In your artist statement you write, “I believe art is an instrument to question and search for solutions – to dig out the truth without violence.” When did you realize that art was a powerful tool for achieving this?
One thing that I come to realize is that not all of us are going to be congressmen or congresswomen. Not all of us are going to be a millionaire or billionaire, musician or doctor. But each individual has one particular opportunity. One particular job that we are very good at, to be able to develop the community of wherever we are, and contribute to the group of that place.
My first profession, or first degree is biochemistry. And why I choose to do that is because I was born in the kind of environment, in a community where there’s nothing. It’s very difficult for people to survive, it’s a lot of death, of sickness happening to people. And because you are a kid, you have to understand what is going on. As you continue growing, you start looking for what you can do to your society, what can you be a part of in that society? How can you help?
I was ages between 5 and 7 when my dad quickly realized that I love science. That was the same time he started finding a dead rat under my moms bed, which started rotting. And when he found the dead animal, he saw a kind of operation or surgery, that it was opened; he comes to realize that somebody did this. So they asked my kid brother, “who used to do this?” And then he said, “It’s my brother.”
So my dad after that, introduced me to his uncle because he’s also a doctor, and tells him “this is what I find my son has been doing”. Then my uncle said, “you need to let him come to me during the holiday to spend time with me”. With that, I started knowing what is atomic, what is chemical, and that made me curious on how to develop drugs that find a way to help people who are sick. With that I started biochemistry. Then, I became a pharmacist and worked for a time.
After that when I was working, one of my friends or colleagues was sick, and I went to see him on that weekend. When I was about to leave him he said, “you came through Ikeja, you should go through that urban area in Lagos”. I ask him why and he said “because there is going to be too much traffic at this time,” because Saturday in Lagos is where people do a lot of ceremonies, marriages, funerals. So he chose to show me different places and we took the car. While we are driving on that road, is when I found a school of art. I saw murals, sculptures all around us while we drove, and I continued asking “what is going on? What is happening in this area?”. And he said “oh these are sculptures, it’s an art school”. And I said, “can we go in?”
So we went into the campus, parked the car and we started moving from one department to the other. I think at around eleven or twelve, he said he had to go back home and prepare for work on Monday. I stayed on campus from morning, until ten in the evening. I moved from the painting department, to the sculpture department, ceramics department, the textile department. I was stagnant, just looking, continuing to be amazed with everything that I saw, and that changed me. When I went back home on that Saturday, I wrote a letter, took it to a friend to help me write to the office that I would not be able to come to the laboratory on that morning. And I was a little bit sick now, so I didn’t want to bring the flu into the laboratory.
I went to the school on that morning to get information about how to enter. I paid for the admission that day, came back home and filled in the forms. Then I went and submitted on the second day, and started preparing for if I hear back, then I will put in my letter of resignation, and then I can go back to school.
For me at that moment, I feel it’s just the moment of creation, of beauty that made me attracted to it. But later on in the course of it, I come to realize that it’s beyond drawing, painting and sculpture. Art can become just like journalizing, of writing, of becoming the voice of the voiceless of things that are happening. It becomes something that creates the bait, and challenges people to become a part of what is greater than themselves. So that is what I feel, and became the reason why I became an artist.
Has your background in biochemistry ever influenced your current practice? If so, how do you use that knowledge when you approach a project?
Whatever you learn, it’s never lost. For my own process of work, it’s always complicated on how I create, because it always involves a lot of research, a lot of traveling, a lot of being in that space at that moment. And it takes a lot of mistakes, trial and error to be able to find the right thing. I always say one thing, that “if you have a hidden camera in an artist studio, you come to realize that there’s a lot of mistakes, a lot of breakage that we have to redo before you finally get it.” Most of the time in the show when everything is set up in the gallery, nobody sees those mistakes. The only thing they say is “wow this is great,” but the idea behind the scene, nobody knows that. So when I put up a show I’m not so much impressed anymore, because the moment that I enjoy most is the process. It is research, the moment when I look for the materials, and look for people who are involved in that thing. What am I going to use, what kind of materials? Those moments one by one, make me more interested in what I create.
