Artist Adejoke Tugbiyele on Yoruba Performance aesthetics, weaving a new broom and queering the traditional

Artist Adejoke Tugbiyele creates these sculptures that combine her signature material, the African broom along with wire and fabric. The result is a work that is bold, intricate and textured, imbued with a feeling of flux. These sculptures are often integrated into performance further highlighting its fluidity and otherworldliness. Tugbiyele’s practice spans over two decades with works that both examine and traverse identity, sexual politics, indigenous history, nature and spirituality. Always utilising a combination of visual languages from drawing to video and sculpture to performance, the artist’s work is never shy of pushing form. In this conversation, we talk about Yoruba aesthetic, the power of the broom, queering traditional spaces and simplification.

Eagle/Bull (2019)- Solo performance feat. musician Daniel ‘Stompie’ Selibe – The Melrose Gallery

There is an approach to the sculptures of artists with an architectural background that is structural yet spectral. Can you tell me a bit more about how your history in architecture feeds into your process?

I fell in love with architecture at an early age – about 12 or 13. A year later, I gained admission to study architecture at the specialized High School of Art and Design in New York. I have come to understand the early pull towards architecture as my way of navigating or perhaps reconciling a drastic change in environment – my birth in Brooklyn, New York, then moving to Lagos, Nigeria at the age of three and then, returning to New York at the age of eleven. To balance differences in culture, climate, sound, language, dress and other visual aesthetics of seemingly completely different worlds, I found a centering and grounding force through the study of architecture. Also, shaping my understanding were further studies and work experience at the Central Park Conservancy, The Cooper Union, the New York City School Construction Authority and participation in the NAACP Act-So Competition in Architecture. In the latter, my favorite design project honored theEgyptian/Nubian architect, Imhotep. In addition, I am blessed to have been commissioned by my parents – Akinlolu and Abimbola Tugbiyele – to design some structures at our ancestral town – Igbajo, Nigeria. A residence and a University student hostel in honor of my late grandmother Princess Ruth Adetutu Tugbiyele. For the design, I borrowed from Nnamdi Elleh’s concept of ‘The Triple Heritage’ in African Architecture – Western, Islamic and Indigenous aesthetics that inform the totality of the built environment across Africa.

College years at the New Jersey Institute of Technology included internships with the New York offices of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. After graduation, I also worked at the Newark office of Nigerian architect and urban designer, Francis Ayo Assaf. It was a pleasure to visit Ayo Assaf’s offices in Lagos, Nigeria – located in the penthouse of NITEL – the tallest building in Lagos. I gained project management experience working at Columbia University in New York, assisting with the oversight of design and construction of the University’s campus buildings. Last but not least, my experience in architecture has been informed by travel within the United States, Mexico, Abu Dhabi, Dubai (UAE), cities across Europe including London, Paris, Florence, Sicily, Helsinki and Amsterdam. More recently, travel and work in Africa – Johannesburg, South Africa and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso also enrich my knowledge of our built environment. While in Johannesburg in 2019, it was an honor to live and work in a building designed by architect David Adjaye – Hallmark House located near Maboneng.

Upon completing my Masters degree in Sculpture at the Maryland Institute of College of Art, I had a transformative experience with architecture in 2013/14 during Fulbright study in Nigeria. I was blessed to visit the Shrine in Oshogbo – Osun Sacred Grove. This is a forest site landmarked for the preservation of indigenous Yoruba culture and heritage. At the Shrine, I found little to no separation between art and architecture, but rather a continuous organic rhythm in form. The site was re-activated by the late Suzanne Wenger in the 1960s after clear signs of neglect. Today it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the private guest of Robin and Hugh Campbell, touring Osun Sacred Grove paralleled my ‘coming-out’ phase – the time when I was on a deep personal search to reconcile my identity as a queer woman of Yoruba heritage. It also became a great opportunity to enrich my artistic practice. The practice of art provided me more creative freedom to engage critical ideas that shape our cultural fabric.

