Since the beginning of this year, the name Adejoke Tugbiyele has appeared in major art exhibitions with connections to Africa in the United States. The Brooklyn-born artist and activist is currently showing in two different exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. The first exhibition “Agitprop!” opened at the end of 2015 and is ongoing till 7th August 2016. She is participating as one of the first round of invited artists in the exhibition. The second exhibition “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” opened in April and will be on view until September 2016. At about the same time the second exhibition opened, she rounded up her first solo exhibition “Grassroots” at Skoto gallery in New York, which was on view from February to April.
Although born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Adejoke Tugbiyele is of Nigerian descent. She spent seven years of her childhood in Lagos before finally relocating to the United States to live with her parents at the age of nine.
Adejoke fuses many elements and techniques in the works she creates and appropriates styles and influences from both her formal architectural background and training in art. Her work examines sensitive subjects of gender, LGBTQ, spirituality, migration and issues related to social psychology and politics. She is also multi-disciplinary as she works in sculpting, drawing, textile and video.
As stated in her biography on Skoto gallery site, “Her sculptural process combines the weaving of fibrous materials around light metal structures, producing abstract figurative forms with universal elements of androgyny, armor, flight, seduction, myth, and mystery. Her practice is influenced by multiple genres including ready-made / assemblage, architecture, and performance/film.”
Adejoke Tugbiyele is the recipient of several awards including being named Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2015, a Fulbright U.S. Student Fellowship in 2013, the 2014 Serenbe Artist-in-Residence, the 2013 Amalie Rothschild Award, and the 2012 William M. Phillips Award for best figurative sculpture. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Newark Museum and in significant private collections in the United States and Hong Kong.
Tugbiyele received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture from Maryland Institute College of Art.
Below, Bukola Oye interviews the artist on her fascinating art techniques and the narratives behind some of her works.
Bukola Oye: A look at your educational background shows you were an architect before your MFA in Art at Maryland Institute College of Art, how did you get into art and practicing full time?
Adejoke Tugbiyele: The path towards full-time art-making has not been straightforward, to say the least. Out of sheer necessity, I had always balanced working full-time with making art. But now I am deeply grateful that with increased freedom combined with sacrifice, and a deeper manifestation of my intentions, sacred art has become more of a way of life than a ‘job’. Early on I worked for several architecture firms and eventually co-founded and ran a small business in Newark, New Jersey with my husband at the time. We are now divorced but still very good friends. I worked full-time when I returned to graduate school as well. This is one of the many sacrifices some artists make before they become fully independent.
I am now practicing full time as an artist, attempting to go deeper into my work, authentically and spiritually. I also collaborate with like-minded people who share the vision of achieving freedom and justice through healing and transformation. I am blessed to have had so many platforms for exhibiting my work over the last decade, but I should mention a few key group exhibitions that were turning points in my career. The first was The Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts and Design in 2010, after which I decided to go for an MFA (my instinctive mode of thought having been raised in an academic family). Then in 2011, I was invited by Bisi Silva to exhibit my work at the Centre for Contemporary Art – Lagos, in a group show, called All We Ever Wanted. That was my first time exhibiting in Nigeria. I am currently participating in two group shows – Disguise: Masks and Global African Art and Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum. Both feature 2014 artworks related to my activism around LGBT issues. Last but not least I am proud of my recent solo exhibition at Skoto Gallery, my first time exhibiting in Chelsea, New York City.
BO: What similarities do you find in being an architect and a sculptor or as an artist in general?
AT: I work in several media including drawing, textiles, and video, so I will speak about art in general. There are indeed similarities between art and architecture. Philosophically, both attempt to represent or influence how we interact with each other as human beings. Formally speaking, most of the buildings we inhabit begin as drawings. A building is a drawing extruded. However, there are some perspective drawings that make you feel like you can step right into them, at least in the mind. When this happens the drawing is quite magical. I believe some of the greatest art and architecture encourage deeper critical thinking on certain ideas or concepts.
BO: A study of your sculptural works from 2011 to 2016 shows a change in style, material, and narratives. While this is not unexpected from an artist that is growing, we are curious to know how you came about your present style and the choice of materials used in Homeless Hungry Homo, Musician II and other works you made in 2014 till present?
AT: I don’t have a rational explanation for how I came about the style in the works between 2014 and 2016, but it may have something to do with a sense of urgency I felt upon leaving Nigeria in 2014 after the anti-gay bill was signed into law. It was quite a traumatic experience since I had just recently come out of the closet and still learning to heal from the depression that comes with alienation or exile. I began to incorporate more color, textures and materials into a single piece, more than I had done in the past. There was speed and urgency in the work that doesn’t come across in past works. I also produced the video AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later in 2014, and this is where I combined many different elements including architecture, sculpture as a costume, movement, sound/voice, textiles, text, and so on. Some parts of the video where shot in Lagos and others in Oshogbo, Osun State. I filmed the church scene in America in a Baltimore cathedral. The video has screened in several countries, most recently in Lagos, Nigeria as part of Videonale in Lagos: Changing City – Shifting Spaces.
BO: Homeless Hungry Homo is currently showing at the exhibition “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, what is the installation about and how does it connect with the general theme of the exhibition on Africa and its Diaspora?
AT: Homeless Hungry Homo (2014) was inspired by a deep fear that coming out of the closet can lead to homelessness, and indeed, this is the case for many people at the bottom of the economic ladder. The work weaves together repurposed objects – an African mask collaged with currency, West African traditional brooms bound in yarn as palm spines, yarn, perforated metal and wire. These are built upon a skeletal structure resulting in a reclined figure. A sense of sadness is evoked by the gesture, but as I like to say , the figure is down but not knocked out. It also has a warrior-like presence through the crown above the mask and its armor-like chest. The work is part of the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, and I believe it was presented in Disguise: Masks and Global African Art to reveal how conceptualization of the mask can respond to the critical contemporary issue of homophobia in Africa and indeed around the world.
