Dandelion Eghosa is a non-binary visual artist who works out of Africa and explores queer themes through multi-media art that incorporates photography, filmmaking, analogue collage, embroidery and painting. They first gained prominence in the Nigerian art mainstream when they were chosen as one of 6 artists for the Rele Gallery Young Contemporaries exhibition in 2018.
Their debut exhibition Unspoken Rudiments was one of the most lauded bodies of work by an emerging artist in 2019 and it was fascinating to talk with them about their process, the catharsis they has found in their art and their plans for the future. They are one of the most fascinating artists working today and we are honoured to share their words with you.
As an artist who identifies outside of the gender binary, how has choosing to live a self-affirming life affected your work as artist and your relationship with the art industry?
As a non-binary artist, I was not properly prepared for the kind of obstacles I would face in my quest to tell authentic stories about queer lives.
I was signed to a gallery for two years that prioritized the commercial aspects of creating art over the authenticity of the subject matter and the value of the work. Parts of my work were either erased or toned down to appeal to the conservative sensibilities of collectors and curators.
Over the years, I have met filmmakers and photographers who excitedly asked to collaborate on the projects I have been interested in exploring, but have asked explicitly to have their contributions to the finished work erased because they are afraid of being stigmatized for being connected to work with queer perspectives. They have refused credit and even compensation.
It’s not just hard, it’s painful and it sucks. To do the work of documenting queerness as a non-binary artist is to be lonely, but I create and document to combat this loneliness with visibility.
What was the pivotal moment/event/experience that inspired you to start work on Unspoken Rudiments?
Unspoken Rudiments is a body of work that is separated into two series, one that explores my experience of home through the lens of childhood innocence and the other about my sexual identity.
Going back home to Edo state to research the project provided clarity and helped me focus on what really mattered. When I interact with people, they often become distracted by how I physically present, instead of my identity. This is why I wanted to explore sexual identity and how much perception skewers our interactions, and with queer people, limits. It was my way of making sense of this complex situation.
Ultimately, the underlying theme of the series was always love, and specifically, love for women in all stages of their lives, and the complexities of their relationships. The series was inspired by love, love specifically for women, as mothers, as daughters, as wives, as sisters, as siblings, and as lovers.
How long did it take you to make the entire series from start to finish and what was the most challenging part of the process?
It took a year from conceptualization to opening night. It’s easier for an independent artist to power through a body of work, but when you are attached to a gallery as I was, you have to incorporate the expectations of the gallery into your collection which often messes with your timeline.
I made a documentary, and my art pieces were a mixture of photography, analogue collage, and embroidery. The embroidery was the most significant of the labour that went into creating my body of work.
What was really hard for me was coming to terms with having to show work in an environment where parts of the work would be erased in service of its commercial viability, and accepting that I wouldn’t be fully understood, no matter how explicit I made work. I felt helpless about that, and I stalled because I was trying to make peace with it.
You are one of the few Nigerian artists working today who doesn’t couch their work in LGBT representation in obfuscating language. People who engage your work know exactly what awaits them. What has been the reaction to your work so far?
I do get a lot of anti-queer inquisition and I deliberately shut down ignorant and bigoted inquiries. But generally, the response to my work has been overwhelmingly positive.
Queer people, out and closeted from different parts of the world, have reached out to me at varying points in my career so far, to tell me they feel seen and represented by my work, and it reaffirms the importance of my craft as an artist.
What kind harmful stereotyping towards gender and sexual minorities have you experienced and documented while creating work as an artist?
The most common stereotype I have experienced has been homophobia, expressed in many ways on many levels, mostly expressed through verbal assault.
Even among allies and collaborators, I am constantly navigating the ways queer people present themselves to documentarians like me, or to their families and communities, and even to their romantic lovers. It is draining, but this is the reality of queer and non-binary artists who choose to exhibit their work in mainstream spaces.
As a photographer and visual artist, you have made a deliberate effort not to prioritize beauty or accessibility when you create. Yet your work has also proven commercially viable with wealthy patrons, the demographic that is often credited with excusing the oppression of minorities. Does this bother you, considering the stories you often tell are about the injustice queer people and women experience?
It bothers me, a lot.
I started creating art as a way to release the negative energy I had amassed my entire life, living in a conservative and hostile environment towards queer people. I haven’t been privileged to engage with my collectors, because my curators and agents often interfaced with collectors on my behalf. But I am entering a place in my career where I have more control over how my work is displayed and who it is sold to.
