Storm Janse van Rensburg: Are you angry?
Adejoke Tugbiyele: Yes. I am angry. I am also very sad. These are the emotions I live with and what motivates me. How could I not be angry? I think any loving, normal and reasonably thinking person should be very angry at the current state of affairs in Nigeria and around the world as far as human rights are concerned.
S: There are just very few people, who like you, actually do something…
A: People are scared. Very scared. And it’s totally understandable. People also feel helpless against the machine and the powerful elite few. People are also hungry, and can’t think of anything else besides getting their next meal or paying the next bill. It’s not easy.
S: When did you start communicating a queer /activist message in your work?
A. I went to Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in the USA. I became interested in merging both in my final year of graduate school. That’s when I finally got the courage to do so. It was scary.
S. Were you ‘out’ in Graduate School?
I was out to friends and especially family. This is actually what have me the strength to begin pursuing queer issues in my art work. I got mentors hip and support from many artists and professors at my school including Maren Hassinger, Leslie King Hammond, Chakaia Booker, Monica Amor, Ian Bourland and Ledelle Moe. I also received inspiring mentorship from artists like El Anatsui, Odili Donald Odita and Olu Oguibe while formulating my practice. I am eternally grateful to all of them. Most especially, a class I took with Ian Bouland which discussed the life and work of Rotimi Fani Kayode was the ultimate ass-kick I needed to move forward with ideas of my sexual identity in my work.
S: Has the content of your work been closely connected with your identity and sexuality from the beginning of your career?
A: Yes, however not really queer identity early on, but more as a woman of African decent and the importance of knowing our bodies. I lived in Nigeria from ages 4 through 11. These were my formative years. This was in 1981 through to 1988 during the military dictatorship in Nigeria.
S: What was your interest and motivation to return to Nigeria as an adult?
A: My interest was to identify with Nigeria as an adult woman, as a queer person, and as a visual artist and filmmaker. It was important for me to do this to authenticate my work and to be sure it was commenting on real lived experiences in the country, rather than my fantasies. Rather than on hear-say.
S: You spent part of a Fulbright Scholarship in Lagos, Nigeria during 2013, but returned to the States due to safety concerns. Do you think you achieved what you wanted? How did having to leave early impact on your research and connection?
A: I do. Indeed my time was cut short but it was very well spent. I was vigorous and engaged from the start. My research is ongoing. I am in touch still with people on the ground and planning with them how to strategically confront the anti-gay legislation. Thank you Gmail and Facebook! My art practice is to be, and will be central to this.
S: I am interested in artists and works of art that are politically engaged. And this political engagement to be understood as a particularly critical engagement with the world, and a critical engagement with art itself. It seems, from your biography and creative output that your central motivation as an artist has become increasingly political. I have two questions here:
- How do you understand and live the relationship between being and activist and an artist?
- Could you discuss this in relation to specific works or moments?
A: I find the relationship between my art and activism to be cyclical. Activism helps me stay in touch with the issues and ideas I respond to in my work. My work in turn educates and empowers others in the LGBT movement in Nigeria and beyond. Both depend on each other. To me, political art is not as powerful when it operates in a vacuum. It must engage people and serve as a call-to-action. For example, while in Lagos I purchased six pieces of Aso Oke, or what we call Gele, which is the native head scarf worn by Nigerian women at important events or functions. It is such a defining feature for the typical Nigerian woman and thus representative of femininity. As a woman with a strong masculine energy, I never felt comfortable in this attire, yet I always admired it for it’s aesthetic properties. Sewing six of these fabrics together to form a large gay-pride flag helped me affirm my queerness as a woman of Nigerian heritage, while also speaking to contemporary symbols (the rainbow) that affirm gay pride. The flag was then used by as a prop by actors in my latest film and was displayed during a Global Day of Protest outside the Nigerian Embassy in New York this past March. It was one of many signs created by hundreds of other protesters to say NO to Nigeria’s anti-gay legislation.
S: Does art have limitations in what it could do in terms of activism and politics?
A: There are limitations in all things, but that does not mean we should not keep pushing boundaries, especially in those areas where those in power seek to restrict freedom in areas of race, gender and or sexual identity. Artists can not make laws and policies, but they can inspire policy makers by bringing visibility to issues concerning the marginalized.
S: I am curious about your experiences before and after the moment when the anti-homosexual legislation was passed in Nigeria. Was it clear that the political situation will change so quickly? Was it possible in your time in Nigeria to engage politically around queer issues? And what do you think as an artist and activist are the best way to engage with anti-homosexual movement there and abroad?
A: Yes, it was clear that the political climate had changed practically overnight, based on news articles that emerged within days of the anti-gay law’s passing. Nigerians are very opportunistic and fast-reacting, so I wasn’t that surprised. This journalistic fervor created tension among different circles of people. All of a sudden, homosexuality emerged as a primary conversation topic. It didn’t matter if you were standing at a local bus stop or drinking palm wine at Freedom Park, Bogobiri or the Ikoyi Club. It was the new hot topic and tensions were high.
In my time of three to four months there, beginning in October of 2013, I was definitely able to engage the queer community. I actually began engaging with them before I arrived in Nigeria through secret online platforms, and so when I got to Lagos I could hit the ground running, albeit cautiously because you just never know until you meet someone face to face. Most of my engagement involved research, documentation and archiving, but fortunately, I was able to produce a short-film called AfroOdyssey IV using some of my findings, exactly one week before the bill was signed into law.
