Memoir X: A Seat at the Table (Part 1)

All images pertaining to the artist have been provided courtesy of them

You know, but… sometimes you ask yourself
“Where’s the peace?”
Everybody is always talking about peace,
But, as long you find peace in what you doing, then you successful,
and that’s what people don’t realise.
See, you gotta do stuff till you gotta go to sleep at night.
Cause the glory… is in you.

Interlude: The Glory is in You (2016) by Solange – A Seat at the Table

When I finished Volume I of memoirsbychard, I looked back at the artists I chose. One artist was black, one was a woman, and one was LGBTQ+, and the rest were white straight men. If I knew what I knew now, then maybe, instead of Claude Monet, perhaps I could have talked about Henry Ossawa Turner, and instead of Edvard Monk, maybe I could have talked about Jacob Lawrence – but that’s the thing with hindsight, it’s 20/20.

When I was in secondary school, I didn’t know black artist such as Purvis Young or Bob Thompson, and that’s just the African American artists.

It was only until university, I discovered Basquiat, Bowling, Yiadom-Boakye and many others. If we’re specifically talking about Black Britain’s art scene, then I’ll be honest, I only truly learnt about it until last year. It was thanks to books and documentaries I discovered legends such as Sonia Boyce, Althea McNish and Aubrey Williams. What’s intriguing, but I must say also irritating, is why aren’t these names household names like the likes of Damien Hirst or David Hockney?

In the documentary, Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Sonia Boyce and her team spent three and a half years scouring through Britain’s public art archives to determine the number of works by artists of African and Asian descent. To their surprise, they discovered around 2000 pieces of work. But what was even more confusing to them, and me, was only a few of them were on public display, and it is here I ask my question, where are the seats for black artists on this table we call the art world? And if there aren’t any seats, should black artists form their own table?

Throughout my journey as an art blogger, I have encountered so much black talent within the art world, but I’ll be honest, I don’t see that talent in commercial galleries. If we look at the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, it had a tremendous impact across the world, people were having discussions, and the art world started to care-ish about artists of colour. In Mayfair, a very rich and affluent area, I saw galleries having solo shows with Black artists. But again, why did it take the death of a black man in the US and the Black Lives Matter movement for the art world to suddenly care a bit about artists of colour.

Throughout Volume III, I have been exposed to different galleries across the world: galleries in Lagos, galleries in New York, and galleries in Singapore. Now, I don’t mean to be that person who compares our neighbours across the Atlantic, but in terms of America, we don’t have that many black-owned galleries, and that’s another problem too.

So, in this first part, I want to tackle the first part of my question, which is where are the seats for Black artists on this table we call the art world. Now, if we want to answer that question from a capitalistic angle, black artists must earn those seats, right? But here’s the thing, when you look at black artists in the past, and even now, they have shown that they are worthy of a seat at the table on countless occasions. 19th Century, Henry Ossawa Turner, the people on the table changed the rules. 20th Century, Donald Rodney, the people on the table changed what was acceptable, and if we fast forward to today, the 21st Century, the people on the table only allow a select few to sit.

So with our current situation, maybe we just have to be so loud and so disruptive to the point that those on the table pay attention – we must be mavericks. In the words of the late John Lewis, ‘Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble’, and someone who is making a tremendous amount of noise with her unique art which incorporates the quilling of paper is Ayobola Kekere-Ekun. So with that being said, let’s delve into the life of the talented, Ayobola Kekere-Ekun.

Ayobola’s story starts as a child in kindergarten, “One of the clearest and earliest memories I have of me drawing is kindergarten. I was maybe… Five or so, and we had just done this spelling test, and I had finished early, and I was bored, and I just started drawing all over the worksheet – I just covered the worksheet with random drawings. I remember because I got a pat for getting all the answers right, and some points deducted for all the drawings, and I was like, ‘What?!’ (laughs). I felt so affronted because technically… I fulfilled the assignment. Like, I did what you asked me to do, but I did it my way (laughs)”.

As Ayobola continued to grow, her love for art grew too. Even throughout high school, her passion for art did not waver. “I was that student who picked science and art, and everyone was like, ‘Oh… you’re still gonna do arts?’. And I was like, Yes?! (laughs) Because why wouldn’t I? But to others, it was so weird. I was this student doing physics, chemistry, and biology, and in between that was art”.

