When I moved back to Edmonton in 2019, I started scouring social media in search of other Black artists working in the city. I knew they were here, but I wasn’t seeing them at any of the public art programmings I was attending, and I took note of their absence. Through this online research, I quickly came to know Emmanuel Osahor’s work but, since he was in the process of moving to Guelph, Ontario to start an MFA, we didn’t have a chance to meet IRL. By the winter of 2020 I had the opportunity to experience Emmanuel’s work in person: first in even the birds are walking (an exhibition we both participated in) curated by Noor Bhangu for Latitude 53; and soon after, at his solo exhibition No Place at the McMullen Gallery. Both experiences left me thinking deeply about care, beauty, ecology, the (im)/possibilities of utopia, poverty, inclusion, diversity, community, and the complexity of pushing against dominant narratives. Emmanuel’s multidisciplinary work opens up questions around how we might reconcile the blurry lines of overlap and opposition between all of these things at once. Born in Nigeria, Emmanuel has been practicing in Canada since 2010. His artistic work has explored processes of painting, photography, and installation.
In early summer, after protests against the police brutality of Black bodies intensified after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Emmanuel sent me an email. He was drafting a letter to send an Edmonton-based museum who had asked him to participate in their ‘Blackout Tuesday’ social media response in the wake of the protests. Emmanuel had turned down their invitation, and his letter was meant to help explain this refusal while offering recommendations for more meaningful allyship with Black artists and communities in the city instead. I also had been invited to participate in the museum’s social media response, but unlike Emmanuel, I hadn’t refused—and it went badly. This shared experience brought us together for our first conversation (by telephone because of geographical distance and the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic). While the bulk of our phone call was situated around the pervasiveness of whiteness within Canadian art institutions, the roles that we want (and don’t want) to play within them, and strategies of refusal, it ended with us pointing out that there were so many conversations we wish we could be having instead. This recognition that our conversation had been dictated by the need to respond to the white supremacy dominating our institutions instead of the many threads of overlap across our practices stuck with me. What follows is the conversation we wish we’d had from the start.
I think about the knowledge we share with friends who are allies and how that is a seed and it is their responsibility to let it thrive or to do nothing with it. I’m also thinking about how this past summer so many “seeds” were shared and “collected” institutionally and one wonder’s if they will ever bear fruit or just be pointed at in the future to say “look we engaged with the community.”
Christina Battle: I’d wanted to start with the work you presented at Latitude 53 in even the birds are walking (2020, curated by Noor Bhangu). I was taken by the way you worked with layering and framing as an installation strategy—especially the wallpaper pasted behind the series of paintings (on canvas, tarp, and cement). It’s an interesting way to not only frame the work visually, but also conceptually—tying together a number of ideas in a way that presents complexity in a highly edited sense—almost like reading a complete and succinct sentence. I wonder if you could speak about this framing, from both a materials sense and a conceptual one. How do the multiple threads of ideas that run across the work (related to beauty, ecology, utopia, poverty, hope…) layer within it? Where does the balance between ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ sit? How do you come to negotiate framing in your overall practice?
Emmanuel Osahor: The title of that work is A caged bird sings the blues. It was an ode to Maya Angelou, and I was thinking about this tension of singing (hope) even in the midst of one’s pain, which of course led me to thinking about blues music.
I have been using framing as a device to bring what feels like disparate threads of my practice together. Trying to figure out what happens when formal strategies that may be opposing or counter to each other begin to exist in the same frame. I think that when this happens, the works speak to each other in a way that actually brings about a necessary nuance that I don't think one work is able to capture on its own. With A caged bird sings the blues, I felt like I was all over the place. I had these rough paintings on cement blocks and even rougher paintings on distressed tarpaulin, but I wanted them to share space with these other more refined paintings on canvas that had really delicate moments. The piece was really about this sharing of space and the nuance that was produced in that moment, and less about the individual paintings. I’ve been thinking about gardens these days, and using wallpaper as a structure, feels similar to planting multiple seedlings in a garden and then seeing what happens, how one plant affects the reading of another.
It is strange because I never got to see that work in person, but what I was really hoping for was to create a visual field that was primarily something I would call beautiful—like undeniably so—and then the viewer could choose to spend time with these more intimate sections, and sort of move around the image in whatever way felt right to them.
