Winner MA Research Award & Putsebocht Award 2020
Master of Fine Art alumna Christine Ayo, artist name Ayo, not only won the first ever Putsebocht Award, but also went home with the annual MA Research Award. In this interview, we look back at Ayo’s time at PZI and look forward to her evolving career.
What have you been up to since graduation?
I've had the opportunity to exhibit my work in different institutions since I graduated. The first exhibition was with Kateřina Gabriel Konarovská at Expoplu Art Center in Nijmegen. It was curated by Fenne Saedt. I showed my graduation film, Ikoce and an iteration of the dance notation system I had been working on during my final year at Piet Zwart Institute. We also worked at the exhibition space for a period of ten days, during which I created some new intuitive sculptures. Besides that, I've shown Ikoce at the Goethe Institute in Bangkok, Thailand. It will also be screened at the European Media Arts Festival at the end of April and Tent Online Cinema in June. Currently I'm exhibiting my work at Available and the Rat, an artist run project space in Rotterdam. I'm also working on a new commission from Print and Play Exhibition, which is a segment of a research project that looks into African diasporic ways of gathering and being through rituals that maintain a sense of kinship and culture. At the end of April until July, I will be in Triangle – France, Astérides in Marseilles, for an artist residency. I'm really excited about that.
Can you tell us a bit more about your graduation work and how it came about?
My graduation work came about in 2019, when I became interested in researching the way in which ‘unofficial bodies’ in Uganda preserve intangible cultural practices. I stumbled upon this anthropological book that contained a chapter about a woman called Elia Adongo. She was a healer in northern Uganda back in the 1960s. When I read this passage, I was completely fascinated because she was doing something so transgressive for that period of time. Then I started to research the witch hunting phenomena in the northern part of Uganda. And that led me to Ikoce, which became the central topic of my graduation project and thesis.
The name Ikoce is borrowed from a cultural performance that started in the 1940s in northern Uganda and vanished in the 1990s. This being an ancestral practice of mine that I didn't inherit or know much about, it was very interesting for me to look into archival footage. I travelled back to Uganda to do research within the particular town where Ikoce was practiced. And at the end, I wasn't really interested in making a statement about what Ikoce is, I was more interested in finding a playful way to retell the story of Ikoce. And that's what I did in my film. The film uses humour in creating a fictional narrative that is balanced with documentary type of footage of the people that I spoke with about the memory and the history of Ikoce.
Which themes or societal concerns are you addressing in your work?
The problem for me is that, by talking about themes, I risk making my work generalised. I would say that in my graduation work, you can recognise notions of cultural heritage, belonging and kinship. It’s about memory in relation to informal cultural practices, transgressive acts of resistance and ways of retelling ancestral stories.
How did you experience graduating in corona times?
When we went into lockdown in March 2020, I had already started working on my graduation project. As I mentioned before, I went to Uganda in October 2019 to conduct field research about Ikoce. So luckily, I had amassed a significant amount of footage from that period. So, when lockdown started, I was able to work with this material and find new ways of putting it together. Despite this, graduating during lockdown was very difficult. It was really challenging to adapt a studio-based practice entirely online.
I think one positive thing the pandemic has brought us, is that it has enabled us to rethink the way in which we make and distribute our work as artists.
How has your graduation work influenced your perspective on your current or future practice?
I'm currently doing research that looks into, as I mentioned before, African diasporic kinship. All of the methods I was unpacking within the Ikoce project, like the dance notation system, the experimental montage in filmmaking and working with sound and performance, have informed the way in which I now navigate my current research. Also, the experience of graduating during lockdown has demonstrated that I am still able to create work, even without access to resources like public archives, or without being able to go to a specific place to do research. I think that challenge has enabled me to find other ways in which I can still remain productive within the given restrictions.
Where do you hope to be in a year?
I want to continue being a professional artist. I can't imagine not being able to make art professionally. I've been quite fortunate to have the opportunities that I've had until now, and I just hope that I can continue producing and exhibiting work.
What will you be working on in the near future? What are your next steps?
Within Ikoce, there’s one aspect that I can see evolving further outside of the project itself. That is the dance notation system that I created based on the archival footage of performances that took place in the 1990s. The system that I created is still quite simple. Now, I want to develop it further and expand it, so that contemporary dancers can perform this notation system without too much guidance. I want to develop this language in a way that not only professional dancers, but anyone can embody the dance.
