Nancy Ainomugisha and Olúwásolá Kehinde Olówó-Aké’s I see, I breathe, I am! exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery continues to stir conversations during Black History month. The exhibition, which included mixed media audio, visual, audio-visual, and textile installations, is one of the Black Art Center’s major exhibitions.
“[I] wanted to tell people that Black is not monolith,” artist Olúwásolá Kehinde Olówó-Aké said. The exhibition explores her relationship with Blackness and how multifaceted it is.
The five-piece exhibition, including an audio conversation between artists Ainomugisha and Olówó-Aké, was housed in a small space inside the Surrey Art Gallery. Curated by the Black Arts Center, a black-centered, artist-run, and operated collective; the exhibition was one of the BLAC’s two exhibitions centred on Black identity.
Curator Moroti Soji George and artist Olúwásolá Kehinde Olówó-Aké continued to discuss the role of arts in community building during a panel discussion at the Vancouver Art Gallery earlier this month.
The exhibition remains close to Olówó-Aké’s heart as it is her first exhibit since leaving school. The work was originally created for her thesis project identically titled Ahon Dudu. Her pieces come from a three-part story fashioned as an interdisciplinary Nigerian folktale. Ahon Dudu, when translated to English means “Black tongue”, is a Yoruba character who goes around a mountain in an effort to warn residents about a smoke stream nearby.
Drawing from her personal experience in Vancouver, her pieces stand as a kind of warning about what she calls the “facade diversity” underway in Vancouver. Her two-piece installation is made up of a short video loop of the story of Ahon Dudu and an installation of Ahon Dudu’s dress.
The layers of a layered dress symbolize the different parts of the folktale. “The stories are named after the barriers that I discovered here,” said Olówó-Aké. The stories mimic the hindrances to communal relationships in Vancouver. The first layer of the dress, the red skirt, the beads, and the red top with cowries, represents the first part of the story, Denial.
The second layer, Facade Diversity is represented by a black stripped skirt with drooping bells on the neck.
The denim skirt bound together by a rope and ankara sleeves – for a “distinctly Nigerian” touch – sits as the third and most vibrant of all the layers. Its colours and positioning represent and mimic the king’s palace and crown. In the story, Ahon Dudu has arrived at the king’s palace to urge him to warn others about the smoke, but the cries fall on deaf ears.
The cultural significance of clothing in Yoruba land is evident in Olúwásolá’s piece. The colours, sounds and flamboyance carefully reflect the theatricality of Yoruba people. Propped up by a mannequin at the entrance of the exhibition, Ahon Dudu’s dress sits as a hollow echo of who her character was in her homeland.
“I don’t think it will, ever,” said Olówó-Aké about the feeling of not belonging. Her pieces have deep socio-cultural connotations and ultimately they speak about the fear of displacement and isolation. For the Emily Carr alum, it’s been three years since her move from the United Kingdom to Vancouver, but she still does not feel she belongs.
That feeling of loneliness in the city is shared by Ugandan artist Nancy Ainomugisha. Both artists have similar migration stories. They both relocated to Vancouver to further their studies, with families sprawled between Toronto, Uganda and Nigeria. They share an understanding of the difficulties of navigating friendships and communities. Although both their pieces speak the same message, the process behind them differs.
For Ainomugisha, her use of digital artistry came through experimentation. Her two pieces, An Ode to Mother I and II, both pictures of her sister in their mothers’ dress, embody a fluidity in their meaning. “Sometimes one thing comes after another, you’re telling a story,” Ainomugisha said. Her process, she tells, is not linear and should be allowed to be non-definitive.
Luckily for Ainomugisha, the conventions attached to digital African art are yet to be set in stone, as it’s a relatively fresh venture for artists. Each stage of Ainomugisha’s piece, a mix of experimentation stirred consciously with a drizzle of identity awareness, contributes to the luscious noir rendition of her sister.
The sociocultural conversations Ainomugisha and Olówó-Aké’s pieces evoke are conversations being had within the Black and African communities during Black History month.