My work within the queer community has allowed me to gain the trust of many key people in the movement. I was recently selected as the U.S Representative for a new coalition in Nigeria called Solidarity Alliance for Human Rights. The coalition is made up of about fifteen organizations who are doing important work in the community related to HIV/AIDS, sexual reproductive rights, rights of sex workers and Men who Sleep with Men (MSM). We are also working in partnership with legal experts and human rights lawyers both in Nigeria and internationally to litigate the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. We have drafted a two-page Statement to Allies and Partners in Nigeria and internationally on how best they can help support our movement.
As an artist, I am proposing several projects to the group that can educate and empower the community. These projects should materialize in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned.
S: What was your overall intention with the AfroOdyssey series, and could you perhaps trace the development to the last instalment?
A: AfroOdyssey began simply as an aesthetic experiment with costume, light, sound and movement in film, in my final year of graduate school. I knew I was interested in the themes of spirituality and sexuality, but was not sure how to express the two within, for me, a completely new medium. I had already been working with these themes in my sculptural practice. Series I/II and III are very short, under five minutes long, and rather abstract but visually engaging. Both make use of objects like Aso Oke (Gele) and traditional African brooms in performance/dance. AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later is a longer short-film of about fourteen minutes and has more of a narrative than the previous series. It is less abstract, as I incorporate recently captured scenes from Nigeria and a performance within a Church (instead of on stage). It also includes text, pushing the educational agenda and voice acting. I believe AfroOdyssey IV contains many seeds for much of my art/activist work to sprout in the future. In fact, I have already begun working on AfroOdyssey V: Love Letter to Nigeria. I co-produced these films with my partner, Olushola A. Cole, who is a performer and sound artist with classical training in piano and other instruments.
S: How do you define queer? Is it a term that is relevant to your life in Nigeria and in the US? Are there other terms that are more relevant?
A: I define my sexuality in personal terms. I used to be married to a man, whom I was in love with through my twenties and certainly do not regret being with. This is with the understanding that love can be expressed in many different forms. Unfortunately, I came into my sexuality later in life having not been taught to be more aware of my body while growing up in Nigerian household, but rather to repress, hide and indeed be ashamed of any “fleshy” concerns. I know it is unhealthy for me to be placed in categories and so the term queer for me leaves an openness that honors my ability to be sexually flexible at any point in time. Having said that, I have felt very much like a lesbian everyday and consistently for four years now, and regardless of whether I am in the United States or Nigeria. It probably helps that I am in love and engaged to a beautiful, talented woman whom I can’t imagine my life without at this moment in time.
S: I am curious about your interest in traditional spiritual and religious practices. Could you elaborate on this? Do you have any affinity or attraction to it? How does it feature in your work (over and above the references in AfroOdyssey IV)?
A: I was raised in the Baptist Church, however I did attend private, Catholic school while living in Nigeria for seven years as a child. As I became more educated and self-aware in adulthood, I realized that my discomfort in both settings had to do with much more than how I related to my body as a woman. While I do love some of the lessons taught in the Bible, as soon as I researched and fully grasped pre-colonial Nigerian history, the institution of religion became political for me. It still is. While in Nigeria on Fulbright, I visited the Osun Shrine in Oshogbo, which is spiritual grounds/forest of Yoruba people both in Nigeria and the diaspora, including the United States, Brazil and Cuba. In the 1960s, the forest was under threat of demolition by the Nigerian government who deemed it backwards, pagan and demonic – borrowing from their colonial masters. Through the hard work of Austrian artist and activist Suzanne Wenger, who adopted Yoruba spirituality during her thirty-year stay in Nigeria, the Shrine is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the video I captured at the Osun Shrine appears in AfroOdyssey IV.
S: Whilst in Lagos last year (2013), I was struck by the intensity of the evangelical Christian movement and its close and uncomfortable relationship with big money, capital and the government. You have also done research in Nigeria, particularly on religion and the state. What is the outcome of this? And is it possible for other public cultural manifestations within this unholy trinity, or are there are political, social, cultural and religious possibilities? I guess my question is what is the future like? In your article for Feminist Wire you mention a fresh and beautiful energy from a younger generation, that is expressed in popular culture. How politically motivated is this generation?
A: Ha! Are you asking me to predict the future? Only the universe knows what’s in store for Nigeria in the long run its unholy trinity, as you have very poetically called it. In the near future, I observed while in Nigeria that the national elections coming up in 2015 has sparked much political drama. As you and I know elections can either bring out the best or the worst in people. Right now there is a lot of violence in Nigeria leading up to the elections especially among Boko Haram in the north and north east. It’s a big shame that the federal government has not been able to control terrorist activity. It is doubly shameful that they have inspired hate and aggression among the general population by signing the anti-gay bill into law. Gay men have been whipped in court, attacked by mobs and indeed killed because of their sexual identity. We know that this hatred is fueled by religious fundamentalism in cahoots with the State. In the near future, it looks like it’s going to get much uglier, before it gets better. The younger generation is very politically aware and very angry, but they are not motivated to protest. It’s hard to expect them to do so, when the struggles of poverty and daily life are already so consuming. Within the elite gay community, there is a huge fear of loss of contract work, potentially leading to a life of poverty. What ever is left of the progressive-thinking, professional middle-class seem to be looking for any possible way to get out of the country, including art professionals.