In her work visual and performing artist Ebun Sodipo takes us into her world of freedom and self-expression. Sodipo delves into the intricacies of her journey into confidence. She explores the fluid cosmological joy of being true to yourself. With themes surrounding gender, race and sexuality, Sodipo discusses safe art spaces and artistic symbolism as a means to extend conversation and spend more time together with artwork.
Hi Ebun, could you present yourself for our readers?
The most important things to know about me are that I am an artist and writer. Here are some less important things about me, in no particular order: I am a green fingered lover of anime and period dramas sets in imperial courts; I am a tall black trans woman living by the sea, enjoying the distance from the heart of an empire; I am Yoruba; a migrant with dual nationality; I consider myself a black abolitionist; I was raised in a middle class pentecostal Christian Nigerian household; I could stare at the sea for hours on end; I’m single, and I’ve had chicken pox twice.
Growing up did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Not quite. My parents are both accountants, and in true post colonial middle class fashion wished for their children to go into STEM. They weren’t into the arts either and didn’t really have any friends who were creative. It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that the desire for this path arose. I was quite good at drawing and painting and my art teachers at school persuaded me into doing an Art GCSE, and then an A-Level. After that it simply made sense for me, it felt like the best way to articulate myself.
I was always interested in storytelling from a very young age though. I devoured books from a very young age and started writing a novel when I was 9. I read constantly: in classes, on the bus on the way home (sometimes I’d be so engrossed in a book that I’d stay on the bus till its last stop hours from home). My parents tried, unsuccessfully, to confine my reading to the evenings, but obviously that didn’t work.I think of my practice as storytelling, in different forms. There is always a narrative present in and between my works. Developing an artistic practice is in many ways simply learning different modes of storytelling.
Your work depicts such a broad range of beautifully constructed, multi-disciplinary focuses. How do you come up with your varied projects?
I usually go with my body. So many of the things I’ve made were responses to things I was reading, watching, seeing. I might write something down somewhere and return to it in order to pull out ideas. Or an image forms and I flesh that out, seeing what is possible and realisable right now, and what will remain a dream, like what budget do I have, what’s the best way to display it. Sometimes I isolate particular ideas, conduct some research and then build a performance, film or text around them. If its a text then, how should it be put out into the world: via sounding, or reading? If reading, a book, a website, a leaflet? Which form best guides the audience along the narrative I’m forming, which medium best lends itself to the affective terrain I want to explore? There are core ideas I have that ripple across different works, embedding themselves without my knowledge.
A lot of your work touches on themes surrounding race, sexuality and gender. How have your own personal experiences influenced the outcome of your work?
My experiences have led me to seek and answer questions, for example: what are black gestures; what is the place of imagination in self-fashioning; where do I begin and where do I end; how can you communicate the simultaneity of trauma and joy, the history that hurts and heals? Most of my works attempt to answer these questions, with long meandering answers, a drawing out and dwelling in the sensations of answering, using bodily sensations to take my audience somewhere: the feeling of being in the black mass, or an encounter with an image that sparks gender euphoria and realisation.
My work is motivated by a desire to give to others, particularly Black trans kids, what I didn’t have growing up. This is why I try to speak about trans desire using black images, writing about the sensations of having little history. I make work for others to have and build on, answer questions others will no doubt ask, tell stories that haven’t yet been told, construct a past that acts as a mirror for black trans people.
You tend to depict striking and evocative visuals that communicate these themes in a way that isn’t always so literal. How did you get into this symbolic visual exploration?
In part the world taught me this. Like how so much of visual culture - i.e. images, films, adverts - subliminally communicate ideas about good and bad, the right type of people and life, and the bad kind: a brightly lit surburbia vs a dark and orange toned ghetto; lighting with a silky texture and the most plesant of sounds when a muscular able bodied white man comes into frame makes us know him as attractive; unthinking, uncaring bad lighting transform a black man into a monstrous hulking shadow; multi hued lighting that reflects off sheening dark skin triggering erotic and nonerotic hunger. For me, film and video can be spaces to resist these techniques, to construct new ways of being impacted by seeing and listening, to upend ways of connecting with the world: can a disharmonious staccato burst of images and sound feel tender and calming?
