An Open System in Constant Flux
“I think it’s healthy to create space to discuss and think about grief and trauma along with our other feelings. By relating other peoples’ struggles to our own, we begin to develop a social and political context for understanding and dealing with these issues even if they are not happening in our own homes.”
Interview & Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Photographs by Theo Constantinou
Eto Otitigbe is an American citizen with a background in traditional Nigerian practices. All of his life, Eto faced a limbo between choosing various cultures and identities. Eto chooses to express himself with multiple releases of character such as music, sculpture, painting or other creative functions. Eto feels connected to his African roots and American impact enabling him to use his resources to spread messages too often swept under the proverbial rug. Focusing on the collective human reactions to loss and struggle, Eto Otitigbe chooses to design positive associations to negative events in order provide hope. His encouraged hope is not to ignore the truth behind continued cultural genocide worldwide, but to evaluate the loss of identity realistically. To Eto, even if it is of small significance, it is important to fight for beliefs against all odds because it will always make a difference.
I read a recent interview on thenationonlineng.net with National Summit Group (NSG) Executive Secretary Tony Uranta. He was asked: “ Lately, the killings in Plateau State, which is not even about Boko Haram but that of indigeneship. What is your take on this?” Some of his response was: “It is interesting that we are talking in the week after which we have laid to rest Ambassador Segun Olusola, who, even as far back as the early 60’s, foresaw the dangers in our not having a constitution that defines precisely who a Nigerian is and that he is first a Nigerian wherever he is…For instance, if I were born in America, I’d automatically be a citizen of America; yet if I am born in Kaduna, I am not a citizen of Kaduna or my citizenship of Nigeria does not necessarily empower me to stand for office in Kaduna. Today, in America, a second generation American, of Kenyan origin, is President…We have to settle some of these fundamental issues of who is a Nigerian. Where is he a Nigerian? What are our rights and responsibilities as Nigerians?” How do you feel about this dialogue in general? Well, if you take this issue a few steps back, aren’t we all citizens of the world? What then are our rights and responsibilities?
I was born in upstate New York and grew up in Lagos, Illinois, Boston, and later on, in Albany, New York. So I am very much an American, but my upbringing was very much that of a Nigerian household. My parents valued respect for elders and family, education work, working smarter, finding creative ways to solve your problems. But when I went to elementary school, I was treated like an outsider because of my name and accent. Later on in college, when I began to mix with Africans who grew up in Africa, I noticed other differences. So even though you may think your identity is fixed, other’s perception of you may always be different.
Can you speak to me about the issues of identity in your artwork? Having roots in Nigeria, and America, as well as being in a world of still existing racial and class divide, do you find yourself not knowing where your identity lies? Do you think you have found yourself?
Throughout my life, I have learned to negotiate the various poles of my identity: Nigerian-American-Artist-Engineer-Designer-DJ-Musician, to name a few, and I have been generous about sharing this ongoing journey with people. That’s why sometimes my work is charged with political subject matter in response to current events and on other occasions my work is purely about exploring curiosities and trying to create something that I have never made before. As a human, I am an open system in constant flux.
Voltaire said, “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.” How does the concept of God play into the politics of your work? Why do you think it is important for people to create the unknown?
Voltaire also said: “Earth is an asylum to which the other planets deport their lunatics.” My work doesn’t explicitly engage with the concept of God, and I am not such a fan of Voltaire; he promoted false and insulting concepts regarding the origin of African people and the transatlantic slave trade.
My work investigates power geometries between people and the possible outcomes of these relationships. Throughout time, human beings have had to struggle with each other to survive and sustain themselves. Culture is a by-product of struggle. Culture is also affected by our curiosity and willingness to explore the unknown. So I think it’s natural for people to create out of the unknown in order to understand why we are here and where we should be going.
In your interview for Underline Gallery, you said, “My conceptual motivation for modifying this nozzle is aligned with my belief that people must be agents of positive change if we hope to improve our future living conditions,” in relation to Spray. Your Becoming Visible project uses a modernized technique to produce a traditional, artistic, design technique from Africa. Though your artwork ties into modern issues of race, and historical experiences that are primarily created out of negative circumstances, can you speak on how utilizing cultural techniques and positivity play into your serious messages? What is the importance of seeing beyond devastation? Can you speak on keeping humor in one’s life?
The media makes it seem as though there is a constant threat of devastation and loss. Much of my past work explores personal loss—such as the loss of my father due to a prolonged sickness and dementia, and the unexpected suicide of a close friend. Human life is delicate and people deal with different types of loss every day.
More recently, I’ve been interested in loss prevention. When people hear this, their first reaction is one of doubt, that loss cannot be prevented because it occurs naturally. Others think that even our best efforts to prevent loss may only lead to a Pyrrhic victory, wherein, the mechanisms used to prevent one type of loss gives rise to another. If you really think about it though, loss prevention is possible and necessary. HIV/AIDS health workers, for instance, would argue that their efforts have resulted in fewer viral transmissions thus reducing the loss of life.
