Artist Appreciation: Teju Cole

From Lagos to New York: The Journey of Teju Cole

Teju Cole, born on June 27, 1975, in Michigan, United States, grew up in Lagos, Nigeria where he was deeply influenced by the vibrant cultural milieu of Africa's most populous city. The richness of Lagos' urban texture would later serve as a canvas for his creative work, providing a backdrop against which his characters would struggle, thrive, and seek meaning. 

His journey from Lagos to New York was one of intellectual growth and creative exploration. A young and curious Cole relocated to the United States in 1992 for his higher studies, enrolling at Kalamazoo College in Michigan before transferring to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He subsequently received his doctorate in Art History from Columbia University. 

While studying, Cole began to explore the art of writing. He was drawn to the lyricism and evocative power of words, finding in them a medium through which to express his ideas and observations. His first novel, Every Day is for the Thief, was published in Nigeria in 2007, and later globally. This work is a vivid portrayal of Lagos, with its chaotic energy and complex societal interactions. 

"I was trying to put on the page some of what I was feeling: the superimposition of time, the skewing of scale, the surrealism of it all." - Teju Cole, on his debut novel

His second novel, Open City, published in 2012, was met with critical acclaim, garnering him the PEN/Hemingway Award. Set in New York, the novel explores themes of identity, dislocation, and solitude, mirroring Cole's own experiences as a Nigerian living in the United States. 

Alongside his writing, Cole nurtures a profound interest in visual arts. He has curated several exhibitions and has been featured in a number of art projects. His photographic work, often accompanied by his philosophical musings, offers a unique blend of visual and textual narrative. 

In the journey from Lagos to New York, Teju Cole has managed to create a bridge between two disparate realities, fostering dialogue and understanding through his work. His oeuvre, a testament to his intellect and creativity, continues to inspire artists and art-lovers alike.

Teju Cole's Artistic Philosophy and Inspirations

Teju Cole's artistic philosophy is as multilayered and profound as the artist himself. A multifaceted scholar, Cole's work often interweaves the physical and the metaphysical, the historical and the contemporary, the visual and the textual. A cosmopolitan spirit, Cole's inspirations span across continents, cultures, and disciplines, all of which contribute to the depth and richness of his art. 

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of Cole's artistic philosophy is his deliberate intentionality. Every piece he produces, every word he pens, is imbued with a purposeful meaning. He once stated,

"I’m interested in the maximum impact of the minimum intervention." This encapsulates his approach to art, where subtlety, precision, and impactful minimalism are the hallmarks. 

Another key aspect of Cole's artistic philosophy is his exploration of the complex interplay between the individual and the collective, the local and the global. As an artist who has lived and worked across different cultures, Cole's work often grapples with issues of identity, displacement, and belonging. His own multicultural experiences inform his art, giving it a unique cross-cultural resonance. 

Several themes recur in Cole's work, which are reflective of his inspirations. These include: 

  • The urban landscape: Cole's photography often captures the essence of cities, their architecture, and their inhabitants. His work explores the dynamics of the urban space, the interplay between people and their environment.
  • Literature and history: A lover of words and an astute historian, Cole's literary and historical influences are evident in his works. He often uses historical references and literary allusions as tools for deeper exploration of his subjects.
  • Music and sound: Cole's work also often incorporates elements of music and sound, adding another sensory layer to his artistic creations. From classical to contemporary, various musical genres permeate his work, enhancing its emotive power.

Teju Cole's art is thus a beautiful amalgamation of creativity and intellect, passion and precision. His unique artistic philosophy and diverse inspirations continue to inspire and captivate audiences worldwide.

A Look at Teju Cole's Photography: Exhibitions and Projects

Emerging from the bustling streets of Lagos, Nigeria, Teju Cole's unique perspective from behind the lens has captivated audiences across the globe. It is not simply the capturing of an image, but the wholehearted embrace of the narrative entwined within each frame that sets his work apart. His photography exhibits are a testament to his exceptional eye for detail, his profound sense of place, and his adept ability to convey poignant narratives through still images. 

In tandem with his literary prowess, Cole's photographic exhibitions and projects are the embodiment of his belief in the power of visual storytelling. An observer and a chronicler, he meticulously transforms transient moments into enduring narratives, striking a harmonious balance between the aesthetic and the intellectual. 

'Blind Spot', one of his most acclaimed photography exhibitions, is a compelling testament to his talent and insight. Unveiled at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York, 'Blind Spot' was a stunning visual journey spanning diverse geographies, from Switzerland to Nigeria, and from Japan to Italy. This collection of images was accompanied by a series of lyrical and reflective essays, providing a rich, layered narrative to each frame. 

"In 'Blind Spot', I am interested in the places where the historical, the personal, and the aesthetic converge," Cole once said. "For me, each image in this project is a 'blind spot', a moment that is both known and unknown, both seen and unseen."

Cole's other notable photographic projects include 'Punto d'Ombra' and 'Black Paper'. 'Punto d'Ombra', or 'Point of Shadow', was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, offering an introspective look into the interplay between light and shadow. 'Black Paper', on the other hand, was a powerful response to the political climate post-2016 US Presidential election, an exploration of grief and resilience through stark, black-and-white imagery. 

While his exhibitions make a substantial impact, Cole also engages with the art community through his Instagram project, 'The Inquisitive Case'. Here, he encourages followers to interact with his art, offering a democratic and accessible platform for engagement. This direct connection with his audience reinforces Cole's belief that art should not merely be observed, but actively engaged with, fostering a richer understanding of the world around us. 

Teju Cole's photography exhibitions and projects are not merely visual feasts, but are profound explorations of the human experience. The depth and breadth of his work continue to inspire both art lovers and artists alike, fostering a greater appreciation for the power of visual storytelling.

Teju Cole's work has had a significant impact on the art world and other artists. His unique approach to photography and writing has inspired many artists to explore new ways of storytelling and representation.


Back to blog