Bolatito Aderemi-Ibitola on Donning Stereotypes of Blackness
Bolatito Aderemi-Ibitola is a multimedia artist who works across performance and video. Since she moved back to Nigeria from the United States in 2014, she has branched into more video and digital forms of art to further explore discourses around identity, gender, and culture. She intentionally portrays intimate, yet political stories using a documentary style, whether she is traveling around Lagos with a camera and incorporating live motion detection technology, or calling out the clichéd hypersexual narrative associated with Black bodies in a performance at a Berlin club. In this interview, the artist talks about her journey, practice, and motivations.
How has your communication degree, which encompasses TV/film and politics, formulated your artistic language?
Naturally, coming from a background with TV and film theory, I have learned a lot about the rules of filmmaking, like light positioning and framing, and how to show that time has gone by—and I can now break these rules however I see fit.
My background in TV and film has allowed me to expand my own artistic reach in the field. That is to say, I think if I didn’t have my TV and film background, I wouldn’t necessarily have the mechanism to create different pieces in my work.
Politics is another anchoring point for me. Certainly my work is completely filled with political suggestions and my own political renderings. All that being said, I’m not always trying to push a particular story or agenda. I’m really just trying to ask some questions about things that are politically stirring for me. My degree in politics, my knowledge of history, and my own ability to research have certainly informed the kind of work that I am interested in doing and the way I go about my work.
You’re a multimedia artist working primarily in performance and video. How collectible is your work? How has the reception to your art been in Nigeria, especially among collectors who are more inclined toward more traditional means of expression, such as painting and sculpture?
People who are familiar with my work know that I tend to revisit different pieces to make iterations of something I’ve done. I’ll refer to a performance that I recently did at the Treehouse called Garbage Girl, which was a fresh iteration of a video piece that I’d done before.
I was lucky enough to be showcased at the exhibition at Art Twenty One two years ago. That piece is very much about buying and selling. One iteration of my work was on a USB device, and that version was for sale. I have found having certain stills available for sale helpful in trying to sell and move work.
I don’t put my work online. If you would like the work or the video, it’s not something that you could just access, not in its entirety. And continuously changing the video certainly adds a certain kind of collectability (or value) to it. As an emerging artist, the main way I’m being compensated for my work is through residencies and programmes and physically travelling to different spaces and doing performances and showing my work..
I don’t know how well that fits into the paradigm of collecting. I also think it’s an interesting way to circumvent that talk generally.
On my work being received in Nigeria—a lot of my performances happen in Nigeria. I’m getting support to put on these performances. As people are watching the performances, certainly there are engagements and they are enjoying it, but generally I don’t ticket for people to come and see me. It’s the institutions that are supporting me.
You engage issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. How much have your formative years in the United States contributed to the work you create?
I was born and grew up in Lagos up until I was eight, then I moved to the United States and lived there till I finished my undergraduate degree. Then I moved back to Nigeria, and thereafter I went back to the United States to complete my master’s just recently at TISCH School of the Arts, New York University.
So how have my formative years in the US contributed to my work? More ways than I can possibly imagine—I am so sure of that. The way that I think, the way that I interrogate and move through space have been informed by my understanding of who I was as a Nigerian in the United States. It was in the transition from the United States to Nigeria that I understood the different variants of being Nigerian.
In America, I found myself asserting my Nigerianness, only to come back to Nigeria and have people tell me that I’m not Nigerian or not Nigerian enough. I had to confront the fact that there are a lot of things that someone who grew up here would be more aware of but I wasn’t able to flow into. What does that then mean for the shaping of my own identity or understanding of self? What does that allow me to do as an artist or as a maker? What am I in this precarious space? I’ve always been something of an outsider—what do I see from that vantage point? Those are questions I’m constantly asking internally, but not necessarily in my work. I almost feel like it’s a moot point to be asking this in the work.
