The world is multicultural and round, but people meet in the corners. Within the multicultural ideological space, a good non-Western artist must flaunt their cultural identity as if it were tattooed on them, says Bourriaud in his text Post-Production. One of the elements inherent to the global system of contemporary art is the need to quickly label everything we are confronted with, and subsequently assign value. The speed that governs the system calls for immediate categorisation, almost in the style of advertising. “I am what I speak”. What I find especially interesting in the young and successful artist Kayode Ojo is that he is going against what is expected from him. How much space does the art world allow for art by Black artists that don’t reinforce preconceptions? That is why Ojo, who makes formal conceptual installations, is rather exciting.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 47. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Posing, presentation and construction are cornerstones of Kayode Ojo’s artistic practice, who was born in 1990, Cookeville, USA. Many of the materials employed over and over again in his works are cheap: fast fashion, fake luxury brands jewellery, faux-fur coats, metal music stands, copies of modernist furniture, mirrors, or polished ornaments. Ojo’s artistic universe plays with the rules of representation, he focuses with these items on the values they give to a subject and the lifestyle they project. But maybe, he is applying a kind of glossy reflection as a strategy to distort identitarian imagery, which by extension, can be understood as a distorted reflection of our time. Or not! Emerging originally out of photography, some of his pictures are like party photos à la Nan Goldin. And like his sculptures, they are filled with signifiers of certain types of success.

But wait a minute, fast fashion is supposed to be bad for the environment, bad for Africa and Asia, bad for everything. The question is whether Kayode cares about this. In any case, I think contemporary culture’s alleged chronic distress over these issues is not real; it is a false concern; it’s all just posing.

By using aqueous, metallic, lustrous, and glossed materials, Ojo creates highly personal sculptures. In his fancy assemblages: instruments, garments, and ornaments extracted from their original function allow spectator speculation. That is, in choosing to compose ready-mades, meanings and associations cannot be fully controlled. However, the logic of his constructions rarely hold back the dialogue between the parts and its symbols maintain their autonomy and power.

Although Kayode is not a performance artist per se, the idea of performance is essential to his work. The artist arranges wigs, make- up, and clothes to take on roles and personality traits that ultimately became part of his configuration settings. Because Ojo’s photographic and sculptural practice is like art directed set design. The mise-en-scène becomes the protagonist of his aesthetic experience. As a provocateur, a few of his pieces carry out some of his personal experiences, but what interests him the most is the psychology behind the objects, not their history. Kayode is aware of artworks as commodification and that they circulate on the market as names. The apparent nonexistent trace that Ojo leaves in his work emphasises and embarrasses the hunger for artists’ bodies and biographies.

Our material culture reveals much about the desires and images motivating us. Steel, glass, plexiglass, crystal, rhinestones, the artist includes these materials to capture the visual attention, despite the duality of shine: luminosity but also blindness, bedazzlement. Surface and superfluous, what glitters has the function of distraction! Is it excess against itself?
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Full look CEREBRUM, shoes REEBOK.
I have read that your parents are from Nigeria, right?
And then you are the first generation of Americans in your family?
Hum, you could say that I guess yeah, first generation Americans.
Are your parents both academics, intellectuals?
My father is a professor of electrical engineering, he has a PhD, and my mother’s PhD is in counselling. So yes, they both have doctoral degrees, and they both work in the same university, or they used to. I mean, my father still works, my mother doesn’t. She was working in general education counselling, helping people. She was the assistant director of minority affairs and taught people that were struggling to figure out how to learn. So yes, I basically grew up around the university.
Do you have a PhD too (laughs)? That must be a big pressure, having both parents so highly educated!
I don’t (laughs). And it is funny because some people are like: “Oh I’m the first person in my family to go to college.” But for me, it is not. I just have a bachelor’s degree. It is weird for me to say, “just a bachelor,” because some people don’t even get that. Answering to your question, I have no master’s degree. In the United States people make a big deal about master’s degree. There are certain schools that are truly respected. I only did the four years in college for my undergraduate degree and then I went to the School of Visual Arts, and I studied photography. That was all the school I have done.
That is more than good, in my opinion, education is key to society, yet does not need to come necessarily from university. Moreover, being an artist or visual artist, you don’t need a PhD, you can always investigate by yourself without having the academia behind it, unless you want to teach (at least in Europe you need a doctorate to have a proper professorship).
