I resorted to reading and writing in hopes of getting the same guidance and feeling of togetherness

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In the corner of a tiny park in Brussels, a drummer’s violent and repetitive beats attract Lisa Ijeoma’s attention. The beats sound singular yet composed - two adjectives that could easily describe the Ghent-based artist as well. Unintentionally, the drummer gifts us the ideal soundtrack for a conversation with Lisa about freedom, slowness and violence, and how these topics relate to the Be Modern exhibition at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.

We just visited the Be Modern exhibition together, in which freedom and experiment were presented as the key concepts. How would you define freedom and experiment for yourself, and what role does this play in your art?

Total freedom to me can mean many things. In some ways, total freedom feels like a distant and unreachable utopia but can also lay in simple actions that make me feel more complete than I was before. Of course, freedom looks different for everyone. I would say that above all, freedom is a feeling, that allows you to just be without repercussions.

In many ways, our freedoms are further restricted while we grapple with the current public health crisis. How are you doing and how did you experience the last year as an artist? 

Somehow, 2020 felt like a very slow year, yet at the same time, it also flew by like it never happened. It was a year of extremes for me. I have quite a social personality and I get a lot of energy from seeing other people. By discussing art and visiting exhibitions with others, I get to feel physically present in my life; if that is restricted, I find it difficult to stay motivated.

On the other hand, 2020 felt like a fever dream of historic events. When movements like Black Lives Matter rekindled after the murder of George Floyd in May, it felt like things were shifting. It unlocked a kind of ferocious anger that I channelled into new works.

How important is the social aspect of your work? How is that part of your process?

To me, it’s wildly important to be in touch with people. We can only figure out who we are and where we’re supposed to go through interaction with others. I love hearing about other people’s perspectives on the world. Due to the physical restrictions of seeing people, I resorted to reading and writing in hopes of getting the same guidance and feeling of togetherness as before. 

I work a lot around a singular and collective traumas. These things are connected under the same umbrella, but they are quite different from each other. You have singular trauma, which reflects on events you have personally experienced and collective trauma which reflects on events that multiple people experience on a much larger scale, like discrimination and racism. I’m fascinated by intergenerational trauma where a particularly traumatic experience can pin itself to your DNA and can be passed on from generation to generation. This means that trauma can be inherently present in a person’s body and soul without predisposed notions. This is something that I think minority groups experience all too well. There are a lot of shared experiences that could be collectively healed but often get restricted by the Western colonial framework. 

While we live through social revolts and a pandemic - arguably some of the most collective events of our lifetime - we experience all of this in a very isolated way. How are you processing your feelings about this in your work? 

I’m very glad that my housemates are also my best friends, so socially I still get some input. As for my artistic practice, I feel very privileged to still have the possibility to work. I do find it more difficult to stay focused in an environment with so few physical impulses, though.

Art is a way for me to work through my emotions and experiences. I feel that my work has an activist side to it. The label of ‘activist’ has an ambiguous undertone for me. It puts an artist in the spotlight to be the voice for a very large group of people, and I find it sometimes difficult to carry the heaviness of that responsibility. However, I do feel that I have an unscratchable itch to let my voice be heard by people who normally don’t listen or want to listen. I’m a restless person; through my art, I slow down. Even when I was a kid, I used drawing to keep my mind focused on one thing only. It was a way of processing what I saw during the day and how I felt about it. I have always had the impulse to use my hands to create, whether it was with crayons, paint or textiles. Right now, I sew a lot. I find it very therapeutic. 

How is it for you to experiment with new forms at this time? 

Textile is a forgiving form to work with as cloth is so ingrained in our human psyche. We are constantly surrounded by textiles. Right now, textile brings me a lot of peace and comfort; these are qualities that are already present in the composition of the material.

Right now, textile brings me a lot of peace and comfort

Are you working on something in particular right now? 

I just had my mid-year evaluation at school. I find it hard to pinpoint or single out what I’m working on. Right now, I would say that I’m focused on singular, collective and intergenerational trauma. I also explore feelings of displacement and belonging. I am exploring where they disconnect and where they intersect. I’m also fascinated by the gaze of the Other, which is present in the over-sexualization of black bodies. I’m reading this very interesting book about ethnography and the colonial gaze on everything that isn’t Western. It’s called Ethnopornography, I highly recommend it. 

The things I am working on often carry this broader atmosphere within them. For example, I made a series of quilted crime scenes of various murdered black people where police were involved. I think these events span a much larger systemic issue that needs to be resolved but is entangled in almost every aspect of our society.

Aside from this larger framework, I think that I also make these works to find some sort of representation. I have made a lot of self-portraits in the past. Painting yourself is a very important but difficult exercise because you are always evolving and adapting but remain rigid at the same time. I found it interesting to bring that to the canvas. When I look back at my older works now, I think that through making self-portraits, I was searching for a mirror. 

Do you think you’ll go back to creating self-portraits at some point? 

I just finished a portrait of Josephine Baker, the Black Venus. In a way, that work is also a self-portrait, because she is someone I recognise myself in. It’s an example of how the self carries the collective. 

At the very end of the exhibition, you seemed to be transfixed by a work by Agnès Guillaume, which centres four hands slowly touching each other. Can you tell me more about how this work spoke to you? 

That work in particular really stayed with me for the remainder of the exhibition. I find it odd to look at the work at a time when we are developing a kind of fear of contamination. I loved the symbolism of the slowness in relation to our new reality. I also read the work as having some sort of threat present in it. It wasn’t necessarily a negative feeling, but rather something that looms but that we cannot name. That feeling, in particular, is one that I sense in life as well, so maybe that’s why I experienced the work in that way.

Were there other works that spoke to you? 

I loved the works of Henri Matisse, Chéri Samba, Ossip Zadkine, Roger Ballen and Karel Appel. I remember seeing a video in my first year at school in which Appel talked about how he slams impressions into the canvas. There’s violence in his visual language that attracts me. Outside of the exhibition, I am very inspired by the works of Ana Mendieta, and Maria Martins en Billie Zangewa right now.

There is an interesting contrast in the way you describe your attraction to both slowness and violence in art.

I like the dualistic dynamic between slowness and brute, violent hastiness. I think when both exist at the same time life manifests itself in a truly interesting way. It reminds me of zoning out on an overflooded subway train where you feel the calmness in the masses. 

The twentieth century, which was the protagonist of the Be Modern exhibition, has been dubbed the Age of Extremes by the historian Eric Hobsbawm due to its volatile nature. Did the works in the exhibition give you a sense of what this era felt like?

I’m not sure if I felt that in this exhibition. It’s quite hard to grasp and pinpoint overarching themes of the 20th century in just singular art pieces out of enormous oeuvres of multiple artists. Each artist has a particular voice and that changes constantly. I’m curious to see how artists today will deal with the extremes of this and last year. I’m sure these years will stand out in the history books. Hug your dear ones, drink enough water and take care!


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