all artwork by the author; photos courtesy BintaZarah Studios
My process as an artist involves all modes of using already existing objects, images, sounds, footage, and methods and then incorporating them into a single artwork. This approach to making speaks to my experiences growing up in Northern Nigeria, a region where the influences of the Middle East, the colonial West, and sub-Saharan African cultures converged in a way that gave me permission to observe, embrace, and alter the social, the structural, and the visceral within and among the civilizations involved.
This idea of cultural convergence is exemplified in Letter to Kyauta (Fig. 1). I create a fictional letter written on wooden Qu'ranic boards that have been decorated for graduation ceremonies. Kyauta, a woman living in a rural area, writes her sister who now lives in an urban area, seeking her help because this year's harvest has been affected by a drought. The same letter is written in four different ways; English and Hausa using Latin letters, Arabic and Hausa using Arabic alphabet. The two quarters of a calabash below the boards are traditionally used for learning Arabic characters; here they serve as surfaces for footnotes explaining additional meanings of words, such as the name Kyauta, which means “one who gives.” The intent here is to speak to the regional influences of both the trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic exchanges. I also want to draw attention to the fact that the ability to write in all four languages/scripts is disappearing with the generation of people educated in the precolonial and colonial eras. This furthermore alludes to the issue of girls' access to education. It is unlikely, even today, that a rural woman would have been able to write a letter without help from male relatives. This, of course, disrupts intimacy and the level of engagement between the two women.
I embrace all aspects of collage: amalgam, assemblage, bricolage, hybridity, installation, montage, and suture. These processes mirror the cultural appropriation that exists in West African traditions in both music and craft. In this context, to adapt, borrow, and innovate from multiple sources both at home and abroad are common and acceptable. Communities of artisans and musicians have for centuries used sharing systems for both content and technique—well before the 1950s and ‘60s open-source or the 1970s introduction of copyleft—without naming it.
My object-based works fuse together aspects of different traditional Western African household tools with aspects of their Western counterparts. The intent is not a one-on-one binary relationship but an engagement of how daily life is conducted in contemporary urban West African context, where the implements of power systems and infrastructure leads to a juggling act, as we adopt, and modify our lives and realities.
These approaches to art-making enable me to imagine and create new cultural relationships from preexisting forms, and to metaphorically bridge cultures. Through these works, we can hopefully glimpse the possibilities of how we can live together with our differences. Low and high tech, low and high art can coexist in artworks uncomfortably without attempts to absorb all differences. The goal is not assimilation or homogeneity, but an honest discourse about complex historical and geographical entanglements. The use of preexisting parts requires the artist to negotiate what parts to include and what to leave out. In this process sometimes what is left out says more than what is included.
Broom (Fig. 2) focuses on the most characteristic element of sweeping. Whether you are using plant fiber or a vacuum, sound is the most common aspect of sweeping. Hay and other plant fibers are used for sweeping in Western Africa from small villages to urban homes, where lack of steady supply of electricity does not make vacuum cleaning practical. In this artwork, the swooshing sound of the hay broom is recorded on a chip and the embedded speaker emits the swooshing when one presses the power button.
The collage processes I use bring me closer to the viewer, as they too have to follow the path I have renegotiated with the artwork in order to understand the fragments I have brought together. This is about tracking human commerce and consumption; our desires, cultural exchanges, and competitions all lay bare in the artworks. No excuses or masking of potential conflicts and misunderstandings; all seams, iterations, sameness, and differences are visible together. It is about subversive playful experiences and reflective satirical paradoxes in which humor, fragility, and temporality are welcomed, so that ideas and thoughts supersede permanence or saleability. This mention of commerce and consumption should not be conflated with the neoliberal ideology of making capitalism synonymous with democracy and freedom.
The image-based works explore intercultural and international nuances of power and privilege. Dignified Care (Fig. 3) in particular attempts to engage and implicate contemporary African and Western leadership in the limited progress that has been made since the end of colonization, using the common tradition of printing photos of people being celebrated on fabrics for weddings, anniversaries, and state visits. Here, the presidents of Mali and Nigeria are placed along with the prime ministers of former colonial powers France and Britain to speak to the failed infrastructure that has resulted in a brain surgery gone wrong. The heads of fictional family members are edited out to emphasize the figures' heads and head that was operated on. A surface reading could also address the fragility of our human existence and the mortality we share regardless of race, class, or gender.
Reusing what already exists highlights the culturally overlooked and marginalized. My intent is not to merely celebrate or catalogue differences but also to underscore inequities of power. The use of the preexisting allows for a dialectical approach that engages us with things we already know are imbued with existing cultural meaning to engage the general, the particular, the local, and the global, without succumbing to the global circulation of cultural stereotypes that are part of the major market of the art world; that is both the reserved and the default position that artists of color are suppose to fulfill.
