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Shadow Selves: Tobi Alexandra Falade Interview

POSTED: 27 November 2020

“Placing different images next to each other to build a narrative and tell a story – it’s a way for all my different selves to be together and live in one place” 


Tobi Alexandra Falade, Așǫ Oke, 2019

As a curator and artist, Autograph’s Bindi Vora is interested in how photography can coalesce with painting, collage and sculpture – and what the creative possibilities are when mediums collide.

It’s a question shared by young, Nigerian-British artist Tobi Alexandra Falade, whose work skilfully combines artistic mediums and techniques to explore ideas of home, migration and heritage. Using her family album as both texture and motif, photographs in Falade’s practice bridge the past and present, Nigeria and the UK, and provide a means to represent her shadow self.

A recent graduate – Falade was awarded her Bachelor’s degree in 2019 from Wimbledon College of Arts – she has already been awarded the 2020 Hottinger Prize for Excellence, a studio scholarship at the Koppel Project Campus, and co-founded Platform Black to highlight the work of Black creatives.

Vora recently caught up with the artist for an interview, the latest in our series with emerging practitioners.
Bindi Vora:  I first saw your work during your graduation exhibition at Wimbledon College of Art, and was drawn to how you combine photography and painting, and how you use those textures to create narratives that resonate with notions of home and belonging. Why are photographs important to the visual language and reading in your paintings?

Tobi Alexandra Falade: Photographs are often where my work begins, they provide a reference to paint from, and are where a lot of my inspiration originates. My family have numerous albums that share photographs of my parent’s wedding, my earliest birthdays, school sports days and parties with my family friends. These snapshots reflect a particular time, depicting my childhood growing up in Nigeria. Looking through these albums, I almost feel transported back to that time and those moments, and this same feeling is what I want to evoke in my paintings – nostalgia, happiness and warmth.

In my practice, I’ve been investigating and researching different ways to apply photographs straight onto the canvas, directly next to the brush strokes. This methodology reflects how both mediums – photography and painting – have influenced me, and can sit in parallel with one another.

Mirror Me (2018-19) was the first work I realised with this technique, an oil painting with a silk screen-print in the top left corner. However, the process of creating this painting started some time before. Since my first year at University I had been working to transform a selection of my family photographs into single colour screen prints, but felt the result didn’t show the photographs in a ‘true’ way – it looked very pop art instead. Then, during my final year, I saw some beautiful CMYK screen prints of an old photograph my artist friend Annie-Marie Akussah had created. I loved the the realness of the image, and realised that with a layered, four colour process I could achieve the effect I wanted. I began to experiment with the printing process, using a favourite photograph that appears as a motif throughout my work: an image of my Dad and I in one of my primary schools in Nigeria, in which I’m wearing traditional Yoruba gele (headtie), iro (wrapper) and buba (blouse).

While creating Mirror Me, I felt the work was missing something in the beige-yellow hue of the background, and I decided to try to screen print that photograph straight onto the canvas, a reference to what I call my ‘shadow self’. I was hesitant, as several months prior a print technician had told me that it was nearly impossible and I shouldn’t try it! Although I was filled with trepidation it turned out really great, and allowed the screen printed photograph and the painting to share the same space, building this beautiful relationship between the past and the present.


Tobi Alexandra Falade, Mirror Me, 2019

Tobi Alexandra Falade, Shadow Selves, 2017

Bindi Vora: From a young age, you’ve moved a number of times, from Nigeria at 7 and throughout the UK during your formative years. It feels like this journey and migration in your life has offered your work a sense of a hybrid identity, drawing on your Yoruba heritage. You’ve described this element of your identity as your ‘shadow self’, which I find intriguing – could you explain more what you mean by this?

Tobi Alexandra Falade: My lived experiences across varied cities both in Nigeria and the UK have been exciting, but also problematic. I have a difficult time explaining where I’m from to people and why I don’t have a scouse accent even though I have actually lived in Liverpool for most of my life. This movement has influenced my practice and the art I make. The processes to create my work – placing different images next to each other to build a narrative and tell a story – it’s a way for all my different selves to be together and live in one place.

The term shadow selves came out of a journaling session, brainstorming words and phrases as titles for potential works. This activity then turned into writing poetry and I wrote the poem below, Alternate Histories, Present Realities.

