Interview by Amanda Quinn Olivar, Editor
Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya, aka AKIRASH, was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He received his BSC degree in Biochemistry from the University of Agriculture Abeokuta in Nigeria in 1991, and studied Fine and Applied Art at the Institute of Textile Technology Art and Design in Lagos, Nigeria in 1995. He now lives between Lagos, Nigeria and Pflugerville, Texas.
Olaniyi was a recipient of the Innovative Artist Award from the Mid America Artist Alliance in 2017, Pollock Krasner Foundation Award 2016/17 & 2011, Cultural Initiative & Capacity Building Grant, Culture Alive from the city of Austin 2016/17, the Santo Foundation grant 2015, and the Commonwealth Connection Award UK 2011. Olaniyi’s work has been exhibited in the 12th edition of Dak’Art Biennale, Dakar-Senegal 2016. He has also participated in Chale Wote St. Festival Accra, Ghana in 2013, International Multimedia Festival Yagon-Myanmar in 2012, the City Street Festival Cape Town, South Africa in 2012, and the East Africa Biennale (ESTAFAB), Dar Sallam, Tanzania in 2005 & 2007.
Amanda Quinn Olivar (AQO): To begin with… why do you make art?
Olaniya Rasheed Akindiya (ORA): Art is a universal language which has no one country, no one language, and no one tradition. It creates the potential to be in a place of refuge for a few seconds, to make us forget who we are and what separates us, to allow us to just be present, at that moment, enjoying the creations of talent displayed. Art has a magical power to be a tool to give voice to the voiceless, open the opportunity to question, to allow us to pause for a few seconds to question ourselves, and to open our eyes to see what we forget is important. Art is a tool to give us hope and strength and to bring us together. This is the power of Art, and this is the calling of Artists.
AQO: Let’s talk about your subject matter…
ORA: I am driven by current social issues integral to human development, but with no easy answer. My works start with primary source interviews with those affected by the issue at hand. What I learn from these close contacts is interpreted into art works complex in design, going through several stages before the final result. Most finished works will manifest in some combination of mixed media painting, sculpture installation, video or performance. The flexibility of media allows me to explore current social issues deeply from many angles, and touch people who may not otherwise find art in their everyday experience.
AQO: Briefly tell us about the name you’re known by, Akirash.
ORA: My first name (OLANIYI), Middle Name (RASHEED), Last Name (AKINDIYA)…
AKIRASH, which is my Brush Name that I sign on my works, is an artistic name that comes from first 3 letters in my last name (AKI), and RASH is my middle name. I have also found out that it means UNIQUE ONE in Japanese.
AQO: Did your upbringing influence your path? Did anyone in your family sew?
ORA: When I was little I saw a certificate of my mother’s that said she graduated as a sewing mistress, but I have never seen her use it as profession. She chose business instead. But who we are, where we are from is always part of who we become. I did not learn how to sew until this project and I found one another. I am the kind of person that loves to challenge myself. I enjoy something intricate and difficult. I love solving puzzles. And I enjoy partnering with my materials and tools. Together we form an alliance to find possible results for solving the puzzle of any project that I embark on. So, also, is the masquerades costume project.
AQO: Is there a correlation between your biochemical background and fine arts studies?
ORA: I enjoy experimenting a lot, so YES my background as Biochemistry is always used every time I work on a project.
AQO: Why did you start making costumes?
ORA: The inception of the journey into the Egúngún arts can be traced to my residency at the Sacatar Foundation in Brazil in 2015, while attending a fellowship residency to focus on the co-transatlantic migration of slaves and textile art in Itaparica, an island close to Salvador in the Bahia region of Brazil. There I received an invitation to an Egúngún Festival which read, “Baba is performing tomorrow night.”
Brazilians refer to Egúngún as “Baba”, a reference to one of the several myths of the origin of Egúngún Festivals: that Ṣàngó, one of the premier deities (Òrìṣà) of the Yorùbá pantheon (and a one-time monarch of the ancient Yorùbá kingdom of Ọ̀yó̩), is thought to have introduced the celebration of ancestor worship. The myth claims that the event was originally referred to as “Baba” (father) but eventually changed to Egúngún.