BO: You have mentioned some of the materials used in your art come from your connection with Nigeria, things that you saw around you and played with as a kid before going to live in America, does this mean the subjects you explore are more focused on happenings in Nigeria?
AT: My materials and subjects do not depend on each other so strictly. In fact, you will often find the fusion of both Nigerian and Western materials in my work. Indeed, I used brooms to make kites while growing up in Lagos, but now they carry a deeper meaning. I also shift back and forth between happenings in Nigeria and America as I am experiencing them personally. When I was in Johannesburg in 2015, I made new works related to my experience there. Essentially, I constantly explore who I am culturally and authentically, how I perceive the environment that surrounds me and how my environment, in turn, shapes me. I focus on a circular process regardless of where I am in physical. More deeply, it’s about where I am in my development as a human being, while keeping in mind the bigger picture – that is, we live in a dynamic, globally connected world with a greater understanding of how global happenings and infrastructures affect us on a daily basis.
A lot of people are interested in knowing exactly what a work is about, rather than allowing the work to make their minds travel or spark the imagination.
BO: In 2011, you presented a wall installation Moskito Ministry in the exhibition All We Ever Wanted, curated by Bisi Silva at Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos. The same year, you presented similar works Budget Moskitos in New York at The African Continuum and changed the naira notes in the previous installation to dollar notes. It is a bit confusing for the uninitiated to know if this is a political presentation or social activism connected with health matters. What is the series about and in what other places did it show?
AT: I would caution against trying to read too literally into works of art but rather seeing them more poetically. A lot of people are interested in knowing exactly what a work is about, rather than allowing the work to make their minds travel or spark the imagination. Having said that, Moskito Ministry suggests both politics and health simultaneously. That’s the beauty of the installation. I related the individual sickness caused by blood-sucking mosquitoes to the social ills caused by corruption within government. I was blessed to show this work in Nigeria where corruption is pervasive throughout many parts of society, and again at the United Nations in New York in a different way with dollar bills as insect wings. Corruption is indeed present in the West too. Someone may have approached the works with a totally different interpretation than what I just outlined. That’s fine as well. That is the whole point of art.
BO: Tell us about your experience working with El-Anatsui on ‘Ala’ in 2013? Would you consider him an influence in the style and technique you work with?
AT: El Anatsui’s work has had a strong influence on me for a long time. When presented with the opportunity to assist with installing his work at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, I grabbed the opportunity. As a volunteer, I helped install his pyramid structure with the Museum’s gardens. It was a beautiful and humbling experience to work with this master. I suppose I made a good impression on El because he then provided the next opportunity to manage the installation of his work in a group show in Amsterdam called ArtZuid. I do see a relationship in the style and technique of our work and I also see unique departures in material and form which reflect my personal experience. In addition to El Anatsui, I have also loved the assemblage work of artists like Willie Cole and Chakaia Booker. Booker was one of my weekly studio critics for two years in graduate school. The point I am making is that all these artists have thoroughly investigated found-object materials with the intent of complete transformation. This is the most important point, for me.
BO: Do you think you can visit Nigeria again or do you consider the place too hostile to live and work as a queer woman and artist?
AT: I communicate and work with queer activists in Nigeria still, so I know it’s possible to live and survive there as a visitor. It is more a question of having a secure way of living or surviving, without enduring extreme hardship. So people do choose to do so, but if they had the chance to leave I believe they would do so in a heartbeat. But then it also boils down to the question of sacrifice. Queer women in Nigeria tend to be less vocal about sexual identity for obvious reasons. America provides a better platform for voice and freedom of expression regardless of one’s sexual orientation. This leaves room for stronger, more radical artwork.
BO: Are you free of prejudices or challenges working in America?
AT: Absolutely not. I navigate the sea of discrimination around being Black and being a woman. As we speak, Trump is running for elected office and it’s a tense time. His platform validates and encourages the prejudices America has fought so hard to rid itself of. There is a rise in violence and violent rhetoric against Black people, immigrants, queer people and women and so gun-control is a critical issue at the moment.
BO: What is your involvement in the human rights film production “Hell or High Water”?
AT: I had no involvement in the production of the wonderful short film Hell or High Water. My connection to the film was a recent Brooklyn, New York screening, the first in the United States, in which I was a lead organizer and promoter with the film’s writer Noni Salma Lawal who is based in New York. The screening was held at The Brooklyn Museum as part of LGBT Pride First Saturday programming. We called it “Back-to-Back” because the Lagos screening took place the very next day in Lekki section of Lagos, hosted by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS). I coordinated the dual-continent, dual-country programming of the screening with Olumide Makanjuola who is Executive Director of TIERS. It was a great success on both ends and I was proud to stand in solidarity for our common cause of freedom and equality. Low and behold, the very next day after our screenings, it was announced on Bloomberg that the former President Goodluck Jonathan is open to revisiting the anti-gay law which he himself executed. A small battle won in the overall war.
BO: What are your reflections on art from Nigeria?
Art from Nigeria is beautiful, dynamic, filled with life and deep thought. One observation I’ll leave with you is the need for more radical representations of what people are going through on a daily basis. Here I am speaking from an artist and activist point of view. The hardships people face must be reflected in the arts – Fela Anikulapo Kuti always said this. I am inspired by the work of artists like Jelili Atiku and Peju Alatise, who openly critique power structures that limit the welfare of Nigerian citizens. However, a wide range of voices are needed. We need not see art and artists the same way we view religion, where you have a “saviour” who will sacrifice himself or herself for the larger group. For things to change for the better, a mass movement of voices is critical.