Sketch of Tugbiyele Residence, Igbajo, Nigeria

Space and environment are continuously woven through my multidisciplinary art practice. With video, performance, large installations and, in the way mixed media works and sculptures transform the spaces they inhabit, transformation of our ‘second-skin’ (to quote Anne Anlin Cheng) occurs. Having spent the last three decades exploring the built environment, I am now fascinated with new explorations in nature. Within nature I find spirituality, a peaceful serenity, brightness and colour and a diversity that goes beyond identity. This shift was perhaps inevitable, since the primary material in my sculptures also come from nature.

Hybrid Spirit installation – The Melrose Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa (2019)

I also want to know about the role that craftsmanship and texture play in your works?

I hone my craft with the dedication to wake up each day ready to challenge myself in the studio. I attempt to push the boundaries of my materials while improvising and innovating, towards transformation. I am constantly building on knowledge gained from past works as well as learning from mistakes towards perfecting my craft. I draw inspiration from the work of pioneers, elders and other contemporary artists who influence my practice in countless ways. Furthermore, I understand my responsibility to contribute to contemporary discourse that helps to shape our collective future. While trusting my instincts I question my practice in ways that solidify my intentions, carve my purpose and help to seal my destiny.

Flow #4 (2019)

You work with a variety of materials and visual languages. I would love to know more about your relationship with both material and form?

My work is about transformation and has been described as hybrid. Hybridity frees the mind from the limitations of gender and sexuality, and from the human body in general. It takes us into the spiritual realm, where we can begin to imagine new ways of perceiving and being in the world. Hybridity also makes us more aware of the two-spirit nature of humans and therefore the potential ability to tap into different energies-masculine and feminine. I also appreciate the way materials ‘dance’ or perform in space. Sculpture performs on its own with lines and forms gestured by the materials ,as well as in the discourse the work generates that helps to position the work in historical canons, as well as within contemporary contexts.

Shifting The Waves (2017) – Solo performance at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair / October Gallery, London UK

I really enjoy how the performative aspect of your practice has evolved and you have spoken about its connection to your Yoruba heritage. Do you feel like your work is also documenting the legacy of these traditions?

I am so glad that my performance work resonates deeply with you. And yes, I do feel a strong responsibility as an artist to use my work as a platform for sharing the rich legacy and traditions of Yoruba heritage and culture. By doing so, I suggest a form of independence that embraces the revival of cultural ideas that date back a millennia however have been endangered with loss through the colonial and post-colonial condition. My performance practice underscores the belief that all art forms share an energy and embody a life-force that affects our human existence. They also affirm my understanding of our individual and collective responsibility to contribute our gifts towards shaping/mediating the socio- political fabric, adding to critical discourse and leaving a lasting legacy. This sensibility is rooted in traditional Yoruba aesthetics however expressed through a contemporary revisioning of the masked- dance or Egungun, which signifies the temporary return of ancestors to inform the living. The role of Spirit is a leading force where both living and non-living things breathe life.

Among contemporary Yoruba artists Yinka Shonibare’s multidisciplinary practice lays some important conceptual foundations with fabric which I build upon with my mixed media works. During graduate study in Sculpture, I was moved to learn about the life and work of the late Rotimi Fani-Kayode, his experience as an openly gay Yoruba artist and how he challenged dominant/traditional positions through his photography practice. Far ahead of his time, reading about Fani-Kayode gave me the ultimate push I needed to courageously embark on the journey of freedom, healing, self-love and liberation through my work.

I am inspired by the pioneering work of Chief Dr. (Mrs) Nike Davis Okundaye. A “Mother in the Arts,’ she is widely known as a powerful and influential pioneering artist whose work empowers other artists and women in Nigeria. She uses adiré as a platform to preserve and in form the world about Yoruba heritage and belief systems. I also draw inspiration from Nigerian performance artist Jelili Atiku. His work is a contemporary remake of egungun and celebrates indigenous culture while protesting injustice. His recent public movements were part of #ENDSARS protests in Nigeria, where youth called for an end to police brutality. Jelili Atiku’s practice in-part inspired my public display of Gélé Pride Flag in the 2015 NYC Pride Parade where along with other members of the Nigerian LGBT community in New York, we called for an end to Nigeria’s anti-gay legislation.

