For The Girls: Meet Bunmi Agusto, the Artist Behind The Surrealist Wonderland ‘Escape to Within’
An ingenious world-builder
An ingenious world-builder
If you ask multidisciplinary artist, Bunmi Agusto about the exact moment that she discovered her passion for the arts, she’ll simply tell you that the answer changes each time she’s posed with the question. According to how she tells it, art has always been an important part of her life. It’s embedded into her personal and professional life, so much so that there are numerous key moments that have reinforced her passion for art.
Whether it was sketching images during her lunch breaks in secondary school or frequent visits to art galleries in Lagos and London or even the unexplainable rapt attention she adopted during her fine art classes, Bunmi was certain that she’d found her thing. She shares with the NATIVE “Art and I are like one of those stories where it wasn’t love at first sight; it was on and off at first so it took a lot of learning, growing and dedication.”
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Since then, she’s only nurtured and developed her talents further, allowing her passion for art to take on a shape and life of its own. In conversation with Bunmi, the twenty-two year old artist tells me that she’s spent the majority of the past two years building her own imaginary world which she sagely refers to as the Within. She describes her practice as an expansive process called “World-building”.
As a means of staying true to herself, Bunmi doesn’t go out of her way to create art to please anyone as that would mean her forcing herself to create within the confines of realms which already exist, a concept to which Bunmi is strongly opposed. However, she’s not without her role models. Her artistic inspirations, however, fall anywhere between Nigerian Igbo and Tamil writer, Akwaeke Emezi to Amos Tutola’s ‘Palm Wine Drinkard’ and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Alice in Wonderland series which she has raptly enjoyed since her childhood.
She says of these inspirations: “The fantasy worlds that are built in these stories are so special to me; some are super weird, some are super intricate, they’re all very magical to me. Although Freshwater is based in our known reality, the story is mostly written from the perspective of a spirit residing in the main character’s psyche which completely alters our lens as readers.” It’s immediately clear that the artist is interested in the relationship between this realm and the spirit realm, between being and not being, and the sharp and inherent corners in between the two.
All this has culminated in Agusto’s first-ever solo exhibition with DADA Gallery titled ‘Escape to Within’ which features nineteen new figurative works drawn from the surrealist world of the artist’s own design. The exhibition charts the migration of a group of figures across a labyrinthine landscape of braided forests and dark waters and is Agusto’s most well-rounded effort. Off the back of this recently concluded exhibition in London, we sat down with the multidisciplinary artist to talk about her journey with her art, her meticulous working practices and what it means to make art for oneself.
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Our conversation, which follows below, has been lightly edited for clarity.
NATIVE: Hi Bunmi, how are you doing? When would you say you first discovered your passion for visual arts?
Bunmi: Hey, I’m doing well. Thanks for asking. I don’t really know. I get asked this a lot and I just pick a random memory each time, but I’ve been interested in visual art for as long as I can remember. I remember being fifteen years old and sketching every day during prep in boarding school. I remember being twelve and walking into Nike Art Gallery in Lagos and having the visual literacy to identify