I am also excited about opportunities to discuss my body of work in public and academic spaces as I seek out more academic spaces in which to exhibit, to have my ideas interrogated for theoretical soundness and engaged constructively.
Unspoken Rudiments, your debut solo exhibition was deeply personal yet not autobiographical. As an artist who has personally experienced the many ways in which persons who do not present as anything other than feminine are targeted for harassment or have their legitimacy as people and artists questioned, how do you ensure the distinction between your personal experiences and the subject of your work isn’t crossed?
How does anyone separate their lives from their work?
I concede that it is possible to separate art from artist, but I also know how easily those lines can be blurred. I feel a little insecure about putting myself and my work into the world, but the stories I tell through my art are deeply personal to me and the subjects in my work act as proxies for me in positions where I can’t tell the story myself.
Unspoken Rudiments was originally conceptualized as an autobiographical series, but I worked on the series alone and I was short on time and manpower, so I wasn’t able to insert myself in the work in the manner that I would have felt did justice to the body of work.
Now that I return to representing myself as an independent artist with academic support, I am looking forward to revisiting Unspoken Rudiments and exploring all the parts of the project free of censorship or concerns of commercial viability.
You split the exhibition into two parts, ‘Home’ which focuses on the iconography of your childhood and how the symbolism around ‘home’ meaning is skewed with the loss of innocence. Was it hard to re-examine your own childhood and the ways people tried to shape your perception of the world?
It was hard but necessary to re-examine my childhood, especially in my first exhibition. But I needed to heal to be able to truly create the kind of work I need to make in the world, and exorcising my childhood was a necessary first step.
There is a lot of trauma in my childhood, and I had to dig through the murky waters to sift through those experiences and decide on what I should share and what I wasn’t in the right head space to process and reclaim through art.
There is still a lot of my childhood that didn’t make it into my exhibition, and when I am ready to engage those parts of myself and find catharsis through creating work inspired by them, I will.
You researched extensively for the ‘Home’ segment of Unspoken Rudiments, even travelling back to your ancestral home to converse with women from all generations as fodder for your work. Did you find any parallels in the contemporary stories that inspired your series and the lives of these women whose lives have been shaped very differently by social class and age?
I have been experimenting with the boundaries of love over the last two years, and I have used my work to test the limits of love and the ways in which people decide what they deserve in romantic and filial relationships.
Getting to go to my hometown and tell the stories of the women who bear many similarities to my mother, it was very healing to see these women as three dimensional human beings with secret desires, aspirations and regrets.
People my age do not have a lot of honest candid conversations with women of my mother’s generation, due to a deep misunderstanding of our collective struggles. My mother was one of my subjects for the documentary, and while footage of her wasn’t used in the finished documentary, her words were immortalized in the project. To bridge that gap with my work was fulfilling and I left those conversations feeling seen and loved in a deeply personal level.
The second half of your exhibition is ‘Is this a woman’ which examines social implications of identifying outside of the narrow field of acceptable behaviour for persons considered female. How does one capture the spectrum of womanhood in a limited medium like visual art?
Capturing the spectrum of womanhood is fluid, a journey that cannot be predicted and only experienced as you explore it.
The spectrum of womanhood is a journey of creating. The process of creation is raw and painful. For me as a creator and me as a non-binary person, engaging the concept of femininity vs womanhood and how both are used interchangeably when they are two very different experiences was very revealing. Womanhood is filled with secrets that everyone, even women refuse to engage or acknowledge and confront.
It is hard to look at yourself in the mirror and make changes. So this was an opportunity for me as an artist to put a mirror to myself and observe my flaws with radical honesty, to engage and accept them.
You have hinted that these issues you have explored in Unspoken rudiments are themes you want to continue to explore for the entire breadth of your career. What kind of impact do you want to make with your work in the short and long term?
I am very specific about the work I am creating; it’s for queers in Nigeria and Africa. I would be honoured if my work resonated with queer people from across the world, but I do not centre them when I create.
I speak for queers in communities where they cannot speak for themselves. I create for queers who are dealing with and unlearning the traumatic experiences and indoctrination they have endured as a result of growing up in this environment. I hope that people through my work can find a safe space to have real conversations about bodies and love and warmth in general.
I know the journey is long and the change that I seek might not come in my time, or even the time of my children’s lives. But I am convinced this is a step towards something really magnificent.
Edwin Okolo is an author and journalist who has worked with YNaija, TheNativemag and the Naked Convos.