Eto “Oro” Otitigbe combines sculpture and polymedia to create sensitive spaces. He uses modular software platforms and electromechanical sensors to alter appropriated video footage and sound samples.
Two of his pieces, “Becoming Visible” and “Spray” are currently on view at Underline Gallery as part of our Good American exhibition. Otitigbe will be giving an artist talk, via Skype, at Underline Gallery on Wednesday August 1st at 5:30 pm. Below Eto answers our questions about his African roots, his artistic process, and the future of polymedia
1) What do you think your role is as an American artist?
I’m concerned primarily with my role as an artist. I focus on creating and sharing work that inspires dialogue and promotes new ways of seeing.
2) You lived in Africa as a child and your family is Nigerian. In what ways does your blood connection to Africa shape/define your work?
I was born in Buffalo, New York. My parents were studying in America at the time. Soon after my birth they moved back to Nigeria for several years to work as educators. I returned to the states when I began elementary school. I make sure that I keep up on current events in Africa particularly southern Nigeria where much of my extended family still resides. West Africa has a profound influence on the surface and soul of my work. For example the linear patterns in Becoming Visible were inspired by traditional wood carvings and bronze statues from Benin, West Africa. Many of these works depict the King or “Oba” of Benin with lines that contour this face. Traditionally some ethnic groups used these lines to identify each other after they had been separated. In this case I place the lines on an image of my own face to express empathy for the families of innocent African American men who’s lives were taken unjustly.
3) How does your background in mechanical engineering inform your work as a new media artist?
My studio is also like a laboratory where I create visual experiments. I am very hands on and I enjoy making things and things that are well made. My background in engineering gave me an appreciation for craft and the ability to develop elegant mechanical solutions that support the creation of my art.
4) Give me a bit of background about the two pieces in the show.
I modified a vintage fire hose nozzle by adding a spiraling array of holes to its sides. This act de-commissioned the nozzle that was both a weapon for crowd control and signifier of oppression to African Americans during civil rights era. It is now possible to repurpose the same nozzle as a celebratory object. My conceptual motivation for modifying this nozzle is aligned with my belief that people must be agents of positive change if we hope to improve our future living conditions. The sculpture was suspended in space and it is presented with a black and white diptych in the background. One image presents Rosa Parks following the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott of 1955. The other is of two Black males, who are probably African or Caribbean immigrants to the U.K. They play the role of commuter bus passengers in “How to Ride a Bus” an instructional film from the British Colonial Film Council. The two images, shot around the same time, juxtapose the transient experiences of Black people throughout the diaspora.
“ Can you reenact something until it’s rendered completely invisible? Until it’s true color finally shows through? A transparent color suffused in dust, cobwebs, and melancholy?” - William Pope L., 2001
On February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African American male was fatally shot and killed by a community watch coordinator while visiting family members in a gated community. Martin was on his way from a local convenience store. He was unarmed and wearing a hooded sweatshirt. The shooter claimed that he was defending himself against Martin; his allegations supported by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. This law allows a person to useforce in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. In some cases, a person may use deadly force in public areas without a duty to retreat.
The news of this incident went viral and very soon there were protests all across the United States. People called for the shooter to be brought to justice. Many people (including friends of mine), notable politicians, actors and athletes donned hoodies and posted the images of themselves online or on Facebook as a form of protest.
When I first heard of this incident it reminded me of many other similar situations where unarmed, innocent African American males were brutally assaulted or slain – Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima just to name a few. As I dwell on these horrific crimes I always think that they could happen to just about any Black man. And even though many of these incidents have achieved hyped up media status, more and more innocent Black men continue to be killed in the same manner.
Becoming Invisible is a triptych of photo-realistic relief carvings in fiberboard. The series was made in response to the unnecessary killing of Treyvon Martin, by someone who was supposed to protect him. It wasn’t the first; and it will not be the last.
The three pieces vary in resolution. As the subject’s gaze changes from down to up the details of each image become more difficult to discern. Each piece measures 22” x 30”
5) How do you think they interact with/supplement each other?
Both pieces were made in response to events that are part of a larger discussion on race in America. In Spray I was commenting on the historical events that shaped the civil rights movement. In Becoming Visible I was concerned with recent events that shape perceptions of Black men in the media.
6) Can you tell me a bit about the process of making “Becoming Visible”? Was that a technique you developed yourself? If so, how?
The images are like a linoleum block print. However the images are created using software and a CNC cutting machine. The software converts an original photograph into a linear image. Then the same application uses the lighting information from the photograph to approximate how deep to carve the images. If an area of the photograph is white then no cut would be made. If an area of the photograph is black then a deep cut is made. After the code is developed it’s transferred to a CNC carving machine that automatically cuts the images out of MDF. However there are several tricks and hardware tools that I use to take the photographs; tweak the software; and CNC cutting process in order to get the vanishing effect in these pieces.
7) How does the fire hose nozzle interact with the photographic diptych in “Spray”?
The spiraling holes in the fire hose nozzle serve as a means to decommission the nozzle that was traditionally used to assault civil rights activists. The patterns in the diptych are similar to those in the nozzle. This visual element ties the repurposed object to the two parallel histories of people of color in the US and UK.
8) What do you think is the future of “new/poly media” for you?
I have always been interested in dynamics and movement. I am now working on a few kinetic pieces that are inspired by flight.
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