Meet Kanye, 14, a 'genius' Nigerian painter with non-verbal autism

Kanyeyachukwu Tagbo-Okeke is exhibiting his paintings at the lobby of The H Dubai

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Kanyeyachukwu Tagbo-Okeke – better known as Kanye – was two years old when he began showing a proclivity towards art, scribbling abstract forms on paper and on the walls of his family’s home in Abuja, Nigeria.

His mother, Silvia Tagbo-Okeke, had not yet considered the significance of the works. “They were non-figurative,” she says. “And it was difficult for us to say, ‘OK, this is art’. He was just doing his thing around the house.”

Tagbo-Okeke did keep a few of his pieces, but as they increased in number, she had no choice but to discard most of them. She did, however, come to notice the marked impact drawing had on Kanye. Her son, who is diagnosed with non-verbal autism, is usually unable to keep still, moving from one action to the next with an erratic demeanour. Yet, as he draws or paints, he is relentlessly focused. He usually has a big smile on his face. Sometimes he even bursts into dance. Art engages him in a way that nothing else can.

“You can see he’s all over the place,” Tagbo-Okeke says. “But when Kanye paints, it’s as if he’s a different person. He can stay still for six hours straight.”

When he was five years old, Kanye’s parents enrolled him in an art class in Abuja. The teacher, Tagbo-Okeke says, was immediately taken by Kanye’s works, telling his mother: “You have brought a genius to us”.

Kanye’s artistry has significantly developed over the past decade, and he has since moved away from the walls of his family home to paint on canvases that have been exhibited across galleries and museums in Europe, the US, Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

The young artist is currently in Dubai – he is presenting 20 paintings in the lobby of The H Dubai, in a solo exhibition titled Spectrum Splendor: A Young Artist's Journey. The exhibition opened on Thursday, marking World Autism Awareness Day, and will be running until Friday. It features works that the young artist, 14, created in the past few years and displays his unique visual sense. The works are on sale, starting from $400 or so, and going up to a few thousand, depending on their size.

Vivid with motion and colour, the paintings range from abstract to figurative pieces. The Bear King, for instance, features the portrait of a man with deep-cast eyes against a crimson backdrop. War With the Dragon depicts a tumultuous scene with stick figures rallying around a swirling dark form. Bold and feverish brushstrokes enliven the painting with drama. Elephant Running in the Zoo, meanwhile, is also composed with a similar frenzied touch. Yet, the work’s blue and purple hues animate the scene with mirth.

The paintings are Kanye’s primary mode of communication. Through his art, Kanye renders the world as he sees it, Tagbo-Okeke says. From everyday interactions to the cartoons he watches, “everything influences his art”. He then titles the works himself with a few sparse descriptions, such as The Supersonic – describing the pillar of overlapping broad strokes of red, blue and yellow looming against an indigo background.

“He’s a man of few words,” Tagbo-Okeke says. “He’d say a word [or a phrase] and then you know what it means, and when you actually think about the word, it corresponds with what he’s doing at that particular time.”

Art is Kanye’s therapy, Tagbo-Okeke says, and she advises parents of other children who are on the spectrum to find a mode of expression they are most comfortable with. “Find out what makes your child happy,” she says. “That’s the most important thing. If your child likes art, and they’re happy doing it, let them express themselves.”

Tagbo-Okeke also stresses the importance of not trying to force them into a specific artistic mode or medium. “Don’t try to cage them to do the kind of art you want,” she says. “Let them do whatever artwork they want. Initially, we were trying to [guide his works] and his art teacher said that we were killing his creativity.”

Besides his artistic output, Kanye is also renowned for his advocacy work as the face of the Kanye Autism Foundation, an initiative that seeks to quell misconceptions about autism.

“In Nigeria, there's still a lot of stigmatisation. A lot of parents are ashamed, a lot of children are hidden,” Tagbo-Okeke says. “We started this awareness campaign to tell parents that no child should be left behind, that they are Fabulous, Autistic and Talented (the initiative’s slogan).”

Kanye even has a gallery in Abuja now, where regular art therapy workshops are conducted. “We just tell people to express themselves, to let feelings flow through painting. Don’t worry whether your paintings are beautiful. Just communicate. Let it all out.”

Tagbo-Okeke says exhibitions such as Spectrum Splendor: A Young Artist's Journey are important because they celebrate the achievements of children who are on the spectrum. “If you create a platform like this for parents to be able to showcase their children’s talents, it not only gives the child a sense of belonging, acceptance and satisfaction, but as parents, you also feel like it’s worthwhile, that somebody can see my child. They don’t see the autism. They see beyond the autism.”

Spectrum Splendor: A Young Artist's Journey is not the first art exhibition to be held at The H Dubai. The hotel regularly hosts artists in its lobby, but Spectrum Splendor is distinctive in the way it merges its creative mission with its dedication to hosting people who are on the spectrum.

The H Dubai is the first in the emirate to earn the Certified Autism Centre badge, receiving the accreditation last year. The hotel’s lighting, scents, colours and even its staff training have been designed with autistic and sensory-sensitive individuals in mind.

“We usually do art exhibitions, but wanted to merge the two [initiatives],” Sophie Blondel, the hotel's general manager, says. “As today is World Autism Awareness Day, we found that today was the right day to [launch] Kanye’s exhibition.”

Spectrum Splendor: A Young Artist's Journey will be running at The H Dubai until Friday

Updated: April 11, 2024, 8:52 AM