I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.
The world is a small place, it seems, and people move in and out of our lives in unexpected ways. So it has been with Olu Oguibe, an artist, writer, theorist and curator—as well as, I was soon to learn, a musician and poet. He is part of the recent generation of African-born artists who emerged on the international scene in the early ’90s. I first met him years ago, when he delivered a talk at New York University that focused on the dual topics of international exhibitions—he had just curated one in Japan—and globalization. At that time he was a booster for the new international culture that he believed was emerging and, tangentially, the Internet. On that occasion we exchanged our very different views on the nature of cultural imperialism. What most impressed me was his view that any insistence on third world people defending their national cultures against Westernization and modernization was based on a romantic vision that would restrict their entry into the modern world. Sitting in his Brooklyn studio as he was preparing his book The Culture Game, a collection of critical essays, notes and interviews from the last decade (just out from the University of Minnesota Press), we dove into a whirlwind discussion of his past, our present and the ever-changing nature of contemporary art, identity, culture and politics.
Saul Ostrow You’re a Renaissance man whose interests range from popular culture to technology to painting and installation to postcolonial theory. You are Nigerian born, English educated and living in the States; you are an artist, a theorist and a curator, and you make work that can only be described as international. How did you come to occupy this position?
Olu Oguibe This was always a difficult question for me, and I haven’t always felt about it as I do now. In the mid-‘90s I wrote an essay called “Imaginary Homes, Imagined Geographies,” in which I dealt with questions of identity and belonging, and my position at the time was to challenge the fastidious attachment that we develop with the idea of home, tying home to where we were born. I was coming from what some would describe as an Igbo point of view. I am Igbo, and the Igbo are a traveling, mercantile people. We have a saying: “Where the centipede dies is its grave.” Another is “You mend the roof over the house that you live in.” That is to say, home is where the “hearth” is. But the Igbo also have another, complex saying, “Agaracha must come back.” Agaracha means “after all travels,” so, no matter how far you travel, you must return eventually. I recently had a discussion with a friend, a Nigerian poet living in Germany, and he described himself as “cosmopolitan,” distancing himself from his Igbo identity. I said, “You know, it’s all very well to see oneself as cosmopolitan, but I’m beginning to feel that I was wrong to have rejected the idea of a homeland. I’m beginning to find something inherently logical about ideas of home, especially if you are in a situation that reminds you of your outsiderness, your otherness.” It makes sense to secure an identity and not just live in that “other” world of desire.
SO You and I once had an exchange at NYU about exactly this point. You said then that for you, to attempt to secure an African identity would be to reassert a Western notion of who you should be.
OO I still hold fast to that. That’s the great irony, that even as I reject that particular effort, I feel a personal compulsion to identify with something smaller than that. You might say that the whole exercise hinges on a sense of insecurity.
SO Looking at it in terms of marginalization, I’d say destabilization rather than insecurity.
OO Destabilization is probably the term I’m looking for. But politically speaking, there is insecurity as well. There’s something very physical about it, in that I could get sent back to Nigeria tomorrow. And the irony goes on forever: that same thing that is reassuring to me would victimize me in the Nigerian context. For a long time Nigeria excluded the Igbo from national politics, basically treating us as second class. It began as a punishment for our seeking self-determination in Biafra, but now it’s the culture.
SO So it’s the real politic versus how we theorize it.
OO Exactly. Otherwise, my story is straightforward. I was born in Aba, a commercial city in Eastern Nigeria, but because of the Biafra war my family returned to the town where my parents were born. On the family tree, everyone right up to my father was a deity priest. However, my grandfather did the sacrifices necessary to free his son of any obligation to the priesthood. Ironically my father still ended up as a Christian evangelist. He had a burning desire to come to America to study, an ambition that was sabotaged by the war. So, very early in my upbringing he projected that onto me, in terms of how ambitious I must be. My father’s library was all Christian religious books and European history. I would go through all this religious literature and find pictures of Christian colleges across America and I’d think, I’ve got to go there. I always imagined myself as part of a much larger world than our tiny town, which had no electricity or running water. My transistor radio was always tuned into Radio Beijing, the Voice of America, Radio Moscow. The BBC was a given, too; everyone listened to the BBC. That and reading were my means of escape into the world. As a child I wanted to be a journalist, in fact, a media tycoon. I was going to found my own magazine.
SO At what point did you start to question your vision of the cosmopolitan you?
