African American artist, Abbey Onikoyi, depicts African women – and some men – in most of his paintings. While he was born and raised in Nigeria, he has been an American citizen for several decades. Onikoyi claims to paint because of the energy in San Luis Obispo.
When he moved to the county in 2002, he had a strong background in advertising – specifically, a creative director making $150,000 a year – looking for a job in advertising. It wasn’t long before he realized that there were not a lot of jobs in that field available in the area. While living in Los Osos, he began checking out books on painting from the Los Osos Library where he learned technique. Eventually, he had his first art exhibit in the Los Osos Library and later opened a studio and gallery in downtown San Luis Obispo in the Creamery.
“Los Osos was the beginning of life for me,” Onikoyi said. Not only did Onikoyi show his art in the library, but he also got a part-time job telling stories to children.
“They made me not miss home,” Onikoyi said. “They made me not see color – they made me forget they are white people. I was treated like I’m a super star.”
While he has moved his gallery several times in SLO, including one move from the Creamery to a large space on Higuera Street, he’s back in the Creamery with his energetic and vibrant painting on display. “The incredible energy and color emanates from SLO,” he said. “I came here and saw the spirit of here.”
He said he had tried leaving SLO three times, only for the universe to send him right back. “I love moving around,” Onikoyi said. “Life is ups and downs. It makes you adjust – learn. Because that is what life is all about – learning and adjusting.”
Because he likes to shake up his life, he decided to leave SLO. The first time he tried moving to San Diego, the next Santa Barbara and, most recently, Santa Fe. In May 2013, he closed up his gallery on Higuera Street and went to New Mexico. He thought he found his home in Santa Fe, but what he found, instead, was incredible sadness in how the Native Americans are treated there, which affected his painting. His paintings from Santa Fe are nothing like what he’s painted in SLO.
“I couldn’t paint my Goddesses, I was painting abstracts,” Onikoyi said. “I thought ‘what is wrong with me?’ I was so confused. Whatever the energy, it just wasn’t right for me. I’m that transparent, what you give me is what I paint.”
He said that when he made the decision to return to SLO, he immediately painted one of the goddesses which hangs in his gallery today – unless someone bought it.
“I would have never painted like this in my life if not for the energy here,” Onikoyi replied.
He returned to SLO in October 2013 and has learned his lesson – third time’s a charm – and won’t be trying to leave the area anytime soon. Each time, he said, he told God to let him know if it weren’t the right thing for him. He did ask for just a small sign, but a big smack-in-the-head sign. Sometimes, Onikoyi said, it took more than one sign to get him back to SLO.
“The majority of the people here are just incredible,” Onikoyi said. “Who doesn’t want to come to the happy town? I am one of those that think this town has incredible soul.”
And incredible to Onikoyi it is. While he was in Santa Fe, one of his friends who owns several hotels in the county, stored his paintings and drums, and when Onikoyi returned to SLO gave him a place to stay, at no cost. He said he’s been finding that kind of welcome everywhere he goes in SLO. He asked God if was him to talk to all the people showing him incredible love.
“I can’t help but glow every day,” he said with obvious love. “My heart is wide open because of the love they give me here. There is some angel in this place.”
Onikoyi collects and sends books back to Africa. He shared a story of people at the Los Osos Library giving him boxes upon boxes of books left over from a book sale. About eight people, he said, came with the books and helped to package and mail them to Africa.
“They knock my socks off. I met so many incredible souls,” Onikoyi said. “When you are happy, you see happiness. When you are sad, you see sadness. … I owe so much to these incredible souls in Los Osos and SLO – words cannot say how much I love them here. They have shown me what love is about.”
A United States citizen since 1989, Onikoyi has lived all over the country since his move from Africa. In Nigeria, he came from an educated family, has 17 brothers and sisters and is a descendent of Nigerian royalty. Because he came from an educated family, he did not learn drumming while in Africa. He actually learned it from a young white man in SLO. He said that many people perceive that he paints Africans and does African drumming because he is from Africa. He disputes that and said that he learned it all in SLO.
“I don’t think I really enjoyed my life until I settled here,” he said.
As a creative director, he said he had plenty of money in the bank, but no time to enjoy life. Now, he has little money in the bank, but plenty of time to enjoy life, and he loves it.
Onikoyi’s gallery, Spirits of Africa, is located in the Creamery at 570 Higuera St. in suites 165 and 175. Samples of his work can be viewed at www.spiritsofafricagallery.com.