Austrian-Nigerian artist Tyrone Egbowon is a truth-seeker cut of his own cloth. Experimenting with artistic disciplines from abstract sculptures to oil paintings, there is no practice that the self-taught artist devotes himself entirely to. We sat down with the young man to discuss his upbringing, creative process and the layers of grief.
It is a cloudy afternoon in the 3rd district of Vienna and Tyrone’s art studio is hidden behind the entrance of an old cobblestone pathway. We’re seated on a soft beige sofa, quite a contrast to the scenery that surrounds us, with bits and artworks entangled in every direction and material imaginable - quite fitting to the artist’s aesthetic. Tyrone explains that he was recommended this place by a person on the internet and he is now renting the space with another artist named Nico. Over a cup of tea, we exchange a few laughs on the fact that his friend’s art pieces are a spitting image of the late Egon Schiele’s painting style - A famous Austrian expressionist also known for being eccentric and mysterious.
For those who are not yet familiar with your work; Who is Tyrone Egbowon?
(Sighs). This is probably the hardest question you can ask to an individual. Well, first and foremost, I’m an artist, a painter and most importantly, I am just a kid living in his own world. Truthfully, this is my idea of fun and I hope it translates into hard work. Also, I create sculptures and design clothes. To the core, I am a creative person trapped in the body of a little kid.
Right. Do you mind sharing where you are based and from? How was your upbringing?
Yes, sure. I was born and raised in Vienna however, my mother is originally from Croatia and my father is Nigerian. Obviously, that makes me a mixture of both. Growing up in Vienna, I mean, the city is nice but the people are a special breed laughs and so, things weren’t necessarily hard, but it wasn’t the best experience as a mixed child. Consequently, this turned into something I was struggling with and had to face on a day to day basis - having to accept the fact that I was different from all the non-black students in my class.
Actually, I have met so many black kids in my life and we all carry a similar story as they were also the only black or mixed child in their class, and everytime someone spoke about Africa, you felt addressed and stared at. That’s how I became close to a group of boys from a similar background because we had to endure the same obstacles.
As a child, I mostly grew with my mother and sister who helped me form a bond with my Croatian side however, I still felt a stronger connection towards my Nigerian roots because when people saw me, they didn't see a Croatian mixed child, but a black african boy. Although a great part of my identity was Croatian because of my mother and the time I spent with her side of the family, people always assumed and saw the black in me and so, it was weird.
Since this is something I will never be able to experience, it is very insightful to say the least. When did you start painting?
I was always this little crazy kid who really enjoyed sketching with a pen. In school, I’d spend a large amount of my time at the supply storage, you know, the art section where there were different markers and watercolours. I don’t even know why I felt drawn to it.
From my recollection, my first painting was made in 2018 on canvas but at the time, it was only for myself due to the fact that I was busy with my graphic design education. So really, the moment I fully gave into painting was almost three years ago at the start of 2020 because when the pandemic hit, we had a lot more time and I could just stay at home and paint.
Before all of this, I was intrigued with fashion and would spend hours upon hours learning how to sew but deep in my heart, I always knew painting was my calling. Nonetheless, the early 2020s was when I dedicated myself to painting and I’ve been doing so ever since.
To be honest, that’s quite impressive because if it really just took you two and a half years to formulate your own style. Perhaps you were already destined for it.
I don’t know, I think I was just curious and there was nothing else I really wanted to do. For that reason, I placed my entire heart, energy and thoughts into this practice.
From your description, it sounds like creativity was always around you. What drew you to express yourself through art?
In middle school, I always liked to draw sketchers and show it to several people just to get some sort of a reaction out of them. There was always this need to express myself through art ever since I can remember to be frank. All in all, I was this noisy curious little kid but also, found it comforting to just sit there and sketch and focus on myself. It gradually built over the time but at the same time, it was always there. My mother is a photographer and our home was filled with black & white photographs on our walls. At a young age, I would observe her taking photos, printing them and then framing her results. So, my mom had a little bit of influence on me.
