- Issue One: Failure
- Issue Two: Territory
- Issue Three: Bare Life
- Issue Four: Slowness
- Issue Five: Affective Framing: Cinematic Experience and Exhibition Design
- Issue Six: Aesthetics of Heterogeneity
- Issue Seven: Responding to Site Specificity
- Issue Eight: Invisibility (escaping notice)
Odera Igbokwe with Yani Kong
“How do I sew together the fractures of the diaspora?”
Interview and Artwork, Odera Igbokwe with Yani Kong
Odera Igbokwe is a painter and illustrator of Nigerian descent, based in Vancouver vis-à-vis Brooklyn, NY. Odera’s work draws from the visual language of myth, fantasy, and afro-futurism to address the conditions of the black diaspora. We met on a spring morning in Vancouver to develop this dialogue and hum Solange, Missy and Cher together. Below you will find the artist’s thoughts on the persistence of representation in contemporary black art, the role of fantasy in thinking through racial crisis, how to illustrate joy when in the midst of continual crisis, along with their accompanying illustration series, “Dance of the Summoner” (2019).
Yani Kong: It appears much Black Contemporary Art is emphasizing a turn to figuration (Toyin Ojih Odutula; Kehinde Wiley; Lynette Yiadam Boakye) and a strong urgency to reimagine art historical traditions around the Black and POC body (Kerry James Marshall; Yinka Shonibare). Much of the commentary around the rise of these movements focusses around representation, possibly misleading us to think representation is the last and only issue. But what (if anything) comes after representation? How can we imagine this?
Odera Igbokwe: There is a danger of having a single story or single kind of representation. So often representation can be a response to the dichotomy of hypervisibility and invisibility as a black queer person. Often, I forget that my work can exist, or at least try to exist, outside of that tension. Each new image is a new possibility, and a new expansion of ways we can exist and worlds we can envision.
I don’t think the fight for representation will ever end, but rather it can evolve and transform. So, I like to frame the question as: “What have I not addressed yet that can exist alongside representation?” In the context of my work and Black Contemporary art, the answer is the freedom to experiment and experience. One of my favorite albums of the year is Solange’s “When I Get Home”. The album starts with the track “Things I Imagined”:
“I saw things, I imagined. I saw. Things. I imagined.
Saw. Things. I- - imagined”
She repeats this until there is a break and she ascends onto “taking on the light”. In In an interview with Antwaun Sargent, Solange explains, “When I am saying ‘I saw things I imagined,’ maybe the first four times I didn’t actually believe it, but by the eighth time it’s coming into my spirit. It’s coming into my body”. In this introduction she is channeling the power of repetition as a mantra, and thus manifesting new realities and new visions before she takes us down the rabbit hole. The experience feels like she’s got the keys and is leading us through her own personal yellow brick road, where she is free to express, to feel, to heal, to go off and go in, in every which way. Throughout the year I have carried that manifesto and freedom with me.
So often as marginalized creators we spend time convincing and fighting for our right to exist. So much of our time is spent fighting, that we don’t always have the freedom to experiment and experience, much less leading our audience through yellow brick roads, creative rabbit holes, and secret lives of plants, plagues, planets, and places.
I have been reminding myself of the power of seeing things we imagine. My greatest source of power isn’t from only representation, it’s not my techniques or color palettes, but rather it’s my ability to envision, dream, and manifest. Often my work deals with personal mythologies, and a contemporary mythos I am reckoning with is ‘Black Excellence’. After representation, I want the freedom to inhabit Black Excellence, as well as the mundane, the regular, and the otherworldly. I want the freedom to live, celebrate, and exist in a way that decenters marginalization and colonization.
YK: And sub question: Do you believe in a representation after representation (Thanks Cher)? How/can this be painted?
OI: I do believe in love after love, and I also believe in representation after representation. It’s never too late to love, it’s never too late to tell your story. If I stick with this Cher metaphor, then Believe is a song about resilience and dreaming of a world worth living after pain and heartache. And similarly, those are some of the questions that occur with representation. The conversation of representation is born as a response to marginalization and erasure. But in my own work I have had to decenter exclusion, pain, or trauma. Around 2016, I looked at my portfolio and was really proud of the technical prowess in the body of work. But when I looked at the images, I noticed that all the work had a very limited emotional palette. While I considered myself very playful and joyful, my portfolio centered resilience and defiance.
I had to ask myself after representation, or because of it, what other questions emerge?
What happens when I center joy and freedom? Does freedom allow me to be basic? To be fierce? Boring? Exciting? There are so many ways to exist, that representation will always be a question. Now it’s a matter of how we frame that representation.
YK: Your Illustrative work is situated in the fantasy genre. Why fantasy? Is there something that fantasy can make available of the experience of the Black diaspora?