My anticipation morphed into guarded curiosity as I realized that in contrast to the Yorùbá version with which I was familiar, the Brazilian festival was scheduled for after dark. Nonetheless, with my compadres in tow, I arrived at the appointed time and was surprised to see that the festival was to take place in an enclosed venue. This challenged my experience that the unbridled feel of the outdoors was part of the joy of festivals like this. The rest of the evening stretched into an academic exercise, as I observed all the differences between the familiar West African versions to which I was accustomed [and] what I experienced that evening. As I explained to my fellow artists afterwards, there were many variations to ponder.
Why was this version performed after dark when the essence of the colorful pageantry was lost to good light? Why contain such an uninhibited celebration indoors?
While I could relate to the differences in costume designs as a matter of artistic license, I could not explain overall departure from my notion of what an authentic Egúngún Festival was. Why the variation in so many procedures from which much of the core meanings could have been lost?
As a result of Brazil’s eminent identity as a premier carnival destination, I worried that other foreign attendees who came to Brazil to experience carnivals would enjoy the carnivals, but having no prior notion of what the festival celebrated, would spread the Brazilian version lost in interpretation to other parts of the world as the authentic version.
So obsessed did I become with the conflicts, that not only as an artist, but also as descendant from a family of Egúngún practitioners, I felt a responsibility to help to preserve the version of Egúngún festival I had grown up with by developing my interpretation of the real meaning and spirit of the Egúngún Festival that remains a part of my cultural heritage. Instead of complaining, I decided through art—visual and performance—to promote a better narration of what the Egúngún festival is to the contemporary world.
My first challenge was to evaluate whether or not as a tradition Festival, it should remain a static event, or if, like most things in life, it should be susceptible and adaptable to change with the culture and civilization.
I started asking myself about other cultures’ costumed traditions, like Halloween in America, Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico, and many more. How have these traditions rooted in our universal search for meaning and connection evolved? And so began my odyssey, with researches into masks, costumes and symbols from around the world.
In retrospect, I now realize that I never chose this project—it chose me! I do confess to enthusiastically embracing it because it is a legacy I feel obligated to share, not only with my children, but with all the migrant children of the world in the different countries they now call home, whose connection to their traditional home cultures is now tenuous at best, as they connect with other cultures.
So I first with sketches write my ideas, and what I want to inspire the costumes, then I start looking for materials I will use that speak, have meaning to those topics I want to address in the individual costumes.
AQO: What themes or messages are conveyed in your work? Are there spiritual aspects?
ORA: My works are not stagnant. They dance, move, choose their own topics, themes of the moment they pass by. What arises depends on what is of interest at the moment in [the] environment in which I find myself.
My work focuses on moments of time, fleeting moments that can be easily forgotten or transformed. Reflecting on rural versus urban life, the accelerated pace of development and social infrastructure, my works and performative activities play around social subjectivities with dramatic components, breaking down conventional barriers.
I utilize a multitude of techniques and materials, including re-purposed objects which may manifest in mixed media painting, sculpture, installation, video, photography, sound, performance. While inscribing all these mediums in my comprehensive compositions, my works achieve an accumulative density that overwhelms with spectacle, grandeur and wonderment.
I believe art is an instrument to question and search for solutions—to dig out the truth without violence. Being surrounded by diversity of discipline and experience gives my work a grander scope and allows for more unexpected breakthroughs when searching for answers to what ails our society.
Ultimately, my work is designed to create comfort, peace, and solace. I believe that art can be a balm to the soul, revealing a quiet inner truth.
In this project I am not focusing on the immigration of people as individuals, but the immigration of cultures, religions, traditions, beliefs and fashions. I am interested in what happens to [the] New World after many years. Does the homogenization of American society influence them to leave their initial traditions? Or do they still hold on to their roots, language and culture? How does the adherence to cultural traditions diminish or change with time?
How do those who marry someone from a different culture or religion create new traditions in their own homes? What cements their cultures together to avoid irreparable conflict? How do they live in harmony among themselves?