It is interesting because when I was younger, it seemed the reason to get a master was similarly because you wanted to teach. However, these days I do take teaching arrangements. Sometimes I do teach as a guest lecturer, or guest critic or I do talks at universities. Most recently – I think this was the last one I did; I went to speak to some visual arts students at Harvard. Plus, I was supposed to go to Städelschule für Bildende Künste in Frankfurt and talk to some people. And I have to say that working with students is thought-inspiring!
That is one of the best art schools in Germany! On the topic of learning, I believe that the fact that people can drive their own lives and take their own decisions is based on knowledge. With education comes knowledge and with it the critical spirit that enables you to position yourself without being manipulated. Society becomes more conscious, more sustainable. Ignorance is one of the worst problems of humankind, it makes people narrow-minded. I am again not talking about academia; any kind of acknowledge transfer is education as well. What is your view on that, as a student and now as an educator?
I can talk about photography studies. When I went to photo school it was a quite technical programme. It was kind of intense. For instance, in one class they taught us to use a mathematical equation to figure out how to shoot a boat. Photography has been always engaging; it is important to culture, although no one quite knows what to do with it in the art world, but also within broader culture. However, I find it surprising that it’s been 10 years since I graduated myself and there’re still many parallels between now and then. Talking to students it is fascinating how little it’s moved forwards. I feel I’m back in my own class because people are still making the same thing. I’m not saying that photography can’t move forward, just you find a lot of the same themes.
One of the things I have come across through teaching is that you realise how young these people are, and how hard it is to find your voice at that age. You start art school when you are 18 years old. Maybe they are not even sure if they want to be dedicated to this practice. At Harvard there isn’t really an art school. It seemed there were some people that were under what you call an elective subject matter. I don’t know if they were exactly art students or people in different majors who had decided to take an art class or photography class, which is stimulating for me.
Then, in your opinion, what is the role of an art school?
 What I always found intriguing is that there is a photo programme in Yale. I’m a fan of photography and every year they organise their thesis show, which is often in prestigious places, or in good commercial galleries, places like that. The thing with Yale’s programme is that is all based on camera work, there is no appropriation, there is no collage, all works presented are made from the lens. All the students present lens-based artworks and eventually people run out of ideas. In the past, I used to go to those shows year by year, and again you see people coming up with the same solutions. You have the person that is doing the black and white, and the person that is doing colour. Nobody is doing, for instance, anything surrealist. However, it is still an art school. There is one quote that I love, and I say it all the time: “Art school is not necessarily about teaching you anything about art. It is a place for training rock stars.” I think it was the art critic and essayist Dave Hickey who said that.
That is a great quote! Yes, it is true that regulated education lacks creativity and spontaneity and value mostly technicalities. What value do photos have nowadays in our society, which is mostly driven by images? What about the fact that everybody – or almost all, at least in the Western world – has a high-definition camera in their pocket? And when we see something, we take a pic, and we post it, and then it becomes a marketing trigger.
Images have value and I mean it. When I was studying photography, it was before the explosion of social networks. It was before Instagram. We had Tumblr, which we used maybe for one year. Before this, people were still talking about if images were real. They were trying to make this argument against digital photography, that we couldn’t trust the digital image, and I thought this never made any sense. This was a theoretical game. As everyone now knows, you can photoshop an image and change it in any way you want, despite this, we still trust images. Humans trust images. If you go, for example, to the Daily Mail, it is all about images. Even if you see two celebrities kissing, and one of them is cheating, you assume that it is true. We never got past that. We still see a picture and we think that it is real. Maybe only in the beauty industry has that changed. Going further, nowadays it doesn’t matter anymore, because mostly everybody uses filters and stuff that modify the image, and it is still real in its own way.
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Dress LUCHEN, trousers CEREBRUM, shoes REEBOK.
As you mention people tend to trust images, I’m interested in talking about the person that is behind the camera. Because there is always a subjective value in the way the photographer places the camera, the angle, the light, many things inf luence the image. Even in photojournalism or documentaries, I believe objectivity or the quote- unquote real does not exist. And that’s before adding postproduction. All in all, I think photography as a medium is a device for fictional narratives. At the start of your career, you made many works based on photographs of people close to you, portraits. What’s the reason for all these images? Was it the need to capture moments to remember in the future or were they made with the idea of artwork?