OO Oh, much later. I felt a bit like Lemuel Gulliver, who experienced the whole world and became a different person from the provincial English man of his time. What I forgot was that Gulliver went back but no one would believe his stories. They tried to pry him away from all that experience of the universe. Reading Swift, I latched on to how provincialism violently opposes exposure but I missed the point, which is that even though Gulliver could have lived in those fantastical places he went to, he nevertheless returned to England—if only to help reshape people’s vision of the world, their sense of reality. But I don’t think you can fully return.
SO You can’t go home again. Or, at least, the same person doesn’t go home.
OO And the place you find upon your return is not the same. Everything has changed in the interim.
SO So you wanted to be a journalist. How did you come to art?
OO That was easy: my father was an artist. While he worked in the ministry after the war he also made wooden statuettes, religious icons for Catholics, as well as carved masks for masking societies, although he belonged to a religious sect that shunned both practices. (laughter) I helped in the workshop, sanding and painting, making my own little figures for homework, and I did fine arts in high school. I eventually studied art at the University of Nigeria.
SO What was your access to what was going on in the first world in terms of black consciousness? For instance, that the Black Arts Movement in London was very important.
OO My first knowledge of the Black Arts Movement in Britain, which was quite different from the African American movement, was circuitous. However, with regard to African American art, we had access to Black Arts Magazine, now the International Review of African American Art, and there were publications that came through the local USIA [United States Information Agency] office. Some professors had journal subscriptions. Of course once you realize there’s something happening out there, you make the effort to find out what it is. I was more familiar with the scene in America, having minored in African American art at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
SO Were Nigerian artists going back and forth between London and New York? Was there a quote-unquote art world in Nigeria?
OO Yeah. That was another crucial aspect of my education: some of these individuals did go back and forth. The sculptor El Anatsui was exhibiting around the world, including Britain and the US. So was my painting professor, Obiora Udechukwu, who also studied Chinese painting. But you still had people on the Nigerian art scene who were entrenched in the late colonial period, including young people who simply made still-life and landscape paintings. There were also leftovers from the early postcolonial period, the early nationalist period, when Nigerian artists had not quite deciphered how best to represent a postcolonial reality and were still engaged in forms and styles very closely aligned to the international Negritude movement. They were making images of masks and so on. But you had artists who were far more sophisticated in what they were exploring as individual artists, not just as part of any nationalist cultural movement.
SO Is that the general condition in Africa, regardless of whether the colonial past is English, French or Belgian?
OO There was something happening in Nigeria that was probably not happening in other places across the continent, and that hinged on a core group of people, including those fellows I just mentioned.
SO I’m leading up to the question of why you left.
OO I know. (laughter) I don’t know if my experience is typical. It had less to do with art than with my personal circumstances. Frankly, I was heartbroken to leave. My story then got repeated with other people because it was political. I went through a long period of political victimization that sometimes manifested itself academically.
SO Does this have to do with being Igbo?
OO It was more national. We had a series of military dictatorships and I was pro-democracy. Regarding my personal cultural location at that point, and in terms of my journey of self-discovery, it was detrimental to leave Nigeria. But one of my professors was approached by the British Council to suggest people for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office fellowship, which is Britain’s most prestigious fellowship for foreigners. He suggested that a bunch of us go in for interviews. I was offered a place at the University of London to do my PhD. So it was—
OO Chance. (laughter) We all had the same plan in that era: you arrive in the West intent on returning home the day you finish your program. But the closer we got to going back, the more people from home would write and say, Don’t bother coming back, what are you coming back to?
SO Was that because of the political situation?
OO The political situation, the economy—everything seemed to have collapsed. People at home felt that you were safer away. In my case, a couple of weeks after I arrived in London I received a letter from a close friend, Ike Achebe, son of the novelist, informing me that there was a nationwide warrant for my arrest for political reasons. So, though I left voluntarily, suddenly I became a fugitive. It would be several years before I could return or move freely within the country. Many of us had to leave for economic reasons, and quite a few for political reasons. Very few of us left merely to explore the world. In Nigeria, artists can make a fairly healthy living as artists. I sold more work in Nigeria than I have the whole time I’ve been abroad.
SO In that way the Nigerian situation is closer to the South African situation.
OO Although there aren’t as many commercial galleries in Nigeria. We just had very healthy relationships—which I would actually like to see more of in the West today—between artists and patrons. People bought work because they liked it or because they wanted to support what you were doing, not because you were supposed to be the next big thing.
SO What was the culture you found in London?
