Destiny’s Child, 2019. Grass brooms (Umchayelo), church sticks, black paint, and resin, 78 x 180 x 66 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Melrose Gallery

Beyond Physicality: A Conversation with Adejoke Tugbiyele

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Nigeria, Adejoke Tugbiyele now lives and works in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, exploring a practice “charged with symbolic meanings.” As an artist and advocate, she bridges multiple cultures and synthesizes stubborn oppositions—masculine/feminine, dark/light, nature/culture. Her wire, natural fiber, fabric, found object, wood, and bronze sculptures fuse old ways and new directions into powerful hybrid forms that evoke and transcend the human body. Brought to life in performance, or animated through lighting, these works take on a magical energy that underscores how radical spirituality can liberate the body and mind, freeing us from the strictures of religion, class, and sexual or racial politics, replacing hate with love and acceptance—both of ourselves and others.

Shifting the Waves: The Mask, The Boat, The Broom, The Box, with Double Life: Mask #2 and Same Sex 2.0, 2017. View of Adejoke Tugbiyele performing Shifting the Waves at 1-54, Somerset House, London, 2017. Photo: Katrina Sorrentino, Courtesy the artist and October Gallery

Robert Preece: You first studied architecture and then moved to art, receiving an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2013. Have you realized any architectural projects? What have you carried over from architecture into art?
Adejoke Tugbiyele: In 2017, I completed two projects. I was commissioned by my parents to design a student hostel in Igbajo, Nigeria, adjacent to Igbajo Polytechnic. That same year, I completed a two-story home for my paternal grandmother—a sky-blue-colored, multi-bedroom house that considered the aesthetics of local forms and global shifts in design. It was wonderful to put into practice years of study at the High School of Art and Design in New York and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, as well as internships at the Central Park Conservancy and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

In my art practice, I think poetically about architectural concepts—in terms of the “skin.” Through performance, the body can engage architecture with movement and begin a healthy discourse about how space affects the psyche and imagination. Sometimes, the key to collective transformation is going beyond the “first skin” of the body and into the “second skin,” a term coined by Anne Anlin Cheng, the author of Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface (2010). Using sculptural objects, my performances are rooted in the idea of transformation across cultures, universally—with objects, masks, and materials used to transport the audience into another spiritual realm.

RP: You have lived, studied, and worked in the American Northeast, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. How do you think these three different cultural contexts have played out in your work?
In the old days, and still engrained in the psyche of many Yoruba, people would introduce themselves to a stranger by saying, “I am the son or daughter of…,” the strong implication being that your identity is rooted first and foremost in your family lineage, including extended family wherever they may reside. Furthermore, your actions and behaviors were either celebrated or frowned upon relative to the effect those actions had on your family. While expectations were placed on both men and women, the pressure on women was, and still is, exceptionally higher. As the bearer of children and nurturer of the family, the woman “belonged” to her parents until her time of marriage. The sense of ownership is very strong. I recall several occasions when I was punished for acting “too independently,” outside strictly coded family expectations, in my search for self-awareness, which is highly encouraged by American culture. Yet in spite of this, I knew I was loved.

As Nigerians in America, my parents were still Black in America; and as an adult, I am aware of the social, political, and religious constructs, both colonial and post-colonial, that guide and inform the average Nigerian mindset, regardless of where in the world an individual might reside. I am equally informed by the critical, authoritative, intellectual, and spiritual work done to heal our minds across the Black diaspora by various thinkers.

Lovebird #1, 2013. Strainers, brass, and copper wire, 30 x 20 x 10 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

RP: How does your geographical experience relate to your choice of materials? Are your decisions based on cultural connections?
In terms of materials with cultural connotations, I have been using church sticks and traditional African brooms. In some South African churches, these sticks are used in praise worship, but unfortunately they have also been used to “beat the demon” out of unbelievers, including homosexuals. Despite the constitutional laws that serve and protect queer individuals and communities—perhaps the most progressive on the African continent—such abusive practices still occur. Queer men and women have to find free and tolerant spiritual spaces or build their own shrines. I have explored the concept of shrines in some of my sculptures. Within them, the only demons that are not welcome are those of hate, prejudice, and intolerance. Church sticks form the spine in all of my most recent sculptures, out of which wrapped brooms seductively evoke recognizable body parts.