One of the things about my photographs is that I work in a documentary way. They are all analogue, taken from my own life but also inspired by films. Curiously, I haven’t shown so many of them. The first time I exhibited photography was in my first solo show at the gallery Sweetwater in Berlin. And precisely we talked about the person behind the camera. All those pictures were called Reaching Out, which is an interesting phrase for our time because people always say that in emails: “I wanted to reach out to see if you are interested in...” But also, if you have a friend who is in trouble, you say that you reach out to help them. At Sweetwater, you could see that my hand is in all the photos; there are people that I know too. And there was something about the series that made it an international affair, that is why they are named Reaching Out US, Reaching Out AU (for Australia). I used the country codes, not the entire word: Reaching Out DE for Germany and so on. I did this in Germany for a reason, and as a matter of fact, I don’t make a lot of work that is explicitly about racial relations. This was my first solo in Germany, and I wanted people to know that the person behind the camera, which you could say is the person that has the power, was someone Black. Because I have been to Germany before, and I knew that it is not an easy place if you are different. That is why I wanted those pictures to show that the person controlling the image was me, a Black guy. And that comes back to your point about who is controlling the image and, what it means: you can express yourself and at the same time, you can express some sort of ideology as well.
Of course, what about subjectivity, or if you want, the non- objectivity of photographs and the POV of the man behind the camera?
Like before, I have to say that it is hard to take a new picture, one that no one has seen before. Sometimes, when you are working with a particular photo camera, with a genre, for instance for the types of images I take, I used a camera that was pretty popular among fashion photographers from the 90s, i.e., Terry Richardson and Ryan McGinley. This camera has a certain aesthetic. However, that aesthetic is not the one I created. And even when I use the same camera, and shoot analogue, my photos are very different from those of one of my favourite artists, such as Christopher Williams. He talks about the photographer and their camera as part of a system. A camera is a machine, and the photographer is part of that machine too, whichever machine you choose. Right now, I have been working well with Polaroid, shooting with the SX70 a lot, which I absolutely love. It is a beautiful machine, Charles and Ray Eames made a whole film about it. It is an instant Polaroid camera but is unique because it has a single-lens reflex. It is probably the only Polaroid camera in which when you are looking through the viewfinder, you are looking through the lens. Other types of cameras have parallax errors, which is why you don’t see what you are going to get on the film. I have been working with that camera since I was a teenager. Then I also shoot a rangefinder camera, which is known for having a highly quiet shutter. In any case, I could geek out on cameras forever. One of the things I do with my sculptures is that I put cameras in them because I am into flipping things around. Usually, a camera makes the artwork, and sometimes the camera becomes the object on display, the artwork itself.
 I see, no matter what other issues this photography school of yours might have, I must say, you know a lot about technology. Now, let’s talk about your sculptures, which are by the way comparable to three-dimensional collages. Modern furniture mixed with mirrors, clothes, accessories, and metal structures. I think I haven’t seen any American artist of your age working with this kind of formal composition. When I first saw your work, I thought you were a formalist European, even German (laughs).
Well, maybe that is why I show very often in Europe, probably it is because people understand what I am doing.
Still, let’s put things in context. You were already taking pictures as a teenager. Then you studied photography and went to a School of Art. When did you start to make sculptures?
All right, I have been making pictures since I was 8, yes! It is the beginning of everything, and in my head, it is still like this. When you have a framed picture on the wall, for me it is a sculpture, it is a physical object. I spent years studying photography and then, in the last year we have our final exhibition. This show is supposed to be a big deal, and it takes place normally in a gallery in Chelsea, New York. I got curious about the politics of framing, that is, the implications of framing. Somehow, I wasn’t satisfied with the conversation around it because it was all about how much do you spend on the frame and this and that. I took one sculpture class in my final year, and for my thesis show I decided to present a sculpture made from frames and glass. It is called Structural Integrity, and it looks at luxurious high-end architecture. It is an exploded view of gold frames standing on their own glass, mirrored as if inside a camera. I love diagrams and often a lot of my work looks like a diagram. Despite this, I wanted to take apart that entire idea about the frame costing. The frames weren’t necessarily expensive when for example they were small, the thing is that sometimes they were used wrongly. This is the idea that goes through all my work, the idea of perversion. Perversion defined as the use of something in a way that it is not intended to be used. And if you look at all my work, in much of it, nothing does what it is supposed to do.
