“I am interested in land and space and how this dictates current affairs, the power you culminate because you own this land, and so on. What are the stories of these people? What is power? What is legacy? ” In Tower XYZ (2016), part of a trilogy on social housing, artist Ayo Akingbade explores London’s iconic tower blocks, drawing on her own experiences as a young British Nigerian woman living in the ever-changing landscape of Hackney in East London. In advance of the film’s April 12 screening as part of Imagination Is Power: Be Realistic, Ask the Impossible, Akingbade discusses her practice with series co-curator Valérie Déus.
This interview is part of an ongoing series of essays and conversations intended to explore the ideas, inspiration, and creative expressions featured in Imagination is Power. Look for contributions from: Alice Lovejoy, Amir George, Bidayyat Audio Visual Arts, Chicago Film Archives, Nadie Cloete, and Valérie Déus.
Valérie Déus: How did you choose your subject matter?
Ayo Akingbade: The creation of my trilogy (starting with Tower XYZ), which explores social housing, came about because I was interested in making work that I could relate to and make a critique on. I saw films about Hackney, London in the past, and they were more like community films about local artists or focused on crime. I wanted to counter that and make something for the present state of now and talk about the past and future in a way that was not conceited or one-dimensional.
Déus: Explain the significance of the towers?
Akingbade: Tower blocks remind me a lot of my childhood. I didn’t think much about it until my early teens and realized something was wrong about how grimy these council blocks are. Playing closer attention and growing up a bit wiser, I started to understand certain stigmas and connotations that come with being raised on a council estate. Plus in the history of cinema, the depictions are not the happiest; most protagonists are either drug addicts or some type of criminal. I want to present a different point of view, because in my reality people I knew growing up and now are not. I am interested in land and space and how this dictates current affairs, the power you culminate because you own this land, and so on. What are the stories of these people? What is power? What is legacy?
Déus: How has technology changed your work?
Akingbade: Not much, I am not into technology. There is a lot of exploitation attached to it. My artistic output at the moment is quite guerrilla, using tools around me that are accessible. Years ago, Greta Gerwig said of DIY filmmaking: “It should be the films you are making when your 22 or 23. Those things are messy, experimental; they’re not careful.” But in actual fact, I am trying to be careful with whatever I make, even with the limitations.
Déus: Which artists influence your work?
Akingbade: Chantal Akerman, Ousmane Sembene, and Maya Deren: three grand auteurs. Hito Steyerl: I find her really cool and wish to emulate her bold identity. Agnes Martin and her approach to minimalism. I am always interested in underdogs. That is my philosophy, because those stories really do bring hope.
Déus: What role does history (oral and written) have in your work?
Akingbade: Everything. I am African: it is in my DNA.
Déus: How does everyday life reflect in your work?
Akingbade: Geography is generally a big factor in one’s life, because where you are born and bred could easily dictate where you will spend the rest of your life. Simply, I am interested in those small details, different routines and processes.
I wish I had a snazzier answer, but the everyday comes and it goes, and that is the essence of life. What is amazing about good cinema is it can capture a snapshot, a fragment in time, which can live as collective memory.