OO What with my colonial preparation and my own prior exploration of that world, there were few things I wasn’t already familiar with, except I was quite depressed to arrive on the train and find all that greenery. I wanted to see concrete; I wanted to see an industrial wasteland. To find it so humanized was the culture shock. (laughter) In terms of the culture itself, there was very little to shock. London has a huge African population, so in a sense it was a familiar situation. I had some German and English friends who eased me into their world, but there was always the African community to fall back on.
When I got there at the end of the ‘80s, the Black Arts Movement was changing. A good deal of the development in that decade was made possible by an economic depression, ironically, because it was the Thatcher era. Ken Livingstone, who is now mayor of London, was running the Greater London Council, which spent a lot of money on the arts. I believe that because of the riots and the political situation there was a certain liberal effort to support “black” efforts in Britain—”black” meaning everyone who isn’t Caucasian. Supporting black cultural activity was a way to preoccupy young people, to reduce unemployment, to engage the population.
SO Was it also a form of cultural ghettoization?
OO That would reveal itself later. At that point it was all enthusiasm—black artists were exhibiting, and some of them were quite nationalistic and wanted nothing to do with the so-called mainstream. It wasn’t long before the whole idea of center and periphery began to get knocked about. People were quite happy to have their own spaces, you know, black galleries, black cultural centers; it was all jolly. By the time I arrived in ‘89, however, much of that support had been withdrawn, and many of these centers were closing down. The galleries folded because they hadn’t figured out how to market black art.
SO The question was how to develop patronage.
OO Exactly. And by 1990 the Black Arts Movement in Britain was pretty much over. Whatever hadn’t been achieved by then would never be achieved. People look at the scene today and think of Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, Mona Hatoum; they think that a lot of what was going on in the British art world was positive. I am more hesitant to reach that conclusion. What failed to happen is more significant than what ultimately did happen—the fact that very good artists like Keith Piper never found mainstream acceptance, for instance.
SO Given your experience, do you feel that all this was more apparent to you as opposed to the people participating in it?
OO It was crystal clear to me; I don’t know if it had anything to do with my extended outsiderness. There was already a shift away from that ideology of self-sustenance that was at the core of ‘80s cultural politics, and you could see the return of that perennial artists’ desire to be part of the mainstream, especially among young people who went to art school in London. Eddie Chambers and the rest of the Black Arts Movement people had come from the provinces, and I think that was very important. If they had studied in London, I am not sure they would have had the independence of thought to pursue what they pursued with such bravado and intensity, because what Goldsmiths College teaches you is not to be a black artist but to be an artist who can succeed within the mainstream.
SO Intellectually, did Raymond Williams influence you once you got there?
OO Raymond Williams was part of the discourse, but it was actually more David Bailey and Paul Gilroy, author of The Black Atlantic. In the early ‘90s the Birmingham School under Stuart Hall was pretty much at the core of things, and it was euphoric. But by the mid-’90s even radical cultural theory had become somewhat institutionalized.
SO During this time you’re formulating your views not only on the postcolonial and the global but also on your own work. Was this when you started dealing with the effect of technology?
OO That came later. Very little of it had to do with my cultural experiences. My entry into Internet theory was again a chance thing. When I left England in ‘95, I knew about email but hadn’t actually used it, because England usually comes to things later than everybody else—except when it’s about going to fight in the Gulf. (laughter) When I arrived in Chicago and got access to email, I dove right into it and learned how to build my own website, which is still up. Surfing at home in Chicago one morning, I came across an announcement for the Fifth International Conference on Cyberspace. It was already past the deadline for proposals, and I knew nothing about cyberspace or cyber theory, but I really wanted to go. When I went through the list of speakers and didn’t see any Africans on it, I thought to myself, “There’s my ticket!” (laughter) So I wrote up a proposal on the spot and pointed out to the organizers that it would be interesting to have an African voice in the debate as well. They saw my point and invited me, and so began my involvement in cyber theory. Then I had to read Nicholas Negroponte and the other guys, but of course by the time I got into it my interest was almost predictable, based on my own experiences and imagining what it was like out there in Africa.
SO You made the point that the infrastructure wasn’t there, that one talks about the global community while a large section of the world is cut off from that community for lack of access.
OO It really had to become part of my larger body of interests, culturally and politically.
SO You left London in the 1990s and came to the States. Was this another one of those chance things?
