Urban development

‘My work is a social commentary’

Brooklyn artist Olalekan Jeyifous has a very unique view of urban living. In a series entitled Shanty Megastructures, he focuses on the Nigerian capital, Lagos: Jeyifous mixes peripheral slum impressions with elements of high-end neighbourhoods. With these photomontages, he intends to highlight the marginalised and forgotten, and thus spark a conversation on urban development. The cover of the akzente magazine ‘Cities – Laboratory of the future’ was the work of Olalekan Jeyifous.

Interview: Friederike Bauer

Your artwork is very unique. How would you describe it in a few sentences?
It is architecturally inspired and I use speculative artistic interventions. That’s how I would describe my style.

Architect and artist Olalekan Jeyifous
Architect and artist Olalekan Jeyifous

What would you say: Are you more of an artist or more of an architect?
I consider myself more as an artist. But my artwork is, of course, heavily inspired by architecture and particularly by the process of producing architectural works. I apply that to my artistic work.

Are you still working as an architect at all?
No. I have friends who are practising architects and I sometimes collaborate with them on projects – more in a schematic design phase. But actually working on construction, documentation and seeing a project through? I have not done that in maybe eight years.

But you have a degree in architecture. Have you ever designed buildings?
Yes, I did architecture and I have designed some projects, buildings and renovations. I opened an architectural office with three of my colleagues; one of them is still running it. Between 2008 and 2012 we had a variety of projects in the field of office designs. We worked on a Jewish synagogue, for instance. Just a handful of smaller design and renovation projects.

"I wanted to create photomontages that examined how these projects ignore poor people."

And you have launched the Shanty Megastructures series. It is a collection of images from Lagos, in which you juxtaposed shanty towns and high-end urban districts. How did you come up with this idea?
I had been looking at informal settlements and the displacement of marginalised communities all over the world, from Brazil to South Africa, as well as housing conditions in the United States. And I was preparing a contribution for the Shenzhen Biennale in 2015. For that purpose, I wanted to create a series of photomontages that examined large-scale urban developments and how they ignore poor people. So I came up with Shanty Megastructures, which navigates between satire and the celebration of organic practice that these communities often engage in. If you wish, it is a kind of eco-environmental futurism.

Ein Mann mittleren Alters in traditioneller Kleidung steht auf einem Kanu in einer urbanen Wasserlandschaft in Lago. Im Hintergrund sind hohe, runde Häuser, die wie Bäume aussehen, zu sehen. Die Szene ist reich an Details und Farben und zeigt eine lebendige Gemeinschaft, die sich an das Leben auf dem Wasser angepasst hat.

In other words, you criticise the typical form of urban development?
Yes, I wanted to put the poor areas in the centre because they are normally at the periphery, considered eyesores, an embarrassment, and are overlooked. Precisely for that reason I wanted to exaggerate and build them up in large commercial quarters.

Would you say it is, in a sense, also a political statement?
The political statement is inherent, although I am not focusing on any one person, party or government. It is a social commentary; it is identifying a current social issue that in my view should be addressed. But there is not a political agenda I am putting forth.

"I am more trying to raise awareness than actually changing conditions."

Do you think you have a real impact on the people you speak for, the forgotten and marginalised?
I would not say so in any direct way because it would be presumptuous. This is a general issue of design projects that occur in Africa. There is a paternalistic belief that you can go and change – we call it a saviour complex – reality for individuals. I am not an architectural firm or an office. Every single thing I do, I do completely by myself. I definitely would not make the assumption that I could have any kind of broader direct impact. I am adding to a conversation and a discourse. So, I am more trying to raise awareness than actually changing conditions.

How have your origins in Nigeria influenced your work at this point?
It played a role, of course. I was born in Nigeria; I lived there until I was six and then came to the United States. But when I was working on Shanty Megastructures, I actually had not returned to Nigeria in over 30 years.

Do you feel like an American today?
It’s complicated. I definitely identify as American, but also very much Nigerian. I was brought up in America, acclimated fully to the American culture. Yet, I also had this immigrant experience. When I came to the US, I had a thick accent, and I have a very foreign sounding name. The first question when people hear my name is: ‘Where are you from?’ And all that shaped the way I saw myself, even after I had lost my accent.

So you were far away and close to Lagos at the same time when you started working on Shanty Megastructures?
Somehow, yes. I could relate to the city and yet I had a distance to it. That’s probably why I was able to look at it in the way I did.

"I consider my work an idea and a visual exploration of contemporary issues rather than an architectural presentation."

Did you get reactions from Lagos?
Yes, I did. Some negative – some support. On the one hand, I heard: It’s a shame, it’s embarrassing, you are highlighting stereotypes. A woman in Lagos, where I presented the pictures, got up. She was so mad, almost in tears, and said: ‘Why are you creating this? It is so negative, it is so ugly, it is promoting negative stereotypes of our town in Western media. Why don’t you focus on solutions?’ On the other hand, people said: Oh, this is interesting. It’s exciting to seeing someone using local materials and looking at more organic vernacular. It inspires me. So, I got both kinds of reactions.

How do you handle criticism?
I can deal with it because my work is not a proposal for a new skyline of Lagos. I consider it an idea and a visual exploration of contemporary issues rather than an architectural presentation. And I do not find it ugly; I prefer the organic materials to those clean, almost sterile Western-type city images.

Have city officials reached out to you?
No. This is very much a speculative project. There is no aspect that is actually being built or constructed or proposing in any way a solution to one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It is more of a discourse around large scale urban development that occurs throughout the world, and how communities are marginalised.

So it could be anywhere?
It couldn’t be anywhere, no. The visual sight is very specific to Lagos but the idea of urban development and displacing poor communities is something that happens all over the world. In that sense, it is a universal conversation.

"It is a vision, but there is an exchange with reality."

Do you expect your style to materialise sometime in the future? Or is it really and purely science fiction?
It is a vision. But there is an exchange between science fiction and reality, in a way that it is forming or expanding the possibility of what could be implemented in the future. The presence is always drawing from stories and narratives that depict the future.

Why do you prefer composing things rather than building in the real world? What is the fascination of it?
It’s the immediacy with which I can realise my vision. Working as an architect, there are many parameters that have to be taken care of before a building can materialise. Plus, to build at the scale I am envisioning, you have to be widely successful. You have to belong to the two or three per cent of the world’s most famous architects in order to work at that scale. When creating speculative visions, your imagination is the only deterrent to realising the kinds of projects you want to see. I like that.

How did you technically produce these pictures?
The images are created with a mix of 3D computer models and a collage of photographs. Some of the people in the pictures are real, taken from photographs, documentary images, and some of them are computer models. This is how I create this special impression.

October 2020

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