By the end of high school, Ayobola had her eyes set on studying graphic design. Her motivations for choosing graphic design stemmed from its future opportunities: “Studying Graphic Design felt like a really good amalgamation of the concept of communicating with people, to a degree manipulating people, and I found this premise interesting – it was a really cool intersection. It’s interesting because I initially planned to study architecture, but math wasn’t my thing (laughs)”.

It was only until her final year at university that Ayobola started using paper in her work, and in fact, this signature style we are used to actually began by accident. “So this began completely by accident, it was my final year, and I didn’t want to fail my dissertation (laughs). So I started working with paper by accident. But it was… it was very peculiar because that was when I realised how much I loved drawing. It was like I found something… Something I didn’t even realise I was looking for. And when I finished that first painting, it was like everything changed”.

During her time in university, Ayobola had already charted her career. Her plan: finish university, do a service year, and then work with an advertising agency that would expose her to multiple brands. But it was that piece she did in her final that changed everything. “All of a sudden that idea I had of my life just wasn’t enough anymore. I felt like I had found this incredible thing, and I just felt this urge to try. Because I mean… The artworld is a bit like the entertainment industry, in the sense, it’s a bit like a pyramid – it’s not easy to make it to the top. But I still thought, why not me though? (laughs) I mean why not? None of these people who’ve done it had two heads. I mean, I know it’s not… easy… But why not me? If my final year of university was anything like a video game into the world of art, then I was starting with half my life bar and an empty inventory. So at that moment, I forgot about the other obstacles and saw that possibility, and it was enough for me, and that’s kind of how I started”.

If we shift to today, Ayobola is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Johannesburg. I asked the artist, what influenced her to pursue a PhD, and she explained: “A PhD wasn’t really part of the plan. When I finished my undergrad, I did my service year, and I moved back to Lagos. But moving back to Lagos made me realise the kind of career I wanted; I needed to make decisions from a place of relative comfort. I couldn’t make decisions from a place of desperation. I needed the ability to say no to things that did not align with my goals; I needed something that stopped me from starving, it paid the bills, and it funded my practice; I needed capital and the flexibility of time. Also, I was very fortunate to receive funding, and that was from where I went to university, The University of Lagos. And here is the thing, academia has made me realise there’s no rule that says you can’t live a dual life because while I do identify as an artist who teaches, I know some people who do it the other way round”.

With regards to her family, Ayobola holds them in high regard when it comes to their support of her career as an artist. “My family has always been incredibly supportive right from when I was really little. They would give me contracts to draw people and stuff, and they would buy me all sorts of material, and books. I have a lot of childhood friends who were systemically discouraged from art – their passion was removed like some demon. Their passion was seen as something they had to be freed from, and it’s really sad when I see them sometimes because when they come to my exhibitions, they’re so wistful. But yes, my family were super encouraging”.

If we look beyond her family and look at who else supported her journey into the art world, Ayobola stated it was everyone and no one: “I can’t say I had any specific mentor, but hmm. I think when I decided I wanted to be an artist, the first thing I did was do my research – I researched obsessively. I wanted to have that clarity of what exactly the art world meant in a local sense, a continental sense, and a global sense. Once I did that, I had to make a decision about what kind of artist I wanted to be. Did I just want to make pretty things that would sell easily? Or did I want to make super avant-garde work that would be interpreted by many art consultants around the world? Or did I want to make work that was commercially and institutionally validated? I needed to have clarity on where I was going to fit in this world, and for me, the process was looking for people who did what I wanted to do. So that’s why I say it was everyone and no one. I would find an artist and investigate every facet of them, and it wasn’t just artists, it was curators and gallerists. Anyone who sparked even a smidgen of interest in me, I was going to obsessively try to understand how they got into this world”.

Ayobola further explained that her process of entering the art world involved her starting from the end and working her way backwards: “My mentality was ‘Okay, you are already here. But how did you get here? What exhibitions did you do? Who represented you? What competitions did you win? What residencies did you do?’. Once I started to answer those questions, I started to find common threads. There’s a Yoruba saying, ‘Ona kan o woja’, there isn’t only one entrance into the marketplace. You can get to that destination via many routes, you just need to understand how other people did it”.

