I am SO excited for this epic interview. Probably my favourite contemporary female artist: Ayobola Kekere-Ekun!
We met face to face [virtually], which was an absolute dream come true, and spoke for hours about everything under the sun. Our full transcribed interview is now LIVE on She Curates!
Discussing the glint added to each of her subject’s eyes, she said: “I think the glint is the physical activation of the rest of the intuition that went into the work. An expression of my inability to explain why I’ve made certain choices, while knowing they were the right choices to make.”
M: I’m so pleased we’ve been able to sit down and chat [virtually] face to face!
A: Yes! It’s so much better being able to actually speak to another person. I guess I could have answered your questions via email, but I think school has kind of fucked writing up for me a little bit. The process of writing my thesis has soured a lot of things for me. So like, writing doesn't feel as pleasurable anymore, because my brain always processes it as a work activity now. Even when it's not work.
M: I’ve been getting through a lot of lockdown, with reading. I know you’re an avid reader too! What books have you been reading?
A: I find myself gravitating towards what I call ‘bubble-gum books’. Nothing heavy, nothing super intellectual. Nothing that won a prize, or was, you know, shortlisted for some prestigious award. I want like the smarmy historical romances.
M: We are the same! I don’t want anything heavy. I feel the same as you because I'm still doing my degree, my undergraduate degree…. There’s too much going on.
A: You have to wrench that power back! Otherwise it’ll ruin reading for you. So I've read everything Susan Elizabeth Phillips has written. Julia Quinn. Julia London. Almost all the Julias really. They tend to have nice books. Courtney Milan, Gaelen Foley, Jennifer Ashley. The list is long. There's so many of them. And then I tend to fall down rabbit holes because they’re usually a series of books. So I’ll read one book, wonder what happened to a particular character, and then find out they have their own book and immediately start reading that. It’s the best thing, really.
M: So what is your PHD?
A: My PHD is art and design. Academically, I’m more of a graphic designer. My research is exploring place branding, in Lagos. So I'm basically exploring how the state government in like the last decade has co-opted certain architectural and cultural monuments as signifiers for the state. But I'm arguing that they carry unexamined histories that kind of complicate their use. You know, it's as if you are trying to position yourself as a super modern, inclusive type state, but you're using a symbol that is actually really classist and patriarchal and really quite problematic. There's just this ironic tension in there. And that's sort of what my research is examining.
M: That’s fascinating! And this has been 2 years so far?
A: Next year will be my fourth and last!
M: Are you over it?
A: I’m so over it!
M: So we’ve been chatting so much, and as you know how big a fan I am of your work, I’m so please to be chatting with you!
A: I like what you've done. And for someone so young, you've done some really interesting things. I think you have a really bright future. Success like friends. Why wouldn't I want to get on that train?!
M: Thank you! I launched She Curates back in March and it’s such a testimony to like how kind people have been.
A: I think we do live in a fucked-up world, but it can also be a pretty cool world. I think we also underestimate people's capacity to be kind and generous, sometimes. And then also, don't underestimate the value that you bring as well to the table.
M: Thank you. The art world to me for a long time, not having the education or the background has felt really isolating for a long time… and this platform has really opened it up. Do you agree?
A: I think of my career as an open world video game with a hint of chess. If you were to strip it down to its absolute core, it really is a series of validations. The quality and nature of validation you want/need depends on what arena of the art world you're interested in playing in. But it's the kind of space where you just need a few yeses. Just a couple of yeses. The hard part is getting them in the first place. When you have the right yeses, you'll be fine. It's like needing someone to jumpstart your car.
M: I love that analogy.
A: Like, it’s not an easy career. I could have been an accountant. It would have sucked and I’d be bored and miserable! It would probably be easier. But here I am.
M: Exactly. There’s that really good quote by like Jim Carrey or someone like that, and he just says that whole thing is, you can fail at what you don't want to do. You might as well try and do what you do enjoy.
M: Characteristically doing my research! I watched a video about you on YouTube from your gallery, and you said you realised the art world was the place for you because of your Mum’s reaction to it?