CB: I love this strategy of framing as a way to bring together disparate things. You speak about it as a solution to a creative problem that then became a conceptual strategy, could you also speak a bit about how this fits into your overall process? Do you generally make a series of things and then work to tie them together for exhibition, or do you think the strategy of framing used in A caged bird sings the blues will become more integrated into your practice moving forward?
EO: It is a strategy that I definitely want to explore more. In the studio I tend to have a number of things on the go at once: paintings, ink drawings, charcoal drawings, photographs, collages, wallpaper studies and paintings on unconventional supports. I like to think that these things inform each other in a way that keeps each specific object alive. But then, I’ve also been having a hard time understanding how these objects can share the same space outside of my studio. Like, I think I box myself in: thinking, okay this time, I will just show the paintings or the photographs or the collages. Using the wallpaper to demarcate a field for myself to play within, is starting to feel like a good strategy that allows me to bring two seemingly incongruent things together, letting them speak to each other.
CB: I’ve been thinking about how my first response to seeing your work in person (both at Latitude 53 and at the McMullen) was that it was beautiful. And I’ve been thinking about how you often see “beautiful” used as a qualifier in art in a flippant, surface level way that responds to aesthetics alone and then moves on—and how different that is from how I mean it. Your work is beautiful in a way that continually negotiates with complexity. I’ve been thinking about how, when you and I first spoke, you mentioned having a studio visit with Sandra Brewster and she also first responded to the beauty within your work and how much you appreciated that read. But how, often, when others approach the work they first want to discuss the meanings, the politics, the undercurrents, and step back from the beauty itself. This is a long and involved way of asking about how it is that you come to negotiate, define, and situate beauty within your work. I wonder about how the tensions raised—specifically, surrounding utopia and hope (two concepts that you point to being in constant negotiation, often at odds with one another) might be situated within this definition.
EO: Yes! It’s a big question, and something I've been wrestling with all year, it seems. A lot of my thinking around the importance/role of beauty in my work seems to be solidifying these days and a lot of it is in response to the events of this last summer. I’ve been really scared to foreground beauty in my work and I think that is a result of internalizing the over-intellectualization of art that exists these days, and especially in academic circles coming out of a BFA in 2015 and now working toward an MFA. I'm not really sure why this over-intellectualization exists, but it seems like meaning or politics or concept gets placed on this pedestal, and we (humans/artist/art lovers) almost need permission to just respond from the gut level, like: “that is beautiful and I want to look at/enjoy the experience of looking first before asking myself what it means.” I think this form of appreciating beauty can also be a critical thing. Especially because it demands that the person be fully present with the thing they have decided is beautiful.
This summer, first with the pandemic, and then with the grief that our people are experiencing, making art kind of felt futile to me. Thinking about hope/utopia felt like abstract notions and their intangibility was kind of crushing in light of everything going on. So, I spent some money and got myself a plein air painting kit because it seemed like something that would be fun to do. Look at colors while enjoying the sun on my skin. While making these paintings, I found myself thinking about what the work might “mean” and after a while I told myself to shut up and just paint. Those paintings for me were kind of like self care, and I realized that in making those paintings, and in trying to make them beautiful so that I could simply enjoy the process of making them and then looking at them, I was taking care of myself and in a way, creating a space where I could simply grieve without trying to synthesize what was happening into some meaningful or resolved thing. Is it possible that making beautiful work is an act of care? For the viewer and for the artist? I think so. I’m curious what you think about this, because one of the things I am so intrigued by in your work artistic and curatorial is your foregrounding of care, that one’s practice can/should actually “take care” of a community.
The other thing around beauty for me is that it feels like the most hopeful thing I can do these days. Like seriously, the world is painful and hard to look at most of the time. I don’t think this is an imperative for all artists, but it feels important to me that my work can function in a way that gets people to pause for a second and maybe stay a while. I hope that people can engage with the complexity that leads me to create the work, but I am perfectly okay if they stay at the surface and just have a good time. Is that wrong? Maybe it is the African in me. I think about the way my mother and my aunties dressed, how beautiful things can be back home, there are hard things for sure, but last last1 beauty is always present and you don’t have to strain to see it. Why shouldn’t that exist in art?