What has performance taught you about yourself both on a meta and physical level? What role have these lessons played in the growth of your artistic practice?

Your gracious invitation for this interview comes at a time when a new performance work is in progress. Entitled Crown for Kamala (2021) and in collaboration with dancer Lindsey Bauer, it symbolizes a turning of tides. ‘Crown’ has been are occurring concept and form in my body of work, harking to the royal palace of an Oba’s (King’s) crown in the canon of Yoruba thought and all it signifies. I draw inspiration from this legacy while queering the traditional space, blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity and, encouraging a post-modern shift towards woman leadership in roles traditionally reserved formen. With this performance and with past works including Afro Odyssey IV, Freedom Dance I and II, Shifting the Waves, My Queen’s Throne and Eagle/Bull, I reconcile my own identity as a queer woman of Yoruba heritage. I begin to redefine the historic meaning of faith/spirit towards my own ends of self- love, acceptance of my dual-energy (ase), gain a higher awareness of my character/essential nature (iwa) as determined by my inner-head (ori-inu) and how it projects my creative destiny.

My Queen’s Throne (2020) (Private Collection, UK)

I also feel a deep responsibility and an instinctive call to produce works which recognize and indeed celebrate the shift-strong women boldly entering roles historically reserved for men. While this may seem like new territory for our collective psyche, it is critical that we embark on the journey. Why? Because out there somewhere, there is a little girl who was raped – broken in body and spirit – still grasping for an inspiring new cape. There’s a little girl who was kidnapped, snatched away from her family and now, questioning her destiny. There is a girl who was forced into marriage, before she had a chance to develop breasts. The best of her, we may never know. Looking down on us from above is a young woman named Breoanna Taylor, whose name lives on in our hearts and discourse on ending a vicious cycle of violence. Out there somewhere, is a little girl making brooms, not because she wants to but because she has to. Perhaps she dreams of becoming a pilot, a president, a professor or a physician. A little girl might desire playing the Kora (see Sona Jobarteh) or making bronze sculptures in the legacy of her father, grand father and great-grandfather. As is already assumed for boys from birth, all girls deserve and desire a life filled with limitless possibility, regardless of identity.

Destiny’s Child (2019)- presented in ObjectsUSA 2020 at R & Company, NYC

The broom features prominently in your work. Generally, it often embodies ideas around cleansing, domesticity and sometimes collectivism. I am wondering what it symbolised for you and if its symbolism has evolved throughout your practice and what that looks like?

Traditional African brooms (Igbale in Yoruba) have been widely used across cultures for social, cultural and political symbolism-the act of sweeping and cleansing negative energy from society. For example, in contemporary Nigerian politics the waving of traditional brooms is symbolic during the presidential election season. Traditional African brooms were symbolic for Balai Citizen (Citizen’s Broom) a grassroots opposition movement in Burkina Faso and lead by Thomas Sankara who is also famous for his Women’s Liberation Movement. In African American culture, “jumping the broom” was symbolic gesture during marriage ceremonies and as a celebration of Black love. In South Africa, traditional brooms have been used among women in Limpopo to “drive out evil spirits.” The production of grass brooms (Umchayelo in Xhosa) in South Africa’s Eastern Cape further served as a means of economic empowerment for Black women during the apartheid regime. Honoring these critical movements, I found it necessary to present work such as Same-Sex 2.0, which in effect renders the traditional brooms themselves-with little to no alteration-as sculptures on their own. Similarly, my solo performance Eagle/Bull featuring artist/musician Stompie Selibe, I performed Umchayelo as dance-wands.

