This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Artist Ekow Nimako doesn’t just build sculptures out of the traditional material of paint or clay, he carves them from objects of his young obsession: Lego. Since 2013, the Toronto-born artist has been using the plastic construction toys—black in color—as a means to facilitate expression, covering topics around blackness and general otherness. Most known for Silent Knight, a piece that grabbed onlookers during 2015’s art festival Nuit Blanche, he continues to push the envelope with his very specific niche. VICE went to his studio recently to figure out his thought process and ask why he builds monuments for black youth.
VICE: This may sound a bit obvious and trivial, but why do you only use black Lego pieces?
Ekow Nimako: When I was living in London, Ontario…I found that growing up, whether I was playing with Lego or watching cartoons, movies, or comic books, that representation was always an issue. When you’re young, you really don’t understand that.
Most of my friends were white, and my best friend was biracial—Nigerian and white—and I don’t know, you’re just surrounded in whiteness basically with everything that you consume. So when it comes to my art, it was very important for me to reflect myself, my people, and my experiences. There’s also something… just as a color and shade that black gives off… a sophistication, and I like that it strips away some of the Lego-ness of what I do.
When you think about Legos, the collective consciousness is to think of them as associated with playfulness with all these colors coming together. It leads to the number one question that comes to me when people engage my work of the validity of the Lego I use. It’s like, this isn’t lego, or it’s, what’s this made of? And I’m like, it’s Lego, and there’s this kind of surprise and shock. That to me is pleasing, because it speaks in the many ways to the cultural polarity of Lego, which is something that, despite the fact that it’s so persuasive and global, is not that thing you associate with blackness or black culture in any regard.
So how has your interest in sci-fi and fantasy influenced your work?
It has influenced it very much so. There’s an androidic quality to my work I’ve noticed because of my fascination with robots, androids and cyborgs along with the inhuman. They just filtered into me and they’ve given me a platform to create worlds. There’s always a strong sense of narrative with my work, and that comes from a place of watching and consuming science fiction and fantasy, where you’re in a separate world.
And how does that interact with your exploration of black identity?
Just like the narrative that I’m building is constantly changing, the black diaspora and black culture in general is constantly shifting and growing as well. It’s also just a way for me to express my blackness in a way that… I don’t want to say accessible, but I find that with Lego, it’s a medium that acts like a channel where you can immediately get it, and I appreciate that.
I like that it’s also something that you’re not expecting to see as representative of black culture when you think about Lego. That dichotomy is really important to me because it helps to create some kind of discourse and thought process that’s not the regular course when considering the iconic value of my material.
Do you identify as an Afro Futurist?
I think in many ways I’m an Afrofuturist as I’m very much interested in the exploration of black narratives taking place in the future, but that are also drawn from the past. But I also don’t like to claim any particular title as finite, as if to say, this is what I am, and this is the work that I make because some work I create won’t fit into some of the more rigid guidelines for a particular genre. Either way, I’ll always be exploring future landscapes that will be informed from a black perspective.
Movies like Black Panther and After Earth for instance are Afrofuturistic movies that are really important to me, whether they’re critically acclaimed or not. It’s not to say that there haven’t been films with black leads; it’s just that often what you’ll find is that a particular character will be the centralized figure. The world they inhabit is not a black world, and that often gets lost on people.
And what’s the narrative behind one of your more popular pieces, Cavalier Noir ?
Cavalier Noir stands for black rider, and it was important for me to build a piece that conveyed a sense of power, but also a sense of magic, wonder, and hope.
For the most part, you don’t get to see black child warriors with cornrows as these heroic, monumental figures, and Director X and I got to talking about monuments, and how in so many ways they’re really propaganda. Like what’s happening in North America for instance, where statues and monuments are being torn down, and most of the time when you think of these monuments, you see old white men on horses being very heroic even though they carry a lot of colonial baggage, and it's there where the question of "who are our heroes?" really comes into play.
For me, it was important to create and stylize a hero in the image of a young black warrior. Even, just to consider the child’s hair and cornrows, and how often people try to police black hair and criminalize it. It was important to paint a picture of a mythological hero, that at the same time, looked like many of the residents of Scarborough, Canada.
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