In 2017, I created Shadow Selves, an oil painting of collaged London landscapes. There are no figures or human representations in this work; the only sign of life is a large glass tower block reflecting the blue sky. With the collage elements, there are numerous false reflections in the small pond that you see towards the bottom of the painting, reflecting an idea of identity being transmuted and dispersed in multiple places.

Interestingly, I later heard the term again in the American horror film Us. It opens with Lupita Nyong'o’s character entering a funhouse, and she encounters doppelgängers of herself in the hall of mirrors – her shadow selves.

Alternate Histories, Present Realities 

Transitions,
halves,
half,
other,
divided,
divorced,
worlds,
portals,
another place,
the upside down,
other me,
another me the other me,
othering,
the other me, her.
she is me, also
she is me too,
you are me,
I used to be you,
the stranger used to be me,
I used to be the stranger,
one whole,
contains two halves,
my other (half),
that stranger is me too.

Strangers silhouettes
strangers to me,
those strangers are me,
the stranger is me,
I am, the stranger,
the stranger is me, the other me,
made in his image,
made in his likeness,
made in her image.

Bindi Vora: Gele Bébe (2019) is one of your works that caught my eye, for the abundance of vernacular images collaged into the background alongside fragments of people, objects and the Nigerian flag painted onto the surface. This style varies from your other works. These fragments feel important, does this relate back to your idea of a shadow identity?

Tobi Alexandra Falade:
I’m still experimenting with blending paint and images into one space, and Gele Bébe was really fun to create. In this particular work I used acetone transfers, a technique that transfers the actual ink from a laser-printed image onto the canvas. I first saw it used in Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s work, and it’s a laborious process, I spent hours using a spoon to burnish A3-sized photographs onto the canvas. The result was amazing though, textured images that are engraved into the weave of the canvas.

Gele Bébe is a work that features 15 different transferred photographs. The process of choosing these photographs started in Christmas 2017, when I was obsessively working through the hundreds of photographs in a cupboard at my family home. It was a kind of portal back to Nigeria. I selected around 30 images to begin building a personal archive, there are images from my parents in university in Ifé, photographs of men and women I don’t recognise holding babies and bottles of Coca-Cola, snaps of big dinner parties with Egusi soup in the middle of the table, pictures of my dad and two of his friends wearing a bright pink school uniform in the 1970s or 1980s, and Nigerian studio portraits of my sister and I. All of these images resonate with a moment in our family history, and sprung to life once more when embedded into the fibres of the canvas.

Tobi Alexandra Falade, Gele Bébe, 2019

"I was obsessively working through the hundreds of photographs in a cupboard at my family home. It was a kind of portal back to Nigeria."

Tobi Alexandra Falade, My Other, 2019

Bindi Vora:  Your practice is centred around your Nigerian heritage and how it merges with your contemporary life. In your painterly works including Between Two Worlds (2019), objects such as masks appear as motifs in your practice, representing aspects of your affinities with Yoruba culture. These motifs are then pushed even further as physical, sculptural objects in My Other (2019), where you replicated centuries-old artistic bronze casting techniques. Why was this important to you?

Tobi Alexandra Falade: On a research trip in 2016 I visited the British Museum and stumbled into the African galleries, the experience was magical. I saw hundreds of bronze, ivory and textile pieces from all over Nigeria, and life-size bronze masks resembling faces I felt I recognised, with their high prominent cheekbones, almond eyes and full lips.

I am interested in Nigerian culture, not only because of my heritage, but because of the technologically advanced craft work of Yoruba culture. I wanted to explore a different way of connecting with ancient methods of making that are part of my heritage, in a way that still feels relevant today.

It took me three years to build up the courage to explore sculpture at the metal foundry at my university, by this time I had decided to create a bronze mask of my own face. Bronze casting fascinated me because the process was, in a way, out of my hands. The cast was made directly from my face so I had little influence on how it would turn out – unlike painting. The process, as with a lot of my art, was technically laborious, it took over a month of daily visits to the foundry to complete My Other. You can get a glimpse of the process on my Instagram.

Bindi Vora:  The combination of your archive of family photographs in your paintings builds a rich narrative, of what we as a viewer come to know about various aspects of your identity. These layers of ideas, emotions, expressions and experiences – they reflect a complex journey. Why are these facets important in the reading of the work?