Poetically, I think of my practice today as waving “the new broom.” How can we sweep away dirt that has piled up so thick, it has formed nearly an impenetrable wall? The new broom is not for sweeping, but rather breaking down barriers that continue to rob women of dignity and respect. Once said barriers have fallen, the new broom clears the path to reclaiming our power with its ancient source found in the heart of the moon. The new broom is a catalyst for collective spiritual and political action and enlightenment, often untapped as women have been socially conditioned from birth to seek direction, rather than directing. The new broom is a dare. That black/African women dare to have the audacity to lead with courage in the face of adversity. The new broom transports our psyche to a royal past – millennia ago – when queens built vessels, monuments and shrines for water and other nature spirits – guardians of our soul. The new broom is as hard as bronze, cast in an everlasting flame of desire for equality and justice. The new broom is the wedding gift that marries black/African women across the diaspora so we may form healthy relationships with ourselves and teach others – to rise above the toxic limitations of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia in true love and solidarity.

Hybrid Spirit installation photos – The Melrose Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa (2019)

In your exhibition “Hybrid Spirit”, you talked about simplification and how it connected you to a greater awareness of self and material. I’m really interested in an elaboration of this idea.

Hybrid Spirit was an incredible solo exhibition presented by The Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg, curated by Ruzy Rusike and featuring photographer Clint Strydom. Hybrid Spirit presented several drawings, mixed media works, sculptures, video and photography. Speaking of architecture, the solo exhibition Hybrid Spirit presented a series of architectural drawings entitled Love Warrior and Her Shrine (2019). All the works in the show were produced during a time of intense immersion, personal and artistic challenge to confront the unknown, as well as to push the boundaries of my primary material – traditional African brooms – in exploration of the (human/female/hybrid) figure. They combine to form a new poetic aesthetic, which departs from previous works in their minimalism. They embody a power in their simplicity.

By simplifying, I was able to focus my energy (in Yoruba – ase) towards greater awareness of formal and material possibilities, including scale. Furthermore, I continued to explore performance in costume to understand the visual language(s) my body speaks – hybrid, androgynous and spontaneous gestures with improvisation. By doing so, I could free myself from historical and cultural “othering.” I could become whole unto myself, regardless of identity. Sculptures such as Flow # 1- 4, Work-Wives I, II and III, Daughter, Grace and Talk to the Pussy, where produced alongside Destiny’s Child during my period of immersion in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Made primarily of grass-brooms, dynamic in movement, muscular and performative, they speak to the power of transformation as experienced by African women who find agency in the act of self-love and in their love for one another. Destiny’s Child is a coupled work, anchored by their ‘spine’ turned ‘shared- phallus,’ made of one long continuous church stick that is also painted black, the work implies the powerful role of faith/spirit on the road to pleasure/freedom. Since the church stick has been used as a punishment tool against “sinners” in some South African churches, it thus addresses religion subversively in this context of queer love.

Royal Blood(Work in progress)

As an artist, you have also created work about marginalisation and the violence towards queer people. It is often easy to marginalise one’s humanity in the fight for liberation. How do you care for yourself both as artist and as a human being? How do you practice Freedom?

Freedom begins with deep listening to the body. Freedom comes through the understanding and trust of the body’s inherent wisdom despite the attempt to layer the skin with false narratives. Moving inwards, infinitely I recognize the sacredness, purity and divinity of our liberated indigenous bodies. I am exploring this further through a new sculpture series in progress entitled Royal Blood – Anatomy series. Anatomy looks beneath the surface and seeks greater awareness of the biological. Moving inwardly both physically and spiritually, I consider how DNA, blood, muscle and naturally occurring organic processes inform, through their connection to the head (ori) – the seat of the brain, and while protected by the crown (ade). Anatomy series pushes the formal aesthetics of my work towards greater realism as seen in many classical Benin sculptures and, with implications of greater transparency and light. I attempt to build on the legacy/narrative of re-claiming the body which I also began to explore through drawing (by illustrator Data Oruwari) and photography in a series entitled Royal NudesRoyal Blood is a work in progress that begins to go deeper beneath the surface – moving inwards infinitely – in the words of curator Ruzy Rusike, as if peeling away layers of false narratives, exploring the senses, my internal chemistry in its immediacy and trusting the language that goes beyond identity.

MY HERO, Dad (2021)

What is exciting you at the moment creatively? What is making you curious?

