By Chelsea Young
Nigerian artist Abi Salami did what many people dream of doing. Three years ago she quit a ten year prestigious corporate career to pursue a career in art full time. This Dallas-based artist recently sat down with Bronze to tell us her journey into the art world and what we can expect from her art.
When Abi heard that the company she had been working at for the past seven years was being sold, she began to think about what she would do next. Amidst this unstable time in her corporate life, Abi suddenly had more time to work on her art with the company sale decreasing her workload.
“Just the thought of moving to another company, starting all over, and trying to prove myself just got so overwhelming to me.” Abi explained.
To help her decide what she would do with her life next, Abi turned to the book Power of Your Subconscious Mind. “I put it into my subconscious mind and was like â€˜Tell me what I need to do after I leave.’ and the answer was â€˜You need to be an artist.’”
Once decided, Abi jumped into the art world at full speed, putting everything she had into getting her work out. She applied to every event or open call that would allow her exposure, even if it was not particularly art-related.
“I started building a name for myself here in Dallas, and once that was established, I set my sights on the rest of America.”
When we asked Abi if she knew anything about the art world before she made the decision to pursue art, she chuckled and shook her head no. “I knew nothing,” she stated aloud. “I literally just jumped into the abyss. It was like a leap of faith.”
Abi explained that her naivety was important in getting her to pursue art in the first place. Had she known how hard it really was, she may have reconsidered leaving behind the security of a corporate job.
The hardest part in her journey was trying to get people to take her seriously. With her background being all business, many people questioned whether her art was just merely a hobby or something she had committed to.
“They want to know if this is something you’re going to be doing for a long time.” Abi explained. “Art is very much a social-proof industry. You need people to be writing about you, you need collectors to buy into you, and there is no shortcut to that process.”
Abi described her work as the art she wishes she had seen as a young black girl growing up in America.
“As a person who suffers from mental health issues, it’s very important for me to have art that shows black women loving themselves, caring about their sisters, and engaging in luxury.”
The goal of Abi’s art is to normalize black women being seen as soft and feminine, to draw attention to their being and humanity, things so rarely associated with black women.
“I try to remind people that black women are human too and hopefully it’s a subconscious thing so when people see it, they’ll start to associate blackness with being a human being.”
While Abi has long used art as a form of escapism, it was not until she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that the two started to intertwine.
“Last year was really when I started realizing how powerful my art can be with affecting my mood.” Abi explained. “When I became an artist full time, I wanted to paint about being bipolar and the taboos of mental health. The work I created in 2019 was really dark. You could tell I was in a dark place, and when 2020 rolled around, and all the chaos that was going on, I could not live with that art.”
Abi told us how looking at that art, in addition to the constant news and social media updates, grew to be too much. It created a dark environment she wanted to get away from. “I started painting how I wanted to feel instead, and I could look at my paintings and have an uplifting feeling.”
This was a pivotal time for Abi where she learned she could still paint about mental health and the way it affects people, but instead painted about overcoming these things and what life could look like when you seek help.
Abi is remarkably familiar with the difficulties facing people diagnosed with mental illnesses, as she had to go through the process personally. When first diagnosed back in 2009, she stormed out of the doctor’s office after accusing them of being crazy. She has now come to terms with her diagnosis but still deals with the complications it brings on personal relationships.
“Even till this day, my family and friends are still struggling with how to deal with me whenever they notice that I am going through something, and I think that’s because it is a taboo in society.”
This taboo is especially prevalent in the black community, who’s relationship with mental health is so fractured, we often turn to jokes to cope with trauma instead of working through it.
“I think the black community is starting to open its mind a little more, especially women and gen z. I hope that as they learn and grow this will spread to the men of the community as well.”
What’s next for Abi and her career is quite exciting. She has recently been selected for the Jardin Rouge art residency by artist Dr. Farhamu Pecou for his program entitled “Black/Ness.” Abi, along with six other artists, will travel to Marrakech for 6 weeks where they will work and contribute a piece for the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.
In addition to this residency, Abi has a virtual show set to come out May 8th that is entitled “From Behind the Shadow of a Cactus.” The show will feature 8 pieces based on the imaginary world “Rerinia” Abi created to help heal after a recent break-up.
“It’s a parallel world where black women go whenever they’re stressed out and have gone through heartache. They go there to heal, grow, forgive, and come back to Earth as a higher self, able to help other people within their communities.”