Anietie Ekanem is a 24-year-old Oxford graduate. From an early age, he dedicated his time to life within the arts.

He remained on that path, earning Bachelors in History of Art at Oxford. Last year, during his two-month residency in Cyprus, Ekanem produced a video work titled: Yemaya o Yemoja, which earned him the prestigious UK Ingram Prize.

Winning the prize saw his work being permanently acquired by The Ingram Collection, which houses one of the largest and most significant publicly accessible collections of modern and contemporary British art in the UK. In this interview, he speaks on what the feat means, his life in the arts and other related issues. He currently curates and produces projects focusing on diaspora experiences in Berlin, Athens and London.

By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor

What were the things that shaped your growing up?

My name is Anietie Ndifrekeabasi Ekanem, I am 24 years old. And I am an artist and curator exploring the ever-changing field of contemporary art and the global Black diaspora. Growing up in London with Nigerian heritage greatly shaped my upbringing for I felt as though I had an expanded worldview. The feeling of having two homes is familiar to many individuals who operate between multiple countries and it is a continuous source of inspiration.

You studied History of Arts at Oxford, can we know what inspired you into embracing Arts?

I have been interested in the Arts since childhood. I played the saxophone throughout my school years and became deeply interested in film photography as an early teenager. At the same time, I had a great interest in the humanities such as history, literature and philosophy, thus informing my studies at Oxford. In having multiple interests which spanned disciplines, what unified them all was how I was able to draw upon inspiration and express my point of view. As my ideas, concepts and representation of self-matured with age, visual art production became the most natural outlet for how I sought to engage with and contribute to the world around me.

What does Arts mean to you?

Many scholars throughout history and philosophy have debated what art is and how it may be defined. Some consider art as something purely visual, taking form in paintings or sculptures for instance. I continuously think about what art can be, rather than what art is. Art to me means resistance, redress and care. That is to say, I firmly believe in Art’s ability to empower as well as interrogate systems of oppression. I consider art possessing agency and at all times a form of thought.

Congratulations on winning the Ingram Prize with your work: Yemaya o Yemoja. How does it feel winning the prize?

Thank you, working as an artist can get lonely and there are often times when you doubt yourself and what you’re doing. To be nominated for The Ingram Prize with all its esteem felt like an affirmation that I am moving in the right direction: winning the prize was truly a blessing!

Tell us about the Ingram Prize and its significance to your life within the Arts…

The Ingram Prize is a barometer of contemporary artistic talent in the United Kingdom, and so it was a great honour to be shortlisted and subsequently win. My work was purchased by the Ingram Collection for Modern and Contemporary Art, meaning that it is part of a highly revered collection in perpetuity. Previous winners have had successful careers and lives in the art world across the world, so it is exciting to be a part of this.

Considering your ethnic background, it’s surprising that you produced something that good about Yemoja, a Yoruba goddess. Tell us about the work, Yemaya o Yemoja and what it symbolises

Yes, my ethnic background is Ibibio and Yemoja the Yoruba goddess is the basis for the video. I had completed previous projects concerning Ekpe masquerade which is closer to my background, but with this more ambitious project, I wanted to explore other pre-colonial expressions of religion. In this regard, I had been researching the history of the transatlantic slave trade and how there are analogous religious systems in both the Caribbean and West Africa. I came to learn of how the Orisha exists across Southern Nigeria, Brazil and the Caribbean and I began exploring cultural and linguistic histories and considered how this may be understood visually. My video ultimately became a musing about the multiple forms in which the global Black diaspora exists, and how artistic and expressive forms can subsist beyond colonialism. Moreover, I produced the video whilst working in Nicosia, Cyprus. On the southern side of the green line where I stayed, it is majority Greek-Orthodox. I was surrounded by Orthodox iconography that was gold and auspicious by nature. This was not lost on me, for I then began to examine how institutional and pre-colonial religious systems can correspond and overlap.

This work has its setting in Africa and it earned you an award before an audience I believe is not mostly African. Now, what do you think made it stand out? Was there some sort of cultural dialogue?

I think what stood out was perhaps how strategies of narration do not always need to be linear and chronological. Furthermore, the use of video is akin to painting and writing through my deployment of text, colour and layering, perhaps subverting expectations of a video particularly one with this subject matter. Indeed, the audience was not mostly African, but Africa itself is a vast continent where histories of cultural expression vary depending on geographical location. So I would argue that exchanges in cultural dialogue would exist across a pan-African context as well as across European boundaries. The video seeks to engage people across cultures through being visually and aurally stimulating, ultimately moving beyond Eurocentric ideals.

It is interesting knowing that you have been curating and producing projects focusing on diaspora experiences in Berlin, Athens and London. In the last few months, some stolen cultural artefacts have been returned to Nigeria by some institutions in the UK and Germany. More are being expected. As someone in the arts in the UK and a Nigerian, do you agree with the notion that institutions and countries keeping those historical artefacts shouldn’t just return them alone but also pay restitution?

I have always felt strongly that artefacts looted by previous colonial powers should certainly be returned. And albeit after a long while, it is good to see that restitution is occurring. This said, I would argue that any reparations paid should go directly towards the effecting of museological infrastructures that ensure the restoration, conservation, and adequate display of all returned objects.


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