A: Yes… I mean, the first piece I made was for my first degree. We didn't have like a final exhibition. Not in the traditional sense where everyone had their own individual exhibitions. We had a group exhibition where you had to contribute. The piece you put in was supposed to be the accumulation of the four years you had spent doing the degree, which now I think about it, that’s a lot of pressure! So I had actually started making a piece. I was making this giant 50-year calendar thingie, but I was struggling with the technical realities of making it happen. I realised I needed to switch gears or I was going to fail the term. Anyway. So, one day, some dude gave me a flyer when I was walking back to my flat, and I had rolled it up into like a coil. And when I dropped it, it landed on its edge. You know in the movies when time kind of stops. And you can see something for more than what it is. I just remember thinking. If there was lots of this, on like a surface and secured, I wonder what it would look like. And so I started experimenting. I didn't know what I was doing with that first piece, I just knew it was gonna go really well or really badly. And so I started it in school, then we went on holiday and got kicked out of student housing. I had to go home and take the piece home because I wasn't done with it. And my parents were just obsessed! I would like walk into my little makeshift studio in some corner of the living room, and my dad would be there or my mum would be there just looking at it. You know? And the question was always the same. How? How did you start? How did you know? The highest praise my Mum’s ever giving anything is “this is nice”. But she was just so taken by this new work! And I think I think that was what signalled to me that maybe this really was something special. I knew I had found something very interesting that I enjoyed and I was curious about but I think the reaction my parents had made it externally real, you know, as opposed to just internally.
M: I think that's fascinating. I love how it came from such enjoyment from you and your family. And I love how it came from that like serendipity moment of like dropping it literally like a flier!
A: I don't know what would have happened if I had never gotten that flyer. I don't know what would have happened if I had folded instead of rolling it. You know, it was a really, really really random discovery!
M: What had you been making before?
A: Before that my work was purely design. It was purely, you know, marketing and advertising 100%. Being a studio artist was never something that had been on my radar. My plan had been to finish school, start working in an ad agency, take over the world. But everything completely shifted when I finished the first piece.
M: Do you still have that first piece?
A: I do not. She legally belonged to the school, because she was an exam piece. So technically, she wasn't mine. So I never got to actually keep her.
M: I wonder if they still have it and you can you still go and see it, that seems really sad?
A: I wonder if they do. I have a feeling they don't. All I have left are images.
M: In my research, I also loved the line where you said that your work” straddles the line between sculpture and painting”. Obviously because the all-important 3d element. I wonder, how would you describe your work if you could just use three words?
A: Maximalist. Playful. The other one that's coming to me is deceptive, but I don't want to say deceptive. It's apt but the connotations aren't quite appropriate. Because my work is like a bait and switch, it really kind of tricks you. I'm gonna say layered instead. Final answer, layered.
M: I love how, the images shown online and on your Instagram from straight up, obviously, it looks like a painting like a very graphic painting. And then you just have that little rotate of the camera and then you can see oversee all the layers.
A: I started actually taking pictures on my work because I was frustrated with how other people took pictures of my work. I used to hire photographers to document my work, but they weren't seeing it the way I saw it. It was the most frustrating thing and I said, you know what, to hell with this, and I bought a camera. I read the manual. I learned how to use it. And then I started taking my own pictures. But even then, it's frustrating. It's impossible to like fully translated what the work is really like in person to images, but I try. I really try. It's just trying to like just to convey a sense of that three dimensionality and how there's just so much more going on. Everything changes when you adjust your perspective just a little.
M: That leads beautifully to my next question, demonstrating an admin side to an artist’s day. Lots of people have a misconception of artists only creating for 19 hours every day… What does a general working day look like to you? What’s the first thing you do? And how do you unwind in the evening?
A: My day starts with me my calendar, my to do list, and my emails, always. They’re so essential to me because I forget things. It's the only way to keep track of my life as a whole. So the calendar helps me figure out if I have any specific appointments or commitments that I need to get on. If I have any deadlines coming up, that I need to keep an eye on, meetings… Stuff like that. To Do List, it's like the more nitty gritty stuff like… oh I'm out of a blue in particular or there's a sale at my favourite shop I need to check out today. You know stuff like that. And then my emails. I have a love hate relationship with my emails!
M: I know the feeling!
A: I think the worst thing I learned how to do is how to snooze my emails because I do it way too often. But whenever I haven't gotten an email in like two hours, I'll send an email to myself to make sure it works!
M: God yeah. It’s such an adult thing isn’t it. Getting excited about an empty cleared email inbox.
A: Oh I know! If it’s gonna be like an admin day then I'm updating my mailing list, updating my archive, working on proposals, searching for new opportunities, updating my artist statement, figuring out if I'm ready to tweak my website again, doing my books… all the things that come up basically running a business really.
M: And how do you wind down?
A: In the evenings, I tend to read. I enjoy doing random research, like really random research. The last thing I searched last night was if you could take your multivitamins at night! I take walks. I walk every evening. And my new life's mission is to befriend all my neighbours’ cat. It's going pretty well. I have four favourites so far and I’ve named them all, Louise, Toothless, Void and Chonky. I also watch movies, series, you know, normal deactivate your brain type stuff.
