Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

An Interview With Yetunde Olagbaju

Bay Area visual artist speaks on using art to heal trauma and create new futures

/ March 20, 2017

Still from Yetunde Olagbaju’s ‘I Gave Myself Space to Go Back…Pt. 2’

We use art to traverse time and space, to venture into possibilities that may not be immediately accessible. As multimedia artist Yetunde Olagbaju puts it, “no matter what the intention, you’re still moving through your own timeline and going back to something that needs your attention.” 

Olagbaju is a diligent young creative based out of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work spans a vast array of disciplines and often speaks to the intricacies of human emotion and our inner-worlds. She stresses her commitment to vulnerability and openness, and says she strives to “usher in a brighter and blacker future” with her work, as she told i-D back in September. In summer of 2016, Olagbaju was one of the exhibiting artists in The Black Woman is God: Reprogramming That God Code, held from July-August of 2016 at SOMArts in San Francisco. The show reexamined and celebrated Black women’s contributions as artistic innovators, iterating their undeniable social impact. 

Olagbaju most recent work  I Gave Myself Space to Go Back…Pt 2 is an intimate study in ritual. Pt 1 of the piece was previously released and depicts a limb and braided hair draped over a rectangular mirrored box in the sand by the ocean, imagery that continues into the Pt 2 video. The piece opens with Olagbaju reciting passages from a 1970s science book, reworking the original text to fit her characters and landscapes. We then move through three beautiful landscapes inhabited by ethereal beings played by Olagbaju, who are aiming mirrors like antenna, communicating with light. Each scene has two images imposed one on top of the other, allowing Olagbaju to become multiple figures at once. “I wanted it to seem like the viewer is witnessing a ritual that is happening, in one moment, between three different entities, from different moments of time,” she says. 

i gave myself space to go back…pt. II from Yetunde Olagbaju on Vimeo.

Creating can be an exploration into trauma, an experiment with delicate intention, and creators like Olagbaju are the harbingers of new realities where healing is possible. “Upon looking at my work from college and even before then, I realized that I’m constantly talking about feelings,” she explains. “I’m constantly talking about going back to a moment that hurt or a different version of myself (and others) that needs to be healed. I did my senior thesis on inducing trance states through the retelling of trauma. I used performance to heal that trauma up. I stay talking about feelings and healing and time travel through emotions.” 

Sometimes the intention behind creating is to heal and sometimes it is to forget, to put to rest. Through her work Olagbaju seems to assiduously explore infinite human potentials while also honoring the finite, the temporary; reminding us of a complex world that can exists both with and without scale. “To me, art that uses the constrictions of time, subverts it, and is – in the same moment – full of understanding of our individual human experiences, is the most interesting.” she says. “This is because the work isn’t restricted to talking about one thing, it’s multidimensional. It’s complicated as hell. It’s something that seems familiar but also seems like it came from the future.”  

Mammy, Mammy #1 and Mammy, Mammy #2
Mammy, Mammy #1 and Mammy, Mammy #2

BEAN TUPOU:

How did you start making art? What was it that drew you to creating? 

YETUNDE OLAGBAJU:

When I was 3 years old, I told my Mom that I wanted to be an artist and that was the only thing I cared about. 

I’m not entirely sure what started my love of creation or my investment in the various ways we can create as humans. I know now that it’s the possibility in it all and that ability to examine things with a different rubric or set of rules. The rules don’t have to be anchored to the reality of our daily lives. 

There’s something magical in being able to completely destroy the playing field and to say that you make up your own meaning and symbols and attach them with your own sense of importance. That ability is very rare and is very beautiful.

Does anyone in your family make art or create in any way? If so, do you draw from that? 

Oh wow. My family, both on my mom and dad’s sides, are artistic in many ways. My Nigerian grandmothers were bead makers and market women. They were artists in their own right. Becoming masters in human connection and market politics.

My mom is artful in the way that she cares for those she loves. She’s always supported me and our family. She used to be a model and often tells me that she deaded her dream of being an actor or poet or artist in order to get her masters degree and have me. At times I feel like I’m living out her dreams for her. Sometimes that’s overwhelming but most of the time it feels like I’m healing us both. 

