Bukola Koiki is a mixed media artist working in Portland, Oregon. She is a graduate of the Applied Craft + Design MFA program at Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art. Bukola recently wrapped up her first solo show at the Portland Building, and is a current Project Manager at Scout Books. This interview is the fourth in a series conducted by OCAC thesis student Lindsay Costello.
Duplex: You were born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to the States as a teenager. How did your upbringing help determine your path as an artist?
Bukola Koiki: I grew up in a bright and vibrant culture full of colors and patterns on everything from textiles to signage. Life has always been colorful. My parents were a bit bewildered about my artistic streak, since they championed a more pragmatic direction like medicine or law. However, through perseverance and a series of fortunate events involving a high school classmate and the American Visa Lottery, I was able to come to the U.S to live my dream. The grim reality of being an immigrant teenager was not easy or glamorous, but I think because I have lived through some dangerous and interesting times in Nigeria with my family, I have always been able to find my way through the various challenges I’ve encountered on my way to an artistic career.
Duplex: Your work explores cultural hybridity and dislocation, often through the use of paper, fiber and natural dyeing processes. How do these materials support your overarching themes? For instance, can you expand a little on your material choices in I Claim that Which Was Never Mine, where you made indigo-dyed geles (Nigerian head wraps) from Tyvek and canvas?
BK: Paper, textiles and yarn are all mediums that can be made to feel or look like other materials, and this adaptability is what makes them interesting to use in my work. For I Claim That Which Was Never Mine, I was exploring the idea that displaced people can claim parts of their cultures through the act of making and repetition. Specifically, I was investigating the rite of passage of learning to tie a head tie for traditional outfits for special occasions, a skill not learned at the feet of my mother or other elders. I used Tyvek and canvas as representations of the actual textiles used for Nigerian head ties (gele and aso oke respectively). This helped to further enhance the idea of dislocation I was exploring in this work. The Tyvek was especially resonant, since it’s this strange hybrid textile itself (neither paper nor cloth.) Through experimentation, I discovered that it can be dyed, though its hold on the dye is tenuous and eroded with time. I think that same uncertainty and tenuous hold is present in the lives of displaced persons of every kind.
Duplex: Your work often references wearables, seen in your use of the gele in Grow Where you are Planted and in the large-scale depiction of a traditional Nigerian necklace in An Aggregate of Power. Does your use of the wearable revolve around its connection to both personal and overarching identities?
BK: The things we wear are tied to intimacy, personality and in the case of the wearables I have featured, cultural signifiers and beliefs. The beads explore the concept of objects of power that confer protection and the concept of value beyond mediums of exchange. Beyond the reference to a specific culture or place, everyone can relate to wearable objects even when they are oversized because everyone has owned a wearable which has been a significant object in their life. I’ve found that that universality of feeling allows these works to engage viewers across sex, cultures or station.
Duplex: You sometimes create a video component for your pieces, such as in I Claim That Which Was Never Mine, but also in The Insecurity of Absence, where you created “prayer balls” for your family. How does the addition of video shift your perception of a finished piece? Is your goal to document the making process, highlight the laborious techniques involved, or perhaps to add additional layers of meaning?
BK: I started experimenting with video as a way of adding an extra layer of meaning to my work. The fact that video enhances and documents the process and labor involved in the work is also an added benefit. However, I am much more intrigued by the depth of emotion that can be revealed in a piece through video. The tone and tenor of a video can change depending on what angle it’s shot at, the lighting, or the speed at which it’s played. It’s a medium that I am still getting to know and understand but I see the impact of it in the work of artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Ann Hamilton, Wura-Natasha Ogunji and others. I hope to be able to create more video work that either stands alone or enhances other work I create.
Duplex: In August of last year, you installed JJC (Journey Just Come) in the Portland Building installation space. This piece explores pidgin, a simplified means of communication that develops between people without a language in common, through the lens of the immigrant experience of a new culture. This linguistic transition is illustrated through brightly colored flags with printed Pidgin English sayings, which the audience is invited to engage with by matching “game cards” with translations to the correct flag. How did you select the pidgin phrases to use for this piece? Are there any pidgin phrases that stick out as particularly interesting or impactful to you?
BK: The process of selecting the Pidgin English phrases was rather organic. I wrote down all the ones I could remember, consulted family members and even discovered a digital archive of Pidgin English phrases. The resulting thirty-something phrases that made up the installation eventually arranged themselves to reveal a story that paralleled my own journey and that of other immigrants: from bright-eyed dream to unglamorous but hopeful reality. My favorite pidgin phrase is “shine ya eye,” which is a phrase that can act as both warning or encouragement. The essential translation is “keep your eyes open” or “be street smart” – advice that is useful to any naive newcomer no matter the destination.
