Make Your Work the Knife and the Healing Balm: Yétúndé Olagbaju Interviewed

Two photographs side by side of a young Black person sitting in a chair. In one image, they are breastfeeding a nude Black man. In the other image, they are breastfeeding a nude white man. In both images, the seated person gazes into the camera with calm confidence.
Yétúndé Olagbaju, Mammy, Mammy, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Yétúndé Olagbaju is an Oakland-based artist and maker. Through video, sculpture, action, gesture, and performance, they examine Black labor, legacy, and healing processes. Olagbaju’s creative practice is rooted in the need to understand history, who writes it, the myths that support it, and how their own body is implicated in history’s timeline.

I met Olagbaju when they interned at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora in 2009, but fell out of touch with them. Years later, I marveled over Mammy, Mammy (2016) as it graced the first iteration of the extraordinary serial exhibition The Black Woman is God at SOMArts Cultural Center in 2016. The diptych, like so much of Olagbaju’s work, addresses Black life as righteously holding space for self and community in a world that zealously devalues it. 

The following interview, which took place via email and FaceTime over several weeks in early 2021, touches on the themes that motivate their multivalent practice. —Roula Seikaly

Roula Seikaly: What are the driving themes in your creative practice?

Yétúndé Olagbaju: I always say that some major themes in my creative practice/work are:

Myth: how are they made, who forms them, what are the residuals left in them 

“Mother”: the idea of mother, the expectations of that role, how racism or settler colonialism affects the way we perceive this labor

Labor: what is it, who conducts it, what kind of labor goes unnoticed

Erasure: what stories get erased, can erasing be a tool for liberation 

Transformation: how do we change, how do we hold space for said change, what vantage points can we activate to honor transformation

Memorialization: how do we memorialize all of that transformation and unseen labor? How does one memorialize the vastness of Blackness and Black legacy?

There are many other intentions beyond these, however. And they are in constant flux. 

A rainbow'd orb opens like an eye at the blobby, organic core of what could be a walnut, a womb, or a tangled cage of shadow.
Yétúndé Olagbaju, …and the form was a death…, 2021. Acrylic on wood panel. 48 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Tendrils, or spider legs, droop out of what may be shimmering busts of persons, all inside a distorted head—like electrified neural synapses—or a ghoulish talking bubble, or a microscopic egg.
Yétúndé Olagbaju, Fruits of our labor (eaten good!), 2021. Pastel and collage on paper. 39 x 26.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

RS: Can you talk more about erasing as a tool for liberation? What does that mean for your practice?

YO: When I talk about erasure, sometimes people think I’m talking about erasing intergenerational and racial harm, and trauma, or that I’m thinking about people excluding Black folks from important histories and legacies, and conversations that they’ve obviously contributed to, or Indigenous folks and Black folks being erased from the canon throughout history. But erasure isn’t a strictly negative action.

But, I also think that there is something to be said about the action of removing and its potential for secrecy. I was actually just talking to a local curator, Lucia Olubunmi Momoh about her research of the Haitin Revolution and the significance of a secret ceremony that opened up the beginning of the uprising.

I think about erasure not only being something that is negative—a form of harm—but I also think of it as a way to keep things close to the chest, to decide what you engage with, decide what you want to be included in, and prepare for transformative action. 

Erasing as a tool can be seen throughout a lot of different pieces of mine. Removing and erasing can be a ritual, and I think that’s how I engage with it. So, that action runs the gamut of removing Mammy from the racist anthology Black Memorabilia Around the House: A Handbook and Price Guide (Schiffer Publishing, 1997), removing myself from situations, removing the sexually-objectified Khoikhoi woman Saartjie Baartman from racist and harmful images of her. What does it mean to remove these people, and if we are going to remove them, how can we replace them with something that could be potentially healing for them intergenerationally, non-linearly? What can be replaced to recognize the magnitude of existence?

I’m cognizant of the fact that through erasure, what gets left behind is equally as important as the action of erasing. And so I think that’s where my practice lies: in figuring out what can be, what can exist there instead? I also think of whatever is left there; is it helpful? Is it moving? Is it healing to the people who knew the person? Is it healing to the person themselves?

RS: Can you elaborate on labor through your participation in or support of mutual aid collectives including No Neutral Alliance and See Black Women?

YO: For me, I don’t always feel that the objects I make need to confront institutions. But, I do think my social practice, who I work with, whose words and wisdom I am digesting on a daily basis as an artist, must. I feel like if I’m not utilizing my social capital to lift up others, speaking out against institutional harm, if I’m not engaging with the people who are actually moving that needle as far as equity in the arts, if I’m not creating more opportunities for young folks and elders, if I’m not supporting mutual aid groups, then can I say I truly care about artists? 

I participate and support these local collectives because I want to ensure that Black and Brown artists are given the tools, platforms, resources, and respect that they deserve! A lot of this work looks like publicly challenging institutions, creating programming for and with other artists, mural projects, writing manifestos. It’s all challenging, collective work, but I know it’s necessary.  

A Black figure arranges bouquets of flowers on propped white pillows, against a red-velvet wall. A cat arches its back, at the food of the bed, and something like hair sneaks out from beneath the sheets.
Yétúndé Olagbaju, I witness you (for Laure), 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

RS: You presented I witness you (for Laure) (2021) at San Francisco’s Southern Exposure. Could you talk about that project and critiquing the western art history canon?

