• Desola Olaleye

The Wonders of Wood: A Conversation with Abdulrazaq Awofeso


Abdulrazaq Awofeso, Skhothane, 2021-22. Installation View. Photo: Ikon Gallery.

Abdulrazaq Awofeso was born in Lagos, one of Africa’s most vibrant and populous cities. Although his artistic journey began in this bustling city, he has crossed borders to deepen his practice in other major cities such as Johannesburg, Amsterdam, and Birmingham. Awofeso is committed to making publicly accessible art. His recent solo exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, titled Out of Frame, showcases bright-coloured figures sculpted from abandoned wooden pallets. Human agency and migration are important themes driving his practice. Below is a conversation with Abdulrazaq Awofeso. We discuss his artistic methods and the role migration plays in his work.


Desola Olaleye

Wood is not for the faint-hearted. It seems like a difficult material to work with but you have chosen it as your primary medium. Why wood? What does it do for you that other arts media cannot do?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

I have always admired wood as a medium because it's a hybrid tool you can use for much more beyond making art. It's everywhere. So when I had that opportunity to partake in a wood sculpture workshop, I didn't hesitate.


Desola Olaleye

When I first entered the exhibition room at Ikon to view Out of Frame, I was immediately drawn to the vibrant colours of the wall reliefs and the vivid painting of the figurative sculptures. But the colours alone didn’t move me as deeply as the use of space in the exhibition room. The physical composition and positioning of the miniature sculptures seemed deliberate. I felt I could only fully appreciate their presence and the details of their form until I moved closer to them, giving them my undiluted attention. Could you speak about the importance, if any, of space to your work?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

When plans for the exhibition were finalised I visited the gallery several times to decide how I wanted to use the space. The first thing that was sent to me was a 360-degree diagram of the gallery in all formats but I chose to physically visit the space often to acclimatise to it. I was living in the same city so I thought, why not. The curator Melanie Pocock was very patient to take me on a tour of the gallery, explaining which structures were permanent and temporary to suit the exhibition.


Desola Olaleye

As a Nigerian artist, would you say your experiences of living in Lagos and ties to Nigerian communities inform your creative process? If so, how?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

It’s more of a global influence. Until now, I have spent over a third of my life outside of Nigeria. When I started my professional work, it wasn’t in Lagos. I studied in Lagos but I moved to South Africa. My professional practice kicked off in Johannesburg. It’s possible to not live in Lagos and still be inspired by Lagos, but my practice hasn't turned out that way. I have always wanted my practice to be organic, without forcing certain influences. I apply this same approach to the materials I use. Wherever I go, I use whatever I can access. I don’t insist that the wood comes from Lagos or must take a particular shape. I’m always content with any situation in which I find myself. I just want to be able to carry out my tasks and duties as an artist.


Desola Olaleye

Where did you study in Lagos?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

YABATECH.


Desola Olaleye

Did you do further studies in Johannesburg or you went there mainly to work?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

I studied in Johannesburg but didn’t take art-related courses. I always want to be a hands-on person so when I was in Johannesburg, I studied courses in information technology and web design but I never used them. I found myself always returning to the arts. Still, I like learning new things.



Komole (Bridal Train), 2022. Courtesy Ikon Gallery. Photo: Desola Olaleye.

Desola Olaleye

Among the Yoruba there is a saying: ‘Ajo o le dun ko da bi ile’. Migration can cause great discomfort for some people, and the comfort some migrants may ultimately gain from living in a new environment might never become on a par with the comfort they knew in their place of origin. And I suppose I’m always returning to a question the philosopher Julia Kristeva poses in Strangers to Ourselves: ‘Are there any happy foreigners?’ I’d like to focus a bit on your personal experience with migration and the notion of ‘home’. Does ‘home’ mean anything to you and your work?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

Years ago, home would be Nigeria however the same Yoruba adage says ‘Ibi ori dani si la n gbe’. We are in an era of movement — things, people, technology. Everything is moving ahead. Over these past years, my perception of home has morphed into a conundrum of ideas about different places. Home is relative. It's no longer about where one was born or raised.


