#YNaijaNonBinary: In conversation with Stephen Tayo

Stephen Tayo

As a multidisciplinary artist working out of Nigeria, it has taken three short years for visual artist, Stephen Tayo to distinguish himself from his peers and gain the attention of the world. His work has been featured in the almighty Vogue US, he has been commissioned to photograph on behalf of art biennalles, and has shown exhibitions at the Lagos Photo Festival and the Rele Art Gallery Young Contemporaries annual exhibition. However, what truly elevates Stephen Tayo’s work is the respect with which he treats the men, womxn and children he photographs. He lovingly calls them his ‘collaborators’ and is enthusiastic about consent. I was honoured to speak to him about his work, specifically his most recent exhibition work ‘What If’, a project that offered rare positive representation to Nigeria’s drag community. Here’s what Stephen had to say.


 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

As an artist who documents minorities from disadvantaged social classes and fellow creators and collaborators who identify outside of the gender binary, how does this affect your work as an artist and your relationship with the art industry?

STEPHEN TAYO

I genuinely enjoy creating work around these themes because I find that my work serves as a reminder to all of us that there is so much out there that eclipses our daily lives. People outside of our social circles deserve the same audience from creators and artists that we deem fit for ‘normal’ societal conversations.

I don’t really spend my time trying to gauge what effect my work has, I am an emerging artist and I take everyday as an opportunity to learn something new. What I have learned is that the art industry is opening up to different approaches to storytelling and I am happy to explore within these new territories.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

What was the pivotal moment/event/experience that inspired you to start work on your most recent series ‘What If?’

STEPHEN TAYO

The idea for ‘What If’ came from my explorations of social media. It has become a huge trend for internet influencers to dress up as women as a way to gain attention. They might not call it drag, but that’s what it is.

I wanted to investigate the origins of drag in Nigeria, to explore the conversations we are having about who gets to express themselves through drag and why so many people see Drag art as a ‘Western’ transplant into Nigeria.

My series explores the historical examples of crossing in Nigerian culture and precolonial religions and to show that contemporary cross-dressers have a long history of drag as public expression and drag as a symbol of worship/devotion to draw from in their art.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

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?

STEPHEN TAYO

 It took me more than 5months from conceptualization to where the project is currently.

I really cannot pinpoint any insurmountable challenges I have faced working on this project. The challenges I did face, I tend to interpret as an opportunity to think about a new approach for my work.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

You work predominantly with an emerging LGBT subgroup in Nigeria. Drag queens who have a virtual presence. How did you convince them to allow you to shoot them for your project?

STEPHEN TAYO

For this project, I almost exclusively photographed self-identified drag queens/drag artists. So it wasn’t hard to convince them to collaborate with me on the project. Most of them have active online brands and have been able to leverage the curiosity (and sometimes, disdain) around their work to catapult themselves into becoming internet sensations. Photo-shoots, dressing up, its all a normal day to a drag queen.

My job was to convince them I wasn’t trying to exploit them or make them look bad, once they trusted my vision, everything else came easily.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

You are one of the few Nigerian artists working today who doesn’t try to make their work in LGBT representation ‘palatable’ to audiences at the expense of your collaborators. What is your guiding philosophy?

STEPHEN TAYO

Conversation about LGBT persons and the space they occupy in society and their right to choose to identify however they prefer is one of the most enduring conversations about the sexes . I want to document that conversation in whatever way I can, because I believe it will be relevant today, and 100 years from now.

My guiding principle is that I always approach any topic that involves people’s public and private lives with a clearly defined, neutral approach. I’m not here to support or reject. I am only here to document.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

What is the most memorable reaction you have had to your work?

STEPHEN TAYO

I think it was from one of my shows, a guest who came to see my show read my artist bio and commented,  saying “So people actually study philosophy.”

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

What kind harmful stereotyping towards gender and sexual minorities have you experienced and documented while creating work as an artist?

Questions like this come up all the time when people engage my work:

“What is the meaning of this? “Is this even important?”

When this happens, I find renewed vigour to keep documenting, because every life, no matter how different from ours, deserves to be documented and treated with respect and empathy.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

You work as a commercial photographer as well as a documentary photographer and when artists straddle that line, especially when they work with marginalized groups there is often the risk of being accused of exploitation. How do you deal with accusations like this, from people within those communities and people without? 

STEPHEN TAYO

I think I am only at the beginning stages of my career, and even I have experienced accusations of exploitation. People generally reach for the easiest answer when they are faced with something they don’t understand.

But I really do approach people I work with in different communities the way I would want to be approached, if I was the subject of an art project. Cases where I have to photograph or document someone under-aged or unable to make adult decisions for themselves, I always ensure that I deal with their parents or a guardian who can make decisions on their behalf and make sure they understand and consent to whatever project I’m working on.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

Often the subjects of your work cannot come to your exhibitions or engage the work in public because of threats of violence or discrimination. In what ways do you think your work documenting LGBT communities is helping to fight this stigma?

STEPHEN TAYO

One of the ways to fight discrimination is to find different ways and approaches to keep talking about issues that trigger discrimination and educating people about why everyone deserves every opportunity to live their truest lives and be their truest selves.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

You researched extensively for ‘What If’, including conversations with well-read authorities like Funmi Iyanda, and mentorships under established artists. How has your research shaped your most recent project?

STEPHEN TAYO

I think this is one of the ways young artists like myself double check on facts and ensure that we are contributing to and build on already existing conversations, especially around identity, rather than starting from scratch and retreading ground that has already been covered.

Talking to Funmi Iyanda about ‘What If’  was a way for me to inquire on what she has experienced and witnessed as a veteran in Nigeria media over the years and gain context for my work.

 

YNAIJA NON-BINARY

You have hinted that these issues you have explored in ‘What If’ 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?

STEPHEN TAYO

I think creating awareness about subcultures that traditionally would not make headlines or get fair coverage is what informs my work and the conversations I intend to start with my art.

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