Traditional African brooms have been widely used across cultures for social, cultural, and political symbolism—the act of sweeping and cleansing negative energy from society. For example, traditional African brooms are symbolic for Balai Citoyen (“Citizen’s Broom”), a grassroots opposition movement in Burkina Faso in the tradition of Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary President who was killed in a coup in 1987; a significant part of his program included his famous women’s liberation movement. After his successor was forced to resign in 2014, Balai Citoyen symbolically swept corruption from the streets of Ouagadougou. Traditional brooms are also actively used among people—mainly women—in Limpopo, South Africa, to drive out evil spirits. In contemporary Nigerian politics, the waving of traditional brooms is a significant symbol during the election period. And in African American culture, “jumping the broom” was a symbolic gesture during marriage ceremonies and part of celebrating Black love during a time—the enslavement of Africans—when it was dangerous to do so.

RP: What about your use of light?
I first explored light in Heart and Crown (both 2017); the latter is now in the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. I reintroduced it in Eagle and Bull (both 2019), where weaving LED lights into the costumes reflects an Afro-Futurist leaning. “Light” implies its universal opposite, “dark,” and their dependent nature and trajectory. One cannot exist without the other. The silhouette and the shadow, ever present, serve as a consistent reminder. One may consider the Eastern philosophy of yin and yang while also appreciating the universality of light within Western and African contexts. In the latter, sociopolitically speaking, there is load-shedding in places like South Africa and the erratic power supplied by NEPA, the electrical company in Nigeria, which engages issues around the condition of “darkness” often experienced by the poor Black majority. Africa, falsely and historically deemed the “Dark Continent,” continues to shed light on the incredible magic of people, places, resources, and ancestral legacies. Still learning to shed what we have been taught, what is deemed “backward” or “demonic,” we increasingly find light in the magically strange, the intuitive, the hybrid, and the alien, which appears completely from another world—past, future, or both.

Heart, 2017. Perforated metal, palm spines, wire, paint, hardware cloth, and LEDs, 74 x 64 x 31 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

RP: You recently started working with bronze. How did that come about?
AT: While living and working in Burkina Faso, I was invited to participate in BISO 2019, the first international sculpture biennale in Ouagadougou. I produced Angé 2 (2020), which won the Grand Prize. I decided to stay a bit longer to learn how to work with bronze in the traditional way under the guidance of Issouf Dermé.

Son De La Musique (2020) shows the new developments in my bronze works, which I think bring out many of the formal and conceptual qualities in my broom sculptures. Here, West African brooms make a new sacrifice toward permanence—interrogating ancient tradition and craft while simultaneously generating new post-colonial narratives. The material experiences a rigorous process of transformation starting with the initial cast in plaster—as if accepting or coming to terms with the ugly side of history, or life, in order to bear witness to the promise of the new.

I return to the brooms after the bronze is complete. They are badly scarred, and I have a desire to “heal” them. After rewrapping them in black thread and wire, I am satisfied. I choose to reveal some scars—the material’s strength in vulnerability—confident in those naturally occurring, organic movements inherent in the process of producing the bronze “twin.” I consider Yoruba artistic foundations in bronze casting, as well as our respect for ibeji—twins. I am not concerned with twins as standing figures, but as material and conceptual reproduction. Going from cleansing to burning and melting metal, a new energy is forged out of the fire. The energy encapsulates all the colors of the rainbow. The energy respects the sun and moon as timekeepers. The energy requires collaboration, tolerance, patience, and prayer or meditation. The energy is feminine. Broom and bronze are thus twins that resemble or recognize each other in spirit, speaking a coded language.

RP: How would you describe the trajectory of your process from idea, through making, to completion?
AT: I think of it this way: the palm trees are speaking back. Their wide fronds are forever in direct communication with the sunlight. The palm spines and seeds, wrapped in threads whose colors combine to make up the rainbow, crack the code and reprogram, setting a new rhythm in time and space toward nature and nurture. It’s a process of queering dominant space and institutions, a process of modern divination borrowing from ancient tradition. So, sacred intention, beauty in transformation, and hybrids power the engine of our lives and cleanse the soul.

Shifting the Waves: The Mask, The Boat, The Broom, The Box, with Love Boat 2.0, 2017, palm spines, paint, and LED lights, 50 x 110 x 50 cm. View of Adejoke Tugbiyele performing Shifting the Waves at 1-54, Somerset House, London, 2017. Photo: Katrina Sorrentino, Courtesy the artist

RP: What is your position toward abstraction? Your work could go more naturalistic or even more non-objective.
AT: I think about abstraction with the hybrid human form, but my work and process are really about transformation and adding to the discourse around identity and fluidity. Hybridity frees the mind from the limitations of gender and sexuality, and from the human body in general. It takes us into the spiritual realm, where we can begin to imagine new ways of perceiving and being in the world. Hybridity also makes us more aware of the two-spirit nature of humans and therefore the potential ability to tap into different energies. Hybrid forms appear in my sculptures, which are also incorporated into my mixed-media and performance works.

