In Conversation with Yadichinma
Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu is an experimental artist who was born in April 1995 in Lagos, Nigeria.
Ukoha-Kalu started showing her work in 2015 in a group exhibition, titled Woman in Bloom and over the past four years has featured in group and solo exhibitions in Lagos and around the world such as Artyrama Pop Up Show in Lagos (2017); Prizm Art Fair, Miami (2017); Intense Art Magazine Launch at Alara Lagos (2017); Art X Lagos, Stevenson Gallery booth (2017); and Mckinsey meets Art, Mckinsey Lagos (2017).
She works with a variety of media from painting, photography, sculpture, to film and digital media. Influenced broadly by a mix of artistic movements, she presently lives and works in Lagos.
In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her drive, works and future projects.
So you grew up in Lagos. Are there any factors about the city that have motivated the artist you are today?
I think definitely, yes. I don’t know if I can point to specifics, but I think everything in itself. Right now, I’m having a bit of a crisis situation with being in Lagos and I’m not liking it very much. It’s really draining.
I don’t think anyone is, to be honest.
I am becoming sadder and duller by being in the city, but still, I can’t help but feel inspired by it, somehow.
So what’s the factor that limits—it depresses you somehow, does that really help?
No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t, at least, not right now. But I guess they would say that there are ways to use that to make sense, and I’m trying to find those ways to use the depressive state of this place to create work. But yet, Lagos is inspiring in its own ways.
It’s very vibrant; it has a lot of hidden beauty, and also it has a lot of potentials. Maybe because it’s in ruins, there’s just so much to feel like you can build up, that start new ideas. At the same time, the “ruinnesses” of it really make you feel like it doesn’t really want to move from where it is.
I think you said you’re 23. What artists did you look up to and still look up to today?
That’s hard. It’s hard because I feel like the artists that I look up to, especially at the point of trying to create my career and accepting that I was an artist—most of them were outside of this space. When I say outside of this space, [I mean] outside of the African space and outside of the Nigerian space. I was looking outside to Salvador Dali, looking outside to Picasso and to Julie Harper and all those names, and there are countless of them.
There is Wura, Rahim Gumbel; there is photographer Kadara Enyeasi. I really enjoy his work. There is Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze. There are a few people that are building in this space, and I find that they are usually and mostly women. That’s the common thread I find—also the common thread of this abstraction that they all work with and the inclusion of space in their work. I was very disinterested in general Nigerian artwork from time.
I felt like it was very monotonous. It was very brash also. And yet, I felt like it didn’t really give me the space that I felt like I could be myself in, so it expected me to be one-sided and realistic in a sense. I didn’t get anything else. But recently, these artists, who are Nigerian, are creating this space that’s other than this.
Okay. Can you share why you create? What drives you as an artist? What makes you wake up every day and not say, “Okay, I’m done with this. I’m moving on to something else”?
Number one, there’s nothing else to move on to.
Luckily for me, I failed. I failed at trying to be straightforward and trying to be in a specific educational direction, especially as we are in Nigeria. You grow up in sciences—I am a science kid. I tried to do architecture, I failed at it, and that academic failure created space for me to practice. I didn’t realise how much practice I was doing until the work started happening, and then it began to be noticed, and it’s giving me validation for leaving and for being who I am. So it feels like, Yeah, this is the way I can be who I am. And I can sing or I can express; I can question the world. This is me.
As I said, you are described as a multi-disciplinary artist working across various media. What informs your choice of material?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I can think of one specific thing, except that I know that my interest is very broad and has always been from time. This seeps into my not liking to be definitive with life and ideas, which is dangerous.
And that’s just such a millennial thing to do as well.
We are very carefree.
I’m quite the other extreme. And I think in that space of not trying to be definitive, it means that I’m leaving myself open to a lot of things. So that basic fundamental openness is an openness to the material. So then I can figure out how to reach for wood or metal or stone, and all of these things become interesting themselves, just by openness.
You participated in The Prison, curated by Isabella Agoje at the 2018 edition of LagosPhoto. Please tell us a bit about the experience and the work you presented.