Can you speak on the idea and act of “going back” and why that phrase is in your title for both Parts 1 and 2 of your work? 

For me, the phrase “going back” involves a lot. Things like giving yourself a chance to think it over again, giving yourself a chance to process what’s happening in and out of your body, recognizing that everyone around you has the ability to do this kind of energetic movement through time. Also, that for me “going back” means “giving back,” going back to that feeling, moment, or thought and giving it something. You could be trying to heal it up, you could be wanting to dead it, you could be needing to gather more information.

How do you feel like creating art can manifest these ideas of “going back,” or time travel, and connecting our own multiplicities?

Oh man creating art is a time warp right? When I’m gathering inspiration for my work I’m accessing older, current, and potential parts of myself and the humans around me. I think that art is created and meant to explain and heal our humanity. That action in and of itself is a celebration of time travel. 

I need to understand how my Nigerian grandmother in Ile-Ife dealt with guilt in order to understand the moment where I felt guilty about not sending flowers to my stepdad when his mother died. I need to connect to how the first black woman sent to Mars will feel in order to understand how I process feelings of obligation, terror, and awe. 

This is where my work resides and – in my head – this commitment to expanding on humanity in this non-linear way is artful. Art is the language I use to explain that commitment. 

I need to understand how my Nigerian grandmother in Ile-Ife dealt with guilt in order to understand the moment where I felt guilty about not sending flowers to my stepdad when his mother died. I need to connect to how the first black woman sent to Mars will feel in order to understand how I process feelings of obligation, terror, and awe.

I see in the credits to I Gave Myself that you reference Point Arena, a small coastal city north of the Bay Area, and also that you referenced a residency during the holidays. Was the residency in Point Arena? How did that come about? 

Yes, the residency was in Point Arena. It was at a residency called This Will Take Time and it’s run by two really lovely humans who have land out there and are willing to let artist be there. 

I was actually referred to it by my friend and bandmate Mayowa Tomori. He told me about the residency and suggested I apply. I did and just went. It was really nice being there for the holidays. I was there for Christmas. People were posting pictures of their families and dogs and Kwanzaa shit and I was hanging out by the ocean, alone. I was kind of sad to not be with family but I also felt like there was something more important for me to engage with. 

Can you speak on the meaning behind the three distinct landscapes and three different colors your are adorned with in the piece? 

This whole piece is really rooted in symbolism for me. So I’m not going to go through all of it because it’ll be so long and so cryptic, but the colors are the most obvious symbolic elements so I’ll explain that. I like to break most things into threes. It’s my favorite number and the number that I feel most related to. In I Gave Myself Space to Go Back…Pt. 2 I wanted really represent past, present, and future in a way that was implied. 

Through this thought process, I also started to ask myself questions like: “How do we calculate time passing?” “How does our human body process the actual action of traversing through time?” “If there were to be a moment that my past, present, and future self could communicate, what would it look like and what would happen?” 

So I started reading things. Mostly things about how we perceive light. The way we calculate time is through movements celestial bodies. The way those celestial bodies appear are processed through our eyes and mostly through our ability to perceive light. Our eyes are subject to certain restrictions with processing light as well.

So then I start thinking about colors and how our eyes process colors. Essentially, I went down a huge rabbit hole and in the end I discovered three things: 1) Our eyes process warmth first and cold last 2) Reflections happen often and is a main component in how we perceive color 3) Green is the last cool color to go.

The Black Women is God: Reprogramming The God Code
I Gave Myself Space to Go Back…Pt 1

Were there any people or ideas that you had in mind or meditated on during the making of this piece? I notice a kind of spirituality as a running theme in your work and I wonder if that still remains true for this piece

Through all of my work, I definitely am invested in the ideal of spirit and energy. I don’t know if it’s spirituality but it’s something to do with the concept that I don’t believe things ever die but that they just reform or rearrange. 

