Painter, sculptor and BJJ purple belt Damilola Akinola explains how martial arts has driven his work and OUTLOOK

The son of a Nigerian architect – and seventh dan Taekwondo black belt – 24 year-old Damilola Akinola lives in the Barbican area, and studies art at the University of East London. Damilola is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do himself having studied since the age of four. But he’s currently hoovering up medals in grappling contests, as an 88kg Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt under The MMA Clinic’s Michael Russell
Damilola’s arresting art takes place on an ambitious scale. Large format canvases, painted in oils, are presented alongside detailed miniature sculptures in black wax and bronze. Each work displays an intriguing mini-narrative that challenges preconceptions, and forces the viewer into a dialogue with their own subconscious voices. Influences including folk tales, mythology, animism, gothic horror, and old master techniques come together to produce distinct and absorbing works. A question and answer interview follows below; contact him via to discuss availability of any of the artworks in the photoshoot.

Photography by Neil Massey at The MMA Clinic, Angel, Islington and The University of East London. Thanks to Graham Boylan, Paul Hines and Michael Russell

Battles of London: How did you discover Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
Damilola Akinola: “When my family arrived in England I wanted to try Judo, as I was attracted to the attitude – stubborn, up front. But I couldn’t find the right class. I tried boxing, but found it a bit dull. I’d watched the first UFC, and saw Royce Gracie win. There was one average-looking guy beating everyone else up. And just up the road in Angel, there happened to be a really good class teaching what Royce did, BJJ.”

Does the BJJ philosophy seep into your everyday life, too?
“I always take BJJ into everyday life… the attitude of course, not the moves. When I’m grappling, I can be be searching for an opening, but I have to be aware of others that may appear. In BJJ you have to be thinking ahead, but active in the now. That translates to anyone’s career, anyone’s life – BJJ will help in framing yourself.
I appreciate the way the training never ends, too. Even at black belt you’d still be learning. There’s no conclusion. I also think that you roll according to your personality, or how you’re feeling. I started off preferring a bottom game: chilled out, taking the opportunities as they come. Now I prefer a top game, as there’s more openings for points and submissions."

Where is your grappling career at right now?
“I just entered the European Championships, and that didn’t go so well. I’d drilled a particular sweep from guard, and my opponent in the first round seemed like he’d come up against that situation before. You learn from it, of course. I have a clutch of gold medals from UK competitions like the Southend Open, and I won silver at [highly established and respected] NAGA in my weight class, under 88kgs, at purple belt.”

Which artists have influenced you most?
“For painting Titian and Goya, and for sculpture Alberto Giacometti. Art education certainly went through a phase where modern techniques like video and conceptual art were very popular. But now I feel that young artists are going further back in history, to traditional ways of working, and trying to contextualise that. I know people who are adding wax to their paintings for additional texture.
I wanted to layer my work with meaning. For instance, the painting you see in the photos, Bear with Child, twists the viewer’s perception. Is the bear coming to attack the baby, or nurture it? Which one is actually the more threatening?
I don’t paint pupils in the eyes of my figures; bears have dark eyes and interpret eye contact as a sign of aggression. The crow’s feathers below symbolises death, but there are symbols of life and nurturing here; the hummingbird symbolises life and free thought.”

Steve Beale