Ayo’s artistic practice consists of extensive projects which shape shift into film, sculpture and performance. Her research interests are nourished by archival materials, oral histories, intangible forms of cultural heritage and informal knowledge practices, embodied within the contemporary African Diaspora. At Amant, Ayo will develop a project related to oral histories and informal knowledge systems and practices, explored within the metaphor of a winnower, which involves using film as a research tool and sculpture as a form of exorcism, while also allowing the project to unfold openly.

Ayo, born in Apac Uganda, currently lives and works in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. She has shown her work at Rencontres Internationales Paris (FR) and in Berlin (GR), Museum Arnhem (de Kerk) in Arnhem (NL), European Media Arts festival in Osnabrück (GR), and Goethe Institute in Bangkok (TH), among others. In 2023, her work will be featured in Municipal Art Acquisitions at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and Art Rotterdam. In 2021, she was awarded the Mondriaan stipend for Emerging Artists.

Meet the Residents Ayo

Ayo walks us through her current research that brings together oral archives of African immigrants in NY, a personal and sculptural query around the Nepenthes flower, and how she looks at her own process as a type of winnowing.
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Sarah Demeuse: This is “Meet the Residents”, a series of interviews with Amant’s artists-in-residence, in which we speak, and digress about research, the impact of context on artistic process, serendipity, and making community. Amant is a nonprofit arts organization and residency in North Brooklyn . Our studios are at 306 Maujer, where we host 4 artists for 3 months; one cohort in fall, another one in spring.

My name is Sarah Demeuse, I’m your host and Amant’s Head of Publications. This is our Fall 2022 season.

Today, I am at Ayo’s studio.

Sarah Demeuse: So Ayo, great to be in your studio! Thanks so much for making space and time in your stay here. I think we can just jump right in. There’s so much to see here and to talk about. And I think a first question would be, where are you? Where did you join us from before coming to Amant? Where were you?

Ayo: Where was I? In terms of my work or–oh, geographically. Geographically, yeah. Yeah. I was in– I live in the Netherlands. I’ve been living there for about 13 years. But I’m originally from Uganda.

Sarah Demeuse: Great. And. And then, yes, I. It would be great to talk about where you where you work. And maybe we can rephrase that question to be a bit more specific in terms of when you arrived here, you came with a certain plan. It would be great to hear what you thought you were going to do and then how this is developing now that you’re here.

Ayo: So prior to coming here, I think it’s important to at least contextualize what I’d been interested in, because it’s kind of like.

Sarah Demeuse: Aha

Ayo: Falls in line to the reason, my main motivation for coming to New York and for this residency. So two years ago I became very interested in information, knowledge practices specific to the Ugandan Langi people because this is part of my ancestry and through like some researching an anthropological and anthropological publication, I came across a particular cultural performance that I’d heard about, but I hadn’t like read about it, you know?

Ayo: Yeah, I hadn’t read about it like in a book, you know, it had been like of course, of course it transmitted through like people had some sort of knowledge about it. And then from that point, when I started to research that cultural performance, you know, it opened up or it opened up certain parts of history that hadn’t also been taught in school, you know, and that’s where the interest came.

Ayo: And from then on, I’ve always been looking at ways in which I can revisit these oral histories or these forms of storytelling, these traditions that are kind of embedded within my ancestry, but have kind of like not been passed through because these are usually done generationally. And at that point of time, I was I had this I inherited the winnower and it was just called a dero in my mother tongue.

Ayo: And I was just thinking of a way of expanding this. And that’s when I saw the open call at Amant. And I thought, Oh, it would be very interesting to take this object and look at this dispersal of informal knowledge. You know, if I’m looking at the archive as the body of the body as an archive, it would be interesting to expand this research in a completely different geography.

Ayo: So I came with the intention of doing that.

Sarah Demeuse: And previously, just to understand, when you were researching those oral traditions, would you be going back to Uganda or was it also already in a diasporic situation?

Ayo: No, those oral histories were very specific to my I hesitate to say tribe, you know, to my own. Yeah. Which other word can I use? I don’t know.

Ayo: So the language society so like those long. Yes, I would go back to supplement the information because what was written down was, was in the context of something broader and there was just like in this case, Ikoce, this specific cultural performance. But I was so interested in it was just a small like two page document.

Ayo: Speaking about this Ugandan healer who became prolific in the 1960s. And the reason why she became quite famous was I mean, the reason why she started practicing was because her husband was drafted to fight for the British during the Second World War. And these are actual events that, you know, happened. But the but these are things that are not told within those oral histories.

Ayo: It’s just the performance and the, you know. Yeah. So just to supplement and that’s I went home to Uganda to the northern part of Uganda and I spoke with like elders and different people to like tap into the, you know, the different forms of knowledge and memory of this practice. So, yes, I’ve always been going back when it’s specific to the history, specific to the community of people.

