A new narrative of Nigerian Femininity and womanhood by Ayobola Kekere-Ekun

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Priviledge the Abridged edition, Ayobola Kekere-Ekun
Priviledge the Abridged edition, Ayobola Kekere-Ekun

Besides the bold and vivid colors, the most striking elements of Ayobola Kekere-Ekun’s figurative works are the myriad of lines sculpted out of paper. The curvaceous lines run harmoniously in parallel turning in unison inwards or outwards and at times, come to an abrupt halt to delineate the face, and reveal the facial expressions of the characters in the painting. In the series of portraits “E No Concern Me,” the hairstyle is made of a delicate assemblage of small pieces of black paper, rolled and coiled to different diameters to mimic both the texture and the volume of big Afros.

The multitude of folds in the paper that make up each character has become the lines, paragraphs, and chapters of the social commentary the artist provides on her native Nigeria and the country’s traditional attitude towards women. In her latest body of work, “The Real Housewives of old Oyo,” Kekere challenges the misrepresentation of female deities – often portrayed as “petty” in contrast to male deities often in pursuit of noble causes. Kekere-Ekun says her attraction to paper as a primary material (instead of support material) pertains to her fascination with lines. However, it is easy to draw a parallel between her decision to subvert a technique – paper quilting – often considered as a women’s craft to make frivolous decorative objects and turn it into her medium of choice to challenge entrenched gender-based stereotypes.

Ayobola Kekere-Ekun has had a momentous year. She was among the twenty winners among over 5000 applicants for the Dean Collection grants in 2018. The Dean Collection is the name of the art collection and initiative launched by producer Swizz Beatz (Singer Alicia Keys Husband). They support the work of young and emerging artists throughout the world and are campaigning for a more equitable financial compensation of visual artists. Since the announcement in May 2018, Kekere-Ekun has exhibited in Art X Lagos in November and has joined the South Africa based gallery (https://gunsandrain.com/artist/ayobola-kekere-ekun/). We caught up with her to get an insight into her practice and the impact of the Dean Collection grant.

 Obatalamag: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you became interested in art?

Ayobola Kekere-Ekun: I’m a mixed media artist. I have a B.A. and M.A. in graphic design, and I’m currently pursuing a Ph.D. in art and design at the University of Johannesburg. I have always been interested in art. I think I still have drawings I did in kindergarten. I was lucky to have a really supportive family. My parents believed in actively encouraging their kids’ interests, so I had access to art supplies beyond art class in school. When I was little, I even had extra art lessons. I loved it. Art has always been a really big part of my life.

Pauline Rebirth after Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Ayobola Kekere-Ekun
Pauline Rebirth after Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Ayobola Kekere-Ekun

O: You are a paper-quilling artist. What is the inspiration behind your work?

AKE: Visually, I think my work, at its core, stems from a preoccupation with lines. I love how ambiguous a simple line can be. It can connect, divide, indicate, direct, enclose, exclude. It’s capable of being many things at once, individually and collectively.

Conceptually, my work is heavily influenced by personal observations and experiences. I’m constantly taking note of things around me that I find interesting, stories I hear or read, things I see. It varies.

We are interested in the impact of the grant on your life as an artist. When did you find out your application was successful and what was your reaction?

AKE: I was stunned! My phone was off the day the announcement was made. I came online around 10:30 pm and realized I had A LOT of messages and notifications. I panicked at first thinking something awful had happened and my family was trying to reach me. When I realized what the messages were and that I had been selected, I honestly couldn’t believe it. I decided to pretend nothing had happened, go to bed; and if it was all there in the morning, then I’d start to accept it was really happening.

 

What has changed since the announcement?

AKE: To be honest, I mostly feel excited and slightly overwhelmed. I’m a pessimist at heart, and my mind is really good at mapping out everything that could go wrong in any given scenario. Receiving such major support for my practice is a really big deal. I feel a very deep sense of obligation to put in my best and make the most of it.

 

What are you working on at the moment?

AKE: My first solo exhibition at Rele Gallery in Lagos. It’s supported by the Dean collection grant. The exhibition is an excavation of femininity and womanhood, largely within a Nigerian context. The exhibition is an attempt to break down the trauma and baggage that seems to be an inherent aspect of Nigerian womanhood and show how these issues have played out and continue to play out across time and space. The grant has enabled me to plan the debut solo I have always hoped to. It was really important to me to have the exhibition in Lagos. No matter where I find myself, Lagos is home. It’s throbbing underlying chaos and energy is a big part of my practice and I just really felt it was important to me to immerse my first solo in that energy. I have also pledged to donate a percentage of the exhibition’s proceeds to the Mirabel Center. The Mirabel Center is a sexual assault referral centre located in Lagos Nigeria, which provides medical and psychosocial services to survivors of sexual assault and rape. It’s incredibly important to actively support institutions that work towards the support and destigmatisation of victims of sexual violence.

Balance of Three (Younger) Ayobola Kekere-Ekun
Balance of Three (Younger) Ayobola Kekere-Ekun

Can you talk to us about your latest body of work?

AKE: The Real Housewives of Old Oyo is a new body of work I’ve been exploring. In creating the Real Housewives of Old Oyo, I am interested in Yoruba mythology/cosmology and how there is a marked difference between how much is known about male and female deities as well as how they are presented. I find it interesting that male deities are more visible in contemporary popular culture. I also find it noteworthy that male deities are often presented in terms of their powers and abilities while female deities are often reduced to displays of pettiness and domestic squabbles. Mythology is often an avenue for society to project its beliefs and core attitudes, so it makes these discrepancies particularly striking. It’s also a reminder of the erasure of women in history and the institutional dynamics that sustain these exclusions.

So I decided to lean into the absurdity of reducing these amazingly powerful goddesses into vapid bundles of pettiness, and reimagine them as characters in a reality tv project.

The representation of women is a core element of your practice; can you expand on that and tell us why?

AKE: My exclusive portrayal of women is very deliberate. I don’t think I’ve ever had a male figure in my work. I just think women are far more interesting, literally and figuratively. Besides, men already take up so much space in the world. Perhaps when we attain true equality, there’ll be a bit more room in my head for men. Lol.

 

The interview has been edited for clarity.

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