I am excited about my works in progress some of which build new bridges between my family and I, celebrating the life of my parents and deep wisdom of my ancestors. These works include MY HERO, Dad and Mother & Daughter : Female Dancers. MY HERO, Dad(2021) is a prestige dress that transforms what we know of traditional Yoruba men’s Agbada into a contemporary remake that also suggests struggle, resilience and strength. Unlike the traditional attire which is typically made of one distinct fabric usually coupled with accents of embroidery, this work combines elements – native fabrics across the African diaspora juxtaposed with Western iconography. With the latter, a pharmacist’s lab coat is transformed into a symbolically-charged winged cape eluding to flight and fluidity in the midst of harsh winds, adversity. I am very comfortable with the ‘messiness’ of this work. I allow threads to hang loose from adiré with no intention to clean up the rough edges. It’s honest. And authentic. It is also loud. The cloth screams of tensions long buried, perhaps swept under the rug, now revealed in all of its beautiful- ugliness. The story continues on the opposite side where Dutch-wax fabric(Ankara) is centered on the lab coat. The material was purchased by my Father during the height of the 2020 #EndSARS protests against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria.

Mother & Daughter: Female Dancers (2021) (work in progress)

Mother & Daughter: Female Dancers (2021) poetically suggests the spirit of dance (ijo) as a way of moving through all aspects of life. During times of peace or tension, harmony or discord – there’s always a dance to perform. Yoruba thought and aesthetics considers dance a sacred form of communication. No matter what may come, we are still alive and this simple fact is reason enough for celebration. We dance at festivals and also during protest. We dance with the awareness that human time on earth (aye) is temporary and therefore, precious. The importance of dance within Yoruba aesthetic performance thus suggests it is a way of healing. Dance reveals where ones heart lies. It is another way of sharing generously and honestly with others. Yoruba women sometimes dance back-to-back. While there is an experience of solidarity, also present is the acknowledgement of of individuality, character and distinct energy,a sex pressed through the dance. The body is a site of knowledge. The body speaks its own language. Mother & Daughter: Female Dancers celebrates the life of my Mother, Mrs. Abimbola Adenike Tugbiyele, from whom I learned the spiritual craft of ‘dance.’ Her generous dance overflows into philanthropic work in Igbajo, Nigeria through the healing of others at a newly developed health clinic – Abimbola Adenike Tugbiyele Health Clinic.

SHRINE (2019) – Installation at Nirox Sculpture Park, Johannesburg, South Africa

I am excited about sharing with audiences new works in progress mentioned within this interview and how they build on my aesthetic trajectory of the last few decades. The current group exhibition at R & Company, OBJECTS:USA 2020 features the performance Crown for Kamala (2021) and the sculpture Destiny’s Child (2019), both of which bring full circle many of the conceptual and formal ideas I have explored in past works. It would be wonderful to see the video/performance Crown for Kamala reach wide audiences beyond the United States and inspire audiences in Africa and around the world. I am also excited about the idea of monumentality. I welcome new opportunities or commissions to achieve larger scales with my sculpture practice, as I began to explore with the installations SHRINE (2019) presented at Nirox Sculpture Park in Johannesburg and All My Hearts(2019). Perhaps I would feel challenged to push the material limits in ways that are more physically recognizable as architecture through the creation of immersive environments both interior and exterior. I am curious to learn more about indigenous craft of bronze production in the lost-wax technique, as I began to do in Burkina Faso guided by Issouf Dermé Atelier, with the works Couronne, Couer #1 & 2, and Son de la Musique (2019). They further inspired my production of bronze jewelry in the lost-wax technique.

Last but not least, I am exploring philanthropic avenues for my practice to give-back – to make greater social impacts through the economic empowerment of indigenous communities in Africa. It would bring great joy to begin building this lasting legacy as I have come to recognize the significant pioneering moves I have made over the past decade which helped me to achieve personal healing and transformation. While the queer family unit still presents as uncommon in many African contexts, I intend to achieve my destiny with the love of a supportive partner and children.

You can visit the artist’s website for more

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