Sarah Demeuse: Great. So then tell us how how it works here, what you bring to the conversations here. How do you do your research? How do you even introduce yourself?

Ayo: Yeah, that’s a good question. There’s been it’s different, of course. And I think I came here because I mean, firstly, the histories that I found is that during the time when I submitted my application and my proposal, there were these oral histories archived at Fordham University called the Bronx African American Oral History Project, BAAHP. And I thought that there would be particular or more records about African immigrants, you know, because in the 1980s till now, I think starting from the 1980s, there was an influx, a large amount of African immigrants from the continent and a lot of histories that have been done on like black people in America.

Ayo: I think those are specific to African Americans and not a lot. And that distinction sometimes is sometimes, you know, it’s not made. And I came with an intention to make that distinction. And so that, of course, was also like a different approach, because I’m in in that case, I’m approaching it approach, approach, approach, sorry. But I, you know, I contacted an institution and it’s usually I usually work with people, not institutions to like access archives.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah.

Ayo: And this time it was yeah. So there have been some I think the challenge, the biggest challenge I face right now is just if there is like a barrier between the, you know, the I listen to the oral some of the records, about 15 of them out of 46 that were archived. And out of those and 46 of them, you know, are from like 400 records that they made from 2002 to now.

Ayo: And, you know, it’s just it’s been quite difficult to to actually contact the people whose voices were recorded.

Sarah Demeuse: And who was doing the recording. This is actually still going on at Fordham?

Ayo: No. Since well, the professor who did the recording, who initiated the project is called Mark Mason. Dr. Mark Mason. And he started the archive in 2003 because there was a need from within the community to like create more visibility for the work, the contribution of African Americans within the Bronx. And then later on they noticed or one of the staff members, Jane, Jane Edward noticed that there was also and there were also African immigrants, actually, who wanted to share the stories, you know.

Sarah Demeuse: And so you’re focusing mostly on the immigrants. Yes. Yeah. And then what is the next step after listening to it? And I’m just kind of wondering how the object of the winnower here comes in. Also, because it’s not just you are here on the residency, the winnower is on a residency too and I’m really interested in how that works for you with this very specific object from your family history that comes with them.

Ayo: Well, the winnower. Yeah, I carry it everywhere with me. As long as I’m staying at a place for like more than a month, I take it with me and the I. I look at the act of winnowing, actually. I look at it metaphorically in relation to like informal knowledge and experiences that are kind of like winnowed from the body during migration.

Ayo: It comes from a very personal, you know, point of relation. And I wanted to extend this to like African immigrants in New York through film though, because and in the film that I’m working on, the filmic research, I’m taking that sound of winnowing, you know, formally to kind of like structure the video, to give a sense of rhythm and a sense of, you know, memory in my case, maybe in like pacing the images that I’m collecting and and the text that I’m writing. Because while listening to these oral histories, I’m also like writing, reacting to what I’m listening to. And that’s why you see some varied texts all over the wall. Yeah. So that’s how, how the winnower is informing the filmic research work.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. Yeah. And so that the interviews are the starting point for the filmic research, here you have your reactions. Is there another layer of direct interaction with people here as well? Mm hmm.

Ayo: Those ones I’ve done, like outside of the the archive. How do they frame us? Like, yeah, self-initiated, like, but also informed partially by the archives because some of the the the interviewees there were speaking of places where Africans commune and for example, the Malcolm Shabazz and I went there and just had some conversations with the vendors who have been selling, you know, goods, mainly African artifacts and clothing for for about 30 years, 25 years to 30 years.

Ayo: So I have spoken with some of them just to casually speak about, you know, their experiences here or their ties to home and those kind of matters. Yeah. Yeah. It’s still it’s an ongoing thing because on one hand, I do feel like three months is a very short period of time for like what I’ve kind of started to do.

Ayo: And because it takes a lot, it takes some time to develop a sense of trust and to be invited to communal activities. And the fact that I’m also Ugandan and most of the people in New York, the ones I’ve met right now, they’re from West Africa. We relate in a very in quite a different. Yeah. Cultural, historical. Yeah.

Ayo: Basis as well.

Sarah Demeuse: For Sure now and then I know there’s also a lot of drawings and glass that you are blowing. How does that feature into everything?

Ayo: Yeah, well, the glass, the glass sculptures are, um, they are formal manifestations of like the drawings you see there. These are drawings of, for example, those two, those are drawings of this plant, the pitcher plant called scientific called Nepenthes.

Sarah Demeuse: Nepenthes, yeah.