What role did Piet Zwart Institute play in the process of becoming the professional you are today?
The great thing about the Master of Fine Art program is the fact that you share a building with twelve other Artists from all over the world, all with very diverse work experiences. The Programme is also studio based which is quite rare compared to other MFA programs in the Netherlands. There's also a high level of support and engagement with each other’s interests. For example: If you would show your work and invite your cohorts for group critiques, those who showed up would be honestly engaged with your work and give very useful feedback. This constructive form of criticism enabled me to look at my work from another person's point of view, which is still very useful today.
Besides that, I had great tutors who enabled me to find my own unique way of saying what I felt was important to say. We had thematic seminars taught by Nina Wakeford and Jan Verwoert, which enabled me to be more critical about discourses that are taking place within the contemporary art field. So, in the end, my vocabulary in art and my criticality about what I make, has been sharpened. All in all, my experience at the Master Fine Arts was really great.
What is the future of your work field, in your opinion?
This is, in my opinion, a very difficult question to answer because the world we live in is constantly shifting and changing. If we look at the current pandemic, we see how it has completely shifted the Art industry. I believe that institutions have to rethink the way in which they show work and consider online platforms as well. It's hard to speculate on what will be in ten years’ time.
You also won the Putsebocht Award, giving you the opportunity to use a studio space in the South of Rotterdam for six months free of charge. How have you made use of your studio so far?
Productively! I am very grateful for the six months this award has allowed me to focus on the material aspect of my work. I’ve been producing a lot of small- and large-scale sculptures. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I haven’t been able to interact with the other tenants as much as I hoped. But since I’ve renewed my rental contract, I believe that next year will provide more opportunities for me to engage in conversations or even collaborations with other artists and designers with whom I share the Putsebocht building.
What drove you to participate in the Putsebocht competition?
First of all, I wanted to extend my practice to Rotterdam. I knew that the first step in doing so was to get myself a studio space in Rotterdam. In addition to this, I also wanted to become part of a community of artists and designers. I work in a multidisciplinary way, so I thought this would be of added value to my practice.
Entrepreneurial potential is one of the criteria of the Putsebocht Award. How do you see the relationship between your artistic practice and your entrepreneurial side?
I believe it is very important for artists to make their work visible and accessible online. I created my website back in 2016, before I started making art “professionally”. Having a digital place where people can see my work and growth has worked very well for me. I remember a month after I created my website, I was approached by Real Life Magazine in the USA, to feature my photographic collage work because it resonated with an article they were publishing about meme culture. It was the first time I got paid for them to licence my work. This made me acknowledge that it's possible to make money from your craft. Besides visibility, something I think is very challenging but important, is to actively produce work and network within the art industry. This can be done by applying to Open calls, following Art institutions on social media to remain in the loop of new opportunities they may have and also keeping the contacts you make during your MFA or BFA programs. Our fellow Artists are also resources.
Another criterion for this award is engagement with the neighbourhood surrounding the studio. What role does your surrounding play in your artistic practice?
The project that I'm working on right now for the Print and Play exhibition looks into the culture of domestic hair braiding. Feyenoord, the neighbourhood in which the studio is located, is home to several African diasporic communities. Walking through the area, I was inspired by the kind of fonts used by hair salons owned by Africans, and the way they advertise the products you use to braid your hair. My current research project looks into ways of gathering through domestic rituals that sustain a sense of kinship, belonging and culture, with a focus on the embodied craft of hair braiding. The texts I am writing about these myriad experiences will be translated into an audio piece for the exhibition. I would have wanted to engage more intimately with particular businesses and communities in Feyenoord, perhaps through tapping into personal archives and anecdotes. Hopefully this will happen post-pandemic.
Which new opportunities has this award offered you?
Besides the studio space, the award includes free consultancy from WdKA’s Business Station. I had a talk with Maarten Jan van ‘t Oever about filing taxes as an artist. That was very useful, especially since the tax system is entirely in Dutch. In October 2020, I also participated in De Groote Atelier Weekend which was facilitated by Ariadne Urlus alongside other Putsebocht Members. Also, the first Print and Play exhibition that I participated in, was thanks to an open call shared by another artist in our Putsebocht group chat. As I said before, I hope that I will have more room to engage in cross-disciplinary projects after the COVID-19 health and safety measures are no longer required.