A photograph of Oluwafemi standing in front of a large monitor displaying a bright blue image of the continent of African with in vertical stripes against a backdrop of crisscrossing diagonal lines.
Oluwafemi and his digital artwork. Photo by Morgan Gengo.

What a DJ Hears When He Looks at Art

Oluwafemi, Rhythmist & Andrea Lewis, former museum Fellow

Andrea Lewis talks to Philly DJ and composer Oluwafemi about his practice and the art that inspires his music.

Photograph of Oluwafemi adjusting knobs on an AKAI Pro Ableton controller. The desk he is working at also shows a notepad and pen, a laptop, and assorted other electronic devices. Oluafemi is wearing a black Vinyl Tap t-shirt.
Oluwafemi at work. Photo by Morgan Gengo.

AL: Tell us about your residency in September in the Early American Art galleries—how did it come about, and how did you spend your time? What were your goals for the residency?

O: The museum had invited me to deejay a block party intended to welcome the public back to the PMA in August, but the event was canceled due to COVID fears. So Greg Stuart, a museum educator and coordinator of adult public programs, designed this residency to bring the DJs back to the museum to respond to some of the art in the galleries. When we met, I explained that my artistic practice was both musical and visual, and based in patterns. The residency idea grew quickly after that. We added a video art component to the music set and planned a residency so that museum guests would be able to view my process.

At the end of my residency, I performed a piece that I composed over the course of the month. The rest of my time in the museum was spent engaging the public in my process. On one of the days, I hosted a drawing club, where visitors convened in the space in front of the gallery to make art in each other’s company. My primary goals for this residency were to amplify the presence of African and Indigenous art in the space through a futuristic video art piece, and to engage the public in my practice of rhythmism. I define rhythmism as the practice of creating expressions through repetition. I believe every imaginable object contains some sort of repetition.

AL: As a DJ, what do you find inspiring about those galleries? Which objects resonate with you the most?

O: The erasure of the history and influence of Black and Indigenous artists and makers in the United States inspired me to focus primarily on the objects made by these groups. I chose a group of door ornaments that may have been inspired by Adinkra symbols, which originated with the Bono people in what is now known as Ghana. I also chose a Wampum belt that was used in the first treaty between William Penn and the Lenape, and a beautifully ornamented satchel and strap made by Lenape people. The beautifully beaded belt and satchel is reminiscent of the importance of beads in African culture.

A beaded brown and white sash featuring three diagonal stripes and two figures holding hands. The ends of the belt are fringed.
“Wampum belt,” 1682, likely made by Lenape women artisans. Made in the Delaware Valley. On temporary loan from the Board of Trustees of the Atwater Kent Museum (Philadelphia History Museum), the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, and the City of Philadelphia 86-2020-3

AL: How do music and the visual arts intersect and inform one another creatively?

O: There are many parallels between the visual and musical arts. In my practice, a few of these are frequently important. For example, compositions in both artforms materialize similarly. The subject of a painting may be accompanied by other objects which serve to highlight it. In the same way, when creating music, one might start with a melody, then write other musical parts in harmony and rhythm, that accentuate the main melody.

Repetition and rhythm are also commonly used in music; different instruments played at selected intervals are used in combination to create a feeling. Likewise, much of pattern-based visual art relies on this same application of rhythm to various motifs, which are often combined to form layered and complex expressions.

It has been my experience that humans employ music and visual art in most rituals and celebrations. From the church to the club, events that gather humans often require a specially curated space and a similarly designed soundscape. For instance, at a musical concert, the event building, light fixtures, video screens, and even the musicians’ fashion are all part of the visual component, while the music itself becomes the soundscape. Similarly, at a wedding reception, the visual landscape includes various ornaments used to decorate a space, the attires of the different groups of attendees, the specially curated and presented food. The musical component might be a band or a deejay. The space cannot exist without both visual and musical arts working in tandem.

AL: What do you see as the role of patterns and visual motifs in the galleries, and how do they relate to your music?

O: The different patterns and visual motifs in the galleries are a record of the imagery that was deemed important to the artists and their communities at the time the art was made. These visual journals may transport the viewer back in time to when they were made. They inspire wonder about the circumstances of living in those times, and the connections between the artistic themes and our own lived experiences. The music I chose for the final performance was informed by the parent cultures of the pieces I responded to. The recent history of the interaction of both African and Indigenous cultures in the Americas has yielded different music genres like salsa, samba, merengue and cumbia.

AL: What makes Philadelphia such a vibrant place to encounter and create art?

O: Philadelphia is such a great city to make and engage with art because it is incredibly diverse in culture and has a long history of cultivating all forms of art. Although it may be quite segregated in some parts, Philadelphia hosts people from all around the globe, which in turn makes it an ideal place to learn and be inspired by people of other cultures. As one of the bigger cities on the East coast, it has also been home to a variety of world-renowned artists, including chefs, musicians, dancers, as well as those in theater and the visual arts. Beautiful murals adorn many of the walls in Philly, and different delicious musical sounds of all genres pour out from its many venues, which feature the best live music and deejays in the country.

Oluwafemi is a rhythmist based in Philadelphia, by way of Lagos, Nigeria. His work is a continuous exploration and expression of the infinite ways in which repetition manifests in our universe. He has been making music and visual art for over 15 years, working in different roles such as graphic designer, muralist, video jockey, and music producer.

Andrea Lewis is formerly the Catherine Hannah Behrend ArtTable Fellow in the museum’s Education department. She is a proud Berkeley, California native. Having recently graduated from Lewis and Clark College with a BA in Art History and World Languages and Literatures, she is now living in Toulouse, France where she is currently teaching and co-creating Plural, an online art gallery.

Drop by for Drawing Club with Oluwafemi on February 18, 2022.