Tom Bonnick talks to Raimi Gbadamosi about race, language and power
When I sit down to interview Raimi Gbadamosi, the first thing that he remarks upon is that my Dictaphone looks like a Gameboy. In print, this seems like any other throwaway aside, but in person it is slightly disconcerting, having so mundane and familiar an object reassessed.
Undoubtedly, this has a lot to do with Gbadamosi himself; indeed, if I were to compare everyday objects with pieces of anachronistic gaming technology, it would not be with the same air of casual acuity. He speaks in a resoundingly measured tone, creating the impression that every answer is not only a deliberate one, but also the authoritative word on a subject.
Born in Manchester and of Nigerian descent, Gbadamosi is one of Britain’s foremost conceptual African artists. A prolific creator, his work has been displayed in exhibitions across the country — including here in Glasgow — as well as throughout much of Europe and scattered elsewhere across the world.
The work itself — startling in its range, insight and capacity to provoke discussion — whilst not, at Gbadamosi’s insistence, of an abstract nature, is nonetheless of the sort that has uneducated young journalists struggling to find adequate adjectives with which it can be described. “I’m not what would be described as an abstract artist,” he tells me; “I make things which are quite concrete. But they don’t rely on figuration, for instance; they rely on other forms of expression.”
His most elaborately conceived and long-running project, The Republic, is a self-contained world in which the salient themes of his work are explored, and is expressed entirely in tones of yellow, black and white. When I ask him to explain The Republic, Gbadamosi answers with powerful rhetoric.
“The Republic is an independent state. This has to be stressed. It’s a real country, and it functions as a critical space. So, on one hand, it’s a nation state that anyone can become a citizen of. But like any artwork it’s also autobiographical, so it says things about me, and of course it carries out its functions through inviting people to ambassadorial evenings. Every citizen is an ambassador of The Republic.”
When I visit The Republic’s website, I find that one can indeed become a citizen, simply by choosing an ethnic classification from gradients of yellow, black or white. The constitution, which Gbadamosi advises all prospective citizens to scrutinise, reads like a discourse on somewhat absurdly bureaucratic, albeit enlightened, society.
Considering the self-acknowledged autobiographical nature of Gbadamosi’s opus, I am curious to know the extent to which his pieces are informed by his own identity. “Very much” is his initial emphatic response; “I do actively involve myself in the black arts movement in Britain. My person as an individual and as an artist meshes together unavoidably. I don’t have the pleasure – or the burden – of separating myself, so my political interests inform my artistic ones quite a lot.”
So, I ask, given this notion of a singular persona, is the work deliberately motivated by a social agenda? “The best way to put it is this way: my politics permeate everything I do, from the food I eat to where I choose to live. The work I produce, because it’s not separate from me, embodies these concerns. I remember being an undergraduate and thinking, ‘I need to get my message across,’ but I no longer try to do this — I simply create the things I want to create.”
When I ask whether this means his messages are incipient to the conception of a piece, or that — to put it crudely — the art simply is what it is, Gbadamosi replies with an example. “If I describe a film called Invasion, which is just a series of lines going across a screen — I’ll show it to you later — it is only sound and lines moving from left to right. I showed it in Spain at an exhibition, and the curator, who hadn’t spoken to me, said ‘this is about fear, isn’t it? It’s about the fear of the other,’ and she was right. Maybe the title helps, maybe the sound. But I don’t try to make things work or tell a political message, I just try to make things people will enjoy watching.”
Once we finish speaking, he shows me Invasion, and possibly it is me projecting what I have been told onto the film, but my initial reaction is a distinct one of fear — or, more specifically, an uncomfortable anticipation — as well.
What is perhaps most striking about Gbadamosi’s oeuvre is its diversity; covering a whole array of mediums and ideas — even when it is connected by an overarching theme like The Republic. This means that unlike many contemporary conceptualists, it is often hard tracing links to artistic antecedents from his work, and I want to know what has influenced his thought process. “The three main things that I am interested in — and this is not to do with blackness — are race, language and power. I’m fascinated by arguments about them, because all three are constructs and affected by change. Foucault argues that power is a state, not a possession. One person has power today, but tomorrow they don’t. It vacillates.”
But what, I wonder, is the direct impact of these ideas on the art itself? Gbadamosi answers in a manner that perfectly characterises his approach to wider issues. “I don’t necessarily make work about these things. There was a demonstration about the bombing of Gaza recently — that I wasn’t at — and I’m interested in a host of things surround that. For instance, George Bush in his radio address said that Hamas took power in a coup. Now that’s a use of language which is a lie, because Hamas were elected, but if he announces it to the world that it was a coup, then immediately it shifts things. So I started looking at this as a question of power.”
In light of these ideas, I am intrigued as to quite how critical of modern society Gbadamosi is. His reply is full of ambiguity, and it is only as we near the end of our time together that I come to appreciate how his answers reveal some aspect of the methodology through which he creates his work: carefully constructed to examine his subject from multiple perspectives, and with a flair for the left field.
“I am quite critical. Not of modernity, which I think is really important — it allows us the freedom to think. But at the same time, I think that a dehumanisation occurs within modernity, because in order to provide space to think, it also has to champion the individual, and so they become the ultimate unit within modernity. Consequently we’ve stopped seeing people as part of a collective, and in that process we also lose responsibility, because my responsibility within modernity is to myself.”
The Republic examines the notion of a ‘collective’ in depth, and Gbadamosi seems cautiously optimistic about its truth to life. “I don’t think that it is human nature to be essentially selfish to the destruction of the collective, but I also think that it is possible to encourage this — say, in the USA. I’ve worked there, and people around me didn’t have healthcare, or lived in homes that would have been condemned in Britain.
“But because the system is such that people have been encouraged that the only way to survive is to achieve everything for yourself, they haven’t invested in the collective. And society starts collapsing as a consequence. And unlike Thatcher, I do believe that there is such a thing as society.”
To read the constitution or join The Republic, visit The-Republic.net