These days with all the grief, I’ve been wondering if the spaces I am constructing are really just spaces for us to collectively sit with the grief and process together.
CB: That is really such a beautiful thing. I hear you completely. I think about how “care” has been taken up in contemporary art a lot and get really exhausted by it a lot of the time. There is the obvious hypocrisy that is constantly at play: how people talk about “taking care” and blah blah, all the time while simultaneously not putting that into practice with those they are working with; but also, I really wonder – once it’s (over) intellectualized, is it even care anymore? Once these things become trendy I truly wonder where the care sits within it.
I also agree that for me, beautiful is a form of care, especially when it comes to visual culture and image making, because so much of what we’re exposed to as meant to represent us as Black people in this country’s culture are images of death and despair. I think it’s important to put out images into the world that offer us an-other way of seeing ourselves as well as future worlds. I don’t see why the two things — beauty and politics—need to be so separated but, as you say, especially within academic institutions, they often are. Really, though, I think this comes down to issues of audience, ‘cause let’s be honest: academic institutions in this country are entirely white spaces. It makes sense they see it differently from how we do. Maybe they’re just not willing (really, I mean capable) of understanding how beautiful can also include all of these other things within it. Beauty, as I see it — is complex—and I’m really interested in that complexity.
I appreciate you speaking about creating beautiful images as a way to deal with struggle, as a way to sort of take a break. It’s interesting to think about how this all comes down to representation, both within images and how we read them, but also within the spaces we work: this is what we mean when we say we need better representation within spaces. Because the idea of beauty is itself so very subjective; but also because beauty is needed by different communities in different ways. It reminds me of the blues music you refer to in A caged bird sings the blues, in Black American histories, music and dance play an important role in care - it is beautiful even when it sounds painful and sad. It’s about release, and power, and being seen, and taking care - it’s about beauty. And maybe that reading is specific and meant for specific audiences.
I like thinking about this idea of “beauty as entry point,” again, it makes me think of audience. Who is the work for? I’d love to hear how you engage with and think about this idea of audience in your work.
EO: I have been thinking a lot about this audience question recently. Who is the work really for at the end of the day? This may sound cheesy but I think I am making work for people who are “willing to be held” these days. The show No Place (2020) at McMullen gallery was an interesting one to do because the gallery is located in a hospital, but it also positions itself as a contemporary art gallery. With that show I was primarily focused on making something that people who worked in the hospital, and patients in the hospital would simply enjoy. I wanted it to be a space where those specific people could possibly go, breathe deeply, and feel cared for, before any of the art stuff or whatever conceptual ideas that were embedded in the work actually got discussed. My hope was that the show would function as a space of care primarily, and an art exhibition secondarily. These days with all the grief, I’ve been wondering if the spaces I am constructing are really just spaces for us to collectively sit with the grief and process together.
CB: The McMullen is a really interesting gallery to create such a space within and I wonder if you could speak a bit more specifically about the wall of plants in your work No Place. There are so many different plants growing alongside one another, I’d love to hear more about it, even in a practical sense: where did the plants come from? Where did they end up?
There is so much care involved in keeping those plants alive within a gallery and that is something I think about a lot, especially as I’ve seen cases when plants are used as objects within gallery spaces and completely neglected. Can you speak a bit about how you negotiated including so many plants within the McMullen? They were so well taken care of, one could almost feel the increased oxygen the plants were adding to the space, like the air itself became a part of the work, and like just being with it was itself an act of care toward the viewer.
EO: That project was a dream come true. Firstly, not many spaces would allow you to bring in organic matter, talk less over 200 living plants. For the project I designed a temporary living wall system with a friend Jonathan Luckhurst who runs an botanics business in Edmonton. We had previously collaborated on a project for The Works International Visual Arts Society where we created a living wall of 300 plants native to Treaty 6 Territory. For the indoor space we chose tropicals that were fairly hardy and some that we hoped would flower with the direct light coming from artificial plant lights. AND THEY DID!!! It was crazy. My hope was that the plants would survive the 6 week run of the show, but they really thrived. McMullen had a team of volunteers who watered the plants weekly and Jonathan came by every week to dead-head the plants, treat for pests and move plants that were struggling to spots that had more light. You are so right, the gallery smelled different because the air quality and humidity levels in the space were different from that outside of the space. We purchased over 200 plants from Hole’s greenhouse in Edmonton with funds from the Edmonton Arts Council. After the exhibition, the gallery hosted a plant sale by donation, with the funds going towards the charity that runs the gallery and offers arts programming to patients in the hospital. I was really happy about this because it feels like the care that started in the gallery got to move on to people’s homes through the plants. I hope people are watering and taking care of them! I’ve got two rubber plants at home currently from that show.
