…Re/education of the public on art is core to my curatorial practice
…Selling artworks should not be primary focus of art exhibition
By Anote Ajeluorou
Kennii Ekundayo is a young curator who has shown that age is just numbers, having shown immense ambition with her curatorial work. Taking on Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya is no mean feat, yet she took him to a global audience at San Diego State University, U.S., for ‘Retrospective on Onobrakpeya’s 60 Years’ career show. In April 2023, Ekundayo will take veteran female artist Nike Okundaye and her works to the U.S. for yet another iconic exhibition. In this interview with AnoteArtHub, Ekundayo looks back at the Onobrakpeya show, its valuable lessons, and her forthcoming project that is devoted to taking emerging African artists to the global community
That was a remarkable feat you achieved, showing Onobrakpeya’s 60 years of retrospective artistic engagement to the world. How did you pull it off? How did the journey start?
I will like to begin this by saying (perhaps for the umpteenth time) how honoured I am to have been the one who brought this ambitious project to pass. I never get tired of mentioning the magnanimity of the artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and looking back, I believe that his faith, trust and respect for me and my curatorial practise contributed to the many successes that we enjoy today, of my work with him.
My journey with Bruce began on February 20, 2019 when I had a meeting with the founder and director of Freedom Park, Arc Theo Lawson, whom I had approached with a proposal for an exhibition at the park’s gallery later that year (October 2019). It was at this meeting that he intimated me with the park’s plan to host an exhibition by Bruce Onobrakpeya and then asked if I could curate the show. Who would say no to such once-in-a-lifetime request?
So, I ran with the mantle and from that very afternoon, began working on the show titled Beauty and the Machine which opened less than two months after, April 2019. Working with the knowledge that 2019 marked the 60th anniversary of the artist’s professional career (having had his first solo exhibition in 1959), I started to explore the idea of an actual retrospective in his commemoration. I reached out to my friend, Dr. Niyi Coker, Director of the School of Theatre, Television and Film at the San Diego State University, U.S., and we discussed the idea of birthing this retrospective at the university. A partnership with the university was formed and soon after, we began making plans for the show.
Was that your first U.S. show?
Yes, this would be my first exhibition in the U.S.
How was the response of San Diego State University community and beyond?
The response was astonishing! This was Bruce’s first outing in San Diego, and so there was a general curiosity from most of the exhibition guests to discover for themselves this acclaimed living artist with a 60-year spanning career.
There were over 20 guided tours for students of the university; we also recorded visitors who came into San Diego from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Maryland and other cities to see the show!
The show also attracted global media (with cable network CNN giving it ample airtime) and their audience. How did that make you feel?
It has been a rewarding experience seeing the seed of painstaking research, hard work, grit, sweat, and tears blossom into a huge tree bearing many fruits. What better reward can one expect? It has also strengthened my resolve to follow my initiative and to keep giving my all to my visions — because, as we have all come to see, they are valid!
Are there plans to also show Onobrakpeya’s ‘Retrospective’ in Nigeria to his home audience?
Before San Diego and after the show at Freedom Park in 2019, I had presented yet another exhibition by the artist Façade which was hosted by Art Twenty One between December 2020 and June 2021. This contributed to my vision of a ‘buildup’ to the retrospective while also realising the saying that ‘Charity begins at home.’ So, the homefront isn’t starved of his presence, so to speak. However, I am not against opportunities to curate projects focused on the artist, and so I gleefully look forward to them.
So who’s next for this international artistic tour? Are emerging artists also on the bill?
Yes, in fact, amongst other projects that I am currently neck-deep in, I am planning an exhibition Syllabus of the Unseen that spotlights new generation artists who are doing remarkable work within the African art space. It is part of my objective to present the best of our dear continent’s creativity, and I cannot wait for its public opening.
When is the next show and where?
This is set to open at the end of the year in Atlanta, Georgia.
Walk us through your curatorial process and how it enabled the success of the Retrospective show?
I am very big on research; a meticulous study of my subject. This is a crucial part of my process that continues even after the end of an endeavour with the said subject(s). After research then comes building my conceptual framework, then dealing with logistics and other modalities that pertain to bringing the show to the fore.
You’re young but you were able to pull off such a big show of a grandpa at the global arena with another grandpa Prof. Wole Soyinka in tow. Did that age disparity bother you a bit? Were you nervous?
Nervous? Not exactly. On a hot seat? Yes, very much so. Lol. Truth is that having to work with an artist like Bruce is no mean feat, particularly because of the complexity of his process. However, that complexity was like child’s play compared to the challenge of presenting him in a light different from what people like Wole Soyinka and so many others who have followed his work for the last 40, 50, 60 years have seen. It is this challenge and my defeating it that I regard as the crucible of my success with the artist.
What institutional support did you get from San Diego State University? What lessons can we learn from it back home in Nigeria?
I must acknowledge that the sheer opportunity of a partnership with the institution is significant to my latter projects with the artist, that is, after my first stint with him at Freedom Park. It is a huge deal to have such an institution acknowledge the ‘Living Treasure’ that is Bruce Onobrakpeya, and so dedicate their time and resources towards the realisation of this retrospective in their space. The university community also engaged the show fully soon as it was up. Earlier, I had mentioned over 20 tours of the show, of which at least 10 were class tours dedicated to SDSU students as initiated by their professors. I also recall being invited by one of the professors, Dr. Gillian Sneed, to give a lecture to students in her Art History class who at the time were focused on a Global Contemporary Art History discourse that incidentally featured Bruce. These are some of the highlights of the support and acceptance received from the institution.
At the core of my practice is the re/education of the public as regards art in my little way. This, I easily achieved at SDSU and it has now reinforced my zeal to prioritise public engagement in subsequent projects. Selling artworks should not be made the sole/primary focus of an art exhibition — I think it is problematic when people base the success of an art outing on how many works were sold and not the outreach that it is supposed to represent, except in the case of auction events.