I first discovered Oroma Elewa back in 2010, while living in New York City, desperately trying to carve out my place in the editorial world. The competition was fierce, and while the art of blogging was providing some relief from the strain of invisibility, there was still the overwhelming desolation stemming from paralysis of wasted years and talent, that needed to be recalibrated.
That’s probably why the images of Elewa in her purest splendor, as the prominent face of a growing movement of African creators, who were gorgeously laying down the foundation for the future era of indulgence from the Diaspora in all canals of artistic expression — both inspired and increased my self-awareness as a Nigerian-American — who was still exploring elements of raw interpretation.
As the years accumulated, Elewa’s voice experienced the ebb and flow of exposure that was heightened by the introduction of her cultural bible Pop’Africana, which garnered immense praise from industry insiders — both at home and abroad.
But there’s no question that the homage to Africanism with fusion of individualism that was meant to enlighten globetrotters was light years ahead of its time, when you consider how a similarly cohesive manual of Black African intellectuality is sorely missing from the present landscape.
Thanks to the constant misuse of the tools of engagement, the monolithic approach to social assessment of varied topics has become the only acceptable pathway, which naturally attacks the primal need to guard one’s privilege of being able to freely express alternate theories without the avalanche of disapproval.
This explains my resurrection of an artist who is not only reinventing herself with a mission statement that is constantly evolving with the fluidity of her maturity, but is also engaged in the urgency of illustrating the belief system that mandates complete ownership of self-curated material that suffers from the ongoing threats of misappropriation.
This is a serious crime that Elewa was recently a victim of when her words of inspiration were wrongfully assigned to Frida Kahlo by reputable establishments.
The V&A (Victoria & Albert Museum) in particular, recently published a book, V&A Introduces: Frida Kahlo, in collaboration with noted publisher, Penguin that infringed on her poem:
“I AM MY OWN MUSE. I AM THE SUBJECT I KNOW BEST. THE SUBJECT I WANT TO BETTER. “
I was lucky enough to be granted an audience with this engaging artist, to relive the good old days, when I was curiously peeking from afar, and she was living out the artistic pleasures that still embrace her vibrant canvas.
How would you describe who and what you are based on your presence as a visionary?
In all of its simplicities and complexities, I am a woman first.
A woman whose life is both riddled and decorated with questions of small and big experiences, which inform my work, my space and shapes the way I lead my life.
Because of these experiences, these complexities, I have things to share. I have something to say to myself and maybe to others — which I aim to do directly through my work. I don’t know how important these things I want to say are in the grand scheme of things, but I value the ideas and thoughts that come into my mind as an artist, as a result of these experiences. I find them, these ideas & thoughts, to be my life source — what gives me the strength to carry on. I’ve always valued how I can present them. The ways they present themselves to me. I find value in the courage that comes with these ideas. The courage to put them out, to explore them. I don’t take that for granted at all — it’s given me a voice and a reason.
As an artist, to be quite plain, I am simply making use of my personal curiosities and sensibilities, and sometimes an innate need to express my feelings, my pains, my joys, my loses, my victories; and I think I might’ve just found the medium in performance — through soundscapes, form music and movement — in writing, and even in painting. What I am doing is essentially is creating a new space to exist emotionally. I don’t know if that completely defines it, but my work as an artist is in a very sensorial place.
You enjoyed a fascinating trajectory during the early convergence of African creatives and the Westernized default. Can you give insight into what that period was like?
It was an exciting but naïve time for me.
Professionally, Pop’Africana was my very first attempt at curating, at visualizing, at managing, at producing, and at editing, really. I was a DIY publisher and editor, learning and producing on the fly. I wore many hats and fitted many hats on everyone working with me.
I was very young, Ezinne, I still don’t know how I was able to bring it to life. Or how I was able to convince the small group of brilliant people whom I worked with to make it happen, under the strict financial conditions we found ourselves.
But I was determined to make it happen.
I suppose, it was the joy behind bringing the vision to life that held it all together. And perhaps the fact that I was and still am, a very serious person where work is concerned. On a personal level, it was a very naïve space for me. It was also my first real attempt at building community — human connections outside of my group of friends, which at that time wasn’t large, and most importantly, situated primarily within the fashion industry.
And this is important because at that time, I hadn’t fully understood myself or how to navigate interpersonal relations or the industry. I was never sure of my place — of what space I wanted to fit into, and what space would fit me. I was not sure of people. I was strictly living through my work. It was a very surface time for me — and I don’t know if that could have been controlled. While the vision behind the publication was strong and with depth, I, on other hand, seemed to be operating on a very superficial level. I wasn’t conscious of myself or my character or how it would all play out in the end.