One of the statements of the Bauhaus and German design, which by the way you use a lot in your assemblies, was “Form follows function”. In your case, you create new forms perverting the object’s original function, which is a great conceptual turn. On the other hand, how important is the storytelling, the narratives in your work?
There is something about drama that entices me. And now that I think about it, my uncle – my mother’s brother – is a prominent playwright in Nigeria. I have used some of his works in my shows. Are you familiar with Nigerian cinema, the so-called Nollywood? Well, it is quite dramatic; there is no holding back at all. But also, Nigerians can be like this in general and might be pretty outspoken. So, I guess it is my genes. Nevertheless, I take a lot of cues from cinema as well. For the first show I did in Paris, called Betrayal, I took two films and put them together as an inspiration. It was a stage-to-screen adaptation. There is a play by Harold Pinter that came out as a film, also called Betrayal. The whole point of that film is the hidden affair of a married man with his best friend’s wife. After the affair stops, a couple of years later, the two friends come together to meet and catch up. Then he realizes that all this time he thought he got away with it, it turns out that years before the woman had told her husband all about it. In the end, he is the one that has been deceived. There is a certain amount of psychodrama here. The second part of the show was inspired by the film By the Sea, which stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and was directed by her. It is one of the few films where she is blonde, which I think is weird. In By the Sea, a couple with marital problems go on a kind of second honeymoon to the South of France. I made a re-edit of that film, a technique I use a lot in my work. I will find an aspect about a film, and re-edit focusing on that. What’s more, for this show I made paintings based on the marble bathroom appearing in the film. Again, it is this idea of finding things and pulling them out in order to highlight them. All right, here it comes, when I talk about Angelina Jolie’s blonde hair, she is much known for the film Girl, Interrupted where she is blonde too. So, in that show, I got a version of a Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer, I rotated it on its side and then I had a dress draped over it. I called this piece Wassily interrupted.
Wow, what a marvellous, twisted bunch of connections! Screenwriting, movies, screen to stage, objects in the movies. I’d love to know how important are the visual aspects for you, the selection of materials and the role or formalism in your imaginary.
Sometimes the research is pretty thorough, and the conclusion is that I have spent too much time thinking about different aspects of theatre and cinema. In any case, I think formalism is very important to me. In terms of my assemblies, for a long time I worked without a studio. Most of the time, the shows happened on site. In some way, they are close to performance. I don’t get to see the pieces until I am at the destination. Normally I get to the city with time enough to spend sourcing materials and thinking about ideas. The process starts with watching films and getting into the mood. Then when it’s time to install, and I love to install, is when the show happens. At times, I only have two or three days, and it seems that it all comes out of nowhere, however, I have spent a long time thinking about it. In my sculptures, nothing is adhered, it is all about balance and the elements are held together only by gravity, figuring out how materials can come together and stay with each other. I don’t glue. In some way that makes it harder for me, but also makes it easier because these pieces can move around the world as it all comes apart.
And where does your interest in modernism come from?
Mostly, I’m curious about the psychology behind that type of design. My idea is that there is something hidden at that time. I have researched a lot on the modernist architect Paul Rudolph. And there are many things that catch my attention about where he lived or what he was. He was the dean of Yale School of Architecture; he was very well respected. But then, he designed a building which mysteriously burnt down, and he was a closeted homosexual. There is a museum about him, and his apartment here in New York has been redone for public to visit it. I have been to his apartment, but there used to be all mirrors and psychological things going on in it. He had his bedroom and then he had his lover’s quarters. Part of his downfall, in the end, was that he let a magazine come and photograph his home, so everybody knew he was gay. He had a mural of a shampoo advertisement with a big hairy chested man surrounded by ladies – you can’t imagine how much time I have spent trying to find this ad. Then he had a small Greek kouros statue and a painting by Albers. His bathroom had a bathtub that was glass on the bottom. Which is kind of freaky. There were many things between privacy and display. And mirrors, many mirrors. When he would have parties, he had these elite parties, people couldn’t figure out what was a surface and what was just air. When people try to put their drink down on something, it wasn’t there, it was a reflection, and that is one of the reasons he fell out of fashion. I think he started his career doing houses in Florida. Near the end, when that type of modernism fell out of fashion, he did a lot of buildings in Asia. Part of the myth was modern people designed these buildings that are all glass with the idea of transparency. You can see what is going on inside and it is happy and ethical. Despite that, even when they make the outside of it all glass, still the executives have their closed-off offices. The people in power are always protected, they are hidden. That was heart breaking for people that believed in the in the promise of that type of modernism.
