Ade Okelarin is the London-born Lagos bred artist who goes by the name Àsìkò. Using photography, mixed media and film, his works explore complex, multidimensional themes such as identity and culture, memory and heritage, staring from intimate feelings and personal experiences. His pieces deal with gender issues and the role of women in society—traditional and contemporary, western and african—in order to challenge the patriarchal system which operates at all levels and it is based on violence, whether physical or psychological. Àsìkò creates visually striking images often transforming make-up and female accessories to reveal the paradoxes of gender stereotypes. We linked up with him to find out more about his creative universe.
GRIOT: What is your artistic and professional background?
Àsìkò: I’m a self taught visual artist whose work employs the use of photography, mixed media and film. In 2010 I started out my journey into the creative world as a hobby, photographing everything I could till I settled on developing my ideas and creating concept driven photographs. Between 2012 and 2013, while living and working in Antwerp in Belgium, my photographs developed into artwork. When moving back to London in 2014, I decided to pursue a career as an artist and photographer leaving behind my old career as data architect in the pharmaceutical industry. My profession didn’t originally start out in the art world, but art has always been in my heart. I was always surrounded by African art and was intrigued by the work of renaissance era painters and sculptors before I ever picked up a camera, the need to create and immerse myself in art always existed in my psyche. For me, creating is essential. It feeds my soul, allows me to express myself and provides an avenue to have an internal dialogue that I can represent visually through photographs.
Your work is focused on blackness, womanhood and African culture. As an African artist, have you seen any fundamental changes take place in the representation of these conceptual elements since you’ve started your career?
I feel every year there is a bigger shift in these elements, maybe the world is becoming aware and maybe the evolution of our societies is giving us a deeper understanding of blackness, womanhood and African culture. If you look at what is going on in the US and all around the world, there is a bigger conversation than ever to address racism and what it means to be black and to live in diasporic societies. The world is learning the plight of the black race and the societal race politics.
By proxy, there are also conversations about African culture and its place on world stage. For so long African culture has been highlighted as primitive, tribal and unsophisticated. However, that narrative was indoctrinated into society by colonial ideology which the world is now beginning to challenge. This is progress, but a lot more still needs to be done to breakdown colonial structures. Womanhood has always been an evolving conversation in western and African societies, there have been some strides forward, but we get the sense a lot still needs to be done when prominent issues of gender inequality arise.
Why have you chosen to express yourself through photography, films and mixed media? In which sense are these right to get your message through?
That’s a good question, and the response might not be as satisfactory. Essentially, since it was more of a gut feeling, the camera just felt right in my hands and when I looked through the viewfinder, I felt at home. I can’t explain it beyond that. Film happened by proxy, it felt natural to tell stories with moving photographs. Mixed media came as a result of me wanting to use my hands on a physical photograph and build a story vertically. In a few years it could change as I am beginning to experiment with painting and sculpture. I do feel photography will always be present in my practice and will always form the foundational basis for my work.
Your works explore emotions, feelings and also the intersection between identity and culture, so can we say that they are both personal/individual and social/universal at the same time?
That’s an interesting way of putting it. I believe that fundamentally it is personal and I am exploring my psyche and how I exist in the world crafted around me. My works are reactions to my experiences and my process involves looking within. These reactions and themes can relate on a universal level as we are all on a journey of self discovery, whether we are mindful of it or not. We all struggle with issues of identity and belonging. We all react to the world around us whether in a good or bad way. The tale of humanity is universal.
Do you think that art is always required to have a social role?
I honestly don’t believe so, not all art needs to have a social role. Art by its definition is about expression, and by that ideology, it can have many roles, it is up to the artist to choose which one. Some art deals with healing, sometimes it’s purely aesthetic, sometimes it documents what happens around us etc. Whatever the role, art is important in getting us to think and promote conversations.
I do feel art has an important social function—especially in activism—at this crucial point in time in society. An inspirational example of using art in this time happened in Bristol, UK. The statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol and replaced with the statue of the Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid. The sculpture created by Marc Quinn made a statement with a black power stance and fist raised in defiance. It was a triumphant call to action.