In terms of that moment when Ayobola felt like an artist, she stated it was when someone outside of her family bought her work: “When that person bought my work. It was weird… It was like…  You’ve worked the whole month… You’ve spent your time at work… They gave you money… And you are going to give me that money for what I do… Because you f*** with it. Like, you can see the vision… You can see what I’m trying to do… And you connect with it so much that you want to live with it… Well, sh**?! Okay, sure. I can get with this (smiles). Even now that feeling still hits me. Because it’s like, ‘Woah?! I have a whole career now’. It’s no longer fun and games – people are really backing this thing I call art”.

When it comes to how she would describe her artistic practice. The artist states, she is still trying to answer that question, “I still haven’t found the textbook answer”. But in the meantime, she also states, “lines on steroids that become a vessel for a whole lot of things”.

With regards to what her art means to her personally, Ayobola states the following: “My work is freedom for me, I think I’ve always wanted to live a life where I could wake up every day and say and do whatever I want. My life isn’t perfect, but through art, I am already living that life. I am blessed to wake up every day and make the work that I want to see, which is about me, my family or society, or everything that is f**ked up about the world (laughs). So yeah, for me, my practice is freedom”.

The Crown V (created 2018) [Mixed Media: paper, fabric and acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91 cm]

Out of all the pieces you will see in this memoir, The Crown V  (created 2018) is the earliest piece by Ayobola. The piece began after she encountered a tweet. While on Twitter, she came across an account talking about feminism. The account’s stance was the following: feminism is redundant due to modern women having access to education and other opportunities. It was this and more that lit a fire in her, and she had to respond. “I remember seeing that tweet and thinking that this person isn’t an outlier; there are quite a few people who think this way, and who will say things like look at Folorunso Alakija, who is one of the richest women in Nigeria. But people need to see Folorunso Alakija as the exception to the rule. There’s this perspective that because women have better access to patriarchal markers of success, well-being and respectability that everything is all hunky-dory now, and no! That’s not true. There are places in Nigeria where girls are literally still used to pay off their father’s debt – like they are cows. So I started making these portraits of women wearing crowns”.

Ayobola stated that the crowns in her work are a celebration of how much women have achieved, “It’s not perfect but there is progress”.

However, Ayobola also states that the crowns represent power and how transient it can be, “The crown is also this ridiculous and ephemeral thing, it’s delicate, it’s beautiful, but it’s not going to last you a full day – it’s not going to take much time for it to fall apart”.

And with that being said, we see why butterflies are used. Just as Ayobola said, it’s beautiful, but there exists this swarm of butterflies. So as the viewer, you really have to ask yourself, is this swarm gathering around the figure or are they fleeing? “I want you to try and picture your day – imagine one day of your life. You’ve got this swarm of butterflies hovering around your head, and for a moment it would be quite pretty, but you’re not getting sh** done (laughs). You could swat at them, but you would feel bad. So what would you do? And that’s this piece, a snapshot of your day – visually incredible but a hindrance nonetheless”.

The Crown V (created 2018) – Zoomed In (Angle 1)

I should also add that throughout Ayobola’s catalogue of work, she also uses an African fabric known as aso ebi. Aso ebi is a material used predominately in West African culture. Ayobola loves using this material within her work, but she is also aware of its impact on Nigerian culture: “If you walk into a Nigerian wedding, you will see aso ebi, and my gosh, it’s beautiful. Everyone is trying to outdo everyone, and everyone looks lit. But I also feel like it’s something that started off as this really positive thing to show love and support, and now it’s just mutated into something more worrisome, and a little bit scary. I’ve watched friendships disintegrate over whether or not someone bought aso ebi. I’ve seen people literally fund their weddings from selling aso ebi. I’ve even seen people treated so shabby at weddings because they’re not wearing their aso ebi”.