All right, now I see total consistency between your works and your research. Is this taste for modern design present in your private life, your environment, your apartment?
It is funny because the objects I use in my sculptures, for example, I have a complete list of manufactured Wassily chairs, which I use a lot, and I see them all the time in different places. They send a message, but it is not your message. The fact that you have a chair that style is just a sign, a signifier of a certain lifestyle. A Noguchi table, a Cartier bracelet, which I also use in my work, or a version of that bracelet, are the same type of thing. It is trying to tell someone that you are stylish or even something else. Why does anyone wear designer clothing? Or a designer handbag? Why would you do this? Because it is a language that projects a lifestyle, it is branding. I used to work in branding!
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Overdressed (Black), 2018.
It’s good you mentioned wearables because my next question is about clothing and accessories. Why do you use them?
Let’s see, when you think about all the big moments in your life, what are you wearing? You are not wearing sweatpants, are you wearing a gown? The big moments happen when someone is wearing a tuxedo, and they have their hair done in a certain way. That is where the stakes are very high in a lot of ways.
I see, if I am not wrong, you use imitations of luxury brands. I’d like to talk about this approach. Firstly, why do you? and secondly, what do you think the real value of luxury objects is? By the way, I must confess that I love imitations.
Well for me, in a practical sense, if you do the right research, it doesn’t matter if it is authentic because I know how to find stuff that looks the same as the real ones. I live in New York; we have every luxury brand here. When you go to these places, unless the brand is very creative, there is no point in buying the real, one because there is no innovation, and this is truly important to me. When I do my shows, I search for innovation, trying to find a new form, a different way of making sculptures. I do spend a lot of time in stores. I probably spend more time in stores than I do museums because that is what makes more sense for my work. When I go to Paris, I don’t go to the Louvre, I go to Galleries Lafayette, they have a lot of visual merchandising. It is all about the pedestals. I went to the Brancusi Atelier and pieces are on pedestals, yet the pedestal is not part of the piece, and I love that idea. But coming back to luxury stuff. I have been living in New York for 13 years. A month ago, I was walking around Soho, and I saw the Margiela store. Then I realised that I had never gone into one. I wanted to see if I could find something cool and often, after a show I buy myself a little present. I went in there and it was crazy as half the stuff they have was already in my closet – of course not from Margiela. What they have is boring, because I have a version of this shirt already in my closet from Zara; or this other one from H&M; or from the army-navy store. These days, when I think about clothes, I prefer to buy the reference. If you look close enough, these designers find something from the real world, then they turn it into fashion. It’s upcycling.
And how come Zara could be more innovative than Margiela?
Well, another aspect I have been coming across is that Zara is thinking about the same stuff as me. My works are made of fast fashion. I use several brands, among them Zara. And I use a lot of Zara, the funny thing is that every now and then, I will see an advertisement from Zara that looks familiar. And then some campaigns are similar to my sculptures as well. I’m starting to wonder if they have seen my work, they must have. Might I be in their mood board? I know that fashion loves to use art these days. I don’t mean to be arrogant about it, and I don’t care, it doesn’t bother me. But I use those vintage TV screens a lot, and there was a Zara ad using a vintage TV screen with the model sitting on it, and it looks exactly like a work of mine. Sometimes people send me fashion campaigns resembling my artworks, and the fact is that I don’t know what to say. It is such a weird feedback loop.
Yes, in some way the circle is closed, you use them, they use you. They do their campaigns after you. On the other hand, they make a lot of money. Coming back to the original question on luxury brands, is the value of getting the real thing out of question?
