Olalekan Jeyifous in Conversation with Kevin Buist

This conversation — which took place at Olalekan Jeyifous’ studio on May 01, 2019 in Brooklyn, NY — is part of the Project 1 Catalogue. Edited for length and clarity.

Olalekan Jeyifous is a Nigerian born, Brooklyn-based artist and architect. His work in public art, installation, drawing, collage, and design explores the past and potential futures of urban environments. For Project 1, Jeyifous presents a monumental sculpture titled The Boom and the Bust, referencing the historic and contemporary challenges of housing discrimination and the inequities of urban life.

KB

What are you creating for Project 1?

OJ

I’m making a steel and wood sculpture that’s about 25 feet in height. The sculpture is looking at the discrepancy in urban development, the idea that while there’s an enormous amount of development occurring in the downtown area, there’s certain marginalized groups—Blacks and Hispanics in particular—that don’t have the same access to it. The sculpture creates a visual juxtaposition. It is this large, almost triumphant, quasi-brutalist, modernist-looking sculpture, a bit of an abstracted building, a large tower. It’s segmented, or bifurcated, and in the center, it’s abruptly disrupted by a steel grid with a bunch of much smaller scale models of homes. This speaks to how housing is being bought out by a lot of out-of-state investors that are driving up prices, making it difficult for a certain segment of the population to gain access to housing. Even though if you just look at the statistics, development in Grand Rapids seems to be going very well.

KB

Tell me more about your background and your training. How did you arrive at creating public art in such a large scale?

OJ

I was trained as an architect at Cornell University, and then transitioned into visual art fairly early. When I graduated I didn’t go to work for a traditional architectural practice.

Olalekan Jeyifous, The Boom and the Bust, 2019. Bryan Esler Photo.

Instead, I went to work for a multi-disciplinary design firm called D-Box. They did a lot of really interesting things, like speculative set design, and I was creating computer-generated imagery (CGI) backgrounds. I was given an enormous amount of freedom to conceive of stage sets for these scenes. After four years of working for this firm, I was invited to participate in an exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was called Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor. Fifteen artists and architects were invited to reflect on Harlem and its evolution. Being part of this exhibit was an incredible experience. But it was a conflict getting a taste of this incredible freedom and opportunity to really create the ideas of my mind but also having to work, so I quit that job to pursue art full time. Having an architectural background is interesting because architecture—as kind of public imaginary—is supposed to solve problems, but a lot of the work I do is more about generating discourse and inquiry around particular issues.

KB

The work you’re creating for Project 1 has an echo of your earlier set designs.

Sculpture by Olalekan Jeyifous, titled "Crown Ether". Photo by Andrew Jorgenson.

Olalekan Jeyifous, Crown Ether, 2017.

OJ

I think so, and that’s an important aspect of public art. In an earlier public artwork, before Project 1, I got this Coachella commission that had interactive elements: a three-tiered plinth where festival-goers could sit, and large, branching, tree-like columns they could lean against. Public art appeals to me because there’s a high visibility for the artwork and a lower visibility for myself as an artist. It’s not like walking into a white-box gallery that proclaims, “this is my show.” Public art really allows me to center the art first, and put it in front of a larger public audience.

KB

Where do you look for inspiration? What do you look at; who are you reading?

OJ

My inspiration comes from everything that I am interested in. A lot of my work is inspired by science fiction. I would say even this work for Project 1, with this larger piece incepted by smaller pieces, can be approached through a sci-fi lens. Science fiction takes contemporary issues and exacerbates them or resolves them but in a very tenuous way. That’s what I’m interested in doing in a lot of my work. I look socio-political or mytho-cultural ideas, utopian or dystopian ideas, and project them into the future.


There’s a book that really inspired a lot of my recent work by China Miéville called The City & The City. It’s about two cities that literally occupy the exact same space in fictional Eastern European twin city-states. People are not allowed to engage or interact with the other city and the other city’s inhabitants at all without going through this bureaucratic process of officially crossing the border into that other city. Once you’re in that other city you can’t interact with individuals from the city you just left, but they occupy literally the exact same space. They’re walking back and forth on the same sidewalks; they’re going into the same shops. They’re differentiated by very subtle differences: body language, clothing, language, their inflections, the way they move. It’s such a fascinating concept that describes how from a very young age, children are conditioned to recognize inhabitants of the other city and to follow this pattern.