The Crown V (created 2018) – Zoomed In (Angle 2)

By using aso ebi Ayobola wants to reference ideas such as societal pressures and expectations: “I remember when I was in university, and I had this friend who had a wedding every single weekend, so four weddings in a month. Each wedding’s aso ebi was at least ₦30,000 each, and that’s just the material. I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re students?! We don’t even see ₦100,000 in a month’. She didn’t even know things such as the price to sew the material, or the price for the right colour shoes, and that’s just the event. She felt this immense pressure, and she felt like she had no choice because the brides would take it personally, and they would. I really sat there and thought to myself, ‘This is not sustainable’.”

First World Problems, Third World Edition IV (created 2019) [Mixed Media: paper, fabric, sanitary pads and acrylic on canvas, 101 x 76 cm]

First World Problems, Third World Edition IV (created 2019) is a piece that examines period poverty. Period poverty is a global problem, and it doesn’t just affect those who don’t have access to safe and hygienic menstrual products, it also affects those who are unable to manage their periods with dignity. In some cases around the world, women even use used tampons or pads. “I read this study about girls in this particular underprivileged school, and they were missing so much class. It wasn’t just access to sanitary pads or tampons. It was the fact the school didn’t have toilets. Where there were toilets, there was no running water. There were no janitors, and even if all those things were in place, there were no school nurses to help with pain relief. You had girls who were statistically less likely to complete their secondary school education in the first place working with an even bigger handicap”.

If you look closely in the right upper corner, you can see a painting hung on the wall. This painting within a painting may appear mundane, but in fact, it’s made from sanitary pads. “I think women’s issues have become fragmented by class. And this is something I am/was also guilty of as well. If you are an upper middle class or middle-class Nigerian feminist, your overarching concerns are like things such as equality, your rights as women in the workplace, your rights as a parent – that sort of thing. But I think we also forget about those less privileged women. They have pressing concerns that don’t even occur to us at all. I think it’s easy to forget that we still live in a world where the ability to adequately deal with the physical and mental logistics of having a monthly period is still a literal privilege”.

What’s powerful about this piece is how the painting made from sanitary pads is perceived by the two figures. They are more fixated on their social lives than the painting. The painting isn’t special to them – it’s just there on the wall – it’s decoration. “With that painting, you see it as if it’s like putting a $1 million painting on the wall, it’s there when you have breakfast, but take that painting somewhere else, and it is literally transformative to someone else. When I look at those studies and more, I just think of the fact I had wonderful parents. I used to go to school with extra uniforms; I had parents who took me to the top gynaecologist; I had parents who helped me sort out my life. It’s privileges such as those we don’t even realise are privileges, and they just exist in the background like a painting”.

Since this is Volume III: The Maverick Series, I asked Ayobola, what makes her work different from other artists, and she said her work is deceptive: “When I say the word deceptive, I don’t mean it in a cruel way… I see it as a gentle trick. My work is easy to engage with visually. It draws you in. It makes you want to know what you’re looking at, and I think because of how it looks it’s easily dismissed as something light, precious, frivolous, or even vapid, but regardless you’re lured in. Your curiosity is engaged, and you’re invested. But once you realise, I’m not talking about anything happy or light or beautiful, that’s when things get interesting, and I think in that sense that’s my favourite part about the work, and when I think about it… My entire practice is based on that part, that gentle deception”.

Memory Bank Error I (created 2020) and Gbórí dúró {Keep your head still} (created 2020) are good examples of this.

Memory Bank Error I (created 2020) Mixed Media [Mixed Media: paper, fabric, faux beads and acrylic on canvas, 81 x 81 cm]

Both Memory Bank Error I and Gbórí dúró were created last year, 2020, during the lockdown, and are a result of Ayobola’s therapy which has been ongoing for 2 years. Memory Bank Error I was the first piece she made, and it is about Ayobola not trusting her memories. “There is something very unsettling about not trusting your own memories. Something very, very unsettling about that”.

The false memory she is evoking in this piece is a memory of her swimming with her mother. “This memory of me and my mom feels very real. But I know for a fact it’s not real. I can’t swim… And my mum is scared of water… And none of my siblings and I were ever near water… So I know the memory isn’t real… But it feels real…”.