OI: Sometimes I ask myself this same question! When I examine my work and career from a functional place, it sits somewhere between Fantasy, Imaginative Realism, and galleries and clients that put a premium on painting traditions and figurative art. But then I remember that my idea of Fantasy is very different than the usual Fantasy genre. It’s less about Eurocentric Fantasy and western metaphors of conflict-war-resolution by Elven fire. And it is more about the power to fantasize, envision, and think outside the realm of history and the present.
When Fantasy functions at its best, it expands the mind and teaches us about facets of our reality that we might otherwise disengage with. It can be a stepping stone to reckon with high pressure constructs and systems of power.
I also recognize that as I get older, Fantasy allows me to play. It accesses that part of my brain that became enamored with the process of drawing when I was just learning to hold a pencil. So often I will spend my time overthinking or trying to address these giant systems of oppression or analyze cyclical stories, and generational curses and blessings. On my studio wall, I have sketchbook page that has dry brushed patterns that were made during some improvisational drawing. Eventually the textures and mark-making spell out “How do I sew together the fractures of the diaspora”? Seeing it at every studio session is reminder of my creative goals, but it is also a heavy weight. In contrast, the Fantasy genre anchors me but with much less pressure. It speaks to that which does not physically exist in this world. And this otherworldliness allows me to access my creativity. So, I always hold onto and preserve a bit of that naivete and freedom that comes with playing and drawing as a child.
YK: There is a tension in your work between demonstrating immediate crisis (for the bodies you draw, this is sometimes shown in the frame, or relationally, out of the frame) and joy (for your figures and for yourself). How can you create an illustrative space that holds both these elements? Do you see them as incongruous or contingent of each other?
OI: I hold all these elements within my own body, and that naturally seeps into the artwork. To be at the intersection of various identities: Queer, born of the Nigerian Diaspora, read as Black Male in the Americas, means that I’ve had to build up a lot of resilience. However that immediate crisis and the looming dangers of these intertwined systems of oppression, means that it is necessary to create and inhabit joy.
The other day I joked to my husband, “You know sometimes people just stare at me, and sometimes it’s my bright and highly patterned outfits, but other times I forget-- OH YEA this is part of being black and queer”. That oscillation between invisibility and hypervisibility can throw me for a loop. I really have to ground myself in joy while acknowledging moments of crisis. For a long time, drawing and creative practices, had been rituals for protection. Now my practice functions to heal, dream, and alchemize pains and anxieties. *In a Missy Elliott voice* I put my *pain* down flip it and reverse it...into joy, expression, and movement. I don’t know of any other way to exist.
Transition and movement live within me, as does being fractured and lost in the diaspora. But how does a child of diaspora build and nurture home and create possibility? How do I sew the fractures and jump over the schisms caused by diaspora? The answer is through reclamation of narratives and crafting my own personal mythologies. In these personal mythologies, all aspects of the self are valid and worthy of respect and exploration. This enchantment of Fantasy and Afrofuturism allows me to access and traverse the journeys and pathways to freedom.
The centerpiece of my artwork “Dance of the Summoner” is a collection of paintings that reclaim, recontextualize, and alchemize Nigerian and afro-diasporic deities, orishas, and sacred traditions. This series is not only a reconnection to that which is ancient, but it is a celebration of the power to envision the fullness of self and a spectrum of possibilities. Physically the work centers the figurative at the intersection of illustration, contemporary African Art, Fantasy, queer lQqks, and Imaginative Realism. Similarly, I exist and move throughout the richness and the tensions of intersectionality.
To explore the magic of the Black imagination, is to respond to pain and trauma with resilience. But more than that I create to envision what our stories can look like if we push past oppression, colonization, and Black Pain. More than anything, my artwork is about the freedom for Black people/people of the African diaspora to dream and exist in a full and nuanced spectrum. It celebrates the imagination, the mundane, playfulness, and fantasy coexisting alongside black pain and black healing.
About the Authors
Odera Igbokwe is an illustrator and painter of Nigerian ancestry based in Vancouver by way of Brooklyn, NY. They graduated with a BFA in illustration from Rhode Island School of Design, and studied West African Dance/movement theater at Brown University with New Works/World Traditions. Odera weaves together ancient narratives with afrofuturist visions by alchemizing color, movement, and queer magic. Their work explores storytelling through afro-diasporic mythologies, black resilience, and magical girl transformation sequences.
As a freelance illustrator, Odera works with clients and galleries to create work that is deeply personal, soulful, and accessible to underrepresented communities. Odera is also a manager of online gallery Every Day Original and part of the studio collective at the James Black Gallery. To learn more about Odera be sure to visit their site at www.odera.net, follow them @Odyism, or support them on patreon www.patreon.com/odera.
Yani Kong is PhD candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow studying contemporary art history and theory at the School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA), Simon Fraser University. Kong is an instructor and TA in art history and communication and the managing editor for the Comparative Media Arts Journal. She has published in RACAR, the Comparative Media Arts Journal, and the forthcoming foreword essay in the photobook American Squares by Leah Frances (AINT-BAD, 2019).