Rituals are a form of loss prevention that play an important role in my artwork. Rituals are symbolic gestures that celebrate or show our commitment to an ideal, rituals can be used for remembrance or coping with loss. My piece entitled “Spray” in the Good American Show at Underline Gallery was very much about loss, remembrance, and celebration. By drilling a spiraling pattern of holes into a fire hose nozzle, I decommissioned its historical use as a crowd control weapon. Now, it’s sort of a celebratory object that we can use to reflect on the sacrifices many people made for this country in the 50’s and 60’s.
So even though some of my work is influenced by tragedies from our past or devastation; I find ways to redirect that negative energy into something positive.
Anyone who knows me will tell you about how much I like to laugh… a lot. But I’m still not that comfortable using humor in my work. Humor is a very unique and powerful weapon that can be used to challenge our notions about power structures, disrupt the status quo, and parody life. When used in art, it must be clever and genuine to really make an impact.
I once made a sculpture called “Victory”, which was a 20x scale replica of a rattrap manufactured by Victor Pest Control. I would install the piece in public art fairs, or and outside of subways stops in Brooklyn, and just watch what people would do with it. The scale of the piece made it playful and inviting and the craftsmanship made it believable and somewhat sinister. Either way the work allowed me to ease into rather serious conversations about life, risk, and loss with complete strangers. Some people climbed into it; others put their dogs, or kids in it. One guy planked on it. Some who engaged this work thought it was a physical metaphor for the urban rat race while others thought it spoke about the disposable nature of human life.
Suddenly is a project of album art for fictitious bands with strong cultural undertones that weigh heavily on your African roots. There is a focus on South Sudan and the recent independence in 2011. Most freedom, or basic rights are not gained without severe loss, struggle, and pain, and it is often a continuous cycle. What are your thoughts on the abstract concept of peace, and with all of our intelligence, do you think global cooperation will ever exist?
If I define peace as an end to all violence amongst humankind, then I don’t believe that true peace and global cooperation are possible. But that doesn’t stop me from promoting non-violence. I do believe that navigating life with a sense of honesty to yourself and those around you as well as general love and respect for others helps to ease the tensions we face in this world.
I once saw Paul Rusesabagina talk about being involved in the Rwandan Genocide, and how he protected, and saved the lives of the people that he did. It was a long time ago, and before going, I will shamefully admit I wasn’t sure what my mom was taking me to. I was blown away, but I also do not remember anything specific that he said, so I did a Google search. We will have to question the legitimacy of this quote, but the concept is what I want to address: “If people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible,’ and they’ll go on eating their dinners.” What if your art were to never have an impact, do you think just releasing the positive energy that you do by creating it is enough to instill change in the universe? Why do you think humanity makes reality more and more false as we evolve? Are we actually regressing as a species?
Trauma and suffering have such a powerful influence on memory especially when the experiences are first hand. I’ll admit that the further removed from the source of trauma or actual event either by time, distance, or cultural differences it becomes harder for me to really understand and sympathize with those who were directly impacted by it. But there’s a difference between this type of distance and being desensitized to trauma. It’s common for us to be overwhelmed with images of suffering worldwide and yet little context is given to help us understand what these images really mean. The sort of people Rusesabagina described as being so apathetic to such a horrific situation as the one in Rwanda must have clogged pores; they must be out of tune with “ike” the vibe or essential energy that flows through all living things.
I think it’s healthy to create space to discuss and think about grief and trauma along with our other feelings. By relating other peoples’ struggles to our own, we begin to develop a social and political context for understanding and dealing with these issues even if they are not happening in our own homes.
I spent the last month in Berlin at an artist’s residency. While there, I learned about the Stumbling Stones. This is one of the largest memorials to human suffering. Throughout several countries in Europe, small brass plates have been installed in the pavement at the former homes of Holocaust victims. The stones contain information such as the person’s name and the date when they were removed from their home. These stones become part of your everyday life as you walk through the city. Even the act of walking on them polishes them, keeping them constantly in the public eye. For me, the memorial personalizes the Holocaust and gives me a better sense of just how far reaching it was; returning to Rusesabagina and my discussion about being removed from trauma, the Stumbling Stones allow me to situate a particular historic trauma within my present life and think about how such atrocities could be prevented in the future.
When I create new work and share it with people, I open up a dialogue and build a community around different issues. This act may have a positive effect on the present and future state of those involved. But I don’t think any artwork can change the entire universe. Reality is something that’s very personal; it is constantly shaped by our experiences and outlook, among other things. As long as we keep our pores open and senses willing to accept what is going on around us, we will be in touch with reality.
Attached somewhat to concepts in the last question, but also in general, hypothetical and removed from Africa, or America specifically: What do you think of the concept that we may be approaching a time when people will have to kill for the last bottle of Gatorade worldwide?
I’m definitely concerned about the privatization of public goods and natural resources as they are becoming more and more scarce. This topic comes up a lot amongst my friends. Especially here in New York State where there’s a hot debate about whether or not companies should be allowed to conduct hydraulic-fracking in order to extract natural gas. Although many of the targeted sites are hundreds of miles from New York City, we would experience the negative effects, such as contaminated drinking water, if fracking is allowed to take place with little or no regulation as it has been done in other neighboring states. But the push for fracking is a strong one, especially in rural areas. Our culture of consumption has to change if we want to keep from arriving at such a dire situation as you describe. Even growing up, I lived in some suburban communities with manicured pretty green lawns. Think about all the time, effort, and resources that go into maintaining that façade!