In Conversation with Àsìkò
Ade Àsìkò Okelarin is a self-taught Nigerian photographer born in 1978. He spent his formative years in Nigeria before moving to the UK in 1995. Àsìkò attended Brighton University and graduated with a B.Sc. in Chemistry. He creates emotionally resonant images drawn from his experiences. Through his work, he explores the female form and the role of women in society, drawing from the modifications and adornments used by women to enhance and change their bodies. In this interview with Omenka, he talks about his forthcoming exhibition and his creative expression.
Congratulations on your forthcoming exhibition at The Next Wave: The Power of Authenticity and Self-Validation, organised by the House of African Art (HAART). What pieces are you exhibiting, and what expectations do you have?
Thanks very much. I will be exhibiting images from the Adorned series entitled aami, which means “symbols” in Yoruba. The series started from the recollection of a childhood memory of a woman I came across at my grandmother’s funeral. She was tall, dark, and had fierceness in her disposition. She seemed quite important, as everyone seemed to revere her, and she was layered in jewellery of different textures and sizes. I believe this formed the aesthetic basis for the Adorned project. Out of that memory I decided to start exploring womanhood and its confluence with culture, particularly my African culture. I am interested in exploring the beauty within black women, and how strength and the complexities of femininity play a part in that portrayal. The series explores womanhood, female archetypes and its intersection with culture and identity.
Could you give a brief history of your introduction to photography?
I stumbled into photography by mistake—or by fate—however you choose to look at it. I was working as a programmer in the pharmaceutical industry (I have two science degrees: in Chemistry and in Bioinformatics) but picked up a camera in between jobs when I had a month off. I had always had an interest in art, especially old African and European art.
I decided to use photography to feed my creative yearning, and I began photographing landscapes and still life. Soon after, I started taking self-portraits, which started to reveal my more creative and conceptual side. This also is when I began to incorporate emotional anchors into my work.
My journey started some 10 years ago, from when I first picked up a digital camera till now, exploring identity, using photography as my form of expression.
What does the name Àsìkò mean, and why did you choose to use it professionally?
Back when I started creating, I was interested in documenting the moment, and so I decided to use the name Àsìkò, which means “the moment” in my language Yoruba. The name stuck.
In a recent interview, you said: “The ideas, the clothes, the models, and the whole thing feeds into my creative expression, which is an outlet for me.” Please tell us more about this statement, as well as your creative process.
Photography for me is about expression. I enjoy conceptualising an idea and working with a team of others to visualise and realise the idea. When I first started taking portraits, I was always interested in telling a story. I didn’t just want pretty pictures; I wanted to create something that was emotionally resonant. This has been an underlying thought process, which led me into the art world.
You have completed editorials for FAB magazine, such as Elementals and Mami Water. What is the underlying philosophy behind your work?
Yes, a long time ago now! Interestingly enough, when I look back, I can see recurring themes throughout the work that still exist within my work now: culture, identity, and the supernatural.
My work has been about self-discovery and about a culture I wasn’t really interested in years ago. Over the years, especially since moving out of Nigeria, I have been on a journey to discover more about where I am from and the aesthetic and beauty that exist in it.
In your series Woman Code, you inscribe symbols of àdìre to encode secret messages created by Yoruba women in patriarchal Nigeria. What inspired this project?
The Woman Code was part of my solo exhibition in 2018, which was inspired by many African women I had come across over the years. Their stories and challenges in patriarchal societies inspired the work for the exhibition.
With the Woman Code, I was inspired by àdìre symbols and how they were used as a form of communication between the women in an era when they weren’t allowed to express themselves. The symbols were encoded onto fabric worn by women back then. I inscribed the symbols on the female body as the truest form of expression, a woman unhindered by what a patriarchal society expects of her.
Breaking away from the traditional gallery experience, HAART’s pop-up exhibition model creates an engaging environment around visual arts. What impact do you think exhibitions like these will have on an artist’s career?
I believe this model is very much needed in the art world at the moment. The gallery model is the industry standard and the way of doing things, but within any industry, there has to be evolution and progression. I believe the pop-up model can provide an alternative that opens up the art world and makes art more accessible.
I think exhibitions can bring collectors and art buyers to experience new artists who don’t want the conventional art spaces of galleries and museums. In these pop-ups, collectors are exposed to new and emerging talent.
What can you say about the increasing global attention to African art? How sustainable is it, and what does the future portend for it?
Africa, at the moment, is an untapped fountain; its art, its resources, its talented people, its landscapes are beginning to get the attention of the world. There is so much more to Africa than wars, famine, and poverty.
I believe it’s very sustainable if we Africans start to implement infrastructures to nurture, create, and sell art. The African art industry is not in its infancy, as art has always been created on the continent, even long before colonisation. However, it’s time to define the industry on our own terms and create something that is sustainable for the future. We Africans are beginning to understand our worth and that being an African is a beautiful thing. We are beginning to see that we can compete on the international platform with what is coming out of the continent and diaspora.
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