It is important for me to address the label of Afrofuturism here, since initially I was invited to write this piece framing my work within that genre. It is not of interest to me or my practice to assume any prescribed labels. For instance, Nicolas Bourriaud sees my practice as Postproduction. I do not deny that labels can be useful. But I think this is a conversation for art critics, historians, and other scholars, from whom I continue to learn a lot. My life's mission is to make artworks that speak about the impact of technology on culture while using technology as a metaphor for power dynamics. If being a person of African descent and using technology makes me an Afrofuturist, so be it. Though there are a few quarrels this label may have with me. While Afrofuturism and science fiction are interested in fantasy projections into the past and future, I am anchored by what I call an “alternative imaginary.” I focus on the resources currently available in the world and then imagine through both my medium and my process how I can suggest another possibility. There is no Afrocentrism of all Africans being royalty in my practice, as I am not a fan of monarchy, and certainly where there is monarchy there will be subjects. It begs the question why one would need or want to be a monarch in order to be validated. As far as wanting to be from another planet, I consider myself a stakeholder on this planet and no one can make me leave. We need to stand our ground and continue to work towards change and justice. I will not concede science and technology to only those of European descent and focus on spirits, mysticism, and magic because that is what is expected of my blackness. There is no singularity in being African—we come from many traditions. I come from a Western African community that used systems of logic and fractal mathematics before fractals were considered useful in the West.
Similar to the still images, my video works attempt an intervention into historical or popular entertainment narratives with insertion of characters to alter or disrupt the status quo narrative of a Western hegemony. For example, in Conveyance (Fig. 4), a video collage work that appropriates a clip of Luc Besson's flying police car from The Fifth Element (1997), the confrontation between the alien and police is switched out to be a face-off with an elderly Nigerian woman dressed traditionally, and upon scanning their database they discover that it contains no files on her. This raises questions about the world of metadata we live in and the urgent questions of the erosion of our civil liberties, while simultaneously attempting to undermine or subvert the notion of the other or the marginalized. I am hoping to problematize national boarders and cultural barriers. Of course, since the production of Conveyance in 2001, respect for privacy and “fear of the other” have further collapsed.
In this and the following paragraphs, I will explain the philosophical ideas I have developed to guide my studio practice. My mindset is that “the world is my studio.” This allows me to see all resources in the world as accessible to my creative practice. While this does not magically make everything I ever wanted to use accessible and available, it allows for me to keep an openness and readiness to problem-solve getting access to resources, including skills I don't have, and to also not be limited by geographical locations. This is why I have been able to create works using multiple mediums including objects, images, video, interactive media works, and full-immersion virtual reality.
This leads to a practice I call “real life connections.” By this I mean that I introduce myriad ways to resolve the challenges of executing ideas by studying and/or using already existing materials, mechanisms, and systems. When I wish to build something that carries out a particular action, first I define the core idea and then figure out what already exists in the world that has the same or comparable action.
For example, since watching reruns of the television show Bewitched in Nigeria as a child, I have always been fascinated with Elizabeth Montgomery's ability to perform chores with the twinkle of her nose. To this end, in 1995, I produced my own version of Bewitched (Fig. 5), using sensors that pick up human body heat to perform chores I witness being performed in villages, such as hand laundry, sweeping, churning butter, and sifting millet flour. To realize this idea of magically moving domestic objects, I investigated our relationship to ubiquitous sensors in the everyday environment: automatic doors, solar switches, windshield wipers, and more. This nurtured and led to the creation of a work that is animated by the body heat of its observers. This method of observation and research exposes me to many materials and approaches, continuing to feed the creative cycle. This echoes the Nigerian saying of “making do,” a phrase referring to self-determination, managing resources, and inventiveness.
Earlier in my art career, I developed a process I call “ethical making.” A part of ethical making is an understanding that as an artist I cannot only talk about social justice in my work but also must live and work in a way that reflects these concerns. As a maker, I am committed to the integrity of my work without compromise, while remaining respectful of all the people my practice brings me into contact with, regardless of role, institutional position, and/or mental, physical, or monetary contributions. I recognize that without everyone doing their part, my artwork and exhibitions would not be possible. This process also extends to environmental stewardship, being mindful of both physical and cultural pollution as a maker.
My focus now is on community-based projects. My approach to community artworks is to produce works that are accessible and community-based with multiple avenues of engagement using ethical making. I will use two of my works to illustrate this approach.