I’ve worked with Isabella once before—I think a year or two ago in her first exhibition she had at Freedom Park. It was just a pleasure, as it was working with this other one. What was exciting was that it was going to be my first photography exhibition. This is the first exhibition that I showed my photographic works. On social media, my photography is out there, but I never really play it as much as I play my drawing or my painting.
Do you think that has anything to do with how accessible photography and digital media is? Do you think you have to be very protective of your paintings in a way that you can’t really with photography?
Now, that’s an interesting topic. But no, I don’t think so. It’s usually affected by factors like what’s most accessible for me. Now I have lots of pencils and hence I’m drawing at the moment. There are moments when I don’t draw at all, and I am just doing photographs, but not being able to claim it in the way that I had done with paintings. I think that has to do with feeling like I don’t know if it’s valid in itself because the methods that I’m using are very rudimentary. Sometimes I’m just using my phone and taking a picture, or I am just screenshotting things and collaging.
But anyway, I did this exhibition, The Prison, and it was basically a collection of photographs that I made at a friend’s house. It was just documenting her home. She’s an Igbo girl, so her parents own this very typical Igbo mansion, and I was visiting for the first time. I was just so enthralled because there are just all of those different textures, very nostalgic. Even though you haven’t lived in that kind of space, it still feels memorable.
I just started taking pictures. We did an interview; we had a conversation a bit about her space and growing up there. And I thought it would be interesting to see how that came out showing in an exhibition, so we did it.
Conceptual art is fast gaining recognition and acceptance in recent times. What do you think is the reason for this? And what do you think is the future for this medium in Nigeria?
Conceptual art. I feel like people are looking for things that have a meaning and are looking for interesting stories. Conceptual art always feels like reading a book. In a real sense, if there is a story there, then you can throw yourself into it, and then you can get lost in it, and it’s a journey on its own. I think that journey is interesting, and people like to engage with that. I do know that if it’s something that’s just gaining traction now, I think it’s always been there. I really do.
I like to think that Nigerian art is very direct, very structured.
Okay, so not in every space. I don’t know, but I haven’t really encountered a lot of conceptual art in this space.
So how do you define it in the first place?
In my mind, I think of an art piece that has a story, other than the immediate thing that you see. There is this background story which someone can look at and follow that just sticks because it’s a text for the physical thing you are looking at.
People say that conceptual art is more narrative sometimes than actual fine art. So I think that’s where the question’s directed, in the sense that, of course, it wouldn’t make sense to be more narrative than fine art. I don’t know.
No, I don’t know that it doesn’t make sense. I think that when people try to separate the idea of the narrative from the work, it’s absurd to me. I feel like all of them are the same thing. Yes, there is more text, but then that’s just the art direction it’s taking. It doesn’t mean that it’s different. It doesn’t mean that it is not literary work, and even literary work is art, so in my head, everything is quite realistic. Everything doesn’t have to be one space; it can be something that translates and moves into a text and even video and voice. And I like that idea that it’s coming through in this space. That’s nice. I think it feels like we are thinking. There is always a way to get the general intellectual space of a community up when you get them thinking about ideas when you get them engaging.
So, earlier this year, you completed a residency with photographer Kadara Enyeasi in South Africa organised by 16 x 16. Can you tell us about the ‘Blue Burn’ series you showed?
Yeah, I have one story and one thing to say usually. My work comes from an emotional space generally, but it’s usually lighter than sadness and questioning and doubts, and I feel like ‘Blue Burn’ was one that was really embedded in those spaces that were more intense. So ‘Blue Burn’ gets its name from a common circular blue that runs across the series. I looked at it, and it’s blue, and I thought it was a burn instead of blue. What I was doing with the body of work was that I was doing a lot of layering and trying to figure out with the idea of delicacy—alluding to my state of feeling in that space and trying to bring that physicality to those words.
There’s some kind of cloth, it’s like in-between paper and cloth. It’s this material that they put in the cuffs of shirts to make them fit…and I got that from an art store in South Africa, and I didn’t really think that I would work with it, but I ended up using it in my work.