It makes me think a lot about my neighborhood in Brooklyn, Crown Heights. I see the same thing as that sci-fi story happening between a lot of the new arrivals to this community and the longtime residents. Unless they’re going to the same bodega, and one opens the door for the other, there’s very limited interaction between them. You can see walking up and down the streets literally two different sorts of inhabitants occupying the same space.

That led me to think about ideas of community, gentrification, and evolution of neighborhoods, but also the idea of the way neighborhoods are developed, their ownership, and who they’re for.

KB

Let’s talk about Lagos, Nigeria. This is a city that looms large for you, right?

OJ

I was born in Nigeria, but I’m not from Lagos. I was actually born in Ibadan, hours away from Lagos, and then moved to Ife, a neighboring city of Ibadan, when I was young. When I returned to Nigeria after many years, I went to Lagos. It’s almost like I haven’t quite been all the way home yet. I’m just fascinated with huge megacities. For me, Lagos—being born in Nigeria, and from Nigeria—is the perfect place to really think about cities. The 20 plus years away helped create a detachment that is potentially an advantage for the freedom of creating certain types of work, but also induces certain blind spots because I’m not from there. Within that context, I created a project called Shanty Megastructures about Lagos.

Olalekan Jeyifous, Shanty Megastructures, 2015.

A lot of urban development in Nigeria is massive, and it doesn’t really focus on marginalized communities. In Lagos, some 65% of the urban inhabitants reside in informal settlements. These communities are at best ignored, but at worst they’re bulldozed and actively destroyed. So I wanted to create these colossal developments that reflected the building typologies and the language of informal settlements. It became a very interesting conversation about, “Is this utopian architecture?,” “Is this dystopian architecture?” And so when I presented the work in Nigeria, I gave a lecture to architecture students at the University of Lagos. After I presented the work it was kind of eviscerated by one of the students, it was called, “ruin porn for Western media,” There was a round of applause, but then another student stood up and said, “You know, we have to challenge our ideas of why this is ‘ruin porn’ to you. This looks like very interesting architecture that makes use of local materials and that grows organically, that is community-minded, that focuses on sustainability and natural resources.”

In a place like Lagos, there are so many contradictions and juxtapositions. There’s all this development, and there’s a lot of wealth, but then there’s a lot of poverty. There’s a lot of infrastructure, but then there are also a lot of disruptions to the infrastructure. There’s a major economy and investment, but simultaneously there’s a huge informal economy that occurs simultaneously.

FOR ME IT WAS REALLY ABOUT GENERATING THAT DISCOURSE AROUND LARGE-SCALE URBAN DEVELOPMENT AND WHO IT’S FOR.

KB

Yeah. I want to circle back to something you said a minute ago about visibility… When there are narratives formed around cities, who are the characters in those narratives, and who’s visible? And when we imagine futures, who do we imagine them for? It seems we have a responsibility to imagine who belongs in a city, and how the built environment can play that out for good or for ill.

OJ

That idea of belonging all comes back to who’s telling the story. And that’s why there’s a large push for voices that you don’t normally hear from. There’s an incredible amount that those voices can contribute to the realm of creativity and art and history and more. It’s been proven that those voices are compelling and interesting. For the longest time Hollywood, for example, wouldn’t invest in certain kinds of movies because they didn’t believe they would draw audiences, and now that’s being disproved. You can see a direct response to a film that features an all-Black cast but still does ridiculous numbers. That idea can expand into urban planning and city policy. The voices of particular communities have an enormous amount to contribute that benefits everyone, whether you look like this individual or not. You don’t lose anything by adding voices to the conversation; you literally only gain by adding voices. There’s an idea that one space becomes diminished as another voice gains, but that’s actually not what happens. Instead, you get an enormous amount of stories and perspectives to choose from and to consider.

KB

How does the design of space, cities, and buildings affect who feels like they belong in a given space?

OJ

People don’t understand that everything is designed. A stop sign literally does not have to have eight sides; someone made a very clear decision to create a graphic standard that we all accept. On a larger scale, it’s design decisions that put a particular highway system through a poor neighborhood. Only when it’s that broad and impactful when it’s clear that the powers that be are putting something through a certain community space that they wouldn’t put through another community space does it become apparent that we should have a say in the way cities are designed. ■