M: What are you watching at the moment?
A: I’m re-watching You’re The Worst, and The Good Place.
M: The first season twist BLEW MY MIND in The Good Place. Lots of people said they saw it coming but I didn’t!
A: I did not! When I watch stuff, I'm so not a critic. Like for me to say a movie is bad, it was horrendously bad. I don't watch movies tv to critique them to death. I just I want to be somewhere else. I'm not looking for like, plot holes or implausible things. I actively shut down my brain from looking for twists and stuff. I rarely see what's coming. And I love it that way.
M: Us and our bubble-gum books and shows! I need to re-watch things as well, to feel comforted.
A: I'll do my annual Lord of the Rings, re-watch!
M: So, obviously the TV Shows! But, what inspires you each day with your work?
A: When I was younger, my dream was always to live a life where I would wake up, and do whatever I wanted. And for the most part, I'm already living that life. I think that's a big part of what keeps my life going. It's a big part of what drives my practice. I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do, how I want to do it. I'm saying exactly what I want to say how I want to say it without compromising my vision or intention. It's something to be grateful for. I would say that freedom, that sense of freedom, is my fuel. Freedom to explore the world on my own terms.
M: love that you say it is a freedom in your life, because I think I've spoken to artists before where it almost becomes a bit of a curse, because they're like, I've got to do this thing.
A: It’s a weird one. It's work, but it's not. I really had to separate parts of myself to deal with different parts of my practice. Because while my work is quite literally my life, and whether or not that is healthy, that's a different conversation entirely. I suppose, if a lawyer told me their work was their life, I feel sorry for them. So whether or not that's healthy is a different conversation. But my work is my life. Every decision I have made in my personal life, since 2014, has been in service of the practice. I've had to learn to separate a side of myself that understands it's not just an expression of my being, it is quite literally my career. It's my job. So I think the issue starts to come up when you’re not honest with yourself about those distinctions and how you are willing to engage with them. What your limitations are, as well. And you know, how you can correct for them. It's a weird business. It's a weird business, but even at my most bogged down, miserable, you know, even when I'm stretched thin, and I've scheduled one too many things, I have one too many deadlines. I can't, I cannot literally think of anything else I'd rather be doing. Like I literally cannot picture myself doing anything. What on earth would I be doing?
M: Incredible. The most wonderful thing to hear. So, would you say the physicality, the 3D element, is the most important aspect and theme of your work?
A: What unifies them? I think it's subverting expectation, you know, it's that bait and switch, The physicality, the visual nature or visual identity of my work. It's like a bit of a trick. Because you see the work in one way; they are pretty bright, colourful, it's just a pretty picture. It's just something fun to look at. And the more you engage with it. That is when you start to realise I'm not necessarily saying anything happy, or pleasant, or fun, you know. There's also the use of material, which confuses people at first. What on earth is it? Because you're not quite sure what you're looking at, and that curiosity compels you to dig a little deeper, and just try to make sense of what you're seeing. It forces you to reconsider what you think you know, about the material, because, I mean, it's just, it's like the blandest materials, you know. It's just there, you know. You don't really think about it, and you don't really think about what it could do. And so when you see it used in such an unusual way, it does kind of trigger reconsiderations of what you think you know, and how you think you know, it. This feeds into everything.
M: I hadn't thought of that at all with paper… it is that universal medium. It’s not like canvas. It’s so affordable and almost disposable in a lot of ways?
A: Yes. Your degrees are printed on it. Money is printed on it. It’s what you’d distract a toddler with or wedge a table with. You know, it's so universal it’s a great Trojan horse quite frankly. Because everyone is familiar with it in some form, or the other. But it's boring and universal enough that you never actually give it a second thought.
M: What you say about like challenging expectations.
A: It's a bait and switch. Yes. I think it's a bit like going to therapy. And when you have your aha moments, it’s followed by Oh my God! What else? What else have I been missing? It’s kind of like that. I think from time to time, everyone should be encouraged to reconsider what they think they know. We are trained, especially in the world we live in now, we are trained to come to swift conclusions without being very critical of how we got there.
M: And, alongside the 3D constructions, you also do apply paint. Could you talk a bit about this process?