Getting the real thing... do you really need to buy a Birkin bag? Think about what you could do with $30,000 instead of buying a bag. The bag I carry right now it is a tote bag and I paid $30 for it; people compliment me on it all the time. It is more about the mind, if you have taste and you take your time, you can get anything you want. As I said, I have used a Cartier Love bracelet in my sculptures. I could go to Cartier and buy the real one, but I know where to find the ones that look exactly the same as the original. I don’t know what you are paying for, I think it must be something inside your head that makes you feel superior because you can afford it. Or maybe that is the point of fashion because you see these collections coming out, if you can buy something quickly off the runway, people might recognise that you got it first and they know how much you paid for it. Maybe that is what is giving you confidence. In contrast, many stylish people buy vintage Gucci, Prada, beautiful designer clothes, gorgeous! It probably costs much less than it did when it came out. Yet they are not looking to be recognised for owning that. They are looking at the object itself. But then there are brands pulling stunts, making something crazy, that is ugly. And they blow it, and it goes viral, and Kim Kardashian will wear it, that is pure branding, still there are some people that want that item causing a stir, it is like their celebrity was gifted to them. If they are rich, they tell us how rich they are. For me, personal style is much more fun, I enjoy shopping the reference and, what’s more, I know that it doesn’t matter. I am surprised that the industry still holds up anyway; then again, there are some people that want to go out and spend many thousands on a purse. If that is your thing, and it is your money, you can do whatever you want with it.
Of course, in any case, what I truly love is the bad copies of luxury brands. For me is a statement of intent. It is amazing the way they remake the name and the logos but still are recognisable. These are not worn by stylish people; in Spain we have many of dupes, especially at street markers. It’s insane! On the other hand, using fast fashion nowadays seems not politically correct, are not you criticised for this?
Exactly, what is real? If it is something that has been made to give the idea of luxury, if someone thinks that this is what rich ladies or men wear and it is an attempt to make it available to the masses, I find that socially fascinating. About the second part of the question, sometimes people ask me why I do works using fast fashion brands. They even wonder if I am making fun of them. Art people have talked about my work as a critique of consumers and statements along this line. For me, that question is the problem. I never have an answer for it because I don’t want to answer that question. What I wish to ask is: do you like my work? As an artist is not always the case, therefore they show you for other reasons, mostly political. In some cases, they were showing my artworks, or they added me to their roster, because they wanted to diversify the programme. How was that supposed to make me feel?
So how did you feel about that?
Not great, but you and I are talking about modernism, formalism. When I do a show, formalism always works. Of course, I care about the context and the space a lot. And if I can’t figure out how to make something happen in a show and it is not sitting right, then I will do it formally. There’s symmetry. Everything is centred. And, yes, I rely on that a lot. Things are symmetrical, which a lot of artists don’t do. When you think about young artists, especially male American artists, it wasn’t long ago, maybe now it is fading, but they thought that if the piece is dirty and if it looks handmade, that will make it important, it will give value to the artwork, then you can weave in politics with that as well, blah blah blah. In contrast, I use things that almost have no history. Other artists will say: this was enslaved African American Dred Scott’s chair, or this is the chair where abolitionist Harriet Tubman sat. Or this shovel was used to bury a slave’s owner. Some artists find all this stuff because they want to add gravity to the work. I am someone that came up with this design in five seconds and now it is here. This is my approach, for me, I prefer empty objects. Yes, I have used dresses that cost $5! And they are almost not even a thing, and they will disappear. There is no history in the objects I use. Except for sculptures that I have made where there are pieces of clothes that I have worn myself.
Are you saying that your work is not political?
Well, this is something to talk about because my work is personal, as any artwork somehow is. All the clothes I buy, I put on all of them at least once, then later I use them in my pieces. Often, wearing the clothes, they tell me how to use them in a sculpture, because I can see how it fits on the body. It is my body, and it does change. That’s how the series of photographs Closed Audition came about. The first time I did this, was during the winter holidays in 2018. I used to be bigger, and I could not fit in most women’s clothing. Somehow, that winter I lost a bunch of weight; as a result, I could fit in a size 12. The performance started to creep into my practice around that time and I was able to take those pictures that I showed in Studio Magazine and in Art Brussels that year. Everyone thought it was a woman or that I got a model, but it was me! I shot myself in my little apartment. In addition, I have made sculptures with clothing that I wore in my regular life. For example, the pieces called Kravitz, where black skinny trousers are hanging on a folding sheet music stand with chains dripping out of the crotch were made inspired by Lenny Kravitz. Some years ago, he was playing in Sweden, on his guitar, he crouched down to play harder, then his trousers split, and he wasn’t wearing underwear. It was crazy, there were a bunch of pictures online where you could see he was pierced. Many celebrities, for instance, Mick Jagger posted on Twitter: “Oh wow, you never showed me”. The thing is that I spent a lot of time wearing these faux leather trousers that you find in Topshop, Asos or Zara and my trousers always split! That is why, this piece, in some way is autobiographical. Once I made an artwork of white jeans. The story behind it is I went to an art show downtown wearing white trousers that were on their last legs. It was on Valentine’s Day, and I was very emotional about someone I fell for. That sculpture has my blood on it, not in a bad way, it just looks like little scrapes. That is the most sentimental I get about my sculptures.