And then you put it down in your space, and you wait to see how that communicates with people who enter into that space. Most of the time I pretend for people not to know I’m the artist, because it gives me the chance to hear what they feel sincerely. Because most of the time when we see each other and say “oh this is the artist,” it’s harder for people to tell it to your face, how they really feel about that work if there’s a part of that work they don’t really enjoy. They will just say, “oh, this is awesome, this is great.” But for me most of the people who are very close to me, know that when you say that, I’m just going to say “okay.” I want you to have something to say like “oh, I like the color,” or “oh I don’t like this.”
And also the conversation. I want to have deeper interactions with you, that you have something that you see in that way. Most of the time you see people just walk around and then you ask yourself, “why are they walking around?”. Even in the openings of a show, people just continue drinking, eating snacks and then they’re talking about the party they went to almost two months ago. You brought them into your space of artwork, you expect that your work should be the conversation.
These are the questions I also ask myself in my studio. “How can I as an artist, with the work I create, hope that somebody in front of it for at least two or three minutes, will forget they are holding a glass of champagne?” Because if I am able to do that, then I feel that I have achieved something. That’s also one of the things when I choose recycled, repurposed or vintage materials, and I compliment with paint or whatever it is to make it complete; It gives you a stop. Immediately you see it, it will remind you of something and it will connect you to something. So that is the moment I am looking for. To make you connect and create conversation. That moment is very powerful, because that is why the work is standing in there, not just for you to see and walk around.
In your project, Saso L’Oju Egun/Behind the Mask, you created ten masquerade costumes from traditional materials, incorporating symbols and patterns from around the world. Could you share with us how you used exhibition and masquerade performance to portray tradition and West African diaspora?
All of the things I do with performance is that I create costumes, I dance, I sing, look into choreography; sometimes I look for a musical instrument, or create my own musical instrument used in the materials to find a way to connect with the audience. To create then also laugh, to make it a comedy. At the same time, using that as an opportunity to inject it into their body, into their soul while they are standing there.
Behind the Mask started from a fellowship or residence in Bahia. When this project started, I was there to look at masquerade performance. I come from tradition of people in Yorubaland in Nigeria in the southwest, which they do a lot of masquerade performances. It’s something that you see just like at Christmas. You dress up and go there to see dancing, music, drumming, so all this is something that you are always looking forward to. But this masquerade doesn’t just come out, some even come up every three, four, five years. Some come only purposely, for some kind of issue.
So when I was invited to this, I was looking forward to it because living abroad, you don’t see those performances anymore. So for you during the residency as you are in Bahia, you know that many of these people, their diasporas were brought as a slave into Brazil from Africa, so I was looking forward to it. So I told all the artists in residency, “you will enjoy this if you have the time to come with me and see it.”
When we go there, the first thing that makes me worry was that it was in a kind of hall. We enter the space at around 7pm, the performance starts at 10PM and they close the door. So if you are late you can’t come inside, and if you are inside you can’t go out. The whole place was locked. That was the first concern for me because masquerade where I was born is in public space. It’s just happening along the street, and they will dance from one street to another to their destination. So even if you are driving or walking, you will just continue reaching them, or they will meet you. In this situation it is different, because it’s something from a public space, and they bring it into a hall and lock it.
The second concern was how the ceremony was done throughout the night. Just imagine somebody who was looking forward to it, and then you come in and all these things quickly start disappointing you. I start questioning my own culture, my own being of what I know, and feel like suddenly because I’ve been living abroad, that I don’t know more about what this is all about. So it becomes a whole issue for me in my mind.
In the morning at six, the performance was over, then we have to go home. The funniest thing is that the whole hall was filled up of different nationality of people, and all these people came because they wanted to learn about the culture of Brazil; and this culture in Brazil did not start in Brazil, it started from Africa, they brought it there. So if they go back to their individual countries, the stories of what they see there is how they are going to tell the story. And that was the thing that worries me.