And because I was juggling so much as a young editor and publisher, I was left with very little time for reflection. So here I was, attempting to be a professional editor, curator, publisher, when I wasn’t yet a professional woman or an emotionally evolved human with enough life experiences to manage or balance my scales.
Ultimately, I’d say it was thoroughly a crucial learning experience; both at life and at work. It changed me. It changed the energy around me. It provided a claim to fame, but also exposed me in ways that hurt and dissected, without reason or understanding. Parts of it imprisoned me, and exposed the wrong impression of who I really was, and reflected the wrong kind of spotlight and expectation around my presence.
Pop’Africana gave me a voice that I constantly feared would be silenced or misunderstood.
I know that jumping into Pop’Africana was necessary; the vision was important. The dialogue that needed to happen, the spaces it needed to occupy, the people it needed to speak for was valid, and that’s why I dedicated myself to it. But sometimes, in reflection, I oft wonder if it did any good for me on a human level.
The volatile conversation that revolves around the complexities of “Blackness,” and how we as a people rely on accusatory undertones when tackling this subject can threaten to eliminate the voices of the misunderstood and under-represented. Where would you categorize yourself, both artistically, and as a Nigerian with global roots that have shaped your personalized narrative?
To be very frank, I can’t yet. I still feel quite alone in the world.
I do not feel completely represented. Sure, some of my aesthetic sensibilities are represented and many of my interests are too, but the language of my soul and of my experiences have not quite yet been told. Not really.
On one hand, I am a Nigerian woman bound by so many traditions and cultures and expectations. On the other, I am a transnational, African cosmopolitan immigrant, whose life is further informed by many socio-cultural experiences. So, I am in constant negotiation with the tensions of operating on these multiple cultural and emotional planes. Constantly feeling too foreign for here or there. Seeing only pieces of me out in the world.
I do not feel very consumable. I don’t think that I am a consumable black girl.
In this climate, believe it or not, I am still negotiating my blackness and my very own identity; still formulating a language that speaks for my soul and for my experiences in the world. A language that I hope can help people understand the space that individuals like me occupy — because that space is still very under-represented.
Can you forecast the the landscape of self-expression for those who are maturing in this age of social media interference, and the dying art of individualism?
I have stopped focusing on the zeitgeist in that manner. And social media is far too vast, and used in a multitude of ways to be able to advice on how it should inform anyone’s work. For many, it works. We’ve seen it. For some, it is a distraction; but for others, it is their life’s work.
Besides, everything’s become so internal for me. I’m really not looking out. I’ve done that already. I now have an entirely different motivation and intention in relation to my work. What moves me is Truth. Presenting truth, my truth, the truth about the world, the truth about life in as many creative and honest ways as possible. And seeing stories of someone like me told: the non-consumable black girl; the transitional African cosmopolitan immigrant; the nuanced Nigerian woman; the intentional mind; the intentional moving form; the highly repressed woman releasing herself; the artist who is moving freely through her expression, the artist eliminating fear and truly taking form. I want to tell these stories in both expected and unexpected ways, in ways you can not only see, but also feel deeply. I just want my work to be honest and clear; straight from god & gut, out to the world.
I will say this regarding what I see happening out there and what I have also been at the receiving end of myself:
I am over dishonesty in creative work.
I’m over exploiting black trauma in dishonest ways.
I’m over the abuse of power by creatives of a certain privilege and access.
I am over that dynamic in contemporary black creative space; the division. The performance of solidarity with black folks while repressing black folks.
It’s all just become so very boring and predictable and itchy.
What do you have on the horizon that we can look forward to and what magnified those pursuits?
The few video performances that I have released; the emotional improv, The Appointment, the sound/sculptural piece with cowry shells, and The Breakfast Performance which explored cultural mannerism, have all been silent for the most part; and now I’m moving into more voiced, more spoken and sung pieces.
I wrote and published a book of short stories in January 2018, called Crushed Guava Leaves — a collection of experiential narratives from conversations to encounters, to dreams, feelings, and observations, all primed for performance. Essentially, every piece of story in Crushed Guava Leaves is primed for either movement or formed music, monologues or emotional improv for film or stage.
Since its release in what is now over a year, I’ve been developing and visualizing these stories. So, my hands are full with preparing to roll out pieces that are primed for sound and formed music via an album, and the others for film or stage.
There are also plans to release a second edition of the book with visual interpretations of the stories.
I realized a long time ago, that I am a very feeling and textual person. And that texts and feelings or emotions were always going to be the core of my work and the source of the visual or imagery. It didn’t come as a surprise to me when I made a move into performance art in 2016. I even trained at Strasberg because I really wanted the skills that would allow me to personalize my performance. So, my present work is very driven, and magnified by the need to deliver fully emotionally realized work; that’s akin to good acting.