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Succulents and Socio-Politics: An Interview with Eto Otitigbe

Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill. She reports here on a dialogue between Curator of Visual Arts Gabriel de Guzman and Sunroom artist Eto Otitigbe.

In his June 16 “Meet-the-Artist” in Glyndor Gallery’s Sunroom Project Space, mechanical engineer and polymedia artist Eto Otitigbe broke down a few of the multiplicity of ideas that inform his work processes. These range from computer-generated imagery and constructions of race, to inspiration from visits to Wave Hill, and, in particular, his encounters with one of the succulent species in the Greenhouse, Haworthia tessellata. If we look beyond the classification of the genus Haworthia within a Western botanical system, we find the plant is native to many countries in central-southern Africa, as well as Namibia further north.  An American of Nigerian descent, Otitigbe saw Haworthia tessellata as part of the larger African diaspora, another organic body from the continent’s vast physical resources. If diaspora formation is, as Okwui Enqwezor describes it, “a becoming; a process marked by incessant regroupings, recreations and reiteration,” then perhaps Haworthia tessellata in Eto Otitigbe’s work serves as an analogy for the very way in which dispersed populations are fragmented and absorbed, yet are ever expanding and changing.Eto_Otitigbe-artist-talk

Gabriel de Guzman: Can you tell us about how your project came about, and what plant you were looking at?

Eto Otitigbe:  I made several trips to Wave Hill and spent some time at the Greenhouse. I was really drawn to the Haworthia tessellata succulent. There are around 70 different species, of which tessellata is one. I love the mosaic pattern. It reminded me a lot of my work, of mathematical matrices, operators and things of that nature; where you have smaller units that combine to make up another form, shape or image. I became very curious about those plants, so I did some research and found out that they’re native to South and Central Africa. My background is Nigerian, so immediately I had this connection to them. They’re African American.

GdeG: Can you describe your process? For instance, you started with photographs of the Hawarthia and you further processed them and eventually turned them into these panels, etched aluminum pieces, the video and this sculptural bench.eto-otitigbe

EO: I think a lot of it is tied to my views on identity politics, race and this whole idea of attenuation, or losing character as you pass through time and space. So for the aluminum pieces, I utilized a photo-carving technique, which takes a still image, turns it into black-and-white, and uses the light and dark information to program a computer-controlled router. The router acts as a drill; wherever there’s a highlight on the image, it will cut. So these are the actual patterns on the tessellata itself. Wherever there’s a shadow, there’s a deep groove made. Two pieces have also been darkened with gun blackener. This past year, as I’ve been making work I’ve been seeing what’s happening in America with the obscene killing of Black people by police. Trayvon Martin’s case triggered it, though this has been going on for a long time. So rather than painting these, I wanted to use this blackening technique to explore the processes and technology that go into how we arm ourselves as Americans.

GdeG: You talked about two images particularly in relation to Blackness, but then we could also relate the two other images in the show to whiteness, pointing that out, and making it visible. Could you expand upon that and the idea of diaspora?

EO: When I found out these plants were native to Africa, it triggered so many ideas in my head about the diaspora of Africa’s resources. We probably all carry a bit of Africa in our phones, precious metals that are coming from the Congo powering these things. And in even the naming of these plants, there’s some really fascinating information about Hawarthia online if you want to geek out. There’s an essay called “The Anguish of the Hawarthia,” and it’s because the different species were misnamed and misclassified a lot early on. And if you think about misnaming in relation to race, there are many derogatory names and labels which are socially assigned to people of different “races.”  So that meditation eventually turned into this formal piece, this bench which gets deeper into the grooves and subject matter, and the idea of a shared space.

GdeG: Some of the furniture you’ve made in the past you’ve described as “alien shrapnel.” Can you tell us what that means?

EO: Shrapnel in general is a fragment of warfare in a way, and I think of some of these are a bit foreign to us. It’s not something that we see every day. Again, I’m citing a lot of cultural and racial politics. So they’re these fragments that have been deposited or dropped here from the near future, or something like that.Sunroom_Otitigbe_credit-Ken-Goebel

GdeG: For this piece in particular, we’ve had a lot of visitors come in and wonder what it is and how to react to it. What is the viewers’ relationship to it? Do you sit on it, do you not sit on it?  Is it furniture, is it sculpture? It’s kind of this amalgam of different things.

EO: Yeah, and it’s also about technology, and how technology engineers us, and how we’re not just the engineers and innovators of it. My background’s in engineering, so I’m always thinking about how “technology has made our lives better!” And it has, but if you think about how even social media works, or cellphones work, they’ve radically changed our lives. It’s a two-way street.

GdeG: Is there a particular way that you see technology, art, race and politics converging?

EO: I think just in the formal way that I create my work, I consider this to be post-conceptualism in the sense that I have a very prescribed set of instructions of computer code that go into carving out this work. In that way, my approach is dependent on technology and is post-conceptual. The most immediate thing I thought about in regards to this question was actually Rachel Dolezal, the new internet sensation. She was an NAACP chapter president in Spokane, Washington. I’m not sure if this is totally accurate, but she was born white but claimed she was African American. Then she was outed by her parents. I think that brings out a lot of interesting things, because one point she made was that if you look at her genetic history, she is not completely white, and okay that’s very true. But at the same time on Twitter, you had this new hashtag #askrachel, and within the first 48 hours, there were over 350,000 tweets, and a lot of them became multi-choice questions about what Blackness is. So in that way, technology has created this dense questionnaire about race and culture, and it’s shared; there’s no one person who’s controlling, editing or administering this exam. I think I try to touch on a lot of those things in my work, i.e. shared experiences and not having one central event happening, but many.

GdeG: Are there any precedents that you’re looking at in your work?

EO: Yeah, when I’m looking at art and architecture in my work, I think there are a lot of ties to Afrofuturism. Even though Afrofuturism talks about how Blackness will be manifested, or inserted, or built a case for, or is about making an intervention for Blackness in the future, some of my work looks at the counter of that saying, there may not be any. It’s sort of an alternative, pessimistic view. Also, a lot has been written about critical engineering, which is an art practice rooted in programming and computer science. My work is also very much about minimalism. I’m inspired by the architecture of Zaha Hadid, but also the Maximalists, the idea of taking one form and tessellating it, repeating it in structures, which is something that is interesting to me as well.

GdeG: One of the ways you’ve described your work is as “creative protest and radical sculptural environment.” Do you think art has, or can have, a role in political movements? If so, how?

EO: I think art and artists definitely have a role. Artists are cultural workers in that we can—not that we have to (and that even in itself is political)—use our work to promote different ideas, and to also suggest alternative ways of understanding issues, tricking out what people are familiar with by re-presenting images, ideas and experiences.

Pictured above, from the top: Eto Otitigbe pictured (gesturing in the center of the photo) at his “Meet the Artist” on June 14, 2015.  Eto Otitigbe, Situations, Specifics, Attenuation (detail), 2015. Engraved aluminum.  Eto Otitigbe, Situations, Specifics, Attenuation, installation shot, credit Ken Goebel. Concrete, wood and plexiglass.  Photos courtesy of the artist. 

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