A: The process tends to be pretty similar. For different pieces, it starts with like resolving the idea, and how the idea kind of translates to a physical piece. Sometimes I sketch. I find myself sketching more often these days. Sometimes you just need help figuring out how the forms will interrupt space. But I don't start to anything until the piece is clear. It has to be as clear as possible. I would say, like maybe 70 80%, clear, the remaining 20% tends to resolve itself. It's like I'm building a jigsaw puzzle, where I'm the only one who can see the end image, and then I have to translate it for everyone else. There's not a lot of room for error, so I need to know exactly where I'm going. Otherwise, I can't take anyone else with me. Sometimes I think about pieces for months or years before I actually do anything about them. But once the idea is resolved, then I get to my favourite part, which is the planning. And that's basically where I decide everything about the physicality of the work. Colours, what papers to use, grammage fabrics, texture, what details need to come in, what tools, what materials. And then I start building what I call the skeleton, which is the initial outline. The first layer of colours, outlines for figures, that sort of thing. And if I am not excited about the skeleton, I don't continue. It's not gonna go well. Fortunately, that doesn't happen very often, because it's kind of sad when it does. But I've also learned the hard way there's no point forcing the work. It’s a waste of time, and it does a disservice to me and the work really. It's unkind to try to force something to be.
M: So if a piece doesn’t go to plan, do you kind of store it and almost let it permeate for a bit longer? And then it comes out in a different way?
A: I don't revisit it. Not with the original intention anyway. If I go back to it, it's because it's moved to like the experimentation corner of my studio and I test things out on it. But I don't revisit it with the original intention of making that piece. It's either it just wasn't ready to be or just didn't want to exist in that form. Yeah. So yeah, when the skeleton is done, and I'm happy with it, I move on to what I call the meditative bit, which is basically just finishing the work. It's like the difference between like, a new relationship and marrying someone. At that point, I know you. I know your dodgy habits. I can predict what you would do if a squirrel wandered into the bathroom. You know, I know you. It's that process of just existing together and finishing the piece. I love you, but there are little to no surprises left at that point. So it's a different kind of love. It's like more steady and tolerant. It sounds really weird. Like I'm talking about a person, but it really is what it feels like.
M: Because your work is so hands on? Do you feel almost like married to your work? Like when it goes up to an exhibition or anything? Is there actually a sadness?
A: There is. There's always a chance I might never see them again. And I do have quite a few pieces that I haven’t seen since they left. And I do think about them, like are they happy?
M: I mean, even I'm gonna dream about the one that's left in your school!
A: I dream about them. And I just wonder if they're fine. And if they're happy and well. There's always a sadness when you let work go. But it's something I also had to make peace with early on, because I knew I wanted to have certain conversations with my work. It's counterproductive to only talk to yourself about certain things, the conversation has to go beyond me. You can't engage people if you're not going to talk to them. You have to let the work go because, at some point, it's kind of cruel. When the work is done, they become beings in their own right. And I don't think I would want to be trapped with my maker for my entire life.
M: That's kind of gothic horror as well. Perhaps they almost have got to go and live their next life. It’s so interesting. I’ve spoken to so many different artists and, It's just different practices isn’t it… But some of them go like, “No, I can't wait to see the back of them [the work]. Never think about the work again, I just make it to sell it something.”. Which I understand equally.
A: Also, I mean, at the risk of psychoanalysing that's also a way to protect yourself, and your ability to make more work. At the risk of sounding cliché, there’s a price to pay for creating. It is a give and take, but I think its human nature and dwell on what you've lost. But I do think the work definitely gives back to you, at least it does to me. The key is being intentional about actively recognising what you are getting back otherwise you're gonna learn to turn bitter and not allow yourself to be vulnerable. You will compromise something and I think one of my biggest fears is breaking what makes my practice my practice, because I still don't know what it is. And as much as I don't mind, the occasional gamble, the soul of my practice isn’t something I'm willing to fuck with.
M: You talk abut discovering your practice still, do you think you’ll ever have discovered it? Or will it be like the Lewis Carrol book, The Hunting of the Snark? Always allusive?
A: I'm perfectly fine with never figuring out what it is. Because, it’s a matter of what ifs. What if understanding those intangible qualities or variables that make my work what it is gives the power to actively shape my practice? But what if knowing the tangibility of the intangible compromises the spirit of the work? It's a bit a bit of a Pandora's box type thing. Like, it could be hella cool. But it could also not. The last thing I do for every piece is that little glint in the eye. And it always changes everything. Like clockwork. I always do it last, because that’s the moment the piece becomes. They move from existence as a thing to a new plane where they are beings. It feels cruel to complete the animation process any earlier than I have to. It's like it's always magical for me and I still don't know what it is about that little glint that changes everything. And quite frankly, I think at this point I've made my peace with not knowing. Besides, so much of my work is so structured, you know, and process driven. It makes the intuitive bits very special. It's fine. I don't have to know everything.
M: Talk to me about the intuition in the glint in the eyes of your work?
A: I think the glint is the physical activation of the rest of the intuition that went into the work. An expression of my inability to explain why I’ve made certain choices, while knowing they were the right choices to make.
