by Koyin Gbenro and Nkemka Uche
As Lagos based art enthusiasts we have had the opportunity to witness Ayobola Kekere-Ekun’s growth from a local newcomer at Rele’s Young Contemporaries 2016 to a budding international artist. We met with Ayobola ahead of her first solo exhibition earlier in April.
What’s your background?
I majored in graphic design at University of Lagos (Unilag) for my undergrad. My Masters was in graphic design as well in Unilag and I’m currently doing my Ph.D. in Art and Design at the University ofJohannesburg. So in my academic life I’m a designer. It’s like a separation of church and state.
Does that come into your work?
Yeah, sometimes I find my research filtering into my work a bit. For example in the chapter I’m working on there’s a section on the history of Lagos and I found quite a few amazing women that no one taught me about in school. I found them sort of entering my practice.
Like Real Housewives of Old Oyo?
Some of the real housewives and some women in Lagosian history like Aina Orosun, Madam Tinubu. There was a Lagosian Queen, we don’t know her actual name but she also had a pretty interesting story. You know, all these women popping out of nowhere and I’m like where have you guys been? All this while and I didn’t hear about you. So they kind of seep into each other a bit.
How did your relationship with Art begin?
I have drawings that I did in kindergarten.My Mum kept them. I have always been drawing. Even in secondary school I was in science class but I still kept doing fine art. It was the one constant thing in my life in a way. So I have always drawn, I have always been drawn to visual expression. It helped that I had super supportive parents. I had friends who were also really into drawing and it was beaten out of them like a demon or something. My parents did not care what your interest was; just have an interest that they can nurture and foster. They believe if they have sent you to school and you decide you want to sell pepper, ok. They have done their part in supporting you.
How does your art express your worldview?
I think it’s inevitable for me because a lot of my work is based on personal experiences and observations. I have started to realize I might have intertwined my sense of self a little too tightly with my work but that’s my personal issue to deal with. My art is an expression of my beliefs. I consider myself to be a very strong feminist and that inevitably filters into my art. I have very egalitarian views that inevitably filter into my art. I can be quite sarcastic and almost harsh sometimes, a little jaded, a little cynical and that also finds its way into my work a bit. What I do find interesting about my work is often when people have gotten to know me before they see my work they always say “your work did not look like I expected” because I’m not exactly a bright happy person in real life. I don’t know where the brightness and happiness comes from. It also is a double whammy in a sense.
Is your use of bright colors a reflection of your personality?
My work is really bright and playful and happy which I am really not. My work is really time consuming and I am not a patient person in real life.
Oh, are you serious?
I am not. I don’t wait for things.
So how long does it take to you to finish one?
It depends on the size. It can take anywhere from two to seven weeks.
Wow. The pieces you’re exhibiting are a lot bigger than your previous work.
I was maybe a bit too ambitious for this show. I was really determined. I had very set ideas about what I wanted to do.
So, the brightness of my work used to bother me a bit because it looked so playful and so not serious.
Do the colors signify anything?
Sometimes they do and sometimes it’s more a formal decision. I do what’s needed for the piece and what feels right in the moment.
So we see that there are a lot of yellows sometimes.
Yellow is one of those really useful colors. It’s bright and stuff but I personally think it’s kind of sinister because it’s a bit too aggressively happy. No one is that happy. Nothing is really that great. It feeds back to how it used to bother me that my work looked so pretty and happy until I read this interview with Yinka Shonibare and he made a comment that his work is really beautiful, it draws you in until you realize it’s talking about these really unpleasant things. So it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I kind of enjoy the darker side of using these seemingly happy things.
When did you start doing collages and mixed media?
I would say from the get go almost.
From when you were young?
No, from when I started working with this technique but I took a year to more deliberately start trying out other things mixed media wise.
Is there any particular significance of using mixed media?
Whenever I use Ankara in my work there is significance to it. When I use Ankara it is in reference to Aso-Ebi and it’s basically a visual marker of the idea of conformity and everyone looking in the same direction or having the exact same worldview, and the consequences of not agreeing. So whenever you see Ankara pop-up in my work that’s what I’m talking about, always. Even if it’s across different series the reference is consistent.
There’s a mixed media piece in this exhibition with the phrase Owo Ni Koko.
Those pieces with Ankara in this show are based on characters in Novels. So four of them are from Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and one of them is from Purple Hibiscus. Have you read the book?So the one you’re talking about is based on Iya Segi and it’s a profile of a coin basically and it says Owo Ni Koko. I found it interesting how all four wives wound up in that house as a result of some form of trauma and it was almost like a coping mechanism. They felt they didn’t deserve better and Iya Segi’s coping mechanism was money, it was material things. That was how she manifested her own self-care and her trying to understand how to navigate her space. You should read the book. It’s really good. I have bought four copies because people keep taking them.