OO I was pretty busy as a painter then. I was probably more productive than I have ever been in my entire career. But London was beginning to shrink on me, and much of it had to do with segregation within the London art world, and it wasn’t just segregation along race lines, it was also along class lines. The class segregation was far more confusing. It was defined in terms of where you studied: Goldsmiths, Central School at St. Martins, Chelsea or the Slade, and if you didn’t study art in any of those places, you didn’t stand a chance. I just wasn’t part of the scene. So I would have exhibition openings and the audience would be all black, and if I went to some white friend’s opening, the audience would be all white. The more I experienced that, the more it threatened to do harm to my mind. I found myself doing more and more exhibitions in continental Europe. Finally, I decided that it was better to go elsewhere. I got a job offer in South Africa, but turned it down. It was only a year after apartheid. Then I accepted another offer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as an invitation to come help launch the magazine Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art.
SO Was this fulfilling your dream of having your own magazine?
OO Well, long before that I had been the production editor of a monthly political newsletter and an art editor for another magazine. So I had experience that could help get Nka off the ground. Those were exciting times.
SO How does all this feed back into your own work? What kinds of issues were you dealing with in your paintings?
OO There was a continuation from the work I made prior to leaving Nigeria to the work that I made in England, with one exception: in England I returned to canvas and paper, watercolor and acrylic. But the work was still anchored in a number of interests: a socially engaged aesthetic and a continuous exploration of alternative aesthetic traditions, not just African at this point but also Australian aboriginal, Native American and so on. And I was interested in questions about painting itself. I was exploring all these at the same time, trying to see how they came together. But then I quit painting for eight years. I also quit poetry and never wrote again until last year. I began to make installations. With installations, the form was secondary to the efficacy of the piece in communicating the idea.
SO You also started curating around this time.
OO Yeah. I’d always seen myself as an organizer, but curating was a labor of love. It all began with people approaching me and saying, “You’ve written about this, how about helping us put an exhibition or a conference together?” I would say, “Without question.” In all the years that I have curated, only once have I approached a space with a proposal. All my other shows have been by invitation; that way the resources are there, the enthusiasm is there, there’s some level of institutional support, so I can concentrate on making curatorial choices and extrapolating on whatever idea is being pursued.
SO Do you find that your being a curator/writer/theorist/artist confuses people?
OO All the time. I can’t help it, though; that’s who I am. When I look at the possibilities of greater success through concentration in any one area, I have to balance that for myself with a certain conviction that this is a gift that I have a responsibility to appreciate. But it can be hard, because society makes me question how sensible the path I’ve chosen is. The truth is, I didn’t really choose a path. I just pursued opportunities that challenged me.
SO Do you conceive of it all as one project, or is it that all these things interest you, so each one is its own project? Is it totalizing or rhizomatic?
OO That’s a wonderful way to put it. What I say to myself in moments of doubt, and there are a lot of those, is, It had better all come together. I have a sense that there’s a unifying logic to it. There seem to be a number of interests that run through the projects, no matter the language or medium, and those interests are more social and intellectual and far less reflexive, far less abstract. They are mostly about place, voice, loss, the ambivalence of narrative and language; language in terms of form as vehicle, what I often refer to as eloquence or efficacious beauty. And of course there’s also the unifying logic of the self.
SO I’ve been reading the new translations of Walter Benjamin and his stuff on children’s-book illustrations and on color. I found a half-page notation he had written to himself about Mickey Mouse. I realized that he could grab anything, pull it in, look at it, explore it and report on his observation of it. Do you find it similar for yourself?
OO Yeah, absolutely. It’s closer to how we experience things: they happen simultaneously, irrespective of where you are. It’s very difficult to differentiate among experiences. Of course, some people consciously experience with greater intensity than others. For those who go back and regurgitate such experiences, the higher the level of their conscious engagement and involvement, the less selective they are in what they reflect on.
SO You’re basically saying that we’re promiscuous.
OO Absolutely. That’s a wonderful term. Promiscuity has consequences, of course, because if division of labor, specialization and concentration didn’t exist, progress would be almost impossible. But I think that’s how life ought to be lived.
SO What seduces you these days? (laughter)
OO There are several things on the horizon at the moment. I’m excited as well as apprehensive about returning to the classroom; I haven’t been there on a day-to-day basis for several years. It’s an environment that I thrive in—that is, if you were to pry off the petty politics of the academy. Also, my collected poems will probably be published this year, and my book The Culture Game has just been published by the University of Minnesota Press. Right now I’m recovering the intense pleasure I had making work on a regular basis in the ‘90s, and I’m exhibiting regularly in major shows and biennials. I’m also planning to expand a recent essay, “God’s Transistor Radio,” on what I’ve learned in the process regarding the postcolonial predicament.
SO What have you learned?
