How Nigerian artist Layo Bright uses glass to explore migration

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Perhaps the most striking motif in Layo Bright’s work is the sculpted female heads. In their profile with their eyes closed, they refer to pre-colonial artistic practice in West Africa, to the bronze and terracotta heads of Nigeria in royal attire. In Bright’s hands, they are recontextualized as a personal and larger commentary on cultural dynamics, identity, memory, colonization, displacement and migration.

Some of his headdresses are finely crowned with gele, a Yoruba tie worn by women in his native land. At the base is a leaf-like shoot made from checkered sackcloth, or colloquially named Ghana-Must-Go. It’s a phrase that emerged in the 1980s in Nigeria to chase away undocumented immigrants, most of whom were Ghanaians. These pieces are mounted on a wooden plate, creating rich dimensions of texture.

Even more remarkable is the way Bright – who grew up in Lagos but is now based in New York – treats glass as a boundary of sculpture, the lack of opacity sometimes making them appear like sleeping oracles of sacred knowledge. Altogether, Bright has developed an artistic vocabulary informed by his experience, heritage and wider social climate on the continent. For this, she was acclaimed. His sculptures have been featured in international exhibitions and installations such as Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York, Smack Mellon and Art Salon.

In 2021, Bright was enlisted as an Artist Fellow for NXTHVN, a US-based arts initiative to support emerging artists. The Fellowship culminates in a group exhibition titled Undercurrents at the Sean Kelly Gallery, a cornerstone for which Bright showcases works like Double Standard and Vision. With the exhibition running from June 9 to August 5, 2022, Bright tells OkayAfrica how to find your place in the art world.

In 2021, Layo Bright was enlisted as an Artist Fellow for NXTHVN, a US-based arts initiative to support emerging artists.

Photo credit: Image by Marissa Del Toro.

What prompted you to become an artist?

I cannot identify one event that inspired me to become an artist, but rather a series of events and people that encouraged me to develop a visual language. Fine arts was my favorite class when I was in secondary school in Nigeria. Mr. Bewaji, my art teacher, often spoke of being an artist as a constant practice: as a way of seeing, thinking and expressing feelings.

In a way, art class didn’t feel like just another class, and I found myself drawing and painting frequently in my free time, even after class. At first it was a way to relax and channel my creativity, but I became more interested in the nuances of expression and the vibrancy of art. I guess it aroused a curiosity and restlessness in me, because I continued to do some work when I entered Babcock University Law School.

I studied my law texts during the day, and at night I drew or painted. I continued on this path until I completed my law degree and law school. After law school in Lagos, I became a studio assistant for Peju Alatise, a phenomenal Nigerian artist, and the experience encouraged me to devote myself to a coherent artistic practice.

Adebisi VII by Layo Bright

Adebisi VII by Layo Bright.

Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Monique Meloche

What were the conditions that motivated your move to the United States?

I moved to New York in 2016 for an MFA at Parsons School of Design. Prior to that, I had just completed the Nigerian bar exams after studying law for four years. I had painted and drawn in my spare time, but this was an opportunity for me to focus on my artistic practice and develop the skills and visual language that I had always wanted. It was also a crucial point in my choice to follow my passion for art, rather than a career in law that many have encouraged me to explore.

Glass is often an essential medium in your work. Why glass?

It is a dynamic and wonderful medium that I have integrated into my practice in recent years. Before that, I didn’t even know glass as an artistic medium. It was a big part of my daily life, like most people who use computers or smartphones or drink from a glass, but I hadn’t considered its potential as an artistic medium.

But a few years ago, I received a scholarship for an UrbanGlass course in New York where I was introduced to glassmaking techniques for the first time. The course focused on kiln casting, which is the casting of glass sculptures, but I soon became interested in other techniques and have continued to explore different ways of working with glass ever since.

u200bIn Plain Sight merges glass and Ghana-Must-Go bag on the panel.

‘In Plain Sight’ merges glass and Ghana-Must-Go bag on panel.

Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Monique Meloche

Identity is one of the themes you explore in your work. As a Nigerian-born artist, what does identity mean?

For me, identity means how I define or see myself within my community and the world at large. These are the factors that shape how I see myself, the people around me, and how we are perceived. It goes back to the idea of ​​kinship in terms of characteristics shared with others, and places or communities that give everyone a sense of belonging. In this way, I don’t think it’s strictly about culture or place of birth, but rather an amalgamation of what and who we are.