One Blithe Day (Fig. 6) was located in the community passageway of Duke University's Perkins Library. The artwork explores the role of water in human life in the city of Durham, North Carolina. The work engages the viewer with a presentation of still and moving images using forty-eight flat-screen monitors showing the utility of water in our lives, our aesthetic enjoyment of water, and the dangers water poses. Networked cameras with motion sensors are used to randomly change the images of the artwork based on the presence and proximity of viewers to the screens. After the sixth viewer, the screen displays a single panorama of how water has been misused or polluted in Durham. This change occurring with the sixth viewer correlates with United Nations figures from 2010 of how one of every six people on the planet does not have access to clean water. This analogy also implicates us and the individual impact we each have on water resources. While the artwork focuses on the city of Durham, it is important to underscore that water is a transboarder resource and the source of all life. The Fulani values I was raised with, which tell us how playing with or wasting water leads to poverty, have turned out not to be superstition after all.
As previously mentioned, the intent of using collage-based processes is to bring me closer to the viewer. In an effort to further bridge this divide, I have produced works that turn viewers into participants as collagists. Transient Transfer (Fig. 7) is a real-time community-based interactive artwork about exchange of ideas via street contact. The artwork functions by allowing viewers/participants to create collages using animated components. Local youth provide all of the elements for the artwork. In a series of workshops, participants are asked to take and share pictures and sounds with the project, showing what they like about their neighborhood and what they would like to see change. These shared visual experiences are then turned into animated moments and backgrounds for what becomes Transient Transfer. The outdoor community component of the piece is the presentation of collages made by users presented at community bus stops. Two versions of Transient Transfer exist, for the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Bronx, New York.
Accessibility for these community works means the artwork must deal with subject matter that is relevant to the context and lives of the individuals living and working within the community where the artwork will reside. For example, One Blithe Day deals specifically with water usage in the city of Durham, and all of the images in the artwork are shot locally. Both versions of Transient Transfer deal directly with the experience of the daily lives of people living in the particular city or area where the artworks reside.
Another aspect of accessibility is creating something that multiple demographics of people can find relevant regardless of age, gender, class, and race. Dealing with the use of water in the city you live in is relevant to everyone; it is easy to identify with. Likewise, what you like or want to change about where you live is an open and relevant discussion for community members, and nonlocals can also find relevance in the subject since everyone lives somewhere. Community artworks must have a level of playful generosity to spark interest and curiosity, while balancing artistic mission without being dogmatic. Both of these artworks introduce an element of play balanced with a message about water use in one and daily community exchange of ideas in the other.
Community engagement is important in a community project. The success of the project will be largely dependent on how the local community perceives the artwork. It is important to engage the community and find out what people's opinions are, then problem-solve to balance the integrity of the artwork with community concerns. Since One Blithe Day is located in a library, the piece was designed without an audio component and library staff were consulted to make sure the rate that the images change and the images themselves met their comfort level. In the case of Transient Transfer, members of the community were directly involved with creating the artwork so that it was a representation of how they saw their community, as opposed to an outsider's point of view.
Offering multiple avenues of engagement means having a piece that viewers can engage with in more then one way. For instance, Transient Transfer offers participation in producing the artwork in the process of creating collages or watching others collaging, as well as viewing the participant's collages at the bus stops. One Blithe Day offers a viewing experience and/or a choice to be implicated in the artwork, because when passing at a certain proximity, the viewer can create a random change in the images of the artwork.
The ethical making process involves not approaching community art as a gift you are giving a community but as collaboration in which you are just one of the stakeholders. One Blithe Day involved working with the Duke University community and visitors to the library; the departments funding the project were Franklin Humanities Institute and the Perkins Library's LINK
Media Wall. Research was conducted at the City Government's Storm Water Office and Water Processing Plans. With both versions of Transient Transfer, art organizations were partners in the project. In New York the artwork was commissioned by the Bronx Museum and the Public Art Fund, New York. In Greensboro, the piece was commissioned by the Greensboro Art Center in collaboration with several local schools.
A part of ethical making involves treating every individual connected with the project's realization respectfully no matter how small their contribution. Another important component is taking precautions to limit any negative impact on the environment throughout the process and at the location of the artwork, both short- and long-term. Both of these artworks do not release any environmental pollutants. Care was taken to conserve the energy usage of the projects. During off hours, the artworks shut down, and posters from the bus stops were given away after the project ended.
Lastly, it is my experience that the level of energy and enthusiasm I put into the projects is often reflected back by the community and stakeholders. This is why it is important to pursue artistic visions but have clarity of ideas with well-thought-out logistics, bringing enjoyment, learning, and reflection to all involved. As in the past, my current pursuits will serve the next works. Multiple forms, multiple realities, unifying ideas.