After the whole thing I made a call back home and I asked my uncle, “can you tell me about masquerade?”. The first thing he did was laugh, and I asked “why are you laughing?”, and he said “because you should tell me about masquerade. You always go to all these ceremonies, you know more about this than me.” Then I I told him what happened, and he said “no. This is not different, the only difference is the way we celebrate it, and the way and the place that they do it.”
It gave me the chances to see how I can connect with people who perform, and who created that festival in Bahia. Then I come to realize the culture has changed in the way that they want to do it more elegant. And when you are trying to change things from the traditional ways, sometimes you are not careful, it’s going to get lost along the way. So it gave me the chance to tell the true story. And to tell the true story, I started drawing and I started writing.
Then, I remember I had visitors, a curator from Rio who came into my studio. He started looking at my sketches and he said, “you need to create this, not only just draw and write about it, that will make people completely understand it.” And I said “no, I don’t even know how to sew, I just want to sketch it, write about it and let people read about it.” He said “you are an artist, you have to complete this, even if it takes you two, three or four years.” So that is how the costumes started. I was in Bahia when I started the first one. So a whole one year I created one, and then he started telling me, “you need to create a new one.”
So each individual costume tells a story. One of them is completely using different shades of green. It has a lot of beads, a lot of mirrors, and the idea for that was that masquerade was always used for after harvest, by the farmers and by the whole town. In the beginning before conversation, people don’t have thread. They know nothing about cotton, there’s no fabric, what they used in that time was grass. Grass is what they would create as a costume, and they would carve a mask into the face.
When the farmers plant for the whole season, and when they harvest their fresh fruit, they will not eat it. They will take individual fruits from different farmers and they will bring it all in front of the king’s palace. Then the masquerade will be bought out, and when the masquerade is out, the masquerade will come dance and celebrate with all the farmers and people in the town. Then they will bless the food, the king will eat part of it and then people will also start eating. That is what masquerades always do. It’s only for harvest, it’s only for farmers and to bless the food. That is why in this era that we are in, they choose fabric, and that fabric becomes a green fabric.
As I said these are 10 costumes, and each of these costumes tell different stories. And out of these, we perform one costume and tell the story behind it by using that kind of performance.
In an interview from Glasstire.com, you discuss your exhibition Majele-Venomous, a 20 year project about immigration, detention and the dangers of migrating towards a better life. Could you talk about some of the research projects you did in those 20 years to put that work together?
In the short of it, Majele-Venomous looks into immigration and migration, which is more of traveling from one place to another. It may be traveling from street to street, city to city, state to state, country to country.
The 20 years started in 1999. I was having a studio in Dakar, Senegal, and my studio is a place very close to the harbor, a place where most of the Africans who come from Togo, from Benin, from Nigeria, from Ghana always will gather after the work finished, because most of them work at the harbor. So immediately when they finish work in the evening, they will come to my place, they will make tea and cook food, and then we talk about the whole day. In that moment they will tell me what is going on, which ship just arrived, which continent it arrived from, what is loading, what the ship brought and what the ship is taking away. In the moment it becomes a place where everybody gathers, so I know each of them.I know their names, most of their families, where they come from.
And then when they disappeared, you start wondering because the only communication they had was my place. They’d call only my studio, with their family, wherever they come from. Then you come to see that you have 10 people, and it come to one day all of a sudden five people disappear; you start asking “where are they?”. This becomes an issue for me, because since the families always call my place, they continue calling to ask me where they are and I would always say “I don’t know.”
Then, I come to realize that I don’t listen deeply to them, so then I started asking people questions about what is going on. They started exposing to me the truth of “oh, if you don’t see anybody anymore, it means they’ve gone stowaway.” This becomes interesting to me, and I started talking to them, “why would you want to risk your life for this?”. And they will tell you, “why do you think I leave Ghana and come to Senegal? This is not my destination, I’m just on the road.” So that becomes my own curiosity, then it comes to a time where I told them “okay, when a new ship comes, let me know.” That year, I think it was at September, a ship came from Marseille, France. That ship was going to load salt from a car, taking it back to Marseille.