When the show was installed and all the plants were in the living wall, I had soil in my fingernails and the gallery smelled like a garden and I wondered why I was even showing paintings, the plants were everything I wanted the show to be.
As much as I enjoyed making that show, I find that it is hard working with live plants in artworks specifically because they are not just any other material. They have to be cared for throughout the process and even after. I had one project where the plants I used had no home after the show was done, and they ended up in the garbage. I felt so terrible, and I never want that to happen again. This makes me wary of working with plants (especially purchasing them) in new work, because it's either I am not able to take care of them fully or the institution isn't able to. I am curious what you think about this? You send people seeds, do you ever worry that the seeds won’t be treated with appropriate care? Do you ever work with live plant matter in gallery spaces?
CB: I didn’t know this about the plants being sold to help fund a charity at the hospital - I love knowing that. It’s a lovely way to not only support the hospital and patients directly, but also to continue a lot of the themes and ideas within your work out into the community. I’m imagining people having family and friends over to their homes, being asked about the plant they have from the show, and having to explain how they came to owning it, describing your work and the exhibition and the gallery as well. That sort of spread is what I’m also interested in thinking about in my work.
EO: I love the use of the word “spread!” To think that the work doesn’t end after the moment of encounter but might actually permeate life.
CB: Yes! it’s important to me to think more about it. I also think a lot about “responsibility” and what that means within work that might be discussed as participatory. I like the term “participatory” because it implies a relationship with those taking part, and I try to extend a sense of responsibility onto participants in the same way I hold responsibility as an artist organizing and situating such projects. I really come to thinking about all of this through the seeds I save and share, I learn a lot from them and from the process of working alongside them. Similar to what you’ve expressed about the plants you work with in your work, seeds are living, they are dormant, but alive, and full of potential. I try to encourage people who I share seeds with to think about their value in those terms. If they take the seeds and don’t plant them or don’t share them with others who might, all of that potential is lost - all of that life prohibited. Seeds are pretty hardy, so I also try to remind people that they don’t have to feel an urgency around planting them - if they’re not able to right now, most of that potential for growth will stay viable for a number of years. But, if the seeds aren’t shown some sort of care, if they’re just thrown into a drawer and forgotten for 10 years, all of that potential will be lost. (I’ve learned a lot while thinking through this idea of responsibility from Robin Wall Kimmerer, especially how she speaks about responsibility and the role of the gift). It’s a tricky thing, I hope people know that I get it - sometimes you just can’t, sometimes you just forget, sometimes you’re just not able or wanting to take care of plants, it’s a lot of responsibility! I know that not all the seeds will ever be afforded the chance to grow into plants. Plants incorporate this probability into their very production of seeds themselves: most produce a lot of seeds since they recognize that the chances of spread and growth are slim. It’s how it goes. But I think, since I’m working with the seeds within an art context (something I struggled with a lot at the start, and continually grapple with), I have an obligation to speak about such things when sharing seeds in artistic spaces. There is a tendency within the arts to engage with work from the sense of a collector and I came to realize that when people take the seeds I share within that realm, they might also think of them as objects to collect. It took me a while to realize this, since I work primarily with time-based moving images, I’m pretty averse to thinking about art objects in general tbh! I find the whole idea of an art market pretty gross and really want nothing to do with it. I much prefer working as an artist who is shaping experiences, who doesn’t need to think about things like permanence and who can be much more ephemeral: shifting with the times and responding to the moment. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to work with my seed saving project with others who think similarly to how it might engage with active potential, and help to shape or maintain community (one recent example is this awesome project I’ve been part of all summer thru SAVAC). I say “no” to a lot of invitations to work with the seeds when I feel like this understanding and this sense of care isn’t shared by others.
