In conversation with Nkechi Ebubedike on her experience as a young artist connected to but working outside of Nigeria
© Nkechi Ebubedike, Bright Boys, 2011.
“Why not focus on any culture’s farthest range of travel while also looking at its centers?” poses James Clifford. This question forms part of a larger work – Routes: Travel and Translation where the scholar discusses in-depth, “travel and its difficult companion, translation, as openings into a complex modernity.” His reflections on this increased connectivity unfettered by homogeneity resonates when considering the background and practice of new media artist Nkechi Ebubedike.
With an oeuvre that is simultaneously connected to and literally distant from Nigeria, Ebubedike seems to exemplify Clifford’s reasoning for posing such a question. In navigating the diaspora, the Baltimore born, Nigerian-raised Ebubedike has earned a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, a MFA from Central St Martins in London, and has spent time in Paris. Most recently, she was named a finalist in the African Artist’s Foundation’s National Art Competition, an event described as “empowering young artists and developing talent in Nigeria.”
“Speaking on her acute consciousness of her connections and commitment to her Nigerian heritage, Ebubedike acknowledges during our exchange that although, “Nigeria is tough, there is a lot to be inspired by.” But, perhaps what makes her roots all the more visible is her belief that, “as much as we value the establishment abroad, we must believe wholeheartedly that we can have it all at home.”
Recognising Ebubedike’s transcultural background and her connections to Nigeria, we reached out to her to find out more about her experience working in the diaspora and how she views her role in helping develop what is happening in Nigeria.
Houghton Kinsman| Considering that you were born in Baltimore (USA), how would you describe your connection or relation to Nigeria?
Nkechi Ebubedike | Both of my parents are Nigerian, but my mom was born in America. Her mother is Jamaican. I was born in the States, but I was sent to live in Nigeria for a while at a young age. I lived in quite a rural area with my grandfather who was a Pan-Africanist, traditional ruler and Professor of Anthropology. It was a wild experience that set into motion a lot of what powers my desire to connect with the continent and a desire to utilise the knowledge and visuals of the entire experience in my work. Now, I continue to be completely blown away by how much things have changed in Nigeria yet remained the same.
With this time spent growing up in Nigeria and your formative transcultural experiences, how would you describe this particular juncture in time?
“I feel like it is a very important time to be an artist, especially within the diaspora. I find many young African artists like myself have unique perspectives and experiences to share through their work and it has been largely fulfilling to see how far-extending they have become. I feel empowered—-even though Africa has been “hot-listed” so much in recent years. Some people may think it is just “our” time now. We are soon going to become a permanent part of the landscape.
© Nkechi Ebubedike, Flowerscape installation view..
Going further with this interest in artwork from African countries, do think your work would constitute itself differently if you were working in Nigeria? Why?
Nigeria is tough, but there is a lot to be inspired by. It is a place of extreme contrasts and many nuances and it is all barely held together. When I went back, there was always the question of where would I fit in? I feel if I was working there, I would have a lot to pull from because I enjoy meditating on contrasts and intersections. There’s tradition and there’s modernity. There is austerity and unabated excess. One would have to constantly think about how to decontextualise certain ideas.
It is very interesting to think about your new media works, like your video collages and gif images in relation to the role of technology in Nigeria and further afield on the continent in general. What made you decide to explore these mediums instead of traditional ones like drawing, painting or printmaking?
My interest in using digital mediums grew out of necessity. I was drawn to collage very early on, and after a few paintings, I felt it was a bit confining to do collage on canvas. And a lot of my source material and sketches were already digital. So I began experimenting the other way around, by scanning my paintings and drawings into a digital format and there I found so much more freedom to work—especially with video.
Gif images are great because they are a way for artists to distill and package moving images, and everyone has a short attention span nowadays. So they appeal to that desire for immediate gratification.
© Nkechi Ebubedike, Bright Boys 2011.
And, being able to grapple with these sorts of ideas and utilise this medium arguably requires access to various creative strategies. Your own education has seen you study at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and then at Central Saint Martins, why did you decide to pursue your studies abroad?
Actually the first time I was abroad, I chose to do a semester at ENSBA in Paris, another art school. I think I wanted something/anything completely different from the American experience in which I grew up. I remember the first time I saw a youth protest and some students brought traffic to a standstill in the middle of Paris. And the motorists waited patiently for it to be over. That would never happen in America.
I had always fantasised about living abroad because of the romantic ideal of being surrounded by history, everything in London is so old but its also so new. It’s the meeting point for the world, so I had to be there.
© Nkechi Ebubedike, Soldiers.
Contrasting your educational experience abroad to the time you have spent in Nigeria, how well equipped-educationally-do you think Nigeria is to help develop new generations of emerging artists?
Nigeria could be a great place for emerging artists but I felt that not too many people there have the patience for anything different from what they are used to. And, you see some established artists choose to play it safe. I am completely against that. So are a lot of younger artists who don’t want a label such as “African Art” attributed to their work, but they get lumped there anyway. It happens because there are few modes of art criticism beyond aesthetics. And young artists aren’t being taught how to define and analyse theoretical concepts whereas in art school abroad, that’s probably the first thing you learn. It is a bit difficult because that kind of thing requires exposure and access that few young artists in Nigeria have, and few people want to invest in it. But there are organizations working to bridge those gaps and very soon I think there would be a place for emerging artists to be appreciated and nurtured. It can happen in Nigeria.
Seeing that you feel people don’t have the patience for anything different from what they are used to, how do you think this mindset can be challenged? And, do you feel young, emerging Nigerian artists have the opportunities to do so?
Not people in a general sense, but people specifically who lack access don’t have the “patience” meaning they have outdated notions about art and its importance to them. They want to understand how to “use” art. All people desire practicality. That’s the mindset that needs to be challenged because while art is very useful, the real benefit of engagement with art is to enrich and educate. Young African emerging artists occupy a privileged space where they are able to provoke with greater impact. This may be because we have a closer proximity to and greater dexterity with the paradoxes themselves in our daily lives. We just have limited opportunities but that will change very soon.
The accessibility of these opportunities is paramount considering the development of a young practitioners work. You had the chance to participate in the African Artists’ Foundation Art Competition recently, what was that experience like?
The National Arts Competition was an great opportunity for me. I was initially doubtful that my proposal would be chosen. But, when I found out I was selected I was extremely happy, because I had always longed to show a piece in Nigeria. I was very inspired and impressed by the proposals from the other contestants as well, and wished we all could have won. Before then I had no clue about who was active and practicing art in Nigeria, but it felt great knowing I wasn’t alone.
© Nkechi Ebubedike, The Quiet Light Within, 2014.
Finally, how do you view our role as young practitioners in helping create more of these kinds of opportunities and ultimately make this interest in art from countries in Africa count?
We have a responsibility to insist upon having a platform. As much as we value the establishment abroad, we must believe wholeheartedly that we can have it all at home. There are narratives we have to fight against, stigmas that are attached to our culture sometimes, that we can break just by telling authentic stories through our work.
Nkechi Ebubedike (b. Baltimore, MD, United States) lives and works between Florida and Washington DC. She holds a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh and an MFA from Central Saint Martins, London. Represented by Tafeta Gallery in London, notable exhibitions include, National Art Competition/AAF Winner, Juror’s Prize, Lagos, Special Installation for Africa Village, London Olympics, London UK and ARTSCOOL, Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Pittsburgh PA. Her work was also included in the publication Memory, MambuBadu Photography Collective Magazine, April 2011.
This article forms part of the series Next Chapter: Inquiries into emerging artistic practice
All images courtesy of the artist.