RP: You’ve written that your “works are charged with symbolic meanings that bridge and layer historical, cultural, and political ideas around race, gender, sexuality with that of class, economy, sex politics, and religion.” Is the thinking focused on the concept, or on the making of the work? And is it culturally specific, tailored for different audiences?
AT: No, my sculptures, and indeed all of the works in my multidisciplinary practice, present alternative forms of expression that can be understood universally. With costume, the performer activates and animates the sculptural work in order to transform the spirit—in time and place—to mesmerize, to elevate, and to queer dominant spaces while freeing us from the boundaries and limitations of race, class, gender, and sexuality. These ideas are consistent, for example, with costumes like Love Boat 2.0 and Same-Sex 2.0 (both 2017) and my 2017 solo performance Shifting the Waves: The Mask, The Boat, The Broom, The Box at Somerset House in London during the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

RP: What are some of the works that you see as important to your development as an artist? Why are they key?
I have produced between 200 and 300 works over the past decade, so it is very hard to select. Each one is meaningful and resonates deeply within the context in which I produced it. Flight of Revelation (2011) was my first large figurative work using traditional brooms; before that, I had mainly worked on canvas or installation, with figures appearing as mixed-media works. Other large figures in this vein include Past Future (2015) and Musician II (2014). Later, with works such as Destiny’s Child, I believe that I mastered how to transform the traditional broom into less abstract and more human-like forms. Prior to working with traditional African brooms, I employed tree branches as materials to explore issues such as female genital mutilation and to draw connections between “Mother Earth” and “Mother.”

My Queen’s Throne, 2018. Palm spines, Dutch wax fabric, sink drain protectors, hardware cloth, and wire, 44 x 36 x 30 in. Photo: Adejoke Tugbiyele, Courtesy the artist

RP: Could you tell me more about Destiny’s Child (2019)?
AT: Destiny’s Child suggests two Black women who are pregnant—not necessarily with physical children, but pregnant with pain, desire, and longing—and they turn toward each other to give pleasure: the child. Historically pleasure belonged to the man as “giver,” rendering the woman passive receiver, but the sex toy engages the space typically belonging to the male penis and thus places full control in the hands of both women.

RP: Would you describe your work as purely intellectual? Or is it driven by emotions and experiences?
AT: Emotions and experiences certainly play into the work. It is inevitable, and the work would not be authentic without them. But a strong artist also knows how to step back, think deeply, see the bigger picture, and recognize the symbolic nature of experiences in order to inspire people. Having said this, artists often make deep emotional sacrifices during the production of their works, which are underappreciated or unrecognized by others.

There are also the experiences of others. While I recognize my own privileges, I attempt to shed light on the suffering of others, especially those in marginalized communities. For example, in Homeless Hungry Homo (2014), I considered the high percentage of LGBTQ+ people and youth who live without shelter simply as a result of choosing freedom. The situation is particularly dire in Black and African contexts, hence the use of an African mask. I also used it as an opportunity to further explore the gesture of the human figure—a lying pose, “down but not out,” with colors to signify and inspire hope. Other considerations of the queer community weave into my work. Over the years, I have been grateful to work with organizations including The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs), Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative (WHER), and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR).

Homeless Hungry Homo, 2014. Palm stems, yarn, perforated metal, African mask, and one-dollar bills, 76 x 152 x 60 cm. Photo: Jonathan Greet, Courtesy the artist and October Gallery, London

RP: Do you miss architecture? What have you learned as an artist that you would use if you returned to it?
AT: Architecture is always around us, and we experience it daily. So no, I don’t miss it. I go back again to the idea of our “second skin.” Among many other examples, Zaha Hadid’s architecture has always been an inspiration, because the movement, lines, and forms seem to capture this idea completely—architecture as an experience of the mind, body, and spirit, simultaneously. I admire how David Adjaye invests his work with African-inspired ideas and forms that can be appreciated universally.

RP: When do you know a work is finished?
You don’t, and you probably will never know. Objects, sculptures, and movements that are “finished” continue to resonate beyond their physicality, in our hearts and spirits. To me, this is part of the beauty of art.