EO: Considering the circumstances that first brought us into a conversation with each other, I think your statements about seeds and the responsibility and care around them: the fact that we understand that things can take time, but also need urgency, and the responsibility of the receiver to make a decision as to what they are going to do with the gift, is such an apt metaphor for the reality we are living through right now. I think about the knowledge we share with friends who are allies and how that is a seed and it is their responsibility to let it thrive or to do nothing with it. I’m also thinking about how this past summer so many “seeds” were shared and “collected” institutionally and one wonder’s if they will ever bear fruit or just be pointed at in the future to say “look we engaged with the community.”
CB: I really like thinking about something you mentioned earlier: “These days with all the grief, I’ve been wondering if the spaces I am constructing are really just spaces for us to collectively sit with the grief and process together maybe?” - especially as a new way to approach and think about the role of art in general. I think many consider art to be a sort of escape from the world (from grief) but that you add the idea of us needing to “collectively sit” is super interesting and points to something deeper than escape. You’re calling for others to come together, to share in a collective experience (even if experienced at different times or via different means). I think that is really important and something that I hope our contemporary art sector can rally behind and shift toward. There is often such a disconnect between contemporary art and “publics,” and I really see your statement here as being a unique way that the arts could better align itself and serve the publics they often say they want to engage with but don’t.
Thinking more about this idea of “spaces to collectively sit with grief,” how do you think about art galleries with regard to “publics?” Institutions often speak about “public outreach” and “public programming” and I’m curious about what you think about that. (I often get stuck on - “what do they mean when they say public? which public? whose public?…”) Within this, how did you come to know about or be involved in the arts? Did you always engage with art galleries and museums? Or is that new?
EO: I always think it's kind of strange that I am an artist today because growing up I actually didn’t see much art, and rarely went to galleries. My introduction to art-making was through an art teacher at the tail end of high school who was more of a friend than a teacher. I think what made me pursue this was the fact that I really enjoy making things, working with my hands to produce something that didn't exist before, and that somehow, people actually looked at it and sometimes enjoyed it. In the past few years, I have worked at galleries in different positions and I think that experience has made me very attuned to the viewer or the “public” in these spaces. I once worked as a gallery attendant, and that was probably the first time I watched people look at art! You see how little time people actually spend, but more interesting you see that most people don’t actually feel comfortable in these spaces. Like, people don’t see these spaces as somewhere you can just chill and contemplate. It probably didn’t help that I was watching them from the corner! I sometimes feel like galleries and larger museums are over institutionalized, but I’ve never been on the other side (administration) so I know I can’t understand it from that perspective. I think there is a mutually beneficial relationship that is desired: institutions want people to come in and engage with the work and the public want places to go to and things they can engage with, but somehow I think “art” gets over conceptualized like we talked about before, or there seems to be these unwritten rules as to how to actually engage with culture, or many times institutions don’t show work that directly reflects the community in which they are situated. All these things lead to this sort of gulf in the relationship that as an artist I really don’t know how to address. Except for trying to make my work as accessible in terms of form and visual reference as I can make it.
I think about the responsibility of the artist to understand that although the institution might provide the space or the context, It is the artist’s responsibility to think about who their audience is and how they would like to speak to them. What would I like my audience to hear through my work, regardless of where it is shown?
CB: I’d love to hear if you have an ideal way of working with artistic spaces: what would be your ideal scenario for working with a gallery? What sort of things do you expect from those you’re working with? I recognize that you might not yet have had the opportunity to work in this idealized way, it is very sad, but I know it is quite typical for artists to have almost nothing but negative experiences within the arts here in Canada. But I’m curious to know how you would like to work in the future.
EO: I also have very similar thoughts as you when it comes to the art market and how I see my work embedded in this field. I also find the market to be pretty gross! I get mad frustrated with myself sometimes that my primary draw to art making is through painting and drawing! I think artworks are so much bigger than a market and actually lose a lot of their veracity when held within the constraints of the market. I prefer to think of my work as shaping and inviting experiences also, and recently I’ve been thinking about how this actually is linked to my ancestry as a Nigerian. I think pre-European contact there was a very different criteria for evaluating an artwork’s worth in a community. I think this criteria was centred around that object or event’s ability to speak directly to a community and hold people in a shared space together. I have been trying to insert this kind of thinking into my practice. To trust that although I make objects, they serve a different purpose than being just commodities.