Tobi Alexandra Falade: Having lived in four different cities up until the age of seven, and then moving to a different continent, and then three different cities within the UK – all my works are in ways reflections of various guises of myself. All these places have resonated with me for different reasons.

I noticed how the Black lived experience changes across the UK, particularly when I came to London in 2016 to pursue my degree. Although I am still trying to work through how all of these aspects of migration and experience can be combined into an artwork, the merging of processes – collage, printmaking, painting – into one space is the beginning of navigating this.

Tobi Alexandra Falade, The Other Me [detail], 2019
 Tobi Alexandra Falade, Between Two Worlds, 2019

Bindi Vora:  Beyond your practice, you are interested in what modern British Black life looks like, co-founding the platform Represent (now Platform Black) during the final year of your degree to address the lack of diversity within your student cohort and the teaching of art more widely. How has the platform developed over the last few months, given the challenges of the pandemic?

Tobi Alexandra Falade: Represent was founded as a platform for Black and people of colour creatives, co-founded with my friend Alicia-Pearl Cato during my final year at Wimbledon College of Arts. We wanted to use this space to address the challenges we’d experienced during our time at university, being the only two Black students in our year we felt there was a real need to have a more inclusive community, and more importantly a more diverse group of tutors and lecturers.

The first lockdown offered more time and focus, we saw the potential to support students and creatives in our community during the difficult circumstances of the pandemic. We wanted to use the platform to share art and upskilling opportunities, produce online crits and host online events.

We produced virtual events including Represent Conversations: Being Black in the Institution, a series of conversations and panel discussions to address the effects of racism on Black people at University of the Arts London and beyond. These meetings were at times very serious, particularly when discussing how to redress racism: some participants voiced ideas of abandoning these institutions altogether, feeling they will always be rooted in racism, and instead starting groups within Black communities. Others weren’t so enthused by this, and felt they had a right to receive the same opportunities within institutions that a white person might.

We also hosted discussions around self-care, the importance of community and friendship, and were inspired by warm words from older women in the community, who encouraged us to keep going and reminded us of the significant changes in society. These virtual events reflected Represent’s core values and ethos, and I’m proud we reached people in Nigeria, USA, Canada, and several cities in the UK.

Represent has undergone significant changes recently: we're now Platform Black, we highlight the work of Black Creatives, and connect with communities of professionals and resources, to transform institutions.

Bindi Vora:  I am sure that for you – like many others within the arts – the last few months have been strange as we navigate our new ‘normal’. How have you spent this time, have you found the energy to work on your practice?

Tobi Alexandra Falade:  The first lockdown was really interesting for me, to take time out and slow down. I lost my job and had to move back home to Liverpool, but I’ve also been fortunate to spend more time with my family, especially my sisters. Amidst a world that feels very unsettled, I found an opportunity to rest and have some peace. I built better habits and found small ways to look after myself in a more consistent way – reading, waking up earlier and exercising daily. I managed to keep this up early on, but as restrictions began to ease, I got busier and less focused on those goals.

I spent time developing my practice in different ways, collaging photographs and sketches of myself in different poses to explore narratives of journeys, looking at images from my old passports. These were part of a recent group exhibition Here, There, Nowhere: Dwelling at the Edge of the World at The Koppel Project Exchange.

Having the opportunity to think about my practice and reflect on the works I have made, where I want them to go, and what I want those future artworks to convey has been an interesting journey. It’s been a good moment to pause and research potential ideas. In July, I won a studio scholarship at the Koppel Project Campus in Holborn. Having a dedicated space to make my work is something I don’t take for granted. There, I made a large oil painting of a figure in a similar pose to that of my past painting Mirror Me. I’m excited about where this work will go, as I test new materials and painting methods.

Tobi Alexandra Falade, We Will Come Find You, 2020

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Visit Tobi Alexandra Falade’s website

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Bindi Vora has also interviewed Poulomi Basu, Maryam Wahid, and Monica Alcazar-Duarte

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Banner image: Tobi Alexandra Falade’s Mirror Me, installed at The Wing London. Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade. Images 5,6 and 7) Courtesy of Tobi Alexandra Falade.
All other images in this article courtesy of and © Tobi Alexandra Falade.