Yes, she never pushed me or told me to go out and paint something, but she was always supportive of my creative process. I remember when I asked her a few bucks just to buy some new markers and she would give me the sum and tell me; “go get yourself something nice!”
There are certain reactions you have to get people to express so that it can bring change.
How would you describe your art?
When it comes to my abstract work, I was just curious and wanted to explore a variety of materials and mediums. My main goal was to create something people hadn’t seen before and the thought of making this texture that you have never seen on an art piece was kind of cool to me. At first, I would get all sorts of materials from organic fabrics to building supplies, almost like a crazy scientist experimenting and writing down what I had mixed together and the outcome. All of it derives from my inner child being curious about his surroundings and implementing it into my creative process. Now the works I create today? Well, first of all, they are pretty provocative.
Yes, that would be the word. (Laughs).
I personally like it because you will most certainly get some sort of a reaction out of people. The thing is I don’t paint fantasies as these are real sceneries and most people have heard about those things however, they choose not to address it. A lot of people still think it may have happened, not knowing that it occurred and it still exists today. It is not only symbolic, but also, as real as it gets.
I would say that you’re definitely making a bold statement here.
Yes, exactly. It’s a bold statement because I’m trying to piss people off, but also bring forward a conversation that is needed. In that sense, I have to point out the negative things not because they’re negative, but the negative things are as valid as the positive things. On a day to day, people like to run away from the negative things of society or water them down because they’d prefer not to hear any of it. However, this is reality and it is important to hear the negative aspects as much as the positive one. There are certain reactions you have to get people to express so that it can bring change. My hope is that people will feel very uncomfortable looking at these paintings because that’s the feeling you can’t get rid of easily. That’s what I like about painting realistic sceneries, yet disturbing to watch.
It would be very interesting to see the reaction of an audience in person. A lot of your artworks derive from dark themes and explicit portrayals, why do you tend to explore these subjects?
I always felt comfortable and attracted to darkness. Especially, when we think of colours, in my opinion, they leave a greater impact on people. Most of us are comfortable around bright, shiny, vibrant colours and I understand, however, it is not as impactful as darker themes.
My mother’s photography, which is in black & white, also played a part in my development. She always used to say; “With black & white photography, you capture the soul of a person.” and I found the quote to be quite relatable. Even when I was sketching, I’d always gravitate towards a black marker because I really liked the contrast from it and the impact that the colour black has - which is basically the opposite of light.
People think that dark themes are a negative thing and we should stay away from them but really, the negative is bound to the positive - you can’t have one without the other. As I said before, they depend on each other. Without darkness, you can not have light and vice versa. There is nothing you should be afraid of and we should learn to respect and appreciate both sides. There are two ends of the spectrum in every aspect of life.
What does grief mean to you?
Grief for me is the consequence of being attached to impermanent pleasures. For example, you have a loved one and sooner or later, they will pass away. Certain impermanent pleasures can not be utterly replaced. You knew this day would come and now you’re in deep grief - which is okay. It is a very normal process and also, like I said before, you can see it as the other end of the spectrum to that impermanent pleasure. In other words, it keeps things in balance as you can not have joy without grief.
I have to say that the way you describe grief is similar to how someone would describe love as a chemical reaction.
Yes, maybe. (Laugh).
Have you experienced grief before and how has it affected your life?
Yes, I have. It is a very intense feeling that you can’t get rid of that easily. However, time heals all wounds and that’s where art plays a role for me because I try to convert these painful emotions into something productive. When I was grieving, it always brought me back to my work because my way of coping was by trying to put this intense feeling onto a canvas and leave it there. As a result, it is almost like I could get rid of every piece of grief and process it through painting. Also, grief would motivate me to get up and create something, you know. Grief turned into this engine that would just get me going. I think that’s what kept me stuck on this specific medium because painting is a very therapeutic process for me.
