Turns anger into advocacy and education
When I enter Tyna Adebowale’s studio at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam the term horror vacui immediately pops into my mind: the fear of empty spaces. Nigerian artist Adebowale surrounds herself with huge black and white line drawings with tangles of lines and dots that, seen from close up make me dizzy. But if I step back again I begin to see semi-naked figures, many of them women, depicted together with traditional objects such as masks, clay pots and ladles. A calmer look reveals the composition of lines is often of Tyna Adebowale and her deceased twin as her alter ego.
Tangled lines are not the only things that come in masses, there are also clay moulds of breasts, synthetic fingers, books, coins and masks scattered around Adebowale’s studio. We laugh about the fact she never collects single objects. “Archiving in masses is what I love! I do not like isolation. Besides I am a production machine. My work is never isolated but always in pairs, maybe because I am twin! Unfortunately my twin brother died when we were very young.” She also has a digital collection of hundreds of images on her computer. “One of my collections is of screenshots that I started in 2012 about homophobia on social media, mostly posted on Nigerian gossip blogs. It’s about perception; how I perceive people who I know and how queer people can never openly be themselves.”
Adebowale explains that Nigeria introduced an anti-gay law in 2014. “It is so sad people that are not upset about the corrupt system that deprives them of basic amenities, but instead focus all their energy on homophobia and cyber-bullying. I still keep trying to understand what has happened to my society. Once we were a matriarchal society with room for everyone. There were clearly feminine men who had their place in society and women could marry other women if they were economically independent and could pay a dowry. Christianity and colonialism then completely changed society. In my work I address these topics and I use my own queer body to investigate history.” Adebowale prefers to work in large formats and explains this creates more visibility and is about the ‘politics of size’.
Her huge black and white drawings are composed of dots that form triangles symbolizing birth, living and death. She embraces universal themes such as human life, water, blood and sex that also reflect the universality of homophobia. She has adopted a line by the famous Nigerian singer Fela Kuti: ‘water no gets enemy’ and turned it into ‘gender no gets enemy’, and incorporated it into her white on white series.
Adebowale stresses that she never had the intention to use black and white as a statement about skin color. “I do not want to think in terms of black versus white because these are borders created by colonizers. Saying someone is black is a suppressive word. Before travelling outside Nigeria I never saw myself as black. I see myself as someone from a royal clan in the Kukuruku hills of Edo State, Nigeria. I would never fit in the black box, as it is manipulative.”
Daughter of the Kukuruku hills
Tyna Adebowale grew up in Igarra, Edo state in the central south of Nigeria, on the edge of the Niger Delta. She emphasizes that her art practice has everything to do with how she grew up. “Growing up I was always angry, I was trying to understand and connect with the world and spent hours reading in the library. I was angry because of all the abuses in my society, like single moms married to ghost fathers, men beating their wives and the deprived position of women in general. I wondered why women were not allowed to participate in traditional masquerades for example. In Auchi, I did research about the mysterious Ekuechi masquerades in Ebiraland. I was told it wasn’t a subject for women. I have always been rebellious, against the system and very curious, especially about things I am not supposed to know… “
Adebowale is currently working on a video piece showing effeminate men dancing in traditional masques that she has adjusted slightly by adding banana shapes, which for her symbolize femininity instead of masculinity.
Another work in progress consists of the Naira coins, traditional masques and traditional clay moneyboxes. The coins look similar to the €2 coins but as she explains they are no longer legal tender in Nigeria. “They are minted mostly in Europe and Nigeria paid for them but we do not use them. We cannot even print our own money! It is a waste and it seems a structured way to continue colonization. In the old days people didn’t use coins or money but precious objects that were mostly safeguarded in terracotta pots… I am currently examining these imbalances.”
Growing up angry
“I grew up angry and I still am as things have not changed much for women in my society. Art is my escape. My mother always supported my choice to go to art school. She said people who work with their hands never go hungry. After NYSC in Maiduguri, I moved to Abuja for 5 years. Moving from there to Lagos made me finally very comfortable. My works changed a lot afterwards. I finally met people and spaces that could understand my works better. The city is great for inspiration: the vibe of Lagos redirects my mind. Its chaos, speed, restlessness, alertness, lots of materials and an ocean to de-stress in, makes it all beautiful.”
Solace in Lagos
“I grew up in the church and was really deeply involved with Christianity. I struggled a lot, as I didn’t want to disappoint those who looked up to me. I waited with owning my sexuality until I moved to Lagos. Before moving to Lagos I had no one to talk to about my struggles. I felt I was mentally and emotionally ready as I just turned 30, and was ready to live my life freely. I met people to talk to, through social media and in the diaspora. I finally felt I was not alone. In 2014, I was in South Africa for an art exhibition and I met a lot of like minds. I can no longer bear the double standards and hypocrisy prevalent in my society; it is time to confront it!”
