To the rest of the world, she is an artist – one that may be further described as brilliant, incredibly talented, and all other adjectives that aptly capture the work she produces. But for Bunmi Agusto, she is more than the bold drawings and paintings that draw life from the deeply-rooted ideas in her mind.
“Art… it’s more about world-building for me”
“I’ll define myself as a world builder, I guess. Cos my practice follows like this wonderland I have created, so it’s not about painting things I guess. it’s about creating my own world, creating characters and creating spaces,” she explains.
Bunmi’s journey into the world of art is, interestingly, rather ordinary. Just like people know that they want to be lawyers or accountants for as long as they can remember, she says being an artist is a job she had always seen herself doing. This is in spite of the fact that she grew up in Nigeria, a country where the quest for survival might be more important than the desire to create beauty, metaphorical or otherwise.
After moving to England at the age of 16, and, encouraged by her parents, she went to Central Saint Martins to study Fine Arts and then for further studies abroad, she transferred to the Royal Academy of Arts at The Hague in the Netherlands. Currently, she is doing an MA in the history of arts and archaeology at SOAS University.
A very ordinary, straightforward path into the world of visual artistry that has transformed into the creation of extraordinary works of art.
Like her latest body of work, Escape to Within. In an earlier interview, she had explained that immediately she learnt about surrealism, she exclaimed, “This is my movement. I don’t need anything else.” But every painting in this collection is an exploration beyond the movement, and Bunmi admits as much.
“They [the hybrid clans] came about from me studying cultural theory and thinking of cultural aliens and cultural hybrids. They have their own culture, they have their own way of life that is different from ours but has similarities metaphorically.”
“This is my first solo exhibition and it is an introduction for people into this world. So I wanted to show the path that humans take migrating into [it], because in the world in my head, humans are not actually there: like they come in almost as immigrants, they are not the indigenous people of the land. So the [entire body of work is a depiction of] humans coming into the world… [into] this braided forest that is hard to navigate. [They keep] trying to find their way through until a hybrid indigenous clan member – that has these mutations that you’ll see – comes and lets them in. And leads them out.”
“So yes, it is kind of like people viewing are also these humans being introduced into this world and trying to understand and navigate it.”
“The hair is a motif”
If you go through every piece in this collection, one element would surely stand out – hair. And it becomes even more interesting as you dig deeper and realise braids are recurring in her work. Is this a theme, perhaps?
“The hair is not really a theme; I won’t call it that,” she responds. “It is more of a motif, just part of the landscape because basically during the lockdown … I was spending a lot of time alone. And I was in my own head most of the time, so, it was kind of like these characters were born there. [I thought] my hair should be in the landscape and so, I ended up creating a [braided] world for them.”
Even though the now-common braids dominate Escape to Within, Bunmi Agusto wants you to know that the artworks in this collection – all 19 of them – are new and unique to this body of work.
So which is a favourite? “I’ll say that it’s the braided labyrinth series. So [Escape to Within] is actually a [compilation] of smaller works. This [braided labyrinth series] is all about navigating nationalities and these compositions are inspired by flags – the national flags of African countries. Having people wandering [through them] is like the figures are literally navigating [different] nationalities.
And since the exhibition is also about migration – because it’s these humans migrating into [a new] world – the colour palette is also like tyres, which indicates movement. So I feel that there are many layers to that series in particular and that is why it’s currently my favourite.”
I wanted to know if she felt in any way that her latest pieces are somehow relevant to recent socio-economic agitations within the global Black community, like the EndSARS protest here in Nigeria and the BLM protests in the US.
“This body of work is not intentionally about that at all. This work is commenting more about migration in general, like cultural theory. And I already have a body of work that was part of an exhibition closer to SARS time that was relevant to that. But this one is not. Yeah, no, this is not about that.”
How about NFTs? Would any of the pieces from Escape to Within be offered as digital art? “I’ll be open to it for digital works, but – I have digital works in mind – I am not planning on making them anytime soon. When we get to that bridge we will cross it. But it is a good system for selling digital works. But I am currently not making digital works.”
So what are her thoughts on NFTs in general? “I think the general idea for there being like a system for new media works – like video and digital works – to be sold in that way is helpful in the long run. There are some kinks with NFTs and the environmental impact, but once they work that out, I think it’s here to stay. Or there might be a new form of it, it might not be called NFTs.”
“I would be doing architecture if I were not an artist”
Bunmi is an artist, but she is also an architecture enthusiast. “I am in love with architecture; like I am a big architecture enthusiast.” She thinks she may “eventually” go into designing houses, a skill she developed from playing video games, particularly The Sims.
“Currently, I am working on a project. I am approaching it from the academic side right now because there are a lot of people who are studying architecture abroad who don’t have the right resources when they want to talk about West African and Nigerian architecture… If you want to study architecture [outside Africa], you usually have to dig for the most basic thing.”
“I am currently working with this group called YANA which stands for Young Aspiring Nigerian Architects to create a digital library for West African and Nigerian architecture. So that’s one of my side projects right now. Currently, I am doing the academic side, but eventually, I’ll probably go to design if they’ll let me,” she concludes laughingly.
On the one thing that she cannot live, “I reckon I can live without a lot of things,” Bunmi responds. “But I’ll say music. I listen to music 24/7. I usually can’t work in silence, I have to have something playing.”
Escape to Within by Bunmi Agusto is set to be exhibited by Dada Gallery at the Cromwell Place, London, from July 14 – August 8 2021. The pieces would also be on sale.