Duplex: On Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud, you described pidgin as a transactional language — one that helps navigate marketplaces and public spaces. What transaction were you hoping would occur between the viewer and the subject in JJC (Journey Just Come)?
BK: JJC (Journey Just Come) was installed in the lobby of a public building and I wanted to explore the deeper meaning of such lobby spaces as sites of transition, migration, and community, so it was important to connect with the viewing public. This was achieved through a game card that listed translations of the unfamiliar phrases and asked the viewer to match them to the right flag. Visitors were also invited to leave me English-based pidgin/Creole phrases and translations of their own in the provided comment book. I was really grateful to all the people who took the time to stop and engage with the work (I had almost 100 filled out game cards when the show ended) and all who came to the meet and greet and had stories about their own experiences of language barriers, cultural dislocation and friendships and connections made in spite of them.
Duplex: I’m interested in how you research and what your making process looks like. How does a piece move from idea to completion?
BK: Ideas come to me in many forms – they could be triggered by readings, conversations, or a walk down the street. I then take that kernel of an idea and generally, since my work explores the immigrant experience and liminal experience of living between worlds through various lenses (language, rites of passage, objects, etc), I read essays, papers, non-fiction and fiction works that help me explore these topics through various intellectual arguments. For instance, some of my favorite fiction authors are immigrants themselves from Nigeria and other countries: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Marjane Satrapi and more.
I then take what I’ve gleaned and make notes and sketches, and start material explorations that will eventually be used to create or inform the final objects and/or installation.
Duplex: You’ve done several residencies, at Rainmaker, c3: Initiative + Pulp and Deckle, and a group residency in the Museum Store Window at the Museum of Contemporary Craft. How does the residency process help your art practice? Have you gotten any particularly memorable feedback during these residencies?
BK: I have indeed been fortunate to participate in a few residencies and I’ve found that these residencies in particular were the perfect opportunity to focus on a particular skill I have always wanted to hone (like papermaking) or just allowed me the physical space to create a body of work. Each residency I had allowed me to be vulnerable – whether learning to pull sheets of paper and experimenting with what forms it can take a medium or meeting with visiting artists and curators as part of the Rainmaker Residency experience. Overall, I learned that while people will always have their own opinions about your work and bring their own experiences to their reading of your art and intentions, you have to see these criticisms and commentary as a means to allow your own biases to be challenged. It will either increase your conviction in your path or give you something else to think about.
Duplex: What local galleries or artists you look to for inspiration and guidance? Have you seen any shows that surprised or encouraged you lately?
BK: I try to visit the gallery row in the Pearl on First Thursdays or on weekends! Hap Gallery, PDX Contemporary, Upfor and all the galleries in the new PNCA building. I was lucky to meet and be mentored by some amazing local artists like Brenda Mallory, Crystal Schenk, and Jiseon Lee Isbara when I was in the Applied Craft + Design program and they still inspire my approach to an artistic work ethic and perseverance. I’m also discovering a kindred spirit in the work of Samantha Wall, whose beautiful and evocative paintings and drawings explore various subject matter including female and immigrant identities. The Portland Art Museum has been on a roll lately, and I enjoyed the Andy Warhol exhibit quite thoroughly! I was especially pleased to see so much of his work as a commercial illustrator for advertising and publications, because my undergraduate degree was in Communication Design, and advertising and graphic design (in which I worked in another life) will always hold interest for me.
Duplex: Research and experimentation play an active role in your artistic practice. What mediums inspire you outside of your own? Are there any new mediums you’re interested in adding to your work?
BK: I am a magpie, a sponge for information and I would haunt libraries and museums all the live-long day if I could. When I’m not checking out hardware stores for interesting materials to experiment with, I’m often daydreaming about being a metal worker. I did take welding classes, but truthfully, they were not for me. I was grateful to learn enough that I can now talk to a skilled worker intelligently if I ever need something fabricated. As far as new mediums, I would like to be better at drawing. It must sound strange to people that an artist can’t draw very well, but my work is usually explored through simple sketches, material exploration and maquettes if necessary. Drawing is a true skill, and while I don’t think figurative drawing is really my interest, I would love to be able to experiment with the forms, mediums and tools that can be used to create a drawing with powerful meaning.
Duplex: What’s next for you?
BK: Aside from trying to find a studio space, I will be working towards a showcase as part of the Window Project at PDX Contemporary this May! I’m truly honored to have been asked, and will be expanding on a previous body of work to fill the space. It will take all my ingenuity to complete this project without a studio space, but I hope that it will be worth it!
Photos and video courtesy of the artist and photographer Mario Gallucci.