Ndume Olatushani couldn't keep his paintings for long after he'd finished them. He was convicted of felony murder, and on death row there are limitations on just about everything, including making art — canvases have to be smaller than 20 inches, paintbrushes have to be clipped down to 4 or 5 inches so they can't be sharpened and used as knives, and having more than one painting in your cell at a time is out of the question. So as Olatushani created painting after painting, colorful works filled with African women, landscapes and culture, he sent each one off to friends and family to keep them safe. Now, a collection of them is at Vanderbilt's Black Cultural Center, on view for anyone to come see. You may even run into the artist while you're there — Olatushani was released from prison in June when his conviction was vacated due to suppressed evidence that in all likelihood would have kept him out of prison. He was in prison for 28 years.
Olatushani taught himself how to paint in the mid-'80s, a few years into his sentence. His artistic path began after he commissioned a fellow death row prisoner to paint a portrait of him to send to his mother, and the result wasn't up to snuff. "Once he did the portrait, I was kind of stuck with it, but it didn't look like me," Olatushani says with a grin. "I said to myself, I could have done a better job than this, and kept my money! I figured that since I was sitting in a cell, there was nothing keeping me from doing it. Once I made that decision, I started right there."
Olatushani speaks of his mother with the kind of tearful, reverent joy that is reserved for only the most saintlike among us. She died in a car accident while he was in prison, but Olatushani says that when you speak to him, it's really his mother you're speaking to — that's how strong her influence is in his life. His mother's presence is evident in his art. Strong women dominate his paintings, especially those like "Fish Market" and "Harvest Time," which focus on women living in African landscapes with brightly colored textiles draped over their bodies like proud flags in the wind.
"Circles" is a portrait of a woman with high cheekbones and curly hair tucked into a Zulu-style headdress. Unlike most of the realistic settings in Olatushani's works, this one has a series of brightly colored circles in the background, arranged as if they were overlapping gels inside a stage spotlight. Olatushani says they represent the different emotions people carry inside themselves.
"I was trying to take this image and encapsulate the range of emotions that are inside of all of us," he explains. "I used to tell people all the time that anger is a human emotion — and it's a good thing! Because there's a lot of stuff going on that should make us mad. As long as you know how to direct your anger in a positive way."
When Olatushani speaks of "Winds of Change," a painting of four women on an African hilltop with their backs facing the viewer, it's easy to forget how dire his situation must have seemed.
"I was still on death row, and I had these ideas about change," he explains. "I knew I wasn't supposed to be there, so I knew there was going to come a time when I would be outside those prison walls and fences. You've got these women who are sitting on this hill, and you can't do anything but put your back against the wind.
"When we walk out that door, if the wind's blowing, we're blowing with it," Olatushani says, as if he has all the patience in the world. "There's nothing we can do about it."