Ojo Agi explores ideas of home, identity and transnational kinship pertaining to the African diaspora post-1960
The Nigerian-Canadian artist and academic subverts the traditional subject/object dynamic in her emphatic portraits.
- Jyni Ong
- 10 September 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Polymath Ojo Agi is many things; artist, art historian and theorist. As well as continuously exploring her art practice, the Nigerian-Canadian is also studying for a PhD in art history at Concordia University where she is the recipient of the Joseph-Armand Bombardier SSHRC Doctoral Award. She also has a master’s degree in Women and Gender Studies, not to mention an undergraduate degree in Health Sciences. These impressive certificates give us an indication of Ojo’s worldly interests, but in actual fact, these accreditations only scratch the surface.
“I’m a daughter of Nigerian immigrants to Canada, and that simple fact permeates so much of my artistic and scholarly interests,” she tells us. “I live at the intersections of multiple identities which have been marginalised throughout my 28 years; however, it is in these ‘contact zones’ (to borrow from literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt) that I’ve been most inspired to make art.” Experienced contradictions and tensions fuel Ojo’s curiosity to find answers relating to the universal need of belonging. And in turn, her emphatic artist practice investigates themes of home, identity and transnational kinship that pertain to the African diaspora post-1960.
Currently based in Toronto, the artist admits she has a “bad habit of moving around a lot.” But it’s this diversity of experiences which has informed her practice over the years. Since 2012, she has worked on brown paper, a nod to the skin tone of her subjects. Another style signature of Ojo’s is chiaroscuro, in other words, the dramatic shadows and highlights which accentuate the bone structure of her chosen subjects. “Although I’ve noticeably toned down my highlighting in recent years,” she goes on to say.
This technique, coupled with a conceptual vigour which attempts to make her subjects feel alive, is what makes Ojo’s work so palpable. Her subjects tend to possess an intense expression in the hope that each depiction will return their gaze to the viewer. In turn, Ojo’s work not only acknowledges but communicates the awareness of being seen, and thus, explains the artist, “subverts the traditional subject/object power dynamic.”
Highly engaging, Ojo has created two bodies of works exploring this so far. For Sad Girls and Lonely Boys is a series of drawings exploring mental health and wellness among Black communities and, more recently, Daughters of Diaspora is a publication interrogating transcultural identity formation among women of the African diaspora. In other work, she recalls a particularly meaningful one recently which saw her create a portrait for the photographer and director Joshua Kissi.
“I really love this piece because it marks several shifts in my artistic practice,” she says. Prior to this, Ojo’s work favoured strong lines and highlights as mentioned before, a style partly informed by a love of graphic novels and fashion illustration. But when it came to the portrait of Joshua, her hand flowed in a different way, relying more on contrasting shapes and colours to “demarcate segments and planes.” This can be seen specifically in the transition between collar to blazer, the parting of the hair, or the way light hits the skin at an angle.
Just like that, Ojo learned how to communicate lines without necessarily mapping them down. At this point in her work, she toned down the harsher highlights which previously marked her portraits, allowing for a more realistic depiction of the human face. “Lastly,” recalls Ojo of this significant pivot in her work, “I got the opportunity to play with pattern on brown paper, which was a joy for me.”
Despite this decided departure in style however, Ojo hasn’t lost her interest in comics and fashion, which she credits as the real origins of her practice. Growing up she had many grand plans for graphic novels and dress designs – which encouraged her to first pick up the marker and gel pens that she still uses to this day. And now, these influences are coming into her work in different ways, through intricately drawn clothes, for instance, or the experimental prints on a garment.
This, sequentially, brings us into the present and what Ojo is working on today. She ends with, “I’m not actively working on a specific project but I am allowing myself to produce work as I feel inspired, with these considerations at the forefront. I would love to have another complete collection like Daughters of Diaspora but I’ve learned better than to rush my process. I’m just as curious as you are to know how my work will evolve, and it’s that curiosity that keeps me motivated to create.”
GalleryOjo Agi (Copyright © Ojo Agi, 2020)
Ojo Agi: Polka Dots (Copyright © Ojo Agi, 2020)
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.