To round off the question of how my formative years in the US have informed me: I’m able to have more points of entry into questions of race, gender, and ethnicity. Those things conflate and cross in extremely interesting ways that almost seem congenital and certainly unexpected with me as a Black Nigerian woman. What does that mean in the United States, what does that mean in Nigeria? As a woman generally, what are the things that I am allowed in the United States? What are the things that I am allowed in Nigeria? So I’ll say that’s how my background in the States has informed these particular topics I’m interested in—giving me multiple vantage points and entry points to talk about and interrogate the topics, and figure out what they even mean. What is race? What is gender? What is femininity? And how are these things able to move beyond location and, perhaps, time?
Your performance Bride Price can be viewed as a protest against the concept of femininity in Nigeria, particularly the ownership of women in a patriarchal marriage. Please take us through the process and how you hope it will impact society.
The personal is political—and it is from that point that I’m starting my work. In Nigeria, among Nigerian women, if you are acting inappropriately or acting out publicly, people joke and say, “Ah, let them not decrease my bride price.” How then is your worth being lowered? I felt that was deeply wrong.
Bride Price is like a push back on this concept of the bride price—not the actual practice of it, but more like the ideology behind it. I was also thinking of what it’s done to my own psyche as a woman who has grown up with these concepts—the way that I comport and compose myself publicly and the way that I police myself, perhaps even privately, with the understanding of what is right and what is wrong, or what is expected of me, in order to be seen as something that is worth more in certain spaces of the society.
Bride Price as a protest is about liberation from that shackle of whatever you think you are worth. The idea was to take these things that are supposed to be my worth and equate them to these perishable items, yams, oil—different foods that you might have actually gotten had you gotten married—and exposing these things like you are not really meant to do. Taking that as a representation of the female body, I expose it to the public, dragging it out through the streets and showing my worth—or what is understood to be my worth—exposing myself to the point where the bride price is reduced, reduced more, reduced until it is nothing, until there is no existence of it.
How does your performance series Abrarax Mandigo-Punana explore stereotypes of blackness?
Abrarax was a really interesting performance for me, because it actually started out as a project thinking about Blackness, particularly in the context of certain club scenes in Berlin. I was doing a residency there, and a lot of the club names were inherently racist, and the names in the title of the piece were actually names of the clubs in Berlin. I was also thinking about the desirability of space, particularly in Berlin. For a lot of people, it’s a desirable country. People want to move there; people wish they had the passport. People want to be able to stay in Germany. It’s a society where the everyday struggle is not the same as in Nigeria. But to be able to stay there you need a passport, you need a visa. And, to be frank, a notable way to get that is by marrying somebody, enticing them sexually and being able to hold on to them in that way.
In the piece I took an artistic approach to an issue that is far more complicated. I chose to see this as a transaction of sorts in the club scene. I then used that as an opportunity to talk about the other things that are going on in the society, particularly concerning Black people. In the piece, I try to physically entice with my Black body by doing these very large and sexualized movements. At the same time, I’m also thinking about “trance” and “trance music,” conflating those ideas and trying to get people into a trance of some sort that hypnotises them. I’m telling you to come into my space, come into my body, fall into the Blackness and give me what I want, which is a chance to stay here forever and dance.
I was hoping that people would see the ridiculousness of that assertion but also hoping that people would truly get into a bit of a trance and maybe see themselves outside of their own bodies.
I donned a completely Black costume from head to toe for my performance; my face was covered, my hands were covered, my feet were covered. I was complete Blackness, and genderless. At the height of the performance I wanted to ask that after I have put on these stereotypes of Blackness—after I have danced as a Black person is to dance, after I have done all the juju I can do and I remove this black costume—what is left of me as a performance artist? I am a Black body. What is the difference between that and what I am as an actual, whole human body? That’s the question I was asking myself and also the audience. So those are the exploratory questions I was asking, which I don’t necessarily have the answer to.
