Yetunde Olagbaju, photographed by Richard Lomibao. A painting by Olagbaju, courtesy of the artist. 

Two Afro-Futurists on Using Art as a Portal to Another Time

Oakland artist Yetunde Olagbaju reunites with her childhood mentor, Ta-coumba Aiken, for a conversation about how ideas of time travel and ancestral lineage shape their work.

Mar 1 2018, 4:24pm

Yetunde Olagbaju, photographed by Richard Lomibao. A painting by Olagbaju, courtesy of the artist. 

"Broad Strokes" is a column celebrating creative community. We ask an artist we love to engage an artist they love in conversation about the ideas that inspire them.

Before offering a traditional bio, Oakland artist Yetunde Olagbaju’s personal website greets visitors with a PSA of sorts: "If I don’t acknowledge how many people it took to raise me, or to be part of my life, or to make me into this person, then my existence becomes not worth fighting for." It’s a fitting introduction to her practice, which uses video, installation, painting, and other media to create representations of non-linear time and explore themes of time travel and ancestral lineage.

In a solo show last year, Olagbaju covered a gallery with photos of the women in her family, along with passed-down mementos, letters, and sketchbook entries. Scrolls painted with rainbow, hieroglyph-like messages unfurled next to star-dotted paintings of black circles and squiggly cutouts of glistening, holographic paper. The effect was transporting—as if the artist had unveiled an astral dimension where different eras of her life existed simultaneously.

Growing up in Minnesota, Olagbaju’s artistic mentor was celebrated Saint Paul painter and public artist Ta-coumba Aiken, a family friend. Aiken, whose own work is influenced by his mother’s work as a healer, creates large-scale paintings that similarly aim to channel energy and wisdom from other eras and lifetimes. Often using imagery of African masks and dance, he creates color-packed, gesture-driven paintings that function, for him, as portals.

For Broad Strokes, the pair reunited for a laugh-filled conversation about the nature of time, the subtle ways mentors influence us, and the process of getting to know oneself.

A painting by Ta-coumba Aiken (L), a painting by Yetunde Olagbaju. Courtesy of the artists.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

BROADLY: Yetunde, why did you choose Ta-coumba to be in conversation with?

TA-COUMBA AIKEN: Yeah, why’d you choose me, girl? Why you haunting me? Every ten years you show up in my life again.

YETUNDE OLAGBAJU: Oh my god, that’s hilarious. I picked Ta-coumba because I’ve been thinking about my experience in Minnesota as a Black artist and a small human and a lot of the moments where I remember building connection with another Black person who also happened to be another artist, those were with Ta-coumba. When I met Ta-coumba, it was one of the first times I had met a living artist. It wasn’t in a historical context, it was somebody who was living, breathing, still creating, still learning, still growing, and really who was able to see me in a way that my family wasn’t able to—or at least wasn’t able to until much later.

Aiken: To be clear, your parents gave me the permission to communicate. But I really think that our ancestors just said, an introduction needs to be done. I can’t think of it outside of the ancestral plane at all. I know I can be committed for saying that, but that’s alright.

Olagbaju: Yeah, the other thing that deepens this for me is that my mom’s side of the family, when we were part of enslaved people, our plantation was part of the Aiken plantation in Charleston, North Carolina and Ta-coumba’s last name is Aiken. So, as far as all of our family is concerned, we’re actually related in this very specific way… My mom told me, “I knew you and Ta-coumba needed to meet, just because Black people and Black artistry is important.” So, there were so many reasons that she wanted us to link, but there was also that potential that we had made a familial connection before in past life.

And I’ve actually been wanting to ask you, Ta-coumba, how do you feel about time travel—if you have any feelings about that?

Artwork by Aiken. Courtesy of the artist.

Aiken: Girl, time travel is late now. Time travel is old school. My paintings are recordings of a time traveler’s diary. They don’t stand still, even if you want them to stand still. If they’re on the wall, they end up being more like portals than a historic rendering. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m given a certain mastery of my work to reveal something. I use it under the guise of painting and sculpture and public art and community engagement, but all those things are just different codings.

Our ancestors were truly messing with us. For me to get on a plane and then all of a sudden see your step dad and your mom and you. I’m not expecting to see anybody of note and here the three of you are and the first thing that your mom does is say, “You should look at Yetunde’s sketches.” Then on the plane, you sat down next to me—I think we might have moved somebody actually… I just wanted you to find your voice. I didn’t want to tell you anything, I just wanted to help you see. And that’s a very strange thing, because it’s not a lesson; there’s no syllabus for it.

