I met Jamilla Okubo, and that was fun.

Yo, she’s so cool!

I met her the day after the Jon Bellion concert, so of course, I was already beat. By the end of this day, I knew I was going to be exhausted. But at least the exhaustion was voluntary. Sometimes, I feel like my soul is dying and art is the only thing that can revive it. So seeing Jon Bellion and Jamilla Okubo in the span of two days was so uplifting, I didn’t even mind the exhaustion much.

My Africana Studies professor brought her to the college. The former found the latter on AfroPunk years ago. (I’m just sayin’ y’all. Get yourselves on the internet. You too could be fresh out of college getting paid by colleges.)

Jamilla Okubo is an American, Kenyan, Trinidadian artist.

Because I’m a very sensible creep, I looked Jamilla Okubo up a little while before she was due to show up. Her Instagram story was full of videos about her arrival and first impressions of California, and a few words about herself and what her Californian mission was. In the midst of this stalking, I heard her say something that really shocked me: she’d just graduated only a few months back. Ah. I went to replay that section of the story. So, I reasoned, she must be only a few years older than me. And she was flying halfway across the USA to do an art workshop with and talk to college students. Hmm. (This is the part where I fiercely battle an inferiority complex.) A few hours later, I attended her more formal talk. There I got the confirmation I’d been waiting for: she was fresh out of college, and about five years older than me (due to circumstances, she’d had to do six years of tertiary education instead of four).

In the late morning, she held a workshop, which was when I first saw and interacted with her in person. Her air of complete casualness and comfort threw me off guard. I’d expected someone assertive and instructive. Instead, I got a super chill girl who was interested in sharing (as opposed to instructing) and conversation (as opposed to lecturing or monologuing.) Straight away, I knew I liked her as a human being. I want to be that kind of artist.

During the hour and a half workshop, Jamilla showed us some of the dope art she’d created, allowing us to pass the pieces around between ourselves. Then, she walked us through a simple method of creating new pictures from existing images, using tracing paper, markers and coloured/patterned paper. It was very simple, but loads of fun. It was great to set aside some time to just sit there, create and conversate, with nothing much banking on it. So I made a thing! In Akotz’ signature colors, too!

IMG_2561
Behold: my product.
IMG_2560
Behold: my process. And yeah, that’s Nina Simone.

Okubo has been gifted with a different kind of environments than many of the rest of us. her mother’s African-American, her maternal grandmother was literally a cotton-picker. Her dad, who’s Trinidadian and Kenyan, lives in Nairobi. Her mother had encouraged her throughout adolescence to be actively engaged in all sorts of arts, and it hadn’t even been a problem going off to study arts and design for tertiary education. I loved hearing and seeing how much her family influenced her art – and also the Kenyan culture that she was slightly estranged from. The way she would call her father and ask many questions about what the culture was like reminded me of the way I worry my grandfather to explain his childhood and various aspects of being Ewe to me.

I also especially like remixes – in several forms. the kind of remixing that Okubo specializes in is reinterpretation of Kenyan Kanga fabrics. First of all, before she gave her talk, I’d never even heard of Kanga, but now that I have, I think it’s incredible how beautiful and malleable a piece of tradition it is – case in point, how Okubo makes collages with cutouts and inserts inscriptions like the phrases her grandmother likes to say often.

Allow me to direct you to her Tumblr.

And she showed us this dope video that she helped make (she’s the creature without facial features zooming around like she just landed from space).

One thing that inspires me a lot is seeing black artists flourishing through the education that They (you know, The Man, the people in the Control Room) seem to require that we go through, living life in the present, as life demands to be lived, not “waiting” for anything first like graduation, certificates, approval, marriage, steady income engagement…Living one’s career presently. Which is what I want to do. Which is what I hope I’m doing.

So here she is, straight out of college, already having designed packaging for brands, illustrated a profound children’s book, and is currently doing lit stuff that those of us who now follow her are probably going to see very soon and marvel over. And seeing young, black, African-descended girls killin’ it and not being hella broke while killin’ it brings me such joy.

So yeah, anyway, I just thought I’d share about the experience of having some artistic African light penetrating my life for a while, especially because it left me with a fierce sense of hope that made me think, “Yes! It can be done! It is being done! I can do this life thing, and so can you!” Hope is great.

Stay creative,

Akotz the Spider Kid.

What We Mean When We Ask For An Artist’s Assistance

We give the artist an idea and tell her to bring it to life with creativity. We have not said what we really mean; it is not her creativity we desire to see; it is our own.