A lot of my performances are not about providing answers; they’re asking a myriad of questions, trying to see what would happen when the performance is done. What is left after this is diminished? What is left after this is removed? I think that’s the tie between the Bride Price and Abrarax. It is just me thinking: Can I diminish this? It is a suggestion and also a solution after I remove this stereotype and have exhausted it, what can be said of the true Black body that is in that space—the fabricated spectre of Blackness that we all created as a society?
What is your perception of Woke culture, and how vital is being Woke to an artist’s journey?
When I think about Woke culture, I think about Du Bois and double consciousness—about how one can live as one self or one identity in a space and then have to put on another identity. When those two identities intersect they may not necessarily sit well with one another. I think that Wokeness is when you attempt to make these things work together comfortably. For instance, being a woman in the world, and wanting what is best for women in the world, does not go against being Nigerian. Also, supporting Blackness does not go against being American. That’s my best definition of what Woke culture is.
How is that vital to my artist’s journey? Like I previously said, I had my formative years in America and came back. I had to wake up and realise how these different identities don’t always necessarily sit well with one another. And in that realisation there was an awakening that was happening—I was becoming Woke. I wanted all these “selves” to sit comfortably, but I had to figure out why they don’t. You need to know the why, so you can figure out how to then make things better.
My artistic journey and practice became about trying to suggest different solutions to how these different identities can sit together. Maybe if we diminish the idea of a bride price to nothing that’s one way that celebrating tradition and being a woman in Nigeria can sit comfortably together. My artistic journey has been the way that I’ve been able to activate my own political interest, to give voice through art and performance to the things that I’m almost always wrestling with.
As an artist working in Nigeria, what are some challenges you’ve faced, and how do you navigate the industry?
There are certainly quite a lot of challenges that come up that are inherent to the country and state that we live in. Certain things, like basic electricity, are just not there. And, of course, that is a drain financially. If you cannot have electricity you cannot see, and my work is visual. So things like that are some of the basic challenges—the infrastructural things that you wish were better. Nigeria differs from other countries where you have support for emerging artists, like financial support or government support or just having institutions that work as incubators. In America, for example, there are places where artists can get cheaper rent for a studio and things like that. But that’s not necessarily the case in Nigeria. And even though more and more you can find residency programmes for artists, they are just not as prevalent as you would wish they were.
Another difficulty in navigating the industry is trying to connect with those who are guarding the gates of the industry, which is quite important to an artist. I’m really happy that I’m working in a digital age. The kind of accessibility that it allows is truly a levelling of sorts. I mean, you can frown on it, but social media has allowed me to put my work out there. People are able to see it from lots of different spaces.I can open my Instagram account and tag whoever. I can tag the MoMA, tag Terra Kulture, and they will receive that tag; they may see it or they may not. And that’s the same tag that The New York Times or Yinka Shonibare would use if they wanted to tag somebody.
I think a lot of young artists should be happy that these are tools that are generally affordable or free, and we have access to. It’s really important to get that out there. When I first moved to Nigeria and started showing my work, most of it involved physically going to different spaces and different people and saying, “Check out my work,” hoping that the work was visually appealing enough to catch someone’s attention, then having the website to direct them back to.
I was also working at the Osh Gallery back when it was live in Yaba. (At the time, not so many different spaces were actively having shows that were geared towards young and emerging artists, like the Osh gallery was then.) And so a lot of people were coming through the doors. I would just tap somebody’s shoulder and say, “Okay, I’m also doing this work, what do you think?”
I’m constantly promoting myself in that way and building contacts. Earnestly and sincerely believing in my work and what it attempts to do, and feeling that it is important enough to share, has been quite instrumental in navigating the art industry. For me, it is important to be able to reach out to people if you’re interested in showing your work in a certain space. Also, being able to talk to people about your work is important. I know that a lot of us artists are not speakers; we are not writers. There’s a reason that we are doing art—that’s because the best way we communicate is the visual.
August 23, 2019