Ayo: And I, I became obsessed with these plants like a year ago when I was looking for the scientific name of the materials used to weave, the Otero. Otero is the winnower. Yeah, I found this botanical publication, I think it was written in the 19th century by these two explorers who discovered discovered the source of the Nile.

Ayo: And that’s and it starts from like Egypt all the way to Uganda. And they started, I think, with the Nepenthes, you know, this plant. So it’s very beautiful, very beautiful, gorgeous life plant. And the illustration was also really, really gorgeous. And I just find it very interesting that they started from Egypt and then ended in Uganda with the I did find the name of the plant is Grewia Mollis.

Ayo: Is this the scientific name. But it means in my mother tongue is called Opobo Bark. And I just wanted to metaphorically like weave that journey maybe in my in my head. It makes a lot of sense. But I think to some people it’s just random. It could be random. But sculpture for me is just, you know, they’re always they’re like punctuations within long term research because the film and this these oral histories that I’m doing will take a while to to like materialize if I even get to materialize that and sculpture is just more immediate, you know .And so I’m able to.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. And I mean glass yeah. You can’t control or edit a glass make a film.

Ayo: Exactly.

Sarah Demeuse: You engage with it in a very different way. Mm hmm. Yeah. So they’re there are all bell shaped pieces trying to kind of visually describe them. One is bright orange, another transparent, and another is more kind of dark red leaning towards brown when you’ve made them nearby or at a Brooklyn Glass studio.

Ayo: Yeah, I’ve made them at Urban Glass Studio.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah, yeah.

Ayo: Brooklyn.

Sarah Demeuse: And is that also an environment that kind of informs what you do? I’m sure you see other people working there. How does that kind of more casual? Everybody’s doing their thing, experience inform. Yeah. Your work here.

Ayo: Yeah, well, I’ve never worked with glass before. This is the first time and these are experiments, the ones that you see on the table. And when I approached them, I’d been thinking about ways in which to create like an object, like the Nepenthes. And but I didn’t want to use ceramic because I’ve been using that for quite a bit of time now and I wanted a new material to like engage with.

Ayo: So I approached the studio and they paired me up with two other artists. And because you have to do a workshop or training before you can actually use the facility, I no, I just wanted something quicker. So we collaborated. They actually blew the objects, but I gave directions and the color and the shape after. That’s why their iterations on each of the four different, like objects on the table.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. Yeah.

Ayo: It was quite easy to work with other people.

Sarah Demeuse: When you work with those other people, do you tell them why this shape and how it relates to you?

Ayo: Yeah, yeah. We had a we had a very nice meeting before we actually got to glassblowing to just understand where I was coming from and how I wanted to to use the objects. Yeah. And also during like every session, like it takes an hour to finish an object aside from the smallest one and, but don’t have pauses between each before it could get really large to be like, oh how how much, how much deeper, how much wider, how much?

Ayo: You know, always like going back and forth. Yeah. Before the final shape was put in this cooling cabinet for 24 hours.

Sarah Demeuse: Oh yeah. How do you show them the drawings too? Yeah, yeah.

Ayo: Definitely. I mean, they’re based on the drawings.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m quite fascinated by how in what you’re doing here, there’s a translation from an object to a metaphor to a personal, personal experience. And then it comes back to an object. There are all these kind of the reverse flow both ways. And now in, in, in to kind of revert that idea of the source of the Nile.

Sarah Demeuse: So it’s you’re distilling and you’re also not because then you’re making it into an object that actually kind of opens up again for a lot of other interpretations. In any case, my in my question to you also is a little bit you know, we’ve been circling around this the question of research. No, this is a research residency. And it seems that for you, research is also very much related, trying to give a form and a shape to things.

Sarah Demeuse: You’re in archives, but you react to it. It’s it’s it’s it’s not just an accumulation or gathering of information or stories or data. There’s, there’s always another engagement with it, too. Or is that just kind of more around the occurrence here? What how is research how does that happen for you?

Ayo: Yeah, yeah. You’ve articulated that so well. But yes, I, I think when I approach archives, I, I’m thinking of ways to add to them. So it’s not so much accumulating. There’s already so much stuff that’s been accumulated. You know, it’s there. I don’t I’m not interested in just presenting what’s already there. I have to add to it in some sort of way.

Ayo: And then approaching it from a personal point of like interest enables me not to like limit myself with how I can actually materialize it or question it or present it, also. Yeah, just reimagination is very important for me, even within these histories that are that are maybe so precious to some, like I’m not interested in like showing things like this is how it was, this is how it should always be.

Ayo: But it’s like, how can I take this and reimagine it and show it? You know? I think that’s a way for me in which these archives can continue living. Reimagining memory, incorporating them within a contemporary artistic practice. For me.