You mentioned art people before, and the fact is you worked as a gallerina in some great galleries. How did you land them? What is the perception of the artists from the side of those who sell: the gallerists? In the end, a gallery is a shop that sells art.
I have many things to say about this because it is such a complex subject. First of all, I spent at least 10 years working in galleries, which means that I have been dyed in the gallery wool. I was at the front-desk, and I was an archivist as well; sometimes both. I worked at one pretty fancy gallery and in two more punk galleries too. It is weird because the art scene don’t take you seriously as an artist if you work in a gallery; even though a lot of gallery workers are people that went to art school. The problem is that often, these people don’t do anything. That is why people were surprised when I started to show my artworks, as usually it doesn’t go that way. The good part of it, is that working in galleries I learnt a lot about the industry, because you work with art dealers. In addition, you get to see many artists careers and what mistakes they make, while gaining knowledge about artworks that are successful. Actually, for some artists, working in galleries makes them very jaded and they get discouraged, whilst for me was the contrary: I saw a lot of art pieces, and I didn’t feel what I make is not good, quite the opposite. I was convinced that my work was better than those gallery works. I thought: “I’ll be fine.” It gave me confidence, although it is a wild world!
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Shirt MARSHALL COLUMBIA, jacket and trousers A.P.C, sunglasses GENTLE MONSTER.
In terms of the art market, would you talk about the value of art pieces, the way they become a commodity in some fashion? For example, in your case, you deconstruct already-made furniture, then add garments and accessories, gathering them together in a sculpture. You place it in a gallery, and the value increases drastically. Who establishes the prices of the pieces? And specifically in your case, are prices set by your galleries or by yourself?
I would say it is a mix of both. It is complicated because sometimes if your work is priced low, the public will think it is not good. Over my career, not only have I been told that my work is too cheap, but also, that my work isn’t good enough to be that expensive. I decided on expensive because I believe the price is somehow the power part of the work. If someone doesn’t want to pay for it, then they can go and buy something cheaper; honestly, it doesn’t matter to me. It is important to mention that I had a full-time job, and I didn’t necessarily need the money. Therefore, I could make my artworks expensive. To be completely honest with you, the price my work is worth now is a recent development, and it had to be done this way. I was tired of my work being cheap and people asking for discounts. You spend a lot of time making pieces and at the end of the day you get $1000. It is not easy, and it is not always the gallery who fix the prices. I had to ask for it and, in the end, I was right. The biggest problem with me now is that there is not much of my work available because collectors do buy it, and it is much more expensive than it used to be 2 years ago. The again, value is created in many ways: it is based on your age; your gender has something to do with it; where you show it is extremely important. There are many factors. Press is very important too (laughs)!
Oh yes, specialised press and some well-considered art critics are the ones that legitimise art works. They mostly establish taste, if it is good or bad, plus they influence the market. And what is more important, no one dares to challenge them.
Exactly. And furthermore, it is about the way art is promoted nowadays. I say to people sometimes, and I still stand by it, that being an artist right now is very similar to what it must have been to be an actor in the 70s. It is a lot of the same thing, and the reason I say the 70s is because it was less pop-rock style than now being an actor. It is less paparazzi than being an actor, yet now social media has put us all in the same boat. There is nothing different here than if you were now interviewing Timothée Chalamet. What I am referring to is that someone from METAL contacted me, I talked to my gallery (which are basically my agents) about it. Then I showed up to a place where METAL associated people put makeup on me, dressed me in designer clothing and now I am talking to a journalist. It is the same thing; excepting that I don’t get filmed. Which is not totally true, because sometimes I do it. If you look on Google, I do get filmed as well: I did a video for Mousse Magazine or Flash Art. Sometimes I literally must talk on camera. If you think about it, there are many similarities between an actor promoting a movie and an artist promoting their show, am I wrong? And to be honest, especially in New York, I live in downtown Manhattan, and for example, if I had an exhibition here, often I would prefer to be at home, doing some work, thinking about the show, watching movies for inspiration, or just hanging out. But again, when you have a show coming out - and I don’t think it is just me, I have talked to other artists about this, you go out more because you are promoting your movie, right? You go to openings, and when people ask you: “What’s going on? Do you have anything coming up,” you are there to make people remember who you are and to promote your upcoming show. You really are, I mean it!
