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The walls of Aniekan Udofia’s tiny studio in Adams Morgan are covered with images that showcase his leftist politics. In one painting, a boy holds an automatic pistol to his head, a portrait of urban upheaval; in another, two small children glare at the viewer, one armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
But beside this hard-hitting image? A portrait of James Brown, live in concert.
Indicating the child soldier painting, the 31-year-old artist says, “Nobody will buy that and put it in their living room.”ï»¿ A closer inspection of his studio shows that portraits of hip-hop celebrities such as Ice Cube, Nas, and the Notorious B.I.G. outnumber the edgier images of kids with guns. “People want to soften it up,” Udofia says, but “you need to see that to know what’s going on.”
Since moving to the District in 1999, the Nigerian transplant’s graffiti-influenced work has showcased American-style violence. His murals, a familiar sight in Adams Morgan, pack less punch: Images of multiracial children playing together greet visitors to “Champorama Park” at Ontario and Kalorama Roads NW, and a memorial to a slain teenager looms over basketball players in Walter Pierce Park off Calvert Street NW.
But, even when his inspiration is an old bar trick, Udofia prefers to shock.
“This is how my friend quit smoking,” he says, plucking a pack of Marlboros from a table smeared with paint. Udofia turns the pack upside down and covers the bottom half of the Marlboro logo with a piece of paper; the spikes of the “M” and the “L” look like one man lynching another. In a recent work, Udofia re-created this scene and affixed a box of cigarettes to the corner of the canvas.
“Just think about that every time you buy Marlboro Lights,” he says.
Udofia traces the roots of his in-your-face aesthetic to Norman Rockwell’s unrelenting caricatures and takes inspiration from Jean-Michel Basquiat. But his penchant for the macabre, he believes, has kept him at the periphery of D.C.’s arts scene.ï»¿ï»¿ “Over here, everything has to be proper,” Udofia says. “That is what makes D.C. hard.”
For an artist who learned his chops drawing signs for barbershops in Nigeria, however, gallery shows are irrelevant. Instead, Udofia has opted for a more unexpected venue: CD/Game Exchange.
“The stuff started out mostly musical,” says Jason Kowalewski, manager of the store’s 18th Street location. Udofia was a regular customer when he started consigning custom T-shirts alongside used CDs. Many display garden-variety hip-hop imagery—the Tupac school of portraiture—but others, such as an anti-McDonald’s eat or die design, convey overt political barbs.” People buy more mainstream stuff,” Kowalewski says. “The political ones just get reaction.”
Udofia isn’t bothered by the quirks of the marketplace—his politically themed T-shirts may bring in less money than portraits of hip-hop’s elite, but they still sell steadily. “I’m not sure who’s rockin’ this like it’s funny,” he says of the eat or die image. “But the message is sent.”
Though Udofia claims he is “trying to get away from celebrity stuff,” Warhol’s influence—albeit in agitprop form—has yet to be excised from his work. Currently, he has one famous starlet–turned–United Nations goodwill ambassador on his to-do list.
“I’m working on Angelina Jolie now,” he says. “She’s holding a fishing rod with an African kid on the end, showing off her catch.”