crazinisT on Identity and Belonging
crazinisT artisT (b.1981) is a Ghanaian-Togolese multidisciplinary artist living and working in Ghana. His work explores the relationship between politics, identity, and gender constructs through immersive performances. Using his body as material, crazinisT artisT seeks to provoke his audience to question their own sense of identity and belonging, creating indecisive moments that blur the lines between public and private space. In 2013, he began investigating the concept of social constructs in relation to cultural and gender stereotypes. Shedding light on the experiences of the marginalised, his themes often include injustice, violence, and the objectification of humans, confronted in bold political terms. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses his work, identity and creative process.
What inspired you to become an artist, and what informed your decision to work under the pseudonym crazinisT artisT?
I have always been inspired by conditions and vulnerabilities of people, especially from the marginalised races, religions, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. Even long before I became an artist, I was preaching and teaching the gospel as an evangelist under the same inspiration in several recognised churches and communities, which earned me the title “Pastor Va-Bene,” “Pastor Elikem,” and “Brother Elikem” until my renunciation of Christianity.
The name “crazinisT artisT” is spelt with small letters, ending with capital T, like a virus or corrupt character.
I began to use crazinisT artisT as a political and institutional agency and as an artistic statement of self-authentication and of passion for art about eight years ago—that should be three years before I transitioned into making performance art. Between 2010 and 2011, while pursuing my first degree (BFA Painting), I discovered the power to use art as a weapon, for protest, activism, and social change. That was my earliest inspiration on how to handle human conditions buried in social construction. But at the time, I was only painting and gradually transitioned through action works, conversational art, and installations into performance art, which is what I am now mostly known for. For me, I needed to create this name to interpret my extreme passion for art and to hack the political system of authentication.
Your work explores the relationship between politics, identity, and gender constructs through immersive performances, using the body as material. Please take us through your creative process.
I believe performance is an embodiment of life—perhaps subtle, but intense and ephemeral, which could provide an intimate dialogue between the performer(s) and the audience (co-performers). Performance is an important and potent medium for re-examining our own colonial and post-colonial history through various dynamic experiences and viewpoints.
My creative process, I may say, is complexly layered and woven into daily life. In fact, I must say it is life in itself, and perhaps agree with the usual term “art is life,” though I prefer saying, “Art is love.” Over the past six years, I have gradually transitioned from one gender into something “else,” if not the “other.” It is an art and a journey with complex struggles with identity, protest, trans-activism, and a sense of belonging. Since 2012, I have collected tons of female costumes, bags, shoes, makeup, and so on, creating a monument of second skin from which I began the froZen series as a “ritual of becoming.” I daily perform those rituals that are seemingly integrated in every human life, whether straight, queer, black, white, binary, or non-binary. We perform such rituals of self-cleansing (bathing), dressing, and an amount of making up to affirm our identities and psychological states of being. The only reality of our being is at birth; after that, we live in constant performance, whether consciously or unconsciously. However, many of my public performances begin from sketches, research, negotiations, digital plans, and design before any enactments.
You exhibited at the last edition of the LagosPhoto Festival. How did you decide on the works you presented, and how relevant are they to the Nigerian community?
Oh yes! The recent LagosPhoto Festival was dubbed “Time Is Gone,” which I understood as a need for urgency. That really woke me up again to feel that we have little time to change what must be changed, especially concerning the rise in gender discrimination, violence, and homo/transphobic actions that are gradually developing on the continent. I believe Nigeria is one of the most notorious zones, trapped in colonial classifications, identification, and interpretations of gender and sexuality. Such urgency inspired me to exhibit the Rituals of Becoming from the froZen series, hoping to generate a conversation with the audience.
Please explain why red is a predominant colour in many of your works, including Red Sanctuary, presented at the 2017 exhibition Rituals of Becoming at Gallery 1957, Ghana.
Red is my choice to show ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. Red can be read as sensuality, passion, and love and as danger, threat, fear, and vulnerability. That is exactly how my work is, to stand out but create confusions in any singular representation. At the same time, it creates a ritualistic environment borrowed from my Ewe traditions and culture, symbolising a call for immediate action.
With particular reference to your home country Ghana, how is performance received, considering it is viewed as an alternative means of artistic expression in Africa?
Not many people understand performance art, though life in Ghana is almost 100 per cent performance/performative. Many people are more attuned to drama, theatre, or film than to what is considered performance art, because the latter borrows so much from cultural and traditional rituals that are usually enacted in conventional spaces. On the other hand, due to high levels of Western religious influence, some people consider some forms of performance as demonic and evil, especially my methodologies. This has been one of the major reasons I founded “pIAR,” an international residency program that aims at expanding performance practices in Ghana through local/international collaborations and cultural exchange.
How well have your family and friends reacted to your decision to present as a woman?
I am still battling with friends and family who cannot tolerate or accept my transition and even my practice. For home, I have been banned from coming unless I come as male. Nevertheless, I have grown new families, networks, and friends in Ghana and across the globe over the years who have been extremely supportive. My siblings are not in opposition to my new life and practice as far as I know, but they are very scared of my vulnerabilities and the daily dangers I have to constantly navigate.
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