Sitting on a piano bench at the back of the St. Norbert Arts Centre gallery space Thursday, up-and-coming musician Tomiwa Omolayo is wearing rose-coloured glasses — literally.
It’s the same pair of tinted shades (accented by a rolled-up mustard-yellow toque) the self-proclaimed optimist wore for his first live show since the COVID-19 pandemic: a performance on the GerryFest 2021 stage.
"I was nervous because I wasn’t sure if the music would connect," Omolayo said, thinking back to the August 13 show on a breezy outdoor stage at the arts centre. "I’m trying to make something that’s different, something that’s fresh."
The Lagos-born 23-year-old is an Afrofusion artist who launched his career blending a variety of musical genres with the classic sounds of afrobeats in 2018, after moving from Nigeria to Winnipeg for school just a few years before.
His music is danceable — featuring the kind of bright, percussive rhythms people can’t help but groove to — and his lyrics are relatable, drawn from his experiences in love, in leaving home, and in the busy, at times gritty lives of the people that surround him.
"I never want to lose touch with that reality," he said of his time learning to acclimate to life as an international student in an unfamiliar city. "That really influenced my music and maturity, having to now finally see life for what it is — instead of through rosy-filtered lenses."
Omolayo, who goes by the stage name Tommyphyll, is one of nine artists who took part in this year’s Raising New Voices mentorship program — a five-month mentorship opportunity for artists from underrepresented backgrounds, guided by the principles of the late musician, playwright and all-around creative Gerry Atwell.
Beginning with a two-day workshop in April and culminating with live performances and gallery debuts during GerryFest the weekend of Aug. 13-15, the mentorship program aimed to connect emerging artists to a community of support and professional development.
"This all came from our vision to keep the legacy of Gerry Atwell’s work as a mentor in the community alive," said Judy Williams, the late Atwell’s sister and co-chair of the festival.
Shortly after Gerry Atwell’s death in November 2019, his friends and family came together to plan the first GerryFest — a celebration of Atwell’s life and a fundraiser designed to bolster the Gerry Atwell Memorial Mentorship endowment fund, an ongoing fund dedicated to supporting and mentoring emerging artists.
Though the inaugural GerryFest honoured Atwell’s legacy by bringing together art and live performances from those who knew and worked with him, this year’s festival highlighted the first iteration of the mentorship programming, allowing artists to showcase their skills in visual, written and performing arts.
"We know that opportunities don’t just happen to people, you need to create the opportunity," said Williams. "Meeting people, networking and having a chance to show your work is really important."
Performances from the mentees and other artists were woven with a gallery exhibition and a community art project on the arts centre grounds, with a focus on the impacts and meaning of ‘community.’
The theme of this year’s festival was "raising new voices, each one teach one; action, liberation and healing through community and relationship building," said Brendan Kinley, Atwell’s nephew, member of Winnipeg hip-hop ensemble Super Duty Tough Work, and artistic director for the program.
Inspired by Atwell’s own approach to freely sharing knowledge and opportunities, providing new artists with tools to succeed, and his fervent commitment to advocating for marginalized peoples, Kinley’s vision for the mentorship program was one that saw the up-and-coming artists engage in relationship and community building as a way of combatting systems of oppression within the art world and far beyond.
"Our goal is just to provide a platform, to provide insight, to provide access to each other, relationship building," he said."Those are good guidelines for not just mentorship but cultivating relationships and change and your career across any disciplines."
For emerging visual artist Jibu Kamabu, 19, the opportunity to connect with other artists — both professional and emerging — helped them out of a creative block and gave them a newfound confidence in their work.
"It’s been the longest time since I’ve been involved with other artists in a space because of COVID, so having that experience in person has just been really helpful," Kamabu said while hanging price tags next to their collection of works on display in the gallery.
Kamabu, a fine arts student at the University of Manitoba, works with ink and marker to create intricate and engaging comic-style line works inspired largely by dreams, the abstract and the unknown. While they have shown work in galleries in the past, they have never tried to sell it.
"It’s scary," Kamabu said with a laugh. "But it’s a milestone I have to overcome eventually. I am in school to further my career, so if I want to continue going where I am right now I have to do it."
Working with mentors — including musicians Ashley Au and Sierra Noble, as well as multidisciplinary visual artist Franklin Fernando — Kamabu said they gained confidence showing their work, accepting feedback and pushing their limits with the pen.
Contrasting Kamabu’s intricate and largely grayscale work on the gallery wall, a swirl of rich colours — burnt oranges, deep reds, mustard yellows, flat blacks and oceanic blues — comingle on one of Pajack Obeing’s acrylic pour canvasses, titled ‘Calm Sun.’
"I do abstract painting, especially mixed media," said Obeing, 24. "As a kid I was always excited to try new things and experiment, so that’s what I do with my art, I experiment, trying different colours, combining them together."
Obeing grew up finger-painting portraits alongside his mother. He still paints portraits now, but lays them against the backdrop of his colourful poured works.
"Being a part of this mentorship group I was able to increase my knowledge, especially of painting," said Obeing, adding the mentors helped him improve his shading techniques in paint. "As an artist I just want to keep getting better, and I want to expand my knowledge of painting. I want to be able to use it as a form of releasing stress."
Not only did he grow as an artist, Obeing — who sells his paintings online and on social media — felt he was able to challenge some of the barriers that have hampered his ability to flourish in the arts scene.
"As an artist, and especially as a Black person, you don’t have a lot of support," said Obeing. "There’s a lot of barriers, one of them is a lack of resources, so I feel I was able to move one layer of those barriers by networking with a lot of people."
Obeing, Kamabu and Omolayo were joined in their GerryFest displays by visual artist Kelvin Bett, photographer Allen Odongoh, writer Albert Kandie, musicians Jace Bodner and Ethan Lyric, and filmmaker Emmanuel Bongar. Bongar, who makes music videos and short films, also recorded the GerryFest performances for online release.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.