YO: You know, to be honest, the first time I began thinking about how to approach this body of work was when I was working at the Mills College Art Museum. A few summers ago an artist who had an exhibition at the museum had created a rendition of Edouard Manet’s Olympia. The piece was constantly in flux, being reworked, and added to throughout the exhibition. However, the original power dynamic between Laure (the Black model) and her white counterpart Victoria Meurent (as Olympia) remained the same. The surroundings were modernized, faces were missing, but at the end of the day, the Black figure was still in comparison to their white counterpart.

In this moment of witnessing the continuation of this dynamic I considered the original piece, the long witnessed mechanics of Black people vanishing into the backgrounds of seminal works by “Art History’s Greats,” and I wondered if I could exorcize that. I wondered if I could give Laure a chance to rest in her own beauty, her own moment. I wondered if by engaging in the act of erasure I could successfully remove Whiteness from the equation, while also giving space to Laure. I witness you (for Laure) was a continuation of that desire for another reality for Laure, and to honor her fullness. Not as a counterpart but as a whole human who experiences joy, sensuality, and admiration from others.

RS: You’re working with and through the Mammy trope. How long have you been thinking about this subject? Does your work resonate or expand on earlier critiques framed by artists Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar?

YO: I have been thinking about Mammy for around six years now. While research for it began a couple years before, I’d say this all really started with the Mammy, Mammy (2016) images from Black Woman is God (2016). Those images were the results of many years of introspection, exploration of my own lineage, and research of the greats (like Ringgold and Saar).

I believe that my work is a continuation of the conversations they began. I look at pieces like The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) by Saar and Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? (1983) by Ringgold, and know that my work pushes even further by suggesting that a transformative experience for Mammy/Aunt Jemima (one that engages in the Black speculative and spiritual) might allow the archetype the chance to heal.

The bust of a figure, its face erased by layers of concentric circles, wears a scarf around its head and rests on a gnarled, wooden pedestal.
Yétúndé Olagbaju, A Chrysalis No. 2, 2021. Bronze bust and pedestal with black walnut wood pedestal.
36 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

RS: You’re a 2020–2021 Graduate Fellow at the Headlands Center for the Arts. Can you talk about the project(s) you’re working on, and making art amidst a global pandemic?

YO: Oh, gosh. I had grand ideas coming in ’cause it wasn’t a pandemic when we were applying for the grad fellowship, and I had plans to make large sculpture pieces. I’m really interested in this idea, again, of erasure, but also repurposing and transformation and so I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna make some large sculptures out of limestone and red chert and all these geological deposits around here.” That is still a dream, but also it’s totally not possible in the middle of a pandemic. I had to scale down my expectations for myself, and that’s fine. One day I will be able to. I’m putting it out there that I will be able to accomplish that body of work.

As far as working in a pandemic, it was really about me tailoring my self-expectation. I’m definitely a bit of an overachiever. It’s the feeling that you must constantly be doing something, constantly pushing to be better. It was hard for me, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, to be like,”Oh well, I really can’t accomplish  this.” For one, I can’t afford to hire experts and necessary people to help me research how to ethically do this work. There’s also  the complexity of this not being my land, although I’m very happy to be here.

If I could figure out an ethical way to complete that body of work, with permission, and in ceremony, I would. So I ended up turning inward. The two things that I had not done in years that started coming up as part of this residency are painting and writing. I think, especially in the beginning of grad school, I was just like, “I need to be an accomplished artist in sculpture and performance. The idea of mastery was something I went into grad school believing, and also something that I left grad school not believing and not really engaging with.

I know that that’s kind of the opposite of a lot of people’s graduate experience, but I think I was just like, “I wanna do whatever the fuck I wanna do.” This was a liberating moment for me: deciding that I was going to give myself the freedom to make what I needed to, while in school. During that time I gave myself time to view pieces from artists whose work deeply inspired me like Adrian Piper and Wangechi Mutu, both of whom are prolific makers in multiple mediums. Witnessing them be true to their desires helped me move through self-imposed rigidity. Through studying their work and the work of other Black contemporary artists I realized that I was denying myself a particular kind of artistic freedom or liberation, which is literally what my work is about: honoring transformation. I felt really happy that I was able to come to Headlands and be like, “I wanna paint again. I wanna write again and I wanna dive into that process, and I want to see if I feel good painting again.” And it just so happens that it felt right. 

RS: Variable West’s current theme is staying with the trouble. What does that mean to you, or how do you interpret that as an artist?

YO: To me, staying with the trouble means grounding myself in Black truths. Not allowing white settler colonial timelines, histories, and art gaslight me into thinking Blackness is one thing or the next. To me, staying in trouble is being in conversations with the art generation before you: what were they trying to exorcise? Who were they trying to heal?

Staying with the trouble means having your work be the knife as well as the healing balm.


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Author: Roula Seikaly

Roula Seikaly is a writer and curator based in Berkeley, CA, and Senior Editor + Co-Curatorial Director at Humble Arts Foundation. Roula has curated exhibitions at SF Camerawork and SOMArts (San Francisco), CPAC (Denver), Blue Sky Gallery (Portland), and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Her writing is published virtually and in print at Hyperallergic, Photograph, BOMB, Aperture, Strange Fire Collective, and KQED Arts. She is the co-recipient of Blue Sky Gallery's 2019 Curatorial Prize for the exhibition An Inward Gaze.