Artist Yadichinma Ukoha Kalu On Abstraction, Curiousity and “Saffron in the desert”

Yadichinma Ukoha Kalu works from Saffron in the desert exhibition

My first set of interactions with artist Yadichinma Ukoha Kalu’s work started with the Women in Bloom and the Rele Young Contemporaries group exhibitions in 2016. Since then Ukoha Kalu has gone on to receive a number of residencies as well as exhibit her work internationally.

The work is often playing with the conceptual and abstract, through a variety of mediums and materials. So whether it’s drawing, sculpture, photography, collage or performance, Ukoha Kalu work always offers as much surprise as it does excitement. Her recent exhibition at the KO gallery in Lagos showed a series that included works in plexiglass, plaster of Paris, alongside drawings and paintings titled Saffron In The Desert.

In this conversation, we talk about curiosity, form, materiality and Saffron.

In the past you have spoken about your need to not be defined and categorised. It made me wonder a bit about this nebulous nature of that idea and I wonder if it informs your attraction to form, experimentation and abstraction in your work and practice.

For a long time, a certain kind of definition to things made me a bit anxious, some of that anxiety stems from the fear of being wrong about the choices I make, even though I know there’s only a small fraction of what we can actually control. Creating gives me a way out of that anxiety I think, if I keep the process fluid, I get the gift of continuous surprise, I can look at things that seem completely out of “theme” or “aesthetic” and be confident enough to try them out. I find that as I grow older though I am embracing certain definitions, maybe it’s the scary need to “hold on to something”, maybe I just need structure, but something about definition is more attractive, now it’s about keeping a balance between the two. I’m curious about how that will affect the work henceforth.

Yadichinma Ukoha Kalu works from Saffron in the desert exhibition

I am also aware that curiosity is a big element in your practice. Do you think this informs and creates a place of freedom within your work?

I think of curiosity as the ability to play, when it comes to creating. I like to make journeys out of my day to day experience, it enhances my perspective to not rush into a quick judgment of anything and to not over impose my own ego on things, curiosity helps me cultivate the habit of having fun with life. 

Yadichinma Ukoha Kalu works from Saffron in the desert exhibition

I have really enjoyed the ways in which you have experimented with materials particularly in the sculptural elements of your work from wood to plexi glass and plaster of Paris. I am quite interested in your experiences with different materials. How do they speak to you? How do they challenge you?

Objects of different shapes and sizes are prominent in our world, we are constantly orchestrating our lives around them. I like to harness that quiet relationship between myself and the “inanimate” world, I find that I can emote with them, create stores of memory, as well as enhance my living experience. Objects have a way of initiating some interesting experiences for you, I’m after that.  I love design in most ways it’s expressed, sculptural, functional, architectural, it’s so interesting to see how well considered a tablespoon can be or a bicycle, I love to witness human intention materialized through objects. 

You have spoken before about trying to become an architect and failing at it. It is interesting because you work is steeped in experimenting with form, colour, aesthetic, imagination and even meaning. I am curious to know about this tension you experienced with architecture and if there are elements that perhaps find its way into your practice?

Architecture had been my mother’s dream since she saw I could draw straight lines, for what straight lines could be for a four year old. I enjoyed practicing technical drawing, and I enjoyed looking at pictures of buildings, while trying to build my own interest for it, but the only time I felt more for the subject was when I actually became a practicing artist. Architecture as I understand it now, is an assemblage of elements – walls, floors, foundation, facade…etc, my work is that way too, I collect these elements or dream them up and bring them to form a surreal environment. I still reference architectural elements in my drawings and paintings, but they are quite loose, I prefer the unmeasured action of free hand drawing. 

Growbox project (2019) by Yadichinma Ukoha Kalu

When it comes to inspirations, you have also mentioned before that at first you found inspiration in artists outside of Nigeria but recently you have also been inspired by artists like Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, Kadara Enyeasi and Wura Ogunji. I would assume there is a kind of loneliness attached to not quite fitting in to a space or creative landscape. I would like to know more about this “Loneliness” through your artistic journey as well as if and how it permeates into your work?

I feel like the loneliness that I feel here is half an infrastructural problem, when I started out and didn’t have that many references I could draw from, I think it was mostly because I didn’t know where to go to find them or what archives to look through, however now things are improving in that respect, not because Nigeria is all of a sudden better but because a lot more of us are out there on social media and putting in effort to make connections. When I create I don’t think a lot about fitting in, I’m too zapped in to think about that, but when I’m broke and hungry though, it’s definitely a big consideration – questions like “should I make it bigger, bolder and brighter?” come up, but hopefully the long term plan is to stay fed and remain bold about my own unique interests. 

Your most recent exhibition “Saffron in the desert” was the result of an art residency in Dubai? Looking at all the works, it felt coming of age in a way where the fragments of all your works and experiments I have experienced over the years finally had a place to play together. Tell me about the experience of creating and putting this exhibition together?

The idea for this exhibition came while I was on that residency, it starts as kind of a prayer for mental peace and stability which I didn’t have a lot of in that period, I discovered the Saffron spice in Deira market with a fellow resident, and I became interested enough to research about it, what made me settle on using it was how versatile it was a spice and also it’s spiritual significance which implied lots of healing and clarity. I personally love to look for symbols and make connections, and saffron allowed me to do that, I found out it could also be made into ink and I made some paintings with it. The body of work comes in two parts, work developed during the residency and others that came after – it is a culmination of many very personal emotions related to loss in family and friendships, I tried to give hints of the feeling in the titling because the works are so abstract I don’t expect people to immediately understand. It’s one of those bodies of work where I have tried to integrate some of the pain I was feeling into creating, everything took a 9month period in which 2020 happened, and I’m happy with how it all came together. 

You are always interested in pushing the medium as well as material. What is catching your eye these days? What are you itching to explore?

These days, I’m sucked into the digital world suspended by the Internet. It feels like a whole universe of things, and I enjoy drawing commonalities between this very mechanical tech thing and the physical world, somewhere in my mind they are the same thing. I currently run and alternative Instagram account I’ve titled “Of Pure Technical Romance” (@ofpuretechnicalromance) and with it I am exploring unconventional and playful ways of interacting with the functionality of technology. Making animation from Instagram filters, initiating online workshops and lots of screenshotting and cropping. I am really also keen about making more sculptural work in the nearrr future. 

A lot of artists success is often bench marked against what the market demands of validates. As your career is evolving, how have your notions of success evolved?

The reality is, It’s hard to hold on to one notion of success comfortably. There’s so much going on all the time by so many talented people, and if you’re an artist, at many points you want to be a part of that, you want to be seen and validated. It hasn’t been easy for me to keep telling myself that “I am on my own journey”, but I find it is the clearest truth I can come to when I do. 

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