We have decided, for some reason, that what we want done, we cannot do ourselves – not because we find ourselves lacking in vision and imagination, but because we find ourselves lacking in technical know-how.

We have asked the artist for her skill, not her artistry. We have failed to understand that a handwritten note does not look like a typewritten one, and that if we wanted photocopies done, we should not have gone to a calligrapher.

The artist is not a machine; she infuses creativity into her interpretation of an idea, and this is not always a favorable trait to us.

The artist is not a mind-reader. We want her to be, though, and she knows. Our commissions come with our vague instructions, and when she asks for clarification, we tell her to get creative with it, that we don’t mind. We receive our products and realize that we minded after all, that we always had our own visions in our heads, which we never had the language to articulate. And we expected the artist to have seen our invisible thoughts, despite everything. We have seen that this is ineffective.

Now it is up to us to begin to expect art when we request an artist’s assistance, or come into consciousness of how badly we want artists to be reduced to mere technicians. We have another option: to become artists ourselves, so that we may get what we want, as we want it – but this path is the hardest to follow.

-Akotowaa

Creators Suffer For Time

Bits and pieces
Of peaceful things
Coagulate into wholesome things of beauty,
As though the universe decided to pool its forces and say, “Form!”
From spontaneous sorcery.

Were our eyes suddenly to open,
We would see
The sweat and toil,
The soot that threatened to spoil
The white fabric of our favourite fabrications.

Creators suffer for time.
Creators suffer four times more
When creating is not their world’s primary focus.

Out of twenty-four hours,
No time will be given to you,
Save that born of passion
You give to yourself.
Personal drive is your only clock;
Conduct while you still have the baton.
Stolen time is saving grace
And sleep is the ultimate sacrifice.
Bringing dreams to life
Means forgoing the right
To continue dreaming.

A handful of minutes
Out of every hour
Out of every day
May compile after a while
With pieces sewn by hand
And stitched in spite of time
With patience,
Pieces of art reach completion
Though as original creators come on fire,
Second hands begin to burn.

-Akotowaa

The Artist-Audience Dilemma

As an artist of any kind, you are very likely to at least eventually face some sort of artist-audience dilemma. It starts with the question of “Who do you create for?” Some people would readily answer with “Myself,” others would readily answer with “For other people.” And the people whose initial answer is the former probably have the greater problem. Especially when you distribute what you create.

I believe in art as a form of self-expression. How then can the sole purpose of your self-expression be to pleasure other people? That is not being true to yourself. You really mustn’t always give the audience what they love at the expense of your authenticity. Nevertheless, the audience is your consumer market. If they don’t like your book, why would they buy it? If they don’t like your music, why would they listen? If they don’t like your writing, why would they read?

Your success depends entirely on the audience, while your authenticity depends entirely on you. See how difficult a commercial artist’s work is?

It was recently brought to my attention, for instance, that sometimes, my poems are too long for people to pay the due attention, and that also, sometimes, my finales are not attention-grabbing enough. This was my thought process:

  • But this is how I write! –>
  • I shall end a poem how I damn well want to end a poem. –>
  • Why should I compress my ideas for the sake of an audience? –>
  • Oh yes…because the audience are my consumers. –>
  • Why do I need their attention anyway? I’m just doing me. –>
  • But I’m a performer now. Hence, I can only do me for them. –>
  • People should stop expecting things! It’s stressful!

Yes, I know that is an unsatisfactory end to my thought process. But this is me being me. (Do you get the dilemma now?)

Another issue is people not getting things. Think about it like a comedian who makes jokes about, say, chemistry, but the audience is made up of 80% physicists, and so the laughter response is daunting. It’s like that, but it doesn’t matter if it’s jokes, puns, experiences, similes – if they (the audience) don’t get it, you’re lost, man. Both parties are. The type of audience is, in fact, crucial, sad as it may be to think that you can’t just “do you” and prance away. =(

Me, I love metaphors – extended metaphors, especially. I use them a lot in my poetry. And there are some times I feel like I have struck pure gold with what I’m writing, you know. Those pieces that you read even weeks later and say, “Gosh dangit, I am a genius!” Then you release it to the world, and then even your best friend doesn’t get it until you explain. Sigh. Feels like it’s all just going to waste, when you release elaborate things to a world that is unwilling or unable (as yet) to look beyond the surface.

You cannot imagine the frustration I felt when, at the time I was reading a collection of Sylvia Plath poems, I freaked out from all the genius in “Two Daughters of Persephone,” but nobody understood why until I explained for MINUTES! And she’s dead! What if she lived her whole life with people just not getting her? It makes me sad.

-Akotowaa