I guess the journey with ‘Blue Burn’ didn’t start as an Oh, I’m going here for these reasons, and this is the idea that I have because I never really have this idea. I usually just expect to arrive at this space and burst onto my canvas or paper. But I went into that space and the first work that I started painting were the landscape drawings that are very Yadi-esque.
And I didn’t really like them, or I didn’t feel like they were new or that I was really questioning anything or moving ahead in my work, and I really wanted to use the space in a way that is beneficial to whatever it is that I was creating. So I was sad, actually depressed because I didn’t like what it was I was doing. Then we went to see this exhibition in Cape Town, and I remember seeing this artist show her work. Her name is Rubi Swining, and she had these works in oil on transparent paper, and they were so delicate, and I felt really moved by the work.
The first word that came to me was “delicacy.” They were also brilliant; some of the edges were even like torn out or worn out. And I realised that I get a lot of encouragement for the work that I do from seeing some kind of imperfection being validated because I’m often very self-critical in certain ways. I felt like that liberated me, and so I went back, and I just felt liberated. I think it’s the energy from there that I translated into the work that I did, but it still felt like I needed a lot more conversation when I came back to work. It was through conversation that I realised that the work was made from that intensity and the exhibition. That was surprising to me because I always felt like I could never really work from the space of feeling anxious or doubt.
So that means there might be something great from being in traffic.
Maybe. Who knows? Really, it’s a harsh place, so I don’t know if it would just destroy me or actually make me bring something out.
Your work majorly involves deconstruction and reconstruction, both in its materiality and process. How do you employ these processes in your work, especially soft sculptures?
So, the term “soft sculptures” is something that came to me when I was creating the ‘Blue Burn’ series, because I was making these drawings that were mired, and I felt like it was interesting to add a sculptural element to the idea of drawing, so that it wasn’t just flat on the surface but was kind of coming out of the thing.
And what then happened was that I began to use the same material as I was using for my drawings to make sculptures, but then the sculptures were not particularly strong. They were moving and “movey” and irregular, and I called them soft. But that actually exists as a term, and I was very happy that that was something that existed.
So, soft sculptures are basically sculptures that are made with delicate, non-rigid materials, so they change shape. The idea of deconstructing and reconstructing for me is that I’m always working with many different parts in my work, and there’s this idea that all these different elements I could use to build up a structure and I could break that down into different sub-structures. I really enjoy this idea of taking two [things], combine and recombine and take them apart. I think that’s a very interesting process to put yourself in whenever it is that you find that you’ve developed elements or something. If I had a line and a circle, I can think of multiple ways to combine that. I can think of multiple ways to repeat that and something comes from that.
It’s also a practice of giving yourself or nicely developing your imaginative space, that idea of repetition. It’s funny that it’s the same elements that help the imagination.
But it’s so ironic that soft sculptures, based on your explanation, have something to do with deconstructing and reconstructing the delicacy behind it. It’s a narrative and finite merging together in a way if you think about it.
I think even more so the idea of deconstructing and reconstructing for me is something that’s there before the soft sculpture, before I even found that word. Even with my drawings, you find repeating elements, so you might see the same kind of shape in a different drawing, but it’s placed in a different position and that’s that idea that if I can turn it, then I can break it and I can cut it in half and multiply it—and that’s the idea that runs to the world.
So what’s next? Do you have any future projects you’d like to share?
I do, I do have future projects and plans for future projects. Currently, that’s what I’m working on and doing a bunch of collaborative projects with some friends. I am currently working with friends who are performers, and then we are doing this research work here in the Nigerian space (that’s the Lagos space specifically), and they are interrogating this concept of masculinity.
I am also working on a magazine. I don’t know if I can give too many details about that, but it’s an interesting project that’s coming out. More and more will be said as time goes. I think it’s coming.
On which other platforms can we find you?
Until next time, bye-bye.
April 21, 2021
April 19, 2021
April 19, 2021