OO I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the impact of colonialism has been misunderstood. Little attention has been paid to the nature of culture as a resilient entity. Even so, I am very interested in the loss of language as part of the postcolonial condition. I published “God’s Transistor Radio” not so long ago, and I’m already beginning to question my own argument in the essay. (laughter) Shortly after I wrote it, it occurred to me that there are significant areas of loss that are actually taken for granted, that are rarely part of the discourse; the loss of language or tongue, for instance. Most people dwell on the more visible destruction that was wrought by the colonial encounter but fail to grasp the severity of loss, the crisis, in other areas. Perhaps I need to unpack that. I have just established a literary prize, Ugo Edemede Igbo Anyamele Oguibe or the Anyamele Oguibe Prize for Writing in the Igbo Language, because my generation is largely illiterate in our language, although we are perfectly literate in English and other European languages. In African literature, language has been an issue for decades. One argument is that as long as a work is written by an African, it is African literature—even if it is written in English. A less favored school of thought, however, poses the question, What do we lose when we write in everyone else’s language but ours? It becomes a matter of survival, a matter of utmost priority, because, as Chinua Achebe put it, language is the destiny of a people. People may lose land, or even their liberty, and still come back and reclaim it. But a people that has lost its language has lost everything. The postcolonial mind is saddled with a colonial malaise: we are not only inept in our own tongues, we are embarrassed to acknowledge what we have lost. I am interested in what Chaucer did for the English in reviving their pride in their own tongue, and Dante for the Italians in spite of Latin, and how Pushkin revived the Russian language when French was the language of “civilized” discourse. I’m drawn to invest more in a journey of recovery. I think that’s the anchor of my preoccupations.
SO Is your painting, or the painting you plan to do, an attempt to articulate a cultural conflict or perhaps to recuperate a visual experience?
OO A cultural sensibility is closer to it. At this point I am interested in simply exploring form and trying to reconnect with a tradition that explores form and nature. Although I pay a great deal of attention to form and beauty as a vehicle, my preoccupation so far has been largely thematic. Now I want it to be about pure pleasure.
SO But it does have a political engagement in the real sense of the word: politics as an economy of power.
OO Yes, absolutely. But that’s not the sense in which most people understand political art. And that’s the point I want to make: the idea of art for pleasure’s sake is part of the tradition that I want to return to.
SO Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his essay “On the Sublime,” writes about aesthetics as a form of resistance. Marcuse also proposes the pleasurable as a form of resistance, because it ultimately leads to play and nonlinear logics that capital can’t deal with.
OO Which is the one point that most other Marxists missed completely. I want to keep it around, make it part of this more holistic exploration of the Igbo world that I’m gradually returning to.
SO In this context, let’s go back to the paintings. Given where you’re now located, how do you imagine the reception of the work that you’re thinking about? That is, it will no doubt be seen as part of the traditional discourse of abstract painting.
OO I would have no problem whatsoever with its being part of the traditional discourse of abstraction, even in the West. In fact I want it to be. That then takes care of that contested history of interconnectedness.
SO You really see it as a form of recuperating certain discourses.
OO Yeah. But I’m especially invested in the idea of trying to make it conscious. Not just recuperating it but consciously re-linking it with the point of rupture and trying to establish some semblance of continuity. More important, I want to see what there is left to reclaim and how analogous it is to contemporary preoccupations.
SO Can you imagine an alternative modernism that doesn’t necessary ground itself in Westernization?
OO I’ve always been reluctant to think of nonwestern cultures and modernism in the same breath.
SO Well, modernism originates with the desire to take the power to create the contemporary, a present, so to speak. There’s this notion that you could create a disruption in historical continuity and that the ability to create the present was a manifestation of the will. The Americans took the European version of modernism and made it positivist; their inability to deal with its nihilist aspects led to their making it progressive and linear. But the idea of modernizing one’s culture originates with people saying, “We can’t live in the past, we need to revitalize our culture. There are aspects of the culture that can be brought forward that produce a new present for us, but we don’t necessarily need to keep it all.”
OO Right on. I need say no more! (laughter) I think that’s what the whole project is about. It becomes very complex, because it raises a question of the context of its own realization. What are the geopolitical requirements for that kind of cultural moment to happen? But that’s not something I can go into now. (laughter)
—Saul Ostrow, art editor of BOMB, is dean of fine arts and chair of painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art as well as an artist, critic and curator. Coeditor of Lusitania Books, which publishes anthologies focusing on cultural issues, and coeditor of the series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture, published by Routledge, London, Ostrow has written for a variety of publications, including Flash Art, Arts Magazine, ArtPress, Neue Bildene Kunst, the International Review of Art and the New Art Examiner.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee