From the outset, dissonance has appeared as a recurring preamble in Evan Ifekoya's practice. It has moved uninhibitedly through their work with a delicate yet acute handle. Ifekoya combines the sharp with the fragile until they dissolve into an amorphous third other. Whether it be their former archival magazine collage work, or their innocuous actions in front of a camera, such as combing their own hair, kneading,dancing or rapping ineptly but confidently about the conception of gender, Ifekoya playfully complicates the relationship between their body and how images contain it. Not just how images inherently essentialize narratives surrounding the body, but also those images others imagine and project. As Ifekoya's work has continued to progress, their individual body has become limited grounds for exploration. Instead, they tell me about their growing dissatisfaction with their sole presence or voice at the center of the work they make. They are more interested in reaching outwards and disavowing the established individualistic notions of authoring a piece of work or practice. As before, Ifekoya is intervening in what is already happening and proposing alternative possibilities for imagining and creating. When we initially approached Ifekoya back in April, they were in the thick of coordinating their first solo exhibition at London's GASWORKS. However, this isn't your typical one-person show. In fact, it is barely the work of a single maker, rather, the celebration of group work and the magic of community.
For the show, Ifekoya has been thinking about the ways in which sound can sculpt an environment to dwell in and relish. An environment where they and their black queer community can call their own. Ifekoya has also been thinking about how this could also move beyond the gallery and into any space, as a way of prolonging this line of thought and hopefully mutate it into new unknown directions. The exhibition, Ritual Without Belief, opens on July 5 and reading our conversation below, you'll get a brief glimpse into Ifekoya's mind as they were preparing for the upcoming show among other talking points we covered.
"i think certain individuals—black queer folks—have always been making adjustments, but I’m thinking about how these adjustments become part of everyone’s daily life. I’m also thinking about the environment we are going to inhabit as a result of this. It’s really grounded in a UK context. I’m thinking about blackness sonically but also spatially...I’m thinking about is how sound can generate space when we don’t have access to space."
I’m going to start by asking if you can remember some of your early instances of feeling anxiety about your future.
When you sent that question I kind of thought, when did I not feel anxiety about the future…
I don’t know if it is something I was born with, but it's something I feel like has been placed on me. From the age of about 12, I was framed as a disruptive student: a student who talked too much, or who had too loud of a voice. Even amongst friends, somehow, I was often highlighted or made an example of. I definitely think it is tied up with [the fact that] I was one of the very few black students at the school I went to. What sticks in my head very clearly, is that in my school report I was often told like, “if only Evan could stop talking or stop doing this, then they’ll meet their full potential.” If I was able to manage myself, then I would better. At quite an early age, I was told if I didn’t shape up or do something differently I wasn’t going to amount to much and it would lead to disastrous consequences. I was somebody who spoke up and asked questions. I didn’t take what was given to me without asking why, I was always asking people in authority to elaborate and explain themselves further.
There must be something in you that moved you beyond that.
It’s been challenging and damaging in some way. For me, that’s where the art came in.Art was a way of thinking through these things and questions that didn’t make sense. It was a way to think through what it meant to be angry all the time.
Are you already thirty or are you turning thirty this year?
No, I’m thirty this year.
OK, you are thirty this year and you’ve already been able to do so much, it's impressive. Do you ever sit back and think about it at all?
Yes, you are right. I guess I take it for granted, but I don’t think there was a moment when I thought these are the things I need to [have done] by this time. It all just kind of happened, and has been happening without me really thinking about what it means and what it's doing. I decided at the end of last year to take a little bit more control of where I’m doing things and what it all means. Now, I’m thinking about how I can make work that I’m really proud of. I’m thinking about quality, not in the sense that it's good or bad but really seeing if it does or speaks to the thing I’m thinking through or feeling at the moment.
Or doing work that you spend a much longer time producing.
Yeah, exactly. I’ve been working on a show I have coming up in the summer, I’ve been working on it for the last few years. It's my main focus.
Is it going to be in London?
Yes, it’s actually the first solo show I’m doing and I’m really pleased with it. Over the last couple years, I’ve had invitations which I haven’t taken up because I didn’t think it was the right thing to do and I didn’t what to rush it. Often the timing wasn’t right or the budget wasn’t right or something was quite right in the invitation. But now I think this is the moment. I’m really happy about it, but I feel a sense of pressure with that.
Are you able to talk about it all?
Well, at least some of the ideas you are thinking about working with?
It is all kind of jumbled in my head right now. I can think of a list of words that speak to what I’m doing.
I’m thinking a lot about polyvocality.
Polyvocality is this word I came across a few years ago when I was doing my MA thesis. I was thinking about how to write from multiple subject positions at the same time and destabilize a single point of subjectivity in a narrative or performance. Through polyvocality, I’m able to write through multiple figures’ bodies and beings at the same time, collapsing this idea that there has to be a single authoritative voice. That is central to what I’m doing. It's going to be a sound-led installation. Sound is going be a sort of sculptural element in the work. I am working with a couple people to build a custom sound system from scratch. I was thinking, instead of creating art for the sake of art, why not create a sound system that can be used as a community resource. In London, there’s definitely a lot of black queer folk who are organizing events and parties, but often we have to compromise on the sound system because of money or particular kinds of spaces. Building that element beyond the show could have a community dimension.
The Gender Song, video still, 2014
I’ve also felt ambivalence towards making art objects. That’s partly why I have avoided making a solo show. I think it becomes so much about the objectification of things. I feel really happy about making this system that can have a life after the art exhibition. Again, I’m bringing other people in for the development of the sound work, in terms of production and writing. They are all London based, Black women/non binary folk who I relate to and respect. Writing and creating with other people is fundamental to what I do. In terms of the actual content, I’m still kind of figuring that out. I’m really into science fiction. It hasn’t really informed my work so explicitly, but I read a lot of science fiction. I think maybe, I’ve kind of held back in my presenting of it as an idea because I’m aware of the largeness of it in black cultural production right now. Thinking about Afrofuturism, which I don’t relate to because it’s focused on a North American context, but Octavia Butler is someone I’m interested in. I’m writing around the moment of Brexit in the UK, and I’m thinking about where we are going and what we are going to have to do as a result of it. What kind of adjustments are we going to have to make? I think certain individuals—black queer folks—have always been making adjustments, but I’m thinking about how these adjustments become part of everyone’s daily life. I’m also thinking about the environment we are going to inhabit as a result of this. It’s really grounded in a UK context. I’m thinking about blackness sonically but also spatially. I’m reading Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Real and Virtual Space by Elizabeth Grosz. She doesn’t really consider it [architectural space] in relation to blackness, at least not in a pointed way, but what I’m thinking about is how sound can generate space when we don’t have access to space. Yeah, these are just a few jumbled thoughts. Hopefully, something good will come out of all this.
"I’m less interested in the future and more interested in collapsing time entirely, decentering ideas about chronological time and thinking more about how we move through things spatially. It’s the relationship between the temporal and spatial; it's not one or the other."
It will. I think you are on a good path. It sounds as though you are branching out in terms of all the things you’re thinking about in relation to everything else you’ve done. You are thinking outward and bringing people in to make it more participatory.
Yeah, I think I’ve always been interested in the idea of working with other people, but it's not something that you can force. I guess in my earlier work it was [just] me filming myself although I would bring someone in to help with the filming or the sound, but it was just me directing everything. Now, I’m less convinced by asserting an individual position. We are living in an increasingly individualist moment, and it's very much about icons, individuals who fulfill certain roles or speak from certain identities. I feel like we are all ambivalent about that. I’m really trying to decenter the single authoritarian subject in my work. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t present myself as the artist. That’s where the sound projects I’m working on come from, where I might use a different name or sort of inhabit a different space. Now, I have access to certain means where I can involve other people and pay them.
I want to go back to what you were saying about your interest in sci-fi, and how you were saying Afrofuturism is oriented towards America. When I think about Afrofuturism, I think about making a utopia or another world. From what you were saying I would put it into that space as well, in terms of creating space with sounds. Especially spaces that are not yet available or haven’t been historically made available. So, I wonder what your reservation for leaning toward futurism is?
For me, as a category or term, Afrofuturism is used so much it's starting to lose its meaning. I mean, I don’t disagree with what you are saying, I just wouldn’t call it science fiction. I sometimes think about some of my works as speculative fiction. Also, because I’m so rooted in the archive my work often starts with historical material. When I say historical, I mean that in the broadest sense; it could be hundreds of years ago and it could be from the recent past. I’m less interested in the future and more interested in collapsing time entirely, decentering ideas about chronological time and thinking more about how we move through things spatially. It’s the relationship between the temporal and spatial; it's not one or the other.
Oh OK, let me take a second to absorb what you just said.
I don’t know if I’m making sense.
I like what you were saying about trying to collapse time completely. That’s an interesting thought. What is the outcome of that pursuit?
I don’t think I can…
I mean if you were to speculate, since we are speculating anyway…
For me it so not so much about the outcome. I’m interested in this idea as a tool or strategy. There’s an artist who I really admire who is a mentor of mine. Her name is Lubaina Himid. She talks about her work as a series of strategies. That’s what I’m interested in. Through the text, the sound, space, kind of providing something that has an aesthetic dimension but also has… I don’t want to use the word ‘pedagogical,’ I don’t want to say this is about school or learning, but it might somehow contribute to a new way of being that can be used in the present. I think about the future and I think about the past as a way of thinking about how to deal with the present. I think I’m just trying to drop in these little tools and resources that can be useful to people.
Photo: from a 2016 collaborative performance by Evan Ifekoya & Victoria Sin. Sourced: BlockUniverse
I want to go back to what you said about having had to turn down some opportunities. As an artist in your twenties, how do you find the agency to choose what opportunities to leave behind and which to pursue?
I think fundamentally I have a set of ethics as an artist that I stand by. And ethics are not set in stone,they change and are moveable. But I know there are certain things that I’m not interested in at this moment. That includes working with private collectors. So, when the conversation becomes about that early in a project that’s going to be an alarm bell for me. At the same time, a show that has a limited budget but big expectations is also an alarm bell for me. I’m not willing to do what I’m not paid for. I’m very particular about that. I see friends and peers who are offered very minimal fees and go above and beyond—and produce amazing shows, don’t get me wrong. But that comes at a great cost to them, and I’m not willing to do that. People get what they pay for. I don’t know what that means in terms of my reputation or quality of my work, but for me it’s really not worth it to do more than what someone is reimbursing me for. That’s something that I decided early on in my practice. It's not a set of rules I have up anywhere, it’s just part of my ethics as a maker.
"I wonder what tools are we going to put in place for ourselves [black queer artists] to ensure our own sustainability. That’s something I’m thinking about right now because I don’t want to be at the mercy of funding bodies and institutions. I want to figure out how to do this on my own terms and for a long time. So, I’m kind of like, what are we going to do? —as a collective. "
I really like that answer. But it can be hard when you are starting out to easily decide what to do and what not to do.
For sure. I say what I said, having gotten burned in the past. I am not saying it because I’m above it. There has been a time when I felt really exploited and taken advantage of, and I didn’t like that feeling. Nobody likes that feeling. At a certain point, I made certain decisions about how I wanted to work and certain things I wasn’t going to compromise on. But these are decisions you can only make when they come up.
I understand that we are [a part of] this culture where we want to have platforms and be exposed to things, and often institutions provide these platforms and exposure and very little else. Somehow that is more important than one’s own mental and physical or spiritual well being. But that’s where we are.
OK, one last question. I know you are thinking about a great deal of things right now, but what’s one thing that you continue to be curious about?
I’m still pretty young, but I’ve been in the game for a minute. But the minute that I’ve been in the game, I’ve seen a lot of changes. I guess I’m curious about what the landscape is going to look like over the next ten years when its changed so much in last five years. I don’t think it’s necessarily changing for the better, but I think we have more opportunities available to us. When I say “us” I mean black queer artists. We have more [opportunities] but I don’t know if they are [still] going to be here in ten years. I know that I still want to be practicing in ten years, so I guess I wonder what tools are we going to put in place for ourselves to ensure our own sustainability. That’s something I’m thinking about right now because I don’t want to be at the mercy of funding bodies and institutions. I want to figure out how to do this on my own terms and for a long time. So, I’m kind of like, what are we going to do? —as a collective.
Frontis Photo: Evan Ifekoya, A Score, A Groove, a Phantom, 2016, photo by Bernard G Mills Sourced: Gasworks