Confrontation is an important theme running through Adebowale’s work. As she explains: “When I moved to Lagos, I started making works, collaborating with those in my intimate spaces – my bed-mates. It had everything to do with visibility and daring to finally show the truth. I had started queer works in 2012, but could not show them.”
God is female
“I believe in god, but god is female! One day I spoke to my mom, asking about traditional meaning of bananas, she said they are a symbol of femininity and wealth because they reproduce themselves and are endlessly fertile. You need strong chemicals to get rid of them from the soil. Bananas are female and strong. I created the DANDAUDA series with black and white line figures constructed from repeated patterns of bananas. The new anti-gay law created physical and mental traumas for queer people. I used the bananas as a symbol for the core message of my work; to retrace the history of matriarchy and confronting patriarchy.”
Adebowale continues: “How can we live in this patriarchal society when women are the creators of humanity? God is female! By default, most men in my society depend on women for their daily needs! Why did our society erase the importance of women? I am still angry and that’s why I so strongly feel the need to address these issues. I am transferring my anger into advocacy and education. Precolonial times were matriarchal, and it was a space for everyone to thrive equally. Society now silences women! I see it as a result of colonialization and Christianity… this erased our identity and created divisions and suspicions, even amongst families.”
“I am also questioning the idea of family. I was raised by 5 women I called Mums. They flocked together because they recognized each other’s struggles. Almost all of them had ghost husbands. They are all powerful women who do everything on their own. I am using my body to retrace my background.”
Creating a platform
Adebowale explains there is no physical space for queers and queer artists in Nigeria. She hopes to correct this: “I give visibility to queer bodies. I also collaborate with queer creatives whenever I go home to Nigeria. Queer bodies read out texts in one of my videos for example. They are texts from a book that I am writing, entitled: ‘Random Rants of a Visual Artist’. In the book I am retracing history and questioning issues like family structures, religion, sexuality, motherhood, monogamy & polygamy and much more.”
“I am more confident in presenting my work now, maybe because I have found safety, freedom and my voice in Amsterdam. I want to continue to address loopholes in the political and religious systems in Nigeria from a global perspective. Money is power. The good side of being a female artist is that no one pays too much attention….as by default, as a woman, I am looked at as a minority. Well, the good side of being ignored is, more freedom. I welcome everyone in my flat.. and we make art together!”
Dark Spot for inspiration
“When I am emotionally broken and angry I am in my dark spot. It happened when I just moved to Lagos and I didn’t know anyone… I also hit my dark spot after my first girlfriend broke up with me. It is great for inspiration: The dark spot makes me work, nonstop….as I usually have a very playful and carefree lifestyle with my arts.”
Educate and enlighten!
“When I got into the Rijksakademie, it was time to be less carefree I guess, as I became more serious about some dynamics around my practise. Because to whom much is given, a lot more would be expected.”
As benefits of her residency at the Rijksakademie Adebowale cites experimenting with materials in the various workshops, being part of an enormous art community, becoming an international artist, and….maybe most excitingly of all, freedom to do whatever you like as art.
She has also started creating video works. She explains it is a more fluid and less selfish medium than a two or three dimensional work: “With video I hope to make a bigger impact, I hope to educate and to enlighten a much larger audience.” In her video ‘Dance of the Spirits’ queer bodies with painted faces danced in a graveyard. She sighs: “In the end we all die. Then there is finally inclusivity!”
Another experiment is an installation entitled ‘Ajánakú’ (2017), or in the Etuno language ‘The Elephant in the Room’. She presented this installation for the first time during the RijksOpen in 2017. “I made a vagina from synthetic resin and had everyone interact with it and touch it. There was a sign next to it: ‘There is a switch that ignites all sorts of powers: find it!’. When people found the switch a light went on. I wanted to see how people felt about it and deal with it in a supposedly open society.”
“I now understand better than ever that representation is very important, not in an angry way but an educational way, even though anger is a good tool. I am not a female artist; I am human and an artist. As a woman I am more vulnerable but it doesn’t stop me from creating.”
Adebowale is guided by the intention to always do her best and “Never to be predictable as a creative.” As she concludes: “It is a continuous journey of self-discovery and fun; play with it!”
Tyna Adebowale’s work can be seen in the exhibition ‘Free Radicals’ January 19 through March 30, 2019 at CBK Zuidoost, Amsterdam.
This article is published on: https://africanah.org/tyna-adebowale-turns-anger-into-advocacy-and-education/