I didn’t have one particular person in mind when working on the film or the soundscapes but I talked to my mom often. I talked to my best friend Soliel a lot. I sent a lot of sweet text messages and emails while I was there. I built a lot of wood fires for people and talked to the ocean a lot. 

I think it wasn’t one person in particular but yes an idea or rather an intention. An intention to “heal it up” and to be honest and to communicate well and to communicate, well, and with understanding in mind. 

Are there any creators, experimental film or visual makers that you drew inspiration from for this particular piece? 

Honestly, no. Someone brought up Arthur Jafa and another person brought up Sun Ra. That’s really awesome but I didn’t really have anyone in particular in mind for the piece. 

How was the soundtrack created? Did you collaborate on it or create it yourself? 

The sound-piece was created the day after Christmas. I had been wondering the property all day, making fires, calling friends, and was getting frustrated with one of my scroll drawings. 

I sat at the large kitchen table and cranked out the 25 minute soundscape in 8 hours. That’s often how my sound creation is. I’ll start with one element, it’ll snowball, I’ll get in my bag, I’ll get into a trance of sorts and not stop working on it until it’s exactly what I want. 

With the soundscape I really wanted it to feel like you were in a ship or an energy pocket that was traveling through time and space. I wanted it to replicate the sounds and potential bodily sensations you would experience as a time traveler. 

I really love this part of the narration in the beginning of the piece: “Each point of the disc twinkles like a star, however this twinkling of the different points does not take place at the same time, for the rays form different points take slightly different paths through the atmosphere and do not encounter the same irregularities twice. Reflection is simply the return of light rays from any given surface.”

Is this narration one that you created? I got this feeling while watching the piece that this part of the narration alludes to a patchwork of ancestry, all made up of different individuals throughout time, and those experiences that breathe life into one’s own idea of self. Is that a part of your message here? 

I’m glad you really like this portion and yes, you’re totally right! All of the spoken parts are actually spliced up parts from a book on light and color in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s an older book from the 70s and is really simply written. It talks about the process of light and how we perceive colors/color based phenomena here on Earth. 

I took portions from sections like “Green and Blue Flashes,” “Superior and Inferior Images,” and “Rainbows” to create what I wanted to be a sort of instructional portion on how to do this ritual that my past, present, and future self is engaging with in the film. They communicate through reflections and through color.

An artist seated while wearing an orange shirt. The artist is Yetunde Jacqueline Apeke Olagbaju
Photo of Yetunde Olagbaju

What challenges and benefits do you experience in being a multimedia artist and curator in the Bay Area? 

The challenge is always going to be the money, right? I would love nothing more than to work with youth, build community, and make art without having to worry about rent or bills or credit. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for artists to find affordable housing in Oakland, CA. I’m super privileged and lucky that I was able to secure a really amazing job with a great arts organization here in the Bay Area (YBCA) but lots of artists here aren’t able to find consistent work that sustains them and their craft. 

Oakland is quickly getting gobbled up by tech companies like Uber and Pandora who, while I’m sure have lovely people working there, are also large companies that take up space and increase the cost of living for artists and – more importantly – native Oakland residents. This is something I’m completely aware of as a gentrifier myself. It’s a hard balance and I believe art and arts organizations is one of the bridges that can link folks together. The benefits? There are many. Sometimes I feel like I manifested a lot of them for myself so that I can be happy here. 

I love my group of friends in the Black Mail Collective. We’re a group of 15 individual black artists who have come together in a commitment to engage in the Oakland community, uplift the black community here, create art opportunities for young social justice oriented artist, and to create opportunities for black and brown folks. I’m really excited about the work we’re doing as a collective, as individuals, and those are my friends so it feels healing and good to be around so many black people that I can practice love with. 

I love the other creative folks in the Bay including Mannnn, Smart Bomb Oakland, Hot Record Societe, House of Malico, Naming Gallery, Betti Ono, East Bay Art Alliance, and so many more. People are out here trying to hold each other close. I think this inclination got stronger after the Ghost Ship fire but there’s lots of generative energy here. People are wanting to build. People are willing to create together. It’s amazing.