In Conversation - Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu
In Conversation - Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu
For the third installment of our spotlight series featuring interviews with African artists on the continent and in the diaspora, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with the Nigerian multidisciplinary artist, Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu. She talked to me about her work and inspiration and the art scene in Nigeria.
Rebecca: So for those who might not be familiar, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
Yadichinma: Well, my name is Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu. I’m a self-taught experimental artist living and working in the city of Lagos, Nigeria!
Rebecca: How long have you been making art? And who or what inspires you to create?
Yadichinma: I like to say that I’ve been creating all my life as far back as I can remember, the process is still very much the same and has the same motivation, which is curiosity, and professionally I’ve been active over the past 3 years.
I’m inspired by the world at large, it’s hard to separate my practice from my living, so every situation and experience directly(when I’m aware of it) and indirectly feeds into what I end up manifesting!
Rebecca: I remember my first introduction to you was your short film “Untitled” and I thought it was amazing. I totally get that—the experiences you have throughout your life are the best inspiration for creation. In regards to your work itself, what are some themes that you like to explore and is there any particular message or feeling you try to convey through your work?
Yadichinma: Ah, thanks for the compliment! I think I have a fair idea of the film you’re talking about, the thirty-second one with my sister in 6 shots?
At first when I started to create more actively, I really just wanted to do something and follow that as honestly as possible, I was tired of aspiring too quickly to make anything that was “sensible” and I think I had just gotten a fair dose of inspiration from the World Wide Web, being exposed to all the different kinds of approaches I could use from several artists. Time has passed and that honest pursuit is still at the core of why I create, I try to in some way highlight my process and find ways to translate it into tools with which other people can experience their own lives, a major process I use is that of deconstructing and reconstructing an idea or a set of elements to present a new way of seeing/perspectives.
Rebecca: I love it because it brings up a lot of feelings for me, particularly a feeling of nostalgia. It reminds me of my time in Cameroon, when I’d go out in the evening with some of my cousins and I’d watch them put on their makeup in a similar fashion to your sister and those are some of my fondest memories of my time there!
Can you talk about the art scene in Nigeria? What are some of the things you like about it in comparison to other art scenes you may have experienced?
Yadichinma: It’s hard to speak about this art scene in comparison with others, especially because I haven’t had enough experience outside of this one. Perceptibly, there is much more of a history and structure (especially in regards to accessibility) in, say, Western/European art scenes. There’s more openness from the public to a certain level of self-expression, and I do get a feeling that there’s more freedom for the artist on a general level. But, with all that being said, it’s super exciting to be caught in the art scene here in Nigeria currently. It has its history but a lot of things are relatively new: more galleries have been opened up over the past 5 years, more people have had the opportunity to engage with artwork, the creative scene has worked its way to being a very valid social enterprise, and the opportunities only seem to be expanding day by day. I personally feel very lucky to be at the beginning of this phase, understanding how it will project into many futures ahead!
Rebecca: It’s exciting to watch the art scenes in these countries develop and for African artists to have more autonomy over their work and in telling their stories. You mentioned you haven’t really experienced any art scenes outside of Nigeria. Are there any particular art scenes in Africa or outside the continent that you have heard about that, in the future, you would like to explore further and participate in?
Yadichinma: I’m really interested in exploring the art scenes in other African countries. I don’t get as much access to the work that comes from their scenes as much as I do from mine, or from the West and Europe, and I’m really curious about what contexts they’re tackling and if I can find some similarities in approach to mine. I would like to experience practically all of them, but I think more clearly as a means to exchange with and learn from all the cultures that inform the art spheres in several parts of the world.
Rebecca: European influence is still heavily felt in Africa especially in regards to the art scene, as it’s still dominated by rich white men. So it’s hardly surprising for people in those countries to know more about the art scenes of European countries than the ones in countries near them.
So with that in mind, do you think that contemporary African art is still judged by western paradigms? Have you ever felt pressured to incorporate the latest styles, trends and/or techniques of contemporary western art in your work in order to be taken seriously?
