What treasures can be found in the streets of cities around the world? From discarded wood to scrap metal, an artist only has to look around to find the basis for potential new works. Forgotten materials like these sit at the heart of Abdulrazaq Awofeso’s sculptural practice. Working between Lagos, South Africa and Europe, the Nigerian artist makes use of materials that tell a story not only of their local environment but of unseen power dynamics that span the globe.
In his new exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, Awofeso reuses wooden pallet boxes to create sculptural figures that fill the gallery with their collective presence. Once used to transport goods around the world, from fruit and vegetables to clothing and electronics, these wooden boxes have been reshaped as totemic figures with their own characters and personalities. From a bespectacled figure in a pale pink coat to a smiling woman with flowing hair, they assume assembled traits and details drawn from his travels, while still remaining ambiguous in their exact cultural origins.
A reflection on the international migration of people, as well as on the corruption and exploitation that can arise from this, Awofeso raises questions about who is able to travel and why, and what it means to arrive anew in a foreign land.
If you could save only one item from your studio, what would it be?
My angle grinder. It’s hybrid so you can use it for multiple purposes by changing the top, from sanding to grinding iron. You can cut metals, wood, granite, sculpt, mark surfaces and a whole lot more.
What was the last art material you bought to use in your work?
Two 10-litre paint cans. These two are in addition to the others I already have although smaller in size. As my work progresses and the need arises, I acquire and seek what is necessary. I’ve previously been using enamel paints from Lagos, and I have found the switch to water-based paint here interesting.
What is your go-to song when you’re working in the studio?
I don’t have any particular go-to song. Unlike most artists I know, who tend to listen to slow, jazz, classical, melancholic songs whilst working, I gyrate with fast-paced music like Afrobeats and Afropop from a new generation of contemporary musicians. I like to gyrate and those songs do it for me. At times I pause work and dance to my favourite lines. I work and dance. I can’t just keep calm once my favourite songs come on, I must either dance, sing along or just be a bit dramatic at least.
Which single work of art would you choose to live alongside in your home?
Ben Enwonwu‘s Anyanwu, which is on the wall of the national museum in Onikan, Lagos. Anyanwu was created between 1954 and 1955 to adorn the external wall of the museum, which opened in 1956. A larger version of the same piece was later presented by Nigeria to the UN, and was mounted outside its headquarters in New York. Different sizes of the same sculpture have subsequently been created over the years.
“As long as the search for knowledge never ceases, artists should be allowed to evolve regardless of the status behind them”
Top three art or photography books?
Space: Currencies in Contemporary African Art, and Frederic Bruly Bouabre’s La Haute Diplomatie. These are both exhibition catalogues, and I also regularly keep up with contemporary art magazines. I have chosen these rather than literature as I feel they help my creative practice by allowing me to know more about artists, current and past exhibitions, reviews and news from within the art circle.
If money were no object, what would you most like to experiment with in your work?
I would still have the same practice as my current work. As long as the search for knowledge never ceases, artists should be allowed to evolve regardless of the status behind them. For my upcoming exhibition at Ikon I decided to enhance my sculptures dramatically with different features in comparison to my previous inscription sculptures. This will all be fused together to make up the exhibition, which in my head is segmented into three sections due to the vastness of the space.
Tell us a pet peeve of yours when it comes to the art world.
Gatekeeping, which shatters a whole of opportunities for many artists out there while allowing only a privileged few to advance. However, this is gradually changing.
What is your favourite gallery or museum space around the world?
I can’t choose any one favourite art outlet as I’ve seen so many galleries, museums and project spaces that have impressed me. Of course, at times they display exhibitions that differ from my own view, which is perfectly normal.
Louise Benson is Elephant’s deputy editor
Listen to all the go-to songs picked by our 5 Minutes With artists here
Abdulrazaq Awofeso, Out of Frame is at Ikon Gallery, 10 June – 29 August