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In Conversation: Ayọ̀ Akínwándé 

Opening note: Ayọ̀ Akínwándé dedicates this article in memory of the peaceful protesters and citizens massacred by the Nigerian Government all through the ongoing #EndSars movement in Nigeria.

Ayọ̀ Akínwándé, Up Nepa, 2018, Performance, 'Power Show I' exhibition, Omenka Gallery, Lagos

C-P: You initially studied architecture at the Covenant University in Ota. However, you are currently active on the Nigerian art scene in several ways; as an artist, curator and art writer. What prompted the transition from architecture towards art?

A.A: The transition from architecture to a professional art practice was an organic one. It developed through a process of finding myself, consistently failing, and embracing this "failure", and not out of a quest to become a "visual artist". Architecture in itself is an art form, but as a student, the scientific part was often favoured in the curriculum.

After I graduated from the university, my journey towards becoming a full-time artist started unconsciously with photography, then the need to showcase my works led to taking part in group and solo exhibitions, reading, learning, unlearning, attending art and writing workshops, going to a curatorial school and understanding art criticism. I have also been lucky and grateful to have "learnt on the job" with friends, colleagues, mentors, and I have embraced this journey with all of its ups, downs, and in-betweens.

Ayọ̀ Akínwándé, Vagabonds-In-Power, 2018, Video Installation, 'Power Show II:The God-Fathers Must Be Crazy" exhibition, Revolving Art Incubator, Lagos

C-P: How would you today describe your artistic practice?

A.A: I now refer to myself as a "jack of all thoughts, master of all." My practice is multi-disciplinary. I consider myself first as a thinker, and these thoughts become visualized through lens-based media, installation, sound, performance, and texts. My practice is engineered towards a social critique of the built environment and engages the subject of people, politics, and power, and how this manifests in the multi-faceted layers of the human reality.

Since 2016, I have been developing a long-term research project on the subject of "power" and "archives". On archives, my focus is on what is happening now, the conversation on data and what the archives of the future will look like. So I began collecting and archiving social media screenshots, and sound recordings of political conversations at the bus stops in Lagos. These materials have been incorporated through installations, performances, sound collages, and sculptures, into my exhibition series titled Power Show. For these exhibitions, which are in its third iteration, the architecture of the spaces become a way for me to evoke both intimacy and monumentality, as I section my ideas and thoughts, as I engage the audiences in a visual monologue and dialogue on political situations around me with the works.

Ayọ̀ Akínwándé, Third Force, 2018, Site-Specific Installation, Part of 'Generation Y' exhibition by RetroAfrica, National Exhibition Pavilion, Abuja.

I only allow myself to have the freedom to fail through constant experimentation with medium. So I work as a photographer, I make sound sculpture pieces, I do performances, create site-specific installation works, I write about art, and sometimes curate. I’m currently writing poems, and working on a book of poetry.

So my art practice is one where I am constantly failing, and creating. It’s a privilege the university environment doesn’t afford you.

C-P: How was your experience of co-curating the 2017 Lagos Biennial?

A.A: For me, the inaugural Lagos Biennial in 2017 was an experience that isn’t in any art or curatorial "manual". The classic case of "learning on the job". How do you curate an experience that exists in your head, and without any institutional funding structure? It must be stated that the idea of staging a large-scale exhibition in itself isn’t new in Nigeria. In 1995, the Nigerian Association of Photographers held a large-scale exhibition of about 30 artists at the National Theatre Lagos. Some of the artists in that exhibition are household names in Nigeria: J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Tam Fiofori, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Jide Adeniji-Jones, Sunmi Smart-Cole, etc. And 15 years later, the Lagos Photo Festival was launched and it has been running yearly ever since. So the Lagos Biennial benefitted from all of these histories, and also from the works done by other art organizations in Lagos.

The biennial was the idea of Folakunle Oshun, who is an artist and curator. The plan took off after his participation as an artist at the 2016 Dakar Biennale. But like every "new’ projects", it was not without its flaws. For me, I didn’t set out to "curate" the biennial; I was just going to show my work. But more than that, I was able to unconditionally believe in the project despite being aware of the challenges that were ahead of us. The closer we got to the opening, the more challenges we faced. From previously designated curators pulling out, to the lack of a proper venue, etc. So I found myself assuming an unintended role of supporting Folakunle Oshun, the Artist Director, not only as a friend, and colleague, but also as a curatorial advisor, and co-curator as well. And all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the commitment and sacrifices of the biennial team consisting of Aminat Agoro Lawal, Michael Enejison, Feranmi Ogundipe, Oluwatobi Afolabi, Sodiq Abiola, and Anthony Monday.