What is the significance of the female form to you?
It’s about taking up space but first I find women more interesting. Literally, figuratively, I find women more interesting.I find women’s stories more interesting and it’s also about literally and figuratively taking up world space with a woman.
When and how did you find out you had won the Dean Collection Grant?
I was on my way back to Lagos and my phone had been switched off all day. When I turned my phone on around 10.30pm, I went to have a shower, came back and there were a shit ton of messages, emails and I panicked. I thought someone was dead. I thought that my siblings were trying to reach me because someone had died or my Mummy was in the hospital. Something was wrong. Then I started reading the messages and I saw I had been tagged (onInstagram). I saw it on the Dean Collection page. I saw it on Swizzy’s page andI was like you know what? I’m just going to go back to bed and if this is still here in the morning….
I don’t know that I really believed it until we did our calls and we actually spoke to Swizzy and then part of me was like ok maybe it’s real. When I finally got the money I was happy for ten seconds and then I was like shit I actually have to do what I said I was going to do. I think that was when it felt real, when I saw the money and was like ‘ah, girl you have to do this thing sha.’ It was surreal because I wasn’t going to apply. I applied after the sixth person tagged me. I did my application in twenty minutes a few days to the deadline. I just thought ok if I had this money what would I actually do with it and that’s what I proposed. I really didn’t think anything was going to come out of it because you always have all these international call for entries that they have blocked African IP addresses. I really didn’t expect anything to come out of it so it was a true shock.
Apart from putting up a show, what were the other requirements for the grant?
That’s the thing. That’s what I loved about the grant. The grant was basically here is this money, do your thing. Do whatever you want. No supervision, no restraint, no conditions. So most of us decided to put on shows but some of us decided to use it to fund more aggressive installation type work that cost money.
Did all grant recipients ever meet?
Yeah, so we have a group chat. We are all in contact and we all know what’s going on with each other. What I did not expect from this was how it kind of fostered this mini family. It’s not competitive, it’s a really random pairing of people from all around the world, and it just turned out to be this really supportive group.
So tell us all about your new body of work that comprises of two series “History and Mythology” and “The Crown”?
It’s actually a bit more complex than it being just two bodies of work because they are also mini series within the series. For this exhibition specifically the overall driving theme is the idea of the bullshit women have to put up with literally permeating time and space.I found it interesting how things women in Yoruba mythology, Yoruba folk tales, history, things women in twelfth century Lagos had to go through, you can still find versions of it today. I mean that’s chilling. There are accounts of Yoruba goddesses being raped and there is no justice. If a goddess is getting raped and there is no justice what does that say?
For example, one of the women who popped up in my research, Aina Orosun, during the first Oba’s reign in Lagosian history, was disturbingly rich and that was impressive in and of itself considering the time and space but she was not married. So the Oba’s sons used to harass her all the time. They would steal from her, they would harass her servants, and she would go to the Oba of Lagos and he was like well there’s nothing he could do because she had no husband to defend her. She had to go all the way to the Oba of Benin to ask for justice and some historians claim that was the pretext of the Oba ofBenin coming to Lagos and trying to annex Lagos which they eventually succeeded in doing. It just struck me that this woman who had all this money and the power that comes with it but the fact that she was still single was a problem for her.
There was this parallel with women in Lagos not being able to rent. The problem isn’t that there is no money or you cannot afford to rent. These capitalist patriarchal markers of success that these women already had didn’t matter. You are still a vagina with no ring around it so you can’t rent. The parallels were just too disturbing you know? That’s really what the exhibition is about. It’s about drawing these parallels and hopefully people seeing that these issues are a lot more complex than we give them credit for.
What informed your decision to exhibit in Lagos, and at Rele?
When I got the grant and what I had proposed was a solo exhibition, I knew the conversation I wanted to have with the exhibition; I knew it needed to happen in Lagos. Besides the other more sentimental reasons of wanting my first solo to be in Lagos I just felt like the conversation needed to be here specifically. Working with Rele was a no brainer for practical and sentimental reasons. My first proper show was here, it’s an amazing team, and it’s a team I trust. That’s a big deal for me because I’m not based here anymore and I needed to work with people I knew had my back and I could trust without reservation and there’s also that sentimental aspect because I just pictured my first solo here. It kind of came together. It’s more expensive as I had to ship but I think it was worth it.
I go back to school and continue my Ph.D. I recently signed with a gallery in South Africa: Guns and Rain. I think my focus for the next few years will be exploring the South African market and European market to a certain degree