After coming to terms with this false memory, Ayobola began to create this piece. “I created this piece because if I can’t remember what’s real, then that just gives me the licence to reimagine, recreate, embellish, do and undo as I wish, and in doing this, I’m kind of grappling with this idea of an origin story, if that makes any sense. Because if a lot of what we think of ourselves is what has happened to us, then do we really know what’s actually happened to us? Because when there’s a gap, then what’s left?”.

Moreover, both this piece and Gbórí dúró were also created by Ayobola speaking to relatives and using family photos. Both pieces incorporate shards of her childhood, “the works contain little easter eggs that only certain people will get”.

Another interesting feature that caught my attention was the unicorn, I asked Ayobola, why the unicorn? Ayobola said the unicorn was another easter egg within the work, and its presence pays homage to a cup she had as a child: “There was this cup, it was this ridiculous, gaudy cup, and it had a glitter case. If you turned it upside down, all the glitter would come down, and unicorns would appear. As a child, I was obsessed with that cup. It was like a symbol of the good things that I had; the cup was like a beacon of hope, like optimism bordering on foolishness”.

Memory Bank Error I (created 2020) – Zoomed In

Throughout this memoir, you will notice that Ayobola’s primary choice of material is paper, and this piqued my curiosity when I first encountered her work. Because look at how she uses paper to create the hair texture of the figures we see – it is clearly evident that an incredible amount of time and work has gone into creating these pieces.

Gbórí dúró {Keep your head still} (created 2020) – Zoomed In (Angle 1)

So I asked the artist why her preferred material was paper?

Ayobola’s response to this question was enthralling, as it delved into the versatility of the material, and its role within our daily lives: “I just like the material (smiles). It’s the most familiar and unifying material. You wander into any corner of the world… They have some sort of paper. It’s the most and least valuable thing. You need to distract a toddler… Paper. A dinner table is a bit wonky… Shod it with some paper. When I finish my PhD… It’s gonna be on paper (laughs). I need to pay for a flight… Well, I need some paper to be on that flight. So yeah, it is simultaneously the most and least valuable thing on the planet, but it is also the most familiar. And I think working with paper is a way of proving to myself over, and over again that if you use this common material, it can be more than what somebody thinks it can be”.

Gbórí dúró {Keep your head still} (created 2020) [Mixed Media: paper, fabric, and acrylic on canvas, 81 x 81 cm]

In Gbórí dúró, we can see a young female figure getting her hair down – her hair is being put into cornrows. To the right of the piece, we can also see a tub labelled ‘hair tub’, just like Memory Bank Error I, this is another easter egg for viewers. “The easter eggs are there for viewers. I put them in the work so people can feel something. For instance, that hair tub brings back so many memories – every little Nigerian girl remembers that hair tub”.

Gbórí dúró {Keep your head still} (created 2020) – Zoomed In (Angle 2)

The piece’s title is also important too, it’s a Yoruba phrase, and it translates to keep your head still. When it comes to her childhood, Ayobola states that this was something she would hear whenever her hair was being done: “Gbórí dúró was something you would hear every week whenever you were doing your hair. You just had to keep still since it was the only way the process was going to be done any faster”.

Even in her current day to day life, the phrase is still important as it serves as a reminder for her to maintain her focus and keep doing what she needs to do, “I just need to keep my head still, and just focus (laughs). Just for a little bit, gbórí dúró (smiles)”.

If we are speaking of artists who have inspired Ayobola, starting with artists from the past, the artist stated Artemisia Gentileschi, Sofonisba Anguissola, and in particular, Gustav Klimt. “I get obsessed about artists in waves. My answer now will not be what I would have answered last year or the previous year. Although, my one constant from the past is Klimt. I’ve always loved Klimt’s work, it’s so lush”.

In terms of her contemporaries, Ayobola stated Dada Khanyisa, Murjoni Merriweather, Liza Lou, Lesley Hilling, Cow Mash, Rosie Smudge, Vanessa Tembane, Namsa Leuba and Layo Bright.

