I first learned about Bukola Koiki’s art through Facebook. She posted an essay about her work in the group named “BCC: BrownHall Community,” a networking forum for Black artists in Portland. Koikiʼs installation I Claim That Which Was Never Mine (2014) features a series of geles, or traditional Nigerian head ties, constructed of unconventional materials like indigo-dyed Tyvek and charcoal-rubbed canvas. The geles are displayed on a table accompanied by a looped video of Koiki struggling to tie a large, crinkly gele around her head, visibly grasping at the cultural rite of passage that eluded her after she left Nigeria for the United States as a teenager. The installation highlights the frequently awkward process of cultural reclamation in a way that is beautiful and painful, full of near-dormant memories that are only awoken through ritual. As a US-born person of color and artist, I feel compelled to examine the cultural remnants I inherited and was moved both by Koikiʼs vulnerability and by her careful, courageous re-stitching of ancestral connections. I asked Koiki, who at the time was working on an MFA in Applied Craft + Design from Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art (she graduated in May 2015), if I could visit her studio. I was curious to see if she was still tying geles, what shape they had taken, and what materials she was using. But when we met at her studio, Koiki explained that something had changed.
Bukola Koiki (BK): For my show of the geles in December 2014, I had done all this work—about exploring what it means to be a real Nigerian girl and the things one should know, the gele being a big one. Then I went home to Nigeria in January 2015 for my sister’s wedding, and I discovered that thereʼs now a huge market and business for makeup artists, and part of their repertoire is that they must know how to tie the perfect gele. My sister had paid someone to do her makeup for the wedding and also to tie all of the geles over the two days of the wedding.
Brannon Rockwell-Charland (BRC): So, tying your gele was no longer something you had to know.
BK: Correct. And it brought up a few things. Iʼm not of the same generation as my sister. Sheʼs younger, so she doesnʼt feel nostalgia for that idea of what one should know, what one should be as a perfect girl. After all that work I had done, it turned out that it wasnʼt even something that I had to do. When I came back to the States, I looked at these head ties and thought, “Why was I so obsessed with this?” Being older and away from my culture, I didnʼt understand that a shift had happened. So I decided to disrupt the surface of the geles, to challenge their perfection and the idea that women have to look a certain way. Iʼve also been doing some pieces based on Nigerian patois, using appliqué, which hides and reveals various parts.
My work hasn’t looked the same every semester; it has changed. The central themes of dislocation, memory, and home have remained, but they express themselves in different ways.
BRC: Some of your newer works remind me of Caribbean patois, which has West African origins, like a lot of Creole languages.
BRC: I don’t know very much about the Caribbean part of my family. I think my grandmother and her mother were reluctant to talk about it because I think they knew that going home is never the same once you leave—which sounds like a feeling you know well. Have you shown your sister the geles that youʼve made?
BK: Iʼve shown them to all my family members, and my brothers were complimentary. My sister is a newlywed, so I havenʼt heard her reaction yet. But she does know that I was taking videos during the wedding of all the head ties.
BRC: I imagine that showing these objects to someone who doesn’t know the effects of dislocation might be an anticlimactic experience.
BK: Youʼre not wrong. Thatʼs why the video works so well with the objects. Watching me practice tying geles in the video, my brothers were dying of laughter over how unwieldy it looked. The video conveys the emotion behind the work. It plays on a loop: Iʼm forever trying to master the gele; Iʼm forever trying to find my place; Iʼm forever trying to get the perfect style, the perfect technique; Iʼm forever trying to be the Nigerian girl I think Iʼm supposed to be.
Bukola Koiki was born in Lagos, Nigeria and has lived in the United States since she was a teen. She channels her occasional homesickness through labor intensive and layered techniques in her work which is predominantly fiber based. Recently, she has been exploring the expressive possibilities of video narratives in her work. She was the recipient of the 2014 Siteworks Scholarship Award for PNCA graduate students and the 2014 Brooks Scholarship from Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, CO. Her work has been included in group exhibitions in Portland, OR and Morristown, NJ and she recently completed the c3:initiative and Pulp & Deckle combined studio residency that will lead to a group show in Portland, OR in June 2015.