We started hiding one by one in that ship and we were ten by the time the ship was about to leave Senegal; we are mostly at the bottom where the engine and salt is. And you have nothing, nobody knows if you are dead because you are all hiding, and you have no idea how many days you are there because you can’t come out. You hear stories that if you come out, either the captain or the crew is going to throw you overboard into the sea.
So, the people who are there started dying one by one, and the knowledge of science in chemicals comes into my mind, that the smell we are smelling is ourselves dying and we need to do something about it. So I bring the idea at that moment, “okay, we have salt here, let’s use the salt to embalm them, to put the salt on top of them. That will soak all the water from them and the smell will go away.“ That is what we did for eight individual people. The last one which was very close to me; he was the only one I was communicating with, and it comes to a time that when I say five words, he would hardly say one back to me.
It comes to my senses that I came for this trip as a researcher. Not because I want to go abroad, to stay in France. So it is time for me to decide to come out. Either I will be killed or arrested, and when we go to France, they will hand me to immigration. So when I came out I’ve already made up my mind, what I’m going to say is that I’m Deaf. So when I came out, I got there and asked for paper. They gave me paper, and I wrote that there’s somebody down there and they should help him out. When they let him out, with all their help and the medical crew in the ship, he was there but he was unconscious.
It was a coma for three months. And at that time they already gave us immigration tickets to go to a lawyer, and they said we can only attend court when he wakes up. So then I fight for that, and during that they started asking me, what did I do? And I said “I’m an artist,” so people started giving me colors, brushes and everything. I started becoming a painter, I started working.
After he wakes up, the first thing I told him was, “you have to tell people what I told them, that I’m Deaf.” So we went to court, we won the case and when the lawyer asks us what is our plan now, I said, “ I am going back to Senegal.” And she said, “You are going through all this for almost six months, you have the chance to ask for a permit and paper to stay here, and you are going back? Why do you go through all this?”. And I said “because I wanted to do research, I want to find the truth of what is going on.” So that is how the first story is, and that is what you see in that exhibition. In that photograph or video, you are going to see at the middle of the gallery, that there is a boat on the ground, and that boat is full of salt. And then you are going to see block glasses, because when we arrived in Marseille it’s wintertime.
The second part of the stories started when I was living in Ghana; In 2004 I went on a road trip. The kinds of things that the young ones do in Ghana is travel by road. They will travel between Ghana, go to Togo, to Benin, to Niger, on top of Nigeria. They will go to the desert of Agadez which links to Libya, and they will from there, go to Morocco, to Tunisia. Then, they will wait by the Atlantic ocean for a ship which may come in six months-it may even be eight months before one ship arrives. And it will load everything across the Atlantic, to Spain.
So That was in 2004, I went on that trip to do research on going by road to Europe. And there is a lot of dead bodies, and people who die along the road. And on that trip, because it’s from one place to the other, you have to pay a due to be able to get the transportation from one place to the other. So while you are making that trip, it may take you five years if you are not careful, because you will continue working in one country, making money to be able to pay for the next destination. That is how that trip took me two years before I get to Madrid. And on that ship when you look at the exhibition, at the top, there’s another board I put up which is telling you about the second trip which take me between Tunisia, across to Madrid.
Because people have been waiting for six months, eight months, ten months and then one ship comes, people don’t even care anymore. That ship was only to take one hundred or fifty people, and you have five hundred people on the ground, everybody wants to go in. So mostly, they take beyond the power that the ship should be able to take, and that is why you see, when you go to the middle of the sea, that everything becomes collapsed. I was one of the lucky ones rescued into Madrid, in that year of 2007. That is the second story, and when you look at the ground of the exhibition, you see the waves of red tape which are kind of waves on the ground, just to show the movement of what you see in the desert, how you come to find empty shoes, empty skulls of people and animals; things you see on that trip.
And then the third one which is part of this project, was also another research I did in 2017 into 2018. That is also looking at an issue of migration between the U.S. and Mexico, which also comes more into about this border that they are building, looking at deportations and separation of kids and family.
So this is what Majele-Venomous really put together, of twenty years of projects.