That is a good point! I have many times thought about self- promotion in the art scene and never drawn this parallel. Coming from you, it is fascinating.
Moreso, think about the fact the artist is supposed to be at the opening, no matter what part of the planet. It is the cult of personalities, the way the artists dress at their opening night, the way they interact. There is a lot of theatre involved in that. So, when we talk about value, on a darker side, the reason I talk about Hollywood, is because if an actor is famous enough, they can get a film greenlit. That means you must have a name in your film, and this is the same way group shows work. When a curator or a gallerist contacts me about a group exhibition, they always talk about the artists that have confirmed. And then, what do I do? I read through the list and see if there’s anyone important.
Important commercially? A blue-chip artist?
Exactly! They curate these shows that have someone like Vito Acconci or Cindy Sherman, etc. They will usually throw in one or two famous artists and then they have some other young people. When I see the big names, immediately I think, I should do this because I want to be contextualised with this other artist. That is value. Another interesting point is that the art world moves slowly. I have friends that have eventually become that influential artist or one day I might be that one. Will I be the person that makes other people want to be in the show with? Who knows? the artist is always the last one to know. And on a darker note, but similarly related to value, maybe that sculpture with my used trousers on it, if I die, will be the one that becomes most important: “These were his actual trousers.” In this way, if I get famous enough, this piece will probably be the most valuable.
Indeed, the piece with your worn trousers will be much more expensive than the ones you wore once. Because it will be fetichised, which is another thing that imprints value on objects used by celebrities of any kind. Think about any star or in the art scene: Picasso and anything he wore or touched.
Yes, it is the same with Basquiat, people will find anything he touched, and they will buy it. This makes me think about photographs. Photographs change over time, and I am not talking about the physical aspect but about the content. If you are in a photo with a young star, it is good for you, but what about the other way around? I do take a lot of photographs of my friends. Often nightlife: just us being young and doing whatever. For instance, I have pictures of people I know that would never be together in the same room again. Think about scandals these days and people that get cancelled because of being abusive or politically incorrect. I have pictures of a group of people that go out together, imagine that someone commits a crime. If I took a picture of you, with a man that later is found out to have been doing terrible things, that picture has now changed, and you would not want it anywhere. Being an artist is like that, people are constantly betting on you. Right now, who knows how the industry values my work. Maybe in 20 years it will be very important. And then, each person that I have dealt with, will somehow benefit from that. Or maybe not, for sure it will be different, but again, one must take the risk.
Perhaps this extensive interview of a rising art star will also become important then! But what kind of risk would you take?
Well, for me the risk is me doing what I want, even when everyone else would say: “I showed him when he only was blah blah blah”. What is my value? It is going to keep changing. Luckily, for me and my friends, it is going up. I don’t know what will happen when it goes down.
Well, if you don’t follow the dictates of art trends or exclusively market and your work is meaningful, it will not be a one-season thing. For sure, you will have ups and downs; it is not linear. In any case, you will have revenue because you are a hard worker; you have good ideas; your background and your origins make you culturally important. Your parents emigrated from Nigeria and here you are, an excellent American now. Well, I don’t know, but indeed Afro-American. You are 32 and your artworks are sold; you have exhibits; you make your living out of art. That is something not many artists can even reach, and I know what I am talking about: I live in Berlin and there are thousands of artists, however, only a tiny little percentage live from their art.
Well, thanks, I’m excited about what I’m doing, as well as for other younger artists are doing. I love to help people, to share knowledge. The singer Sufjan Stevens had this quote: “Take what you have and give it away.” One of my biggest joys is to create fellowship with my other artist friends and to hear their problems; come up together with solutions; help them; give them what I have and know. Because we all know that everyone has an abundance of something, and if you have an abundance, you can share it. That is the reason I am always introducing my friends to galleries I work with, or even a fabricator that I know is good, etc. People say New York is quite competitive, and yes, sure it is. It is intense. What I say is that we are a good community here, and I think it will only get better, we always help each other, and this is fantastic!
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Overdressed (White), 2018.
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Shattered (Paris), 2018.
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I am your husband (II), 2018.
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You dressed him like me?, 2018.
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Wassily, Interrupted. 2018.
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A Straight Razor in the First Act (Gold Green Marble), 2018.