Is identity static?

I do not think so. In my experience, this is not the case, when I consider the complexities and nuances of the communities, histories and cultures from which I come, which explain how my identity has taken shape. And I continue to expand that, being shaped and formed by forces inside and outside of my control. Since we do not exist in a vacuum, neither is our identity fixed.

How is sculpture different from other art forms? Especially sculpting with glass.

I am drawn to the tactile nature of sculpting and working with a range of materials that give a sense of touch. I work with different materials to make my sculptures, including wood, clay, pottery, glass and textiles such as frozen. Everyone’s feel and technique is different, and I appreciate that everyone demands something different from me. Whether it’s manipulating glass with heat, chiseling or burning wood, cutting and bending textiles or shaping clay to resemble shapes. I’ve always found it exciting to know how hands can shape materials into representative shapes.

Another theme that appears in your work is migration, merging the famous Ghana-Must-Go bags to explore displacement and forced movement. How did you come to this technique?

Curiosity and research led me to work with this technique. A few years ago, I came across the Ghana-Must-Go bag at a dollar store in Harlem, New York. Until then and having spent most of my life in Nigeria, I was curious as to why I found the bag in a store so far from home. Asking questions and researching led me to the history of the bag originally invented in Japan, the history in Nigeria, and how the bag got its name.

A xenophobic executive order was passed by the Nigerian President in 1983 which led to the forced migration of over one million undocumented Ghanaians from Nigeria. Checkered plastic bags were lightweight, cheap, durable, and readily available to fleeing migrants to pack their belongings. Following this incident and the number of fleeing migrants who used the bags, they came to be known as Ghana-Must-Go bags. in Nigeria.

In several parts of the world, checkered tote bags are linked to migrant communities. I merge sheets of glass that cover the checkered plastic bag in my works, to disrupt the pattern and reveal or hide the pattern. Migration is the story of humanity in the sense that it has existed in all cultures around the world and is a key part of what makes us human.

The migration crisis continues to occur in the world today. Just in the news recently, African refugees were killed to prevent them from crossing the Moroccan-Spanish border. How does that make you feel?

It is difficult to put into words how disheartening, frustrating and infuriating it is to know about the injustices associated with the migration of African refugees. And knowing that this isn’t the first time, and probably not the last, that something like this would happen is scary. Besides the stories here and there, I didn’t have a full understanding of African migration inequalities until I read Olusegun AdeniyiFrom the pan to the fire, chronicling the journeys of several African migrants, the hostilities of many foreign countries, and how people and governments can be desensitized to the plight of black migrants. I wonder how many stories we didn’t hear and how many didn’t make the headlines.

You are currently exhibiting your work at the NXTHVN “Undercurrents” exhibition, a presentation of the graduates of the fellowship you are a part of. How was the reception?

It was great! It’s great to have a culminating exhibition, but it’s also been a celebration of the work of curating the exhibition by the fellow curators: Jamillah Hinson and Marissa Del Toro; and the creation of works over the past year by Studio Fellows: John Guzman, Alyssa Klauer, Africanus Okokon, Patrick Quarm, Daniel Ramos and Warith Taha.

Jamillah and Marissa have gotten to know our practices up close over the past year through studio visits and conversations, and it’s been very rewarding to watch all the work fall into place. Having exposure to Sean Kelly was a memorable experience working with their incredible team alongside NXTHVN to plan the show.

We see the presence of foliage cast in the oven in works like “Visions”. What themes were you trying to communicate here?

The Visions are hybrid forms inspired by caryatids. During my daily walks in New Haven, Connecticut, I was inspired by the architectural moldings of the homes and buildings I encountered. Sometimes they would have caryatids, which are a carved architectural pillar or supporting column of a female body. I was interested in combining female portraits inspired by family members with moldings and decorative patterns.

I am interested in the position of women in relation to society, politics and family with a specific focus on how they influence and support daily structures, much like the caryatids that support physical buildings (literally and metaphorically) while bearing witness to the passage of time.

Are there any challenges you face as an artist? Do you face any obstacles/problems when working with glass?

Sculpting is resource-intensive and expensive, but it’s too much fun to stop.

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