Alao’s work entitled “Can You See It?” Photo courtesy of

Ibiyinka Alao, the United Nations Art Ambassador, treated a group of King’s students and faculty to an interactive lecture on art Monday night in the Fitzgerald Room of the Campus Center. Alao spoke about the inspiration for his paintings, the importance of art in culture, and how art ties into his work as an ambassador to many nations of the world.

The seminar, titled “Visions of True Colors: The Art of Ibiyinka Alao,” was organized by Dr. James Stewart, a professor of African cultures at King’s College. Alao has art hanging in places like the United Nations headquarters and has given lectures in college campuses throughout the United States. He was also the first-place winner of the prestigious United Nations International Art Competition in 2001.

Alao spoke briefly of his childhood in Nigeria, and explained that part of the inspiration for his art comes from memories or perceptions he has held onto since his childhood.

His work touches on the themes of memory, love and faith. Some of the ideas behind the paintings he exhibited Monday night include the process of emotional and mental maturity, the communion of all humans, and his travels as an ambassador.

Art is supposed to carry a message to its audience, and Alao focused on telling stories in his art. He walked the audience through some of the inspiration behind the enormous original canvases of his art that he brought to the college. Each canvas required at least three people to hold, which allowed Alao to fit an enormous amount of detailed storytelling into each painting.

An extremely colorful painting Alao created told a parable from the New Testament about fishing. The organization of some of his work was bordering on abstract, but Alao’s explanations of the paintings enabled the audience to decipher the story animating the canvas.

“All good art possesses a sense of mystery,” Alao explained.

Alao showed students the differences between artistic traditions in Africa and other places in the world. He said that in Africa people exhibit their art in festivals as opposed to museums as we do in the Western world.

In order to explain art to his audience, Alao spoke of a “hole” in his heart that he filled with the world around him. The things that appear in Alao’s paintings were what he experienced and observed. He said that everyone has a hole in their heart which they fill with something, whether it is art or another calling.

Alao gave his listeners encouraging words about weaknesses or irritations, and shared a fear he once had as a child—speaking in public. He turned his fear of speaking into motivation to express his feelings through painting. Alao likened this process of using an “irritation” in his “shell” to create a pearl, much like an oyster.

Through this process, Alao said, our weaknesses become our strengths and grant us an opportunity to “fill the hole in our hearts.”

A big source of inspiration for Alao is his work as a United Nations ambassador. He travels around the world, forging relationships with people that he finds difficult to leave behind. He feels a kinship with everyone he meets, and spoke of the meeting of cultures in the Fitzgerald Room as remarkable.

The communion of humans Alao feels is demonstrated in a piece that chronicles the different times of the day around the world. The human subjects of this painting are identical figures, though they are citizens of many nations. Alao says this ties into his idea of a global family.

Though it is not easy for him to travel after establishing friendships around the world, Alao says his first name is a source of comfort. “Ibiyinka” means “to have family around me,” and Alao feels that “there is family in everyone I meet.”