Yadichinma: First, I think on a huge level art that comes from the African continent is still judged by western paradigms and unfortunately by ourselves sometimes. There hasn’t been a full recovery from the illusion of supremacy. Yes, a huge percentage of the western art scene still considers themselves as gatekeepers of what is “African art” and I think it’s really a case of “who called it first” with this idea of African art/western art/Asian art. I say this because of the years and years of cultural exchange that has happened and is still happening. I’m luckily exposed to all kinds of narratives, so I draw my inspiration from all around the world. Funnily, I’ve felt more pressure to have my work look like it’s “African” and relatable in our context than I have been moved to make my work look like contemporary Western art to be taken seriously. I’ve also had a lot of time to consider my work and what it’s true motivation is. If it ever begins to feel like I have to cater to a certain kind of mindset, I know I will move the other way and create a space for my work where it is valid. And I think that’s already what I aspire to do, create that space for myself that is beyond all of the constructs and systems but in some way able to reach all kinds of people, via fluid translation or interpretation.
Rebecca: That is interesting! I definitely feel that African artists, writers and curators etc., in the diaspora are expected to solely speak on certain topics related to our race as if our lives are only shaped by our oppression, if that makes sense? So with artists from the continent I would imagine there to be similar pressures!
Speaking of artists... I wanted to ask you, who are your favourite artists or creators, both locally and internationally?
Yadichinma: I’m so happy that I can finally answer this question. I didn’t have a lot of people to refer to on my end of things when it came to being inspired until very recently. I was talking the other day about these people I was discovering in the Nigerian scene and how they were mostly women who in some way incorporated a sense of space within their work aesthetically and philosophically, and it was this space that drew me in. To name a few of these women: Wura Ogunji, Nengi Omuku, Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze and Odun Orimolade. In the western/European context, there are so many people whose influence cut across discipline, from dancers, musicians, filmmakers and so on, it’s difficult for me to pick out the names, I’d say Dalí, Jean Arp, and Picasso were my primary introductions into that world and that’s where I’d leave it for now.
Rebecca: As someone with an African parent and African relatives, I know that there can often be a lot of pressure put on us to follow more conventional career paths. Would you say that pressure is something you have experienced? If so, how did you overcome it?
Yadichinma: Yes, this is a common pressure, at first there was a clear preference that I do something more professional and respectable, even though there was no real aversion to my inclination for art. At that time, I wasn’t as passionate nor did I feel as purposeful as I feel about my work now. I tried to convince myself to do the more respectable things, but as time passed, I failed at that trying in many different ways. It’s not easy to trace how that translation happened as there were many things happening all at once, but there was a significant moment where my mom encouraged me to think of the possibilities of where my little scribbles could go even at a time when I had no real vision. It took me a year to digest that I think, and at some point people started taking interest in my work. I don’t think she saw “experimental artist” happening though, she still jokes about how she doesn’t understand what I’m up to, but I think time is still working its magic in cementing her trust in the path I’ve chosen and it has been a beautiful experience so far.
Rebecca: I definitely felt the pressure a lot growing up. My dad eventually got around to the idea that I was never going to be a doctor and, like your mum, he still makes jokes like “what kind of job can you get with an arts degree?”
In regards to your work, what are your plans for the future? Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
Yadichinma: Ha, jokes on them all! My future plans are to travel the world in a constant state of exchange and learning. I want to be able to move, and be open to creating outside of this space I’m already used to, always and forever. As well as: reinventing ways to share my processes, helping to create necessary archives in the Nigerian context, reinventing the creative education system here and adding to it worldwide.
Rebecca: I look forward to watching you grow as an artist and I’m waiting for the day I can go see your work in art galleries in the U.K. Lastly, we talk a lot about pop-culture and things that we are fans of on the zine, what would someone have to read, watch or listen to in order to understand you? Or alternatively, what are some things you are into lately?
Yadichinma: Thanks, Rebecca, I enjoyed this! Okay, I’ve got a list:
Florence + the machines albums
Sylvan Esso’s echo mountain sessions
On Being podcast with Krista Tippet
Physics with Richard Feynman
@casa__shop on Instagram
Apartamento Magazine app and African shrine on Sundays with Femi Kuti lol
REBECCA is a Black British girl currently languishing in the perpetual cold of N.W England. She is a history graduate who thoroughly enjoys 90’s American sitcoms, post-apocalyptic fiction, portrait photography and African contemporary art. Instagram