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Where's the frame

Maribelle Bierens

January 31, 2023 6:40 PM


In Okiki Akinfe’s partially abstract figurative work, you see elegant brushstrokes outlining the figures. She mixes drawing-like parts with detailed and textured figuration and leaves the architectural perspective lines bare. Although a divergence in abstraction and figuration might, in some cases, lead to some tension, in Okiki’s work, there is a pleasing harmony in the combination of these different ways. wtf? had the pleasure of visiting the artist’s studio at the RCA to learn more about her practice.

For people familiar with Okiki's work, it’s remarkable to see that in her most recent body of work, she’s moved into a more figurative realm. Having worked in a more abstract language at the SLADE during her undergrad, she’s using her time at the RCA to investigate her practice and push its boundaries. ‘I’m treating this like a new foundation year’. She clarifies that she’s not starting over, ‘I’m not trying to forget everything, but I try to do things I've not done before’. By doing so, she felt like she hadn’t pushed her figurative side enough and started to incorporate figuration more in her works. 

Before her undergrad at the SLADE, she completed a foundation year at the Royal Drawing School. You can still easily recognise her background in drawing in the body of work she has in her studio right now. ‘The focus on drawing helped so much. They teach you the measuring, anatomically correct; it’s very precisely done.’

It’s reflected in this new body of work; there is a specific kind of preciseness, a sort of visible deliberation and incredible elegance. You find partially abstracted figures doing day-to-day things, like lying and staring at the ceiling, a close-up of someone’s socks who’s sitting on a couch, all in an elevated but still candid way. It’s all about putting forward these little personal moments, “I’m trying to do more intricacy and intimacy,’ she explains. It’s about ‘the idea of the mundane and making it interesting’.

She leaves some part of the canvas bare. ‘With linen,’ she explains, ‘I like the paintings to feel like the sort of the skin of the canvas.’ On the rest of the canvas, she shows some figuration, leaving some bits out, pastiching references to other cultural expressions she likes. Okiki shows these intimate personal moments to audiences, but she doesn’t reveal everything. “Giving an intimate moment - it’s been fun, thinking about what I want to give a viewer access to. I really enjoy things of being visible and invisible.’ 

The questions that arise when the viewer is not being able to see what’s going on completely are interesting ones. ‘The gestures, the moments that you’re recognising things and they’re fading away from you,’ she clarifies, ‘That in itself is such a skill to then think about what am I being pulled away from, why would I even think something is being moved away from me.’ 

Closely connected to this idea is how she makes certain parts look like underpaintings. The way Okiki uses earthy brown pigment colours can evoke images of 17th-century underpaintings of Rembrandt and Rubens. ‘I’m obsessed with the idea of painting conversations, and underpainting almost works as a real painting. I think, for me, what underpaintings look like, resembles myself more, what I like in terms of tonation and skin. Using raw umber and burned umber, I like this idea of being unfinished, but are they?’

In all these different ways, Okiki’s work elicits a response from the viewer, that’s one of the most important powers of art. ‘I don’t want people just to look; I want it to invoke a conversation. Art makes you question. That's what I find interesting.’

This new way of incorporating more figuration into her work ties into her way of questioning identity-based stereotypes, which is something she started doing during her Undergrad at the SLADE. But, instead of approaching that in a macro way, she brings it back to a personal level. ‘In this way, it’s easier to dispel stereotypes and rumours by simply existing.’ She explains how she’s ‘looking into this idea of being quiet as a form of activism, an assertive way of not draining yourself.’ The Pandemic, BLM movent, having to explain and assert yourself all the time, it all got to be exhausting. She started to probe, ‘how do I make work that expresses myself and asserting, but doesn't need to exist in response to that but exists in itself? Therefore these quiet moments that exist and playing with that, and there is a sincerity in that.’ 

Turning to the ordinary and personal, bringing perhaps overlooked aspects of lived experience into visibility, is welcome, like taking a breath of the expectation to create a certain kind of work. ‘It’s easy to make works that you should make. Easy to get lost in the performance of the studio.’ 

In her studio right now, you can see some image transfers that Okiki has been experimenting with. One of them is a depiction of her mother doing Okiki’s hair. ‘I’ve always been precious about how people get to see my natural hair. I’ve had a conversation with my sister about what she would like to see in my art. Thinking about who’s my audience, am I neglecting people, am I neglecting myself in my work? She was talking about hair, and she’s never seen paintings about black hair in museums.’

Okiki shares that she realised that she didn’t like people to see it.  ‘And even just saying that made me realise that something to challenge myself because that is an intimate moment.’ 

For a moment, the idea that the personal is political might pop up as a possible theme she’s exploring. It’s a rallying slogan that has been used since the late 1960s. It can be used to describe how experiences on a personal level are a result of the broader social structures it is located in. Second-wave feminists, for example, have been arguing that the personal experiences of women are rooted in their political situation and gender inequality. But in her case, as she approaches it, she proves that by presenting personally and sincerely - there is power in ignoring it. And in this way, by presenting something so personal and sincere - it’s almost an act of resistance which is political in its turn. ‘I’m still thinking about countering stereotypes but in a different way. My mindset is different now; I’m proving my existence. And I’m counteracting by not acknowledging these stereotypes’. It’s important to her to take her time and contemplate. ‘I like to sit down and be like, what can I do with this piece?’ 

There is no way around it, but when you depict women, questions about the male gaze will arise. This overanalysed discussion about how women have been depicted from a masculine heterosexual perspective that present women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. It does not undermine the importance of needing to erode this, but it might pressure women artists as well. Questions like whether you’re reinforcing it, internalising it, and why you’re depicting women in a certain way. She’s been finding joy in putting thoughts about the male gaze into the background.  ‘Forgetting that there is a gaze has been fun; it pushes this idea of what I want in life to the forefront.’ 

It’s a relief to use yourself as a starting point. And it’s also a really interesting point of view. ‘Core existence is just existence. It’s a sort of I think, and therefore I am.’ And she’s not the only artist thinking this way. ‘Especially now, I’ve seen with other artists there is this sort of move not to have to prove everything and just stand in the moment.’ 

One of the ways she does this is by weaving in a depiction of the movies, series and music, and imagery she’s drawn to. ‘I’m trying to use more references that feel more recognisable to me, to bring familiarity back to my work.’ The work in the studio right now, for example, includes a reference to a Studio Ghibli still, one of the Japanese animation studio’s movies. It also includes a reference to a cartoon called The Boondocks - a cartoon from the 00s that cleverly represented conversations and convictions in the black community from the 60s versus 90/00s. ‘Captures a lot of great conversation, pushing stereotypes, dispelling them, feels like references within references. When you watch it, you let that go, and it becomes satire/ and entertaining.’

All of it together, it’s like a pastiche of personal moments and self-contemplation,   and there is a beautiful honesty and authenticity to it. It’s about taking ownership of what you show the viewer and what not, presenting these intimate moments, and mixing in references to the things she sees and listens to. ‘This private, being true to self, how do I hold myself, that’s the direction I’m hoping to move towards.’

You can follow Okiki on her Instagram.

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