I see; I breathe; I am! at Surrey Art Gallery

By Ogheneofegor Obuwoma

“Every day that I live here, I learn new ways to be Black.” A conversation goes on between the two artists presented in I see; I breathe; I am!, currently showing at Surrey Art Gallery. They unravel a world of answers and emotions that open up space for viewers to contemplate the multiplicity of Black people in the diaspora and the various cultural knowledge and belief systems that shape them. The exhibition is birthed from this exchange between Nancy Ainomugisha and Olúwáṣọlá Kẹ́hìndé Olówó-Aké. Together, they explore what it means to be Black for two people who have been raised so differently.

(photo: Olumoroti Soji-George)

Viewers are welcomed into the gallery by a piece on the entrance wall. They are presented with two framed photographs of each artists’ work. In the middle is a tiny screen that displays questions and statements exploring the artists’ confusion when they realized what it meant to be viewed as Black outside their respective countries of Uganda and Nigeria. A chair and headphones are provided for visitors to listen to both artists interview each other in the dimly lit, red-walled gallery.

(photo: Olumoroti Soji-George)

In Ahọn Dudu, Olówó-Aké uses video, garment assemblage, and performance while working from a Yoruba storytelling-based tradition. The garment the artist had used for her initial performance of Ahọn Dudu turns slowly on a rotating plinth, presenting its workmanship and preserving the presence of the performance. Footage of the artist wearing the garment is displayed, accompanied by sounds of her talking about the fictional world of Ahọn Dudu. This persona is based on Olówó-Aké’s experience of moving to Vancouver and realizing there was a lack of community, and people and institutions were determined to misunderstand her and how she portrayed herself as a Black woman.

(photo: Olumoroti Soji-George)

Ainomugisha’s piece In Ode to my Mother comprises two large photographic prints hanging on opposite sides of the red walls in the center of the room. They show her sister adorned in their mother’s clothes in the traditional style of her people. The images are highly edited, repeating on themselves with hyper-pigmented skin. The editing is a practice in learning for the artist, who identifies herself in the interview as an emerging graphic designer and lifelong visual artist. These photographs and gestures connect Ainomugisha and her sister to their mother and culture. It’s a way to understand their mother and an ode to her, rooted in an appreciation of the Black femininity their mother embodies to them. Black femininity and how Black femmes are perceived are themes seen through both artists’ work. They contemplate how to show up despite how they might be perceived or expected to behave as Black women.

Visitors to this red room are left to contemplate the complexity of how diasporic Black people are presented, and the nuance and conflict they feel within themselves, as well as how they find ways to do work capable of creating community. The artists were brought together by an organization formed out of the desire for Black people to be visible in the arts in Greater Vancouver. Curated by Olumoroti Soji-George of The Black Art Center in collaboration with Surrey Art Gallery, I see; I breathe; I am! already speaks to the artists’ hopes that more spaces and opportunities like this open up for Black people.

I see; I breathe: I am! continues until December 11.
Surrey Art Gallery: https://www.surrey.ca/arts-culture/surrey-art-gallery
The gallery is accessible.

Ogheneofegor Obuwoma is a Nigerian filmmaker, storyteller, and artist with a BFA in film and communications from Simon Fraser University. Her work explores “the personal” in relationship to her larger community and the cultural experience of being Nigerian. She is interested in African futurism and the ways we access the spirit.