It is interesting because the first time I saw your artwork at an exhibition, the first word that came to mind was anger. And the way grief comes across can be a variety of feelings such as sadness but also, unsurprisingly, anger as well.
I see it as my role to produce these paintings, regardless of the reaction it may cause.
I’m curious, do you believe we must separate the art from the artist?
I like this question because personally, when I first see an art piece, I build this instant emotional reaction and in that specific timeframe, it shouldn’t have any connection with the artist. Then, if you get the chance to interact with the artist, that’s when you can form a broader understanding of the art piece. Now if you dislike the artist as a person, you can still enjoy the artwork in itself. Whereas, if you find yourself liking the artist as much as their artwork, you have a greater chance of understanding the entirety of the expression and connecting the dots.
There are artists that are horrible people however, they’ve created incredible art, what should we do now? For example, Caravaggio who was known for being a murderer, but he created impeccable paintings. What are we going to do now, should we burn them or ignore the fact that it derived from him? What is the right or wrong approach? I think you have to separate them in some aspects and connect the dots where it is necessary. In short, the answer is yes and no. It really depends on the circumstance.
Alright, you’re somewhere in between. Would you want people to separate you from your artwork?
In this case, there is a twist of events when they find out a black kid actually painted them (Tyron’s artworks). And so, I would prefer people to connect the dots but also, look at the art pieces for what they are. I think the best way to answer this question is you have to be very mindful and try to look at it from a different perspective so you can get a better understanding.
I mean, what came to mind is that you live in a non-black dominant population and therefore, frequent non-black friends. How should they view your artwork since it can be interpreted as a direct commentary on them?
A few friends of mine have seen my recent work but they are not involved in the arts. Concerning the topic, I would love for them to be shocked at first and then think about it a little.
I am not trying to offend you as a person, but rather state facts of occurrences that happened and still happens today. I don’t mean any harm, my friend. I need you to understand what has happened and still happens, and how this has affected me as a person and still does, and others who have gone through similar obstacles. I hope my friends can really think about it and also start questioning themselves on how they move around society and contribute to those stereotypes on race, genders, etc… This is because it is not about war between races, however, it is a way broader topic than that.
It’s about everything wrong about this world! Those people have a problem with every other race, every other religion and modern feminism and anything that doesn’t fit this patriarchy bubble. It doesn’t only affect me as a mixed kid, but it concerns everyone. I hope some of these works can trigger people to reflect on their actions, have a better understanding of things and push them towards empathy.
How important do you think it is to include different narratives in the art world?
Not only is it important in the art world, but it is also important in our society. Everybody has their own story, no matter if they are an artist or not. Everyone can learn something from each other and view things from a new and different perspective. You would have never gained these new thoughts if you weren’t exposed to new ideas. The best thing for the art world would be to have a variation of people telling their own stories. You can not lose anything from experiencing different artworks, you only gain something in return. Diversity makes us grow, reflect and think in a broader sense. That’s what I love about art because there are so many different perspectives and different approaches.
The art world likes to focus on a single narrative and leave out the others. Do you think there should be a change in that regard?
I think it should be more open to the younger generation and especially, those with different narratives. This is because the world is changing rapidly. I mean, I still have some appreciation for old oiling paintings and biblical ancient stories even though I’m not religious. Also, I think it is great that the art world is still trying to preserve these paintings that are part of history. However, we also need to move on because if we continue to circle around this one narrative, then things will never change.
That’s why I see it as my role to produce these paintings, regardless of the reaction it may cause. I want to be part of the change, even if it is only a fragment of it. At the end of the day, I can only do my best. Did I answer your question?
Yes, I think you did! What is next for Tyrone Egbowon and where can we find more of your work?
Well, I’m working on this series of paintings depicting a story and a solo exhibition will follow shortly after. This is to be expected around next year and also, a performance because I think that it is necessary. I want to get better at realistic paintings before I return to the abstract world. You can find my work on socials and soon enough, on my personal website.