In what way are the cultural traditions of the parent passed on to and continued by the new generation? How will the old be fashioned to suit the new era, location and society? I want to look into how these changes affect, infect, impact, and shape our lives and existence.
AQO: Do you work from memory, life, photographs, or from other resources? To what extent do you plan?
ORA: My works involve lots of reading, asking questions, and talking to people who have experience in the matter or find themselves in the midst of an issue. I do my best to hear it from their mouths. Researching, traveling, looking for materials that will best explain, and bring better understanding to those who set their eyes on the creation that comes out of the project...
My projects involve collaboration with no boundaries. We learn from one another, as well as reconnect to our own heritage. I always do my best to reach larger audiences... those who may have never entered an art gallery. It’s very important to me to choose issues that concern all of us, in order to create dialogue.
There is also something powerful in the act of using traditional art forms to illuminate contemporary issues. It is a tool to address our current situation in health, politics, economy, war, as well as to generate tourism and increase collaboration and better understanding.
AQO: You created this woven centerpiece on site at Lawndale Art Center in Houston, Texas. Did that tie the installation together? It’s beautiful... What does it mean?
ORA: I am drawn to installation. Weaving to me is a way to connect people, bringing everything as one. But in this project the middle installation arose from research of those families who have dedicated their lives to Egungun (Masquerades). They have a spiritual room, like a temple, or shrine, which is the only place that is not open to the public. It is a place where they prepare for the festival, pray, meditate and dress up before they bring out the masquerades. What happens there is not known to me or anyone. I created this area, but made it transparent to remind us that we all have our own demons and we have our ways of suppressing them. For me one significance of Egungun (Masquerades) is to bring people together, to celebrate, heal wounds, and to let people dance and forget their pains and sorrow.
AQO: Your costumes are brilliant… I love the one with watches down the center. You employ a variety of materials and techniques in the creation of your pieces. Can you give us insight into how you went about constructing this one?
ORA: In this project I created 10 costumes. Each individually was inspired by different themes in life. The one you mentioned that has watches on it looks at time, moments from the past and to the present. In the past people measured time by looking at the angle and heat of the sun. The months were known in the past with the arrival of the new moon. This is also how women know how far along their pregnancy is, by marking it behind the hut every new moon. The selection of cloths and findings were inspired by the topic.
This link will help to explain individual costumes and what they mean.
AQO: Please relate a memory that influenced or changed your life and career.
ORA: My first degree was in Biochemistry. I worked as a pharmacist for few years... Then one day a colleague at the laboratory was ill. I went to see how he was doing, but there was an accident on the road to his house. He told me of another road I could take out, then I saw this Art school (Institute of Textile Technology Art and Design, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria). That moment changed my life. I returned back to school to study art and my career as an artist was born that moment.
AQO: What’s next for you?
ORA: This project of Masquerades, Costumes has become a touring project and I wish and hope that everyone in every corner of the world will have chance to have it shown in their city and country.
At this moment I have some commission works for public space, two solo exhibitions forthcoming this year... I also have a grant project which will involve creating/organizing a residency program for Homeless artists.
AQO: What is your favorite art accident?
ORA: I am not sure if I would call it an accident, because it is my tradition that I enjoy experimenting. I love to test limits, and to put things which have opposite reactions together. I remember I was having problems with sending my heavy sculptures to show abroad, and that year I was given a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center to come for two months residency. My plan was that this residency I will not take any tools or materials, but search for another way of working with and trying new materials. This is how I started to use cardboard. At VSC the most common material is CARDBORD BOXES. They enter into the kitchen where they prepared food for more than eighty artists and the only thing that comes out is cardboard boxes. I started to collect and play around it. It became one of my signature materials, still to this day. It is easy for me to ship and move my works to any part of the world to exhibit.
Exhibition images: Courtesy of Lawndale Art Center.
Feature portrait by Jamie Harmon. Studio images: Courtesy of the artist.
Akirash’s most recent exhibition, Ara Oru Kinkin (Masquerades Mythology) ran December 8-March 3, 2019 at the Lawndale Art Center, Houston, Texas.