I’ve been concerned more and more with the cinematic, specifically how it overdetermines action, desire, imagination, and how it structures possibilities, and forecloses others. I try to practice opacity in my work, in the Glissant sense and fragmentation is a strategy for this, as well as collaging. I am quite wary of making work that is easily understood by folk in privileged, oppressive social positions, or that is too open and naked, at risk of being denuded, co-opted, eliciting too much pleasure. I try to make work that requires sustained engagement across multiple moments and registers. My love of layering comes from thinking about historical sedimentation, Foucault’s epistemic grid or the Field sisters notion of ideology.
Some of your projects include set designs such as The Black House, where you create warm familiar spaces that engage with those who visit. What encourages you to create these types of spaces?
I wanted really to replicate the space I’d found myself in as I leaned into my blackness and queerness. Myself, Heidi Sincuba, and Kefiloe Siwisa wanted very much to counteract the emotions and thoughts that can arrive in one's body in mostly white spaces. I had just finished university and was still recovering from the pervasive whiteness and anti-blackness of that space, grappling with the gentrification I could see happening where I lived in Camberwell, and in Elephant and Castle, in Brixton, a pushing out of poor black folk. We knew that so many spaces made by black people had been closed down so we wanted to mitigate that in some way, build and work towards a permanent space that held black creativity, aided respite, laughter and joy, healing, learning.
Over the past few months, we’ve been in and out of lockdown. How did this affect the way you work?
The pandemic really slowed things down for me. I was blessed to have a hospitality job at the time of the initial lockdown so I was furloughed. This gave me the opportunity to focus almost solely on my creative practice. I started revisiting and reworking old work, taking things apart and pulling out the golden kernels. I thought and experimented with my moving image work, trying to bring a heavier trace of my presence. I wrote a lot: more poetry, essays, fiction (which I hadn’t done since my fanfiction days more than a decade ago), and it’s upped my confidence there… I'm far more playful with text and language than ever before. I think I was also able to look more at other people’s work, and speak to people (so many Zooms!) which developed my own visual practice.
A lot of your work focuses on the much-needed representation of the LGBTQ+ community. What are you looking forward to the most in the art industry as a queer artist?
I’m looking forward to the art industry being made more accessible, and to new networks that prioritise marginalised people. And perhaps less engagement with established institutions in favour of newer, small collectives and individuals. There are so many questions in need of answering like, how do you make an art career a realistic and sustainable option for young people from non-white, working class backgrounds?
You’ve displayed an amazing array of projects thus far, so what can we look forward to from you in the future?
I just started a series of performance works titled my body reminds us of water, that have taken place at different venues around the UK, at small and major institutions: Kings College, Porthmeor Studios in St Ives, Frieze, Camden Arts Center in November. There are a couple more iterations coming up: Oxford in December and at Auto Italia. These performances think through image culture, desire production, the body as an archive, gender as ancestral communication. I’ve started work on a large scale project called Following The Gourd, which thinks through astronomical knowledge, cosmologies, archival practices, and will have multiple outcomes and realisations. One of these is a web based interactive map of a fictional night sky that also doubles as an archive of trans existence, created with a small group of Black Trans youth, with FACT Liverpool and VISUAL Carlow, in Ireland. I’m also writing a small collection of poetry to come out in 2022.
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Illustrations for Libatons, Attestations, Affirmations. 2020. Performance, video.
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Atlantic Cruises. Embassy Gallery with Rosa Johan Uddoh - 2019. Performance.
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Although it may seem absurd, the earth also moves. Still from performance. Video Collage.
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She tore fire from the sky.