Onajide in VoyageMIA

March 7, 2019

Today we’d like to introduce you to Onajide Shabaka.
Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?

In 1971 I was a student at California College of the Arts (Oakland, CA). A requirement of the freshman student’s core curriculum included sculpture. I researched non-European sources to begin my project and discovered wood carving from the Maroons who had escaped slavery in the South American country of Suriname, fleeing into the jungle and mingling with indigenous peoples. Their syncretic wood carving reflected a synthesis between their West and Central African origins and their new home. Although it may have been my dream to actually visit the country, it eventually receded in my mind to the point of being forgotten until 2016, when I was standing in front of a group of young people in the city of Moengo, Suriname as part of an International Cultural Exchange organized by Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator.

Since 1989 my art practice has focused primarily on ethnobotany, geology, and archeology as they relate to human history, society, and culture. As I brought my current practice to bear on a return research residency in 2017, I happened upon the recent discovery of ancestral rice crops brought to the Americas smuggled in the hair of slave women. Ancestral African rice additionally allows us to examine the historical timeline of industrial crop monoculture in Lowcountry South Carolina for interesting parallels in Suriname since the colonial Dutch brought slaves from the same ports in West Africa to do the same work in a similar physical environment: mangrove tidal zones.

Suriname touched on a long time interest in mangrove estuaries, such as Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, and broadened the scope of my material sources in nature and specific aspects of the Amazon forest and Maroon artistic production, in particular: ant and termite colonies, mushroom gills, plant leaf and root forms, Maroon women’s and men’s textile appliqué, and men’s wood carving.

When I go into the studio to work it is not like “rice smuggled in hair”, for instance, results in a directly translated image, form, or manifestation in my work. I create things tangentially, without trying to force a specific reading, although I hope that certain elements can be picked up, read, and understood. My visual and material culture research has so far resulted in various referential cues, or clues, to historical moments or sites I find powerfully interesting. I am desirous to remain authentic, not overly romanticized, nor nostalgic about the concerns within my practice.

Please tell us about your art?

Since I often do research as a part of my practice, there is often a gestation period of analysis and weighing of ideas until things start to make sense for me. The knowledge I have directly from the late 1800s comes from my grandparents and their experiences. Although I was very young at the time, I do remember visiting an elderly relative who was born before the end of US slavery and now knowing more about it through viewing slave plantation archives has given me a strong dose of reality. That’s part of my research. Returning to the studio, I have taken time to organize and develop those ideas about how to share a project. I began creating a few pieces, and out of these ideas, I may have a combination of photographic images, mixed media on paper, sculpture or even some kind of historical fiction short story. I may make a few textile pieces as well, but my studio is small, so I don’t have room to keep different in-process works out to work on at any moment. At the moment I am focusing a lot of time creating forms of serpentine shapes based on Maroon wood carving, non-European graphic systems, botanical root structures, and insect created architecture. These are things that have entered in my practice while researching this project. The creative process has been slow because each current serpentine cut piece I’m working on is painted, drawn, scanned, matched to something that fits, collaged, and then scanned again. If it doesn’t fit I have to draw and paint another, hence the consumption of time. One of the main things I hope people can understand as a result of taking in the project is the lasting creative legacy of the African diaspora through and beyond the holocaust of European slave trafficking and give credit to those that did the work and not just assume assimilation into Euro-American social and political systems.

Choosing a creative or artistic path comes with many financial challenges. Any advice for those struggling to focus on their artwork due to financial concerns?

Financial challenges are part of being an artist. One has to remove their personal feelings as much as possible because it is also a business and all businesses have up and down cycles. Work with integrity, be detail oriented, very professional and remain positive. Get out of the studio and into the community. Relationship building is invaluable. It’s not easy, but have fun along the way.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?

I will be in Houston, TX during March 2019 at Project Row Houses, Third Ward, for an exhibition opening, 16 March 2019. Later in the year, I will be exhibiting in Miami at Emerson Dorsch Gallery. Other exhibitions will be confirmed through my website: I have an email list there for those that care to sign up for it.

Follow Onajide Shabaka on Artsy.

Onajide Shabaka’s Alosúgbe: a journey across time at Emerson Dorsch, on view through Wednesday, July 10th.

Image courtesy of Emerson Dorsch.



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