One to Watch

Abi Salami and the Healing Power of Painting

Abi Salami explores the uncanny in the everyday, allowing her subconscious to inform her paintings while using a personal lexicon of symbols to explore memory, mental health, and race, specifically with the aim of destigmatizing mental illness. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, and based in Dallas, Texas, Abi has exhibited her work in Dallas and across the United States, including at The Women’s Museum in Dallas, the African American Museum of Art in Dallas, and Viridian Artists Inc. in New York City. In 2020, she was named one of Saatchi Art’s 35 under 35 Rising Stars, our most prestigious recognition of emerging artists.

Tell us about who you are and what you do. What’s your background?

I am Abi Salami and I am a visual artist based in Dallas, Texas. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, to my parents, Ariyo and Ajibike Salami and we emigrated to the United States when I was ten. I expressed an interest in art from a young age. I would bring drawings as gifts for my paternal grandfather whenever we would go visit him and he encouraged my parents to buy me art supplies so I could continue to create. However, in Nigerian culture, art is seen as a pastime and not a career, so I went to business school instead of art school. However, I never stopped creating. While working at a job that required extensive use of the left side of my brain, I used art as an escape and a way to express myself. Even after leaving the corporate world to chase my art dreams, I still use art as a form of expression and therapy.

What does your work aim to say? What are the major themes you pursue in your work? 

In my work, I like to explore themes that revolve around celebrating Black/African womanhood and destroying the stigma associated with mental health issues. It is important to me to explore these themes in my work because when I look at the work that is being celebrated by the art world, I notice a glaring lack of diverse representation. So in a way, my work is my form of activism, and I use it to “lobby” for underrepresented people and the issues that affect them. In my painting On the Edge of a Beautiful Night, I address how clinging to material things will not provide you with the level of meaningful happiness that appreciating nature and mindfulness can. The female figure sits dangerously close to the ledge, just so she can take in the beautiful sunset. Her Louboutin dangles precariously from her foot and it is clear that she wouldn’t mind if it fell because this moment is more important to her than the shoe.

Can you walk us through your process for creating a work from beginning to end?

Most of the time, I will either see or hear something random that triggers an idea for a piece. Because of this, I always make sure to have my trusty iPad with me in case I get inspired so I can quickly draw up a sketch in Procreate. I have found that I am more willing to take risks and be more experimental in my work when I do my sketches digitally and I believe that has helped to improve my work on canvas. Once the digital sketch is complete, I move to my canvas and use the sketches as a guide. I have noticed that some things that look good on my iPad might not translate too well on the canvas, so I use this stage to make necessary changes and edits to ensure I am happy with the completed piece. Once I think I am done, I like to have the piece laying around my studio for a couple days, so that I can keep seeing it with new eyes and truly decide if I am done with it.

What series or artistic project are you working on next?

I am actually juggling a couple projects at this time. I am partnering with a Dallas-based nonprofit organization called 29 Pieces to create the design for a mural that will be installed at Guzick Elementary [in Dallas, Texas]. The great thing about this project is that the design I will create will be inspired by student drawings and will be painted by the students, parents and members of the community. When 29 Pieces reached out to me about the idea, I fell in love instantly and I am excited to see the completed mural. I am also working on a new series that will revolve around gratitude, because learning to be grateful has helped me a great deal with overcoming my depression.

Why art?

I am the type of artist that is compelled to create. I don’t think I could stop even if I wanted to. I just love to create and the fact that what I create can emotionally move others is just the biggest icing on top of an already delicious cake. For many years, art has been what healed me and allowed me to express myself and I am satisfied knowing that it can help others heal too.

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