Looking at your works, for example the metallic prints series, it is as if contemporary and traditional elements are organically fused. Which aspects of these works are more influenced by Nigerian or African culture?
I believe that it has been an essential part of my journey as an artist. I dive into Nigerian and African history to learn more about who I am and where I’ve come from, in this process I am curating aspects of culture into my contemporary existence. There is a hybridisation that is occurring in my person much like the mixing of African heritage and my current English culture. These all inform the person I am and as a result feed into the work I create. My Nigerian culture is definitely the spark and catalyst for the images for the pieces Adorned, Ase, Woman Code and Conversations.
I was very impressed by Conversations. Themes such as violence against women and the impact of the patriarchal system are delicate and controversial. What was your starting point and how did you develop the conceptual work?
The work (Conversations) was a gut reaction to the story of a Somalian colleague and her encounter with FGM. She recounted the story of how she was pinned down on her 13th birthday so the cultural practice of female genitalia mutilation could be performed on her. I had never heard of FGM before that day and felt compelled to research and understand this practice and how it is culturally rooted. Learning about it opened up a whole new world of gender based violence instigated by patriarchal cultural structures. In my findings, I came across breast ironing, child marriage, sexual violence etc. I spoke to women in the UK who had experienced some of these practices and they explained how they were affected both psychologically and physically and how they lived with lifelong trauma. The conversations I had with them and the conversations we need to have as a society about these cultural practices rooted in patriarchy formed the basis for the body of work.
The psychological and physical emotions of the women I spoke to fuelled the conceptual ideology and the setups for the images were carefully picked in order to convey the emotions and the trauma experienced. The images were exhibited at my first solo show in London at the Gallery of African Art. One of my hopes was to promote a conversation and so at the exhibition an interactive talk was set up to talk about gender violence, how it affects our women and communities and what we as individuals can do to raise awareness.
The topics of identity, culture and diversity is the basis for your “Black Panther with kids” posters. Of course, we know there is a problem with representing diversity in mainstream media. What can artists do to push for change?
We as artists and creators have a platform to create ideas and new ways of thinking, what we do instigates conversations and we are important to contributing to the societal and global change. The art world needs to highlight a more diverse and inclusive landscape, we need to show that representation matters. When we do this, the younger generations start to get the idea that they can be artists, filmmakers, photographers and not confined to the societal norms of being a doctor or a lawyer. For me, it is important to bring the African and black conversation to the table and shed light on our stories in all their beauty and complexity. What I do is not just for me, but it’s also for my children and for the generations to come. I want to leave them a legacy and an heritage about where they are from. It is important we tell our stories.
Which are your landmarks in art history? Who are your favourite artists and intellectuals (from the past and the present)?
My first introduction to art actually began when I lived in Nigeria. Art was everywhere but I didn’t acknowledge it as that. In my culture, we create things based around the culture and whatever we create, not only has a beautiful aesthetic, but a functional use as well. For instance, in my home we had beautiful wood carvings used to hold ornaments and candles, or wooden bowls with intricate design work used to hold important cultural artefacts. Artworks are functional, cultural and aesthetically pleasing.
My second encounter came later in life when I saw the renaissance era paintings, I was filled with awe in how majestic and grand the artwork was. Seeing both these forms of art in my childhood years planted the seeds for my journey into creating artwork.
My favourite artists are a mixed bag of African and western artists; Peju Alatise, Wangechi Mutu, Mary Sibande, Genesis Tramaine, Tim Walker, Gregory Crewdson, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Gustav Klimt.
Plans for future? What are you working on?
My immediate plans are to get through the year that is 2020 in a good state of mind to continue create emotionally resonant work. I’m currently completing my year-and-a-half long project on Yoruba masquerades, Egungun, the work will culminate with an exhibition with photography prints, a short film and a book. The work explores memory recollection, diasporic identity and, of course, culture.
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