a series of limited edition skateboard decks as part of a crowdfunding campaign for the Freedom Skate Park in Accra, which opened in December 2021.

David Alabo (pictured) holds one of his limited edition skateboard designs at the recently opened Freedom Skate Park in Accra, Ghana.

Another goal for 2022 is to create a studio space for “counterculture” artists in Accra, where he has lived for the past four years.

“The scene here, at least in Accra, is very much driven by traditional portrait art. I think it’s really cool, but it doesn’t speak to the breadth and scope of talent that we have here,” he said. His vision is to have a space where artists can experiment with different tools, mediums and styles, so that virtual reality artists like himself have a physical community to work in.

“That’s the plan for 2022,” he said, “create something here that could live beyond the digital.”

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