Sarah Demeuse: You know, I wonder how the specific New York experience might might influence that reimagining. I’m sure conversations that you have here are different from the ones that you have, say, in Rotterdam or in Uganda. Is there anything that’s surprised you or that you feel like brought you in a different direction?

Sarah Demeuse: And I I’d be curious to hear your your experience what it yeah.

Ayo: When that’s a good question. I on one hand I feel like I’ve been here for just a couple of weeks. Yeah. And so it’s, it’s, it’s difficult to, to have like a conclusion and a conclusion, but like a fully formed you’re in it. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I haven’t heard like some sort of different I’m in it and, and I’m starting to, I feel like it’s just begun in some sort of way and it’s going to end very soon.

Ayo: So. But yeah, I would have to, to revisit that question. I think I need to take some distance from actually being here.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah.

Ayo: To gauge the impact I can.

Ayo: Oh well, I a lot of sensory stimulation, I think in New York actually, especially when at is for me when I from the time that I live the door of my apartment to like getting here, like I’m just like there’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of light input and I think but no, at the beginning it was quite overwhelming, you know, because just to to witness, you know, the differences in I don’t know, in.

Ayo: Yeah, just to put it bluntly, like to the difference in class and race in all these things, it’s so intense, especially if you live in like Brooklyn and then in Bed-Stuy and then you come to Williamsburg, then you go to Manhattan. It’s so yeah, it’s a lot, you know. And so that actually quite affected me quite a bit when I first got here.

Ayo: And then over time, you know, you get used to it, you know, commuting in the subway and then you become very numb to all of these, you know, issues that the city is facing. But but that like that that haunts the most. And then also coming into this space and this space feels like some sort of it feels a bit like excluded from the reality of the environment in some sort of way.

Ayo: Maybe because it looks so pristine and it’s so and there’s so much care in making sure that everything stays just the way that you got it when you go, you know, it’s just yeah, it’s so there’s a lot of sensory stimulation, you know.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. No. And I think you’re so right in connecting that also to questions of class and, and to fall really deep reality of how this place is built and how it continues to operate. Yeah, yeah, for sure. Um, one last question and this is, this is a bit more maybe about Amant but I wonder if you have any questions for us.

Sarah Demeuse: I’m asking you a lot of things and maybe there are certain questions that you might have and that could actually be really great for us to to hear. Not everyone has questions, so share that is certainly fine. This is not like, yeah, a job interview.

Ayo: Oh, oh yeah. I know. I mean, maybe my question would be more directed to you. And actually the reason firstly like why do you feel it’s important to like archive this particular moment during the residency.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah.

Ayo: And do you, how did you choose the mode of like because there are different ways of also like video. I mean documenting this moment and you’ve chosen this sonic.

Sarah Demeuse: Yes, well, we chose this Sonic because there’s so much visual material already and it feels like then it’s so much about what the person looks like. And we have to think so much about, you know, the limitations around that. But also to be you want to just have it be about how I was dressed today to kind of I mean, but, but this is a very reductive way of saying it.

Sarah Demeuse: But we didn’t really wanted to make a thing of like a life style feeling. So we thought audio is in a way more sincere in that regard. And then it’s also a way that people really engage with the often content that is a bit longer and slower. You know, if you listen to a podcast you’re committing for say like 20, 25 minutes.

Sarah Demeuse: So we kind of like that idea of sitting down with someone. And now what I these interviews and this particular moment, I don’t really know whether it is about, you know, your we or whatever five week meet for he did do that into the residency we thought we’d do it now because then we can still work on edits while you’re here.

Sarah Demeuse: And so it’s maybe it’s, it’s a bit easier we thought doing it that way and for, for us I think it’s really great to hear you now too, because it’s before your public presentation and we can kind of just, you know, come to that with a more informed mind. And and then in general, I think we like for people or audiences to know, to know our residents up to the point where our residents most want to show or share.

Sarah Demeuse: Of course. But yeah, we don’t we’re trying to not just have it be about a headshot and a CV, but more about how people work and how they think and what it means to be an artist. What so that’s that’s that’s kind of a longwinded answer to your multiple part question.

Ayo: Thank you. I really enjoyed this conversation too.

Sarah Demeuse: Thanks for listening, in our next episode I talk with Jordan Deal.

Our theme music is composed by Silas Edgar, who also recorded the conversations.
Sound editing and engineering is by Isaac Silber. Finally, we’re also thankful to our residents, for letting us into their studios, their process and for finding time in their tight schedules.

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For your Reference

Ayo presents An Invitation for Liveness, a meta-sensorial performance lecture weaving moving image, text, sculpture, and scent. It aims to experimentally “enliven” archival materials–and im-materials–related to African immigrant Oral Histories with which Ayo is engaging during her Studio and Research residency.


Ayo: An Invitation for Liveness, December 8, 2022