Desola Olaleye

You may have heard this before, but I couldn’t help noticing how your figurative sculptures, including those in Gross Domestic Populace (2020), somewhat resemble LEGO minifigures and could evoke thoughts of play. Do you view your workspace as a playground, as a place in which you challenge boundaries?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

The first time I exhibited my work, I had started out as a painter. So, when I moved into sculpting, the first exhibition I had was in Johannesburg. Kids would come to the exhibition during school tours; they saw the sculptures as toys and would engage with the work. Whenever students arrived at the exhibition, they were always fascinated with my work and I understood that because of the colourful aspects and execution. For me, I haven’t had the momentum to create objects to form a playground. I wanted to subconsciously create works from the bottom of my heart, something that would be genuine to my artistic values. I wanted to do something that would be able to cross the boundary between thinking and sculpting. I didn’t have it in mind to create a playground for people — I just wanted to make art from a place of happiness.


I can connect with the idea of challenging boundaries. I don’t want to be restricted. With wood as a medium, the opportunities are endless and I want to go further, which is what I have done with the Out of Frame exhibition. I have pushed boundaries I have always wanted to explore and never had the chance to. I found this exhibition and the venue quite capable of helping me explore that.


Desola Olaleye

You mentioned just now that you hadn’t been able to produce the kind of work currently showing at Ikon. Is there a reason why you weren’t previously able to produce this kind of work?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

Space is one reason. Most of the exhibitions I have done have not been of the same scale or magnitude as Out of Frame. When you’re given a platform such as Ikon, you have to put out your best work. I also wanted to utilise the space. I had never seen Ikon before but I had heard of it before my arrival in the UK. One thing I like to do is work with space. I like infusing my work into certain spaces. So I was able to do that within this context. I’m very elated I could do that. I haven’t been restricted in any way but there were things I had always wanted to do and felt they wouldn’t be suitable for certain group exhibitions. But I’ve had group exhibitions for which I was able to go all out. It always varies. It varies according to the availability of the space, on materials, and curatorial briefs.

Desola Olaleye

Your sculptures of Skhothane affiliates are intriguing. I’m particularly interested in what motivated you to capture the Skhothane subculture in your work. Can you talk a little about your time in South Africa and its impact on your creativity?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

Johannesburg is a multicultural city. You find a mix of people from all parts of the world. It’s an upmarket version of Lagos. I had the opportunity of living in the midst of the La Sape and Skhothane subcultures. I had Congolese neighbours who would dress up every Sunday. Sometimes they didn’t have events to attend, but they would dress just to show off and they always derived joy from it. On the other hand, there was the new generation of South Africans who are called ‘born free’, those born after apartheid ended. They started their own subculture which was wasteful and involved an extravagant lifestyle. You know, bling culture. They wanted to accumulate things and then waste them. It was a way of belonging for them, a way to seek validation and show that they belong to a certain class within their local community. Having spent time observing those two subcultures, it fascinated me. What birthed the Skhothane sculptures was something that started right before my eyes, compared to La Sape which had existed for ages. As a migrant, I noticed that the La Sape community in Johannesburg also consisted of migrants. But then the Skhothanes were the locals. I was trying to draw a connection between a new subculture that was just beginning to take shape within the community and an already existing one.



Do You Know Who I Am, 2022. Courtesy Ikon Gallery. Installation View. Photo: Desola Olaleye.

Desola Olaleye

You seem to be a city lover, working in Lagos and Johannesburg as well as Amsterdam and Birmingham. How important is urban living to your work?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

To be honest with you, urban living has always been a part of me. I just need it. I enjoy it. I don’t like quiet places. I like places that are busy even if it’s just me sitting and looking at people passing by, or striking conversations with new people. Maybe I will retire to an old, quiet village but for now I like people, being in the midst of them and making friends. Those are things one is likely to enjoy in urban spaces. They are settings for forging relationships and alliances. It could be in the church, the football pitch, the mosque, a rally, a mall, a park — these are among the easiest places to visit and strike conversations. I’ve met people randomly in Amsterdam, in Brazil. Currently, in Birmingham I’m building relationships. It comes naturally to me. I like seeing people. This alone gives me joy and that’s why my work is about everyday people. It revolves around migration, happiness, and communication. Anything that has to do with people — this has been the vehicle for advancing my practice.


Desola Olaleye

You collect discarded objects from your surroundings and offer them a renewed purpose, challenging the culture of waste that has spread very quickly in our world. Is a concern for environmental sustainability embedded in your practice?


Abdulrazaq Awofeso

It isn’t really the basis of my practice. But automatically, the medium itself has already given way to that substance. Because of it, my work naturally has an environmental element but it is not the basis of my practice. It cannot also be taken away from my practice. In terms of materiality, it’s fused into my work but the subject matter is quite different.


But that’s what I enjoy about the material I use ----- the opportunities are endless and I derive so much solace from that.





Out of Frame is at Ikon Gallery until 29 August 2022.



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