Lamis Haggag, How Do I Look on Paper, 2017, Interactive Installation

Irrespective of all of the changes we had to deal with during the preparation for the biennial, the curatorial framework of the biennial was always constant, and it was just about implementing it in whichever space we finally settled on. The theme of the biennial Living on the edge was speaking to the geographical location of Lagos on the edge of the Atlantic, and also what it means to live in the city of Lagos, which is a place where chaos and order are in constant dialogue. And the concept of grazing in painting, the dialogue between the opaque and the transparent layers, became our visual reference. The running shed inside the Nigerian Railway Compound, which is also dubbed the "Nigerian Railway Museum" was the main site of the exhibition. There were about 43 artists working across installation, sculpture, sound, and performance, with artist talks, and other programmes during the six-week period of the show.

In retrospect, the experience of co-curating the inaugural biennial was an opportunity to be part of history, and to have made something that was abstract become real, in a matter of months. It’s like getting a MFA in curating while on the field having fun, and using real-life scenarios. Would it have been possible in a city like New York that we were the ones doing it? No! But then New York would not have that opportunity to create the kind of raw, out of the playbook, exhibition we made. To some it up, I learnt how to "curate-on-the-go" through the Lagos Biennial experience.

Jerry Buhari, Aftermath and Meditation, 2017, Performance

C-P: Has the art scene in Lagos changed since you first became an artist? In what ways?

A.A: The Lagos art scene has always been very active. I think every generation has a way of projecting their time as the defining one, but that is just romanticization, and history isn’t poetry. The difference between what is happing now in Lagos and what was happening in the ‘90’s is simply multiplication. We are experiencing an explosion in the number of art spaces, galleries, festivals, art fairs, exhibitions, auctions, outdoor/public space exhibitions, public commissions, etc. This gives room for a plurality of voices, and while one might not always agree with these voices, their presence is key to having a robust conversation between the people, and the art being created.

It is important to note that the changes that have occurred in the art scene are a result of individuals, who have made it work, using their respective methodologies. It is largely devoid of governmental support, or incentives. So while exhibitions were mostly held in embassies, and makeshift spaces decades ago, there are now more dedicated art spaces, and more commercial galleries as well.

Abdulrazak Awofeso, Sorrow, Fears and Blood, 2017, Mixed Media

C-P: What challenges do you think the Nigerian art scene face today?

A.A: Funding. The absence of public funding has robbed the art scene of the opportunity to insert itself into the daily life of the people. Like the saying, "He who pays the piper, dictates the tune", you can’t overtly rely on "foreign grants", or "stipends", to solve local issues. So when comments arrive on the lack of criticality in the works produced by artists, I simply remind them of the funding problem. It’s like the famous admonition of "Africans" to tell their own stories, but the real question is, "with whose money?"

The funding issue extends beyond the government, but also to the private sector, the "billionaires", the corporations with their CSRs, etc. So the industry is heavily reliant on patronage, while that also exists in the West, it shouldn’t be the central way of "supporting" artists. And what does that word "supporting" even mean? Do artists need people to "support" them or to "invest" in them? With the right, and transparent structure created around public funding of the arts, via taxpayers money, then other pressing challenges will be overcome. Then we can begin to have other conversations on subjects that are pressing to every individual or organization.

Januario Jano, Musseke, 2017, Video Performance/Drawings

C-P: Lastly, is there any specific exhibition you’ve seen in Lagos recently that left a particularly strong impression on you? And why?

A.A: There have been lots of amazing exhibitions that have been organized in Lagos in recent times. I will refrain from highlighting any, but rather focus on what I think is the attributes of a strong exhibition. Once the sole reason for establishing an exhibition is known to me, either to make sales, or to pass across a message, then it becomes easy to give an assessment.

If it’s about sales, then the red dots are important, and if it isn’t, then I’m interested in the thought process of the artists, the curatorial framework, and how the choices of materials, medium, scale, styles, have been utilized in conveying the artist's message, and surely not ignoring issues of plagiarism.

It is a great time to be in Lagos as there are more unconventional art spaces that are showing more experimental works. For some, "the thrill is gone", while for others, they are in paradise.

All photographs by Ayọ̀ Akínwándé


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