It is super dicey though, because although I feel like my ancestry sets the precedence for thinking about my work this way, I also feel stuck in the system you know? Like, how does one pay bills if one is an object maker who sells very little? Or even decides not to sell? How does one decide the parameters for their own practice regardless of what the norms are? I think this is tremendously hard work especially for emerging artists. I feel like I’m super early in the game, but already I have had some terrible experiences that have made me question whether my humanity was even visible to the people I was interacting with. What are we doing as a community if that is the primary experience of many emerging artists?
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this idea of how I can set the parameters for my practice, and decide how I would like to relate with people, from a standpoint of me valuing my own humanity. I think this means I will need to learn to say “no” also, and maybe pass up opportunities that may be good from a different perspective. Placing a value on my longevity and health so that I can be useful to my community, whether that is through the objects I make, or through my relationships with people. As an emerging artist I have been desirous of gallery representation for a long time, but now I’m like, “wait, what does representation actually mean to me?” What would need to be in place for me to actually say that someone “represents” me? I think there would need to be a mutuality of values that extends way beyond objects or the market and stretches into a common sense of community and responsibility.
I’m curious what you think about this idea of setting one’s own parameters? especially early on in a practice, and this idea of mutuality of values and responsibility in representation.
CB: I think this is so important and also so tricky to think about. In a lot of ways, I think it has to do with how you come to artistic practice initially: who your teachers were. I come out of experimental film, which is not without its own baggage, but historically comes from a legacy of anti-establishment sensibilities (at least the communities within experimental film that I gravitated to), and I feel super grateful for that. Even though one could argue that a lot of that legacy comes from a reaction to being denied entry into the museum itself, in the end, that rejection of art-as-commodity is something that really resonated with me. Especially the experiences I had while living in San Francisco, where the artists working within the media arts community there helped shape this idea I have of an artist as being responsible to oneself and one’s community in a broader political sense—not some intangible sense of institutionalization or fame or anything else. And I recognize the privilege I have in being able to take this approach (which I don’t always get right), especially because I feel like I’ve been around a while now and have been lucky to have had a number of experiences to figure out how I feel about it all, I know that emerging artists are facing different realities. I also recognize the privilege it is to be practicing within the Canadian art scene, which is so much better funded than most others and offers a chance to at least somewhat support a practice without needing to engage in a commercial market. I agree that—we all deserve to be paid—and there are repercussions to taking such stands about one’s practice. But, ultimately, the practices are ours: there wouldn’t be an art market, there wouldn’t be art magazines, there wouldn’t be art curators, or arts institutions, or art historians; if there weren’t artists.
I like what you’re bringing up regarding ‘longevity’ too, like, we need and want to be able to continue to be artists into the future so we need to take care of ourselves and do things in ways that feel right. I really worry about all of the artists and voices we lose along the way because they can’t or won’t participate anymore.
I wonder if you could speak a bit more about your own “longevity” of practice, especially within the framework shaped by the reality of pandemic and the overt rejection of recognizing the existence of systemic racism that we’re living through: how do you see your practice has shifted, or is shifting now in ways that you think will persist on into the future? What do you see yourself holding onto in the coming years?
EO: I think it is this longevity thing, and remembering to care for myself. I remember in September, when it was clear that my MFA cohort would get access to our studios again, I was thinking a lot about all the things I had missed, all the losses of a summer complicated by a pandemic, and how excited I was for things to go back to “normal.” Now I realize that I should have given more thought to the good things that came from the slowness that was kind of forced on me. To be able to be home and make dinner, and to be able to spend a lot of time on the phone talking to friends and family. I would really like to hold unto this sense that in order to be the best artist I can be - both in the studio and in relationships - I really have to be kind to myself. Constantly, checking in as to what my capacity is, and where my thresholds are. I think sometimes I get on this productivity and performance treadmill, trying to prove my worth to myself and others through work, and I’m realizing that I may not last long if I don’t keep that in check.