Olagbaju: Yeah, I think it has to do with this very subtle way in which we were interacting with one another. I remember when we were on that plane, I was drawing somebody naked, and I remember you asking me why. Who is this for? What is this giving back to you? And I often go back to that. That’s why I was asking about time travel, because a lot of my work right now is talking about past, present, and future self and how we can create almost like an internal map of communication between them.

Aiken: Hmmm, I wonder where you got that from.

A piece from Olagbaju's solo show in Oakland last year. Courtesy of the artist.

Olagbaju: That’s what I’m saying! It’s interesting and amazing, because I feel very deeply that this is something that I just gravitated to and I think, honestly, it’s because of my own need to heal and need to talk to my child self and to my grandma self and be able to make sure we’re in conversation with each other. But I also realize that, while that capacity comes from having to just sift through my own personhood, it also has to do with the people who have been around me for so long. I do think that ancestors are coming through and being like, hey this is the work that you need to do not only for yourself but also because it might be helpful to others. I see that, especially knowing that your work is a visual representation of moving through different realms and different times and different spaces and a recording of how our physical and energetic selves change through those shifts.

On that note, I want to ask: What advice would you give to your younger self and also what kind of advice would you give to my younger self—even though I know you already gave me a lot of advice, but knowing now what you now.

Aiken: First thing, it’s a continuous flow. You know? If I’m gonna receive or give advice, it has to be like the wind, it has to be like to ocean, like the river. It is continuous whether I like it or not. So, I would always say never stand still even if you need to make it look like you’re standing still. And stay open to possibilities. When you get that feeling in your gut, you should be on it.

Olagbaju: Yeah, intuition is so important. I find myself sometimes overthinking what I’m trying to say as opposed to letting it just come from a place of intuition. I mean, I don’t think it’s wrong to be intentional about your message, but I do think that, for me, the best work that I’ve created has come from a place of intuition. And that also applies to decisions in my every day life.

Ta-coumba Aiken. Courtesy of the artist.

Aiken: But the thing is, too, are you looking for immediate answers or are you looking back and realizing that something you learned 15 years ago started making sense yesterday? In creating your internal maps, how are you doing this?

Olagbaju: A lot of it is video work and sculpture and writing, and the video work has a lot to do with trying to come up with ways to communicate with my past and future self as my present self. A lot of that translates into using light, using mirrors, using colors, and investigating how we as humans actually process light in our eyes via stars or other illuminated stuff; and then also how we differentiate between oranges and blues and yellows and purples and the frequency with which we receive those colors. I’ve also been painting really big portals. So when you said portals earlier that felt nice to me.

Aiken: The portal thing doesn’t let me go. I’ve tried to ignore it for 40 years and finally I just had to give in. Now, I write on every application, to the Guggenheim and such... I always saw in your drawings, or maybe in the backgrounds of your drawings, your portals. It wasn’t what you were drawing but it was in the background.

Olagbaju: I feel like a lot of the portals I was drawing as a kid translated into mountains. Or, I remember I was looking through my real young sketch book from when I was like seven, when I was drawing ladies in their outfits—very 3LW, TLC kinda vibe—but I was always drawing stars and I was always drawing plants. It’s interesting, I still do this.

Aiken: Have you ever done a portrait of your paintings?

Olagbaju: No, can you explain that?

Aiken: I started noticing that there are things in my paintings. One day I just sat down. I had an idea about a piece of one of my paintings so I started doing a rendering of it. But not a copy. Sitting down and capturing it like you would capture another object. All of a sudden a whole other world popped out. I think that I saw things that I’d done in the past, and I still see these things now—like a little squiggle line where all of a sudden I realize I’ve been doing this for 53 years. Because I started drawing when I was three.

Just believe and feel that you’ll get what you need to enhance your DNA, your energy, your orb.

Olagbaju: That’s how I’ve been working these past through years. If something’s calling me, I’m just gonna keep doing it.

Aiken: You’re, I think, one of those—I don’t know if the right word is “soothsayer”—but entities that will bring light to a lot of darkness.

Olagbaju: Oh man. Whewww. That’s the goal.

Aiken: I’m passing it on to you because it was put on me.

Olagbaju: No, I get that. Thank you for that.