M: It's almost like the soul going into it having the glint?
A: They’re alive! Yeah, I mean, I know when the work is complete. Before I even start, I know the end. I think if I if my process was more open ended, I'd still be making my first piece. I'd never finished. I'm not gonna set myself up like that. I know who I am.
M: I haven’t’ YET seen your work in the flesh, but from a practical point of view, how are they framed?
A: It's a box frame, like glass or perspex. It’s really important to keep people's fingers away from the pieces. That’s a downside to the what am I looking at reaction. The instinctive reaction is to touch what you’re trying to understand.
M: Of course! And so who are the figures in your work? Are they inspired by people that you know, stories? Or do they come from that planning stage and they you know, become, you know, unique thing on their own?
A: My sister has this theory that I'm making a self-portrait over and over again. But I've told her she's not a critic or historian, so I don’t have to listen to her to her. If she gets her theory publishes, then I'll take her seriously.
A: Maybe they're a combination of all the women I've known and all the women I wish I knew. Except for newest body of work where I'm drawing on my family's history. Those pieces feel far more personal.
M: With this added familial connection, does it make it harder to work on them?
A: A bit. This new body of work is very personal and therapeutic. It's like the next stage for me after two years of therapy so far. It's like a positive pain. Llike exercising your body. It hurts, but you know, it's also making things better. I think that's how I’d describe it.
M: So is the art the art you think anime is like an extension of your sessions in therapy?
A: A little bit? Yeah, some of the recent work I've been making. Yes.
M: And it helps?
A: Yes, it makes a difference.
M: Can you tell me a little bit about your studio? You're not in your studio now. Are you in your flat?
A: When lockdown hit I just moved everything into my old flat because I didn't know how long lockdown was going to be, so it just made sense to have everything close by. I loved it. I loved having my work where I live and just being able to work anytime I wanted. There's an intimacy to living with your work. It’s one of the first and last things you see every single day and I love that. It also like reminded me of the early days of my practice when I literally just worked out of my bedroom. I think for now I'm gonna keep working out of my flat. I will probably go back to a more traditional studio situation at some point but for now, I think I'm gonna stick with this.
M: Does your relationship analogy translate to like what you're saying literally living with your work he talks about being married or like dating Do you think well now is even more intimate because you have you literally bear in your bedroom?
A: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I am a little healthier now in the sense that I keep the work out of my bedroom. This is something I just started like literally like two months ago. It was a matter of, I love you but I need some space.
M: And do you listen to anything while you work?
A: I have no loyalty in music a bop is a bop. So my general shuffle play is quite varied. Sometimes I'd rather like listen to a series or movie I've already seen so I just watch it in my head. From time to time, I’ll listen to stand-up comedy.
M: And any rituals?
A: I get very attached to my tools. They've come with me every time I've moved. So whatever tools I start project with, I will usually stick with them. Throughout. I also get superstitious about cleaning parts of my studio when I work. I will usually avoid cleaning in the middle of stage. It just messes with the energy otherwise. I don't know how else to explain it. When I'm really struggling to work, I take la few days off. And I reread two favourite books. It can’t be a new book has to be something I've read before and loved. I read two books. And then I watch Beyoncé’s “I Am” world tour. It works every time.
M: So for artists block do you mean? And are they always the same books?
A: I've noticed; it tends to be like a particular pool of books. If that doesn't work, it means I need something more like grounding. So I will restart a yearly ritual earlier than I had planned. For example, I reread all the Harry Potter's every year.
M: We’re too alike! Listening to the Goblet of Fire now! So if you could have a meal with any artists from any time you know, live or dead, what would the meal be importantly? And also who is the artist be and why? Would you want them to get along even?
A: Do they have to be artists? I’d have a very random selection of people so I could watch the sparks fly. I'm here for it. A bit of chaos never hurt anyone!
A: Okay so, Gustav Klimt, Hans Zimmer, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. I would serve garlic naan and chicken biryani.
M: Why Elizabeth I?
A: I'm curious what she would make of the world now. I mean, considering the British Empire's history and whatnot. Also, I just find her interesting as an individual. So it would be two for the price of one.
M: Very eclectic I love it! And finally, who are your favourite women artists?
A: Here is my list:
Dada Khanyisa @dadakhanyisa
Murjoni Merriweather @mvrjoni
Liza Lou @liza_lou_studio
Lesley Hilling @lesley_hilling
Cow Mash @cow.mash
Rosie Smudge @rosiesmudge
Vanessa Tembane @vanessa_tembane
Namsa Leuba @namsaleuba
Layo Bright @layobright