And if we look beyond art, Ayobola draws inspiration from mythology and history too, “I love mythology, and I think it says more about who we are as humans. Because, if you think about it, we as humans used it to figure out the world and our place in it. For example, humans came across this mountain in Greece and went, ‘Oh… That’s where Zeus lives’. I also really like how gods and goddesses, and deities, and you know, all these beings that we have contextualised over time are like people on steroids raised to the power of a billion – it’s like next-level humanity. Then there’s history, which I also love because I just love people. If you think about it, we are literally the best and worst things ever, and it’s so interesting how we can be so cool and just so awful. Like… We have the capacity to do both on unimaginable heights and that’s so weird”.

With regards to her art’s message, Ayobola’s response was know your baggage and understand what it is: “I don’t care if it’s 1000 years from now or now, it will be the same thing. I want people to reconsider what they think they know and how they think they know. I think we bring a lot of baggage… All kinds of baggage, and we use it to read the world. So I’m not saying you have to exchange your current baggage for a different kind. No, I’m just saying, be aware of it, and what it is”.

She And I. The Counterweights (created 2021) [Mixed Media: Paper, fabric and acrylic on canvas, 76 x 61 cm]

The final piece of this memoir is She And I. The Counterweights (created 2021). She And I. The Counterweights is Ayobola’s self-examination. “Therapy has been helpful, and I think it has helped me to realise I don’t necessarily have a split personality or a dual personality, but instead, an extension. It’s a little bit separate, but I think it’s really a result of everything that has happened to me”.

With regards to who is who from the two female figures we see, Ayobola says the following, “It’s neither, and both of them”. For Ayobola, this extension is someone who looks out for her, “She deals with everything that I can’t deal with. I think we have developed a sort of partnership, and a lot of the time it is she and I against everybody else”.

It is this partnership we see on full display. If we look at both of them, their hands are interlocked, and they are aware of each other’s presence. “As I deal with my baggage, I need her less and less. This extension is not always kind, but she’s really effective, and she gets things done, so I’ll give her that”.

So what can we expect from Ayobola as of this year? Starting with exhibitions/shows, she has some work appearing in group shows; as of the release of this memoir, Ayobola has a piece in the group show, Mother of Mankind at House of Fine Art Gallery, London – the show will be on until 31st August. You can also expect to see her work in a group show in Shanghai during November.

With regards to her practice, Ayobola said we can expect to see a shift in medium and how she expresses her core artistic skills: “I think there are very interesting ways that the core of the technique can be expressed in different ways. I think I see my work progressively becoming more three dimensional – I can see it entering that installation realm. But more importantly, as the viewer, you will see me having more fun and doing what I like. I see my career as a video game, a free-roaming video game… Like… Like GTA! You have your core missions, and then you have your missions where you just wake up and raise hell (laughs). So yeah, expect something like that (smiles)”.

The quilling of paper is a known technique, but to see it demonstrated in such a way that gives life and identity is truly astonishing. The figures we have seen have a boldness to them, and they aid the story that Ayobola is trying to tell us. Ayobola’s story has only just begun, and who knows where she will take us in the next couple of years. So go to her website or follow her on Instagram @ayobola.k or do both because she is a maverick.

“Art just made sense to me – it made me happy. It was something that I always loved doing, and I was good at it. When people look at my work, they assume they know what it is. People have said it’s buttons, and I’m like, ‘How do you know it’s buttons?’. But when they realise it’s paper, they either feel fascinated or betrayed because we all know what paper looks like, and it doesn’t look like this. But beyond that, I think the work helps people re-examine what they know, and what they think they do”.

I think artists such as Ayobola are a constant reminder that black artists deserve a seat at the table we call the art world. But what happens when you make all that noise, and still, nobody from the table pays attention. Well, perhaps you form your own table?

If you don’t understand us and understand what we’ve been through
then you probably wouldn’t understand… What this moment is about.
This is home.
This is where we from.
This is where we belong.

And if it ain’t for the better of the people,
nah, cause you robbing and stealing from the people that been there for so many years,
not just come and destroy, and knocking our neighbourhoods down.
You know, when they come here, you invisible.
You know, you don’t even have a number in the system.
Nobody cares about you.
Everything is about dollars and cents, you know,
even when you’re talking the Government, you know,
even when you’re talking about the preachers and the people that’s running the community. And we have to show them the evolution of where we come from.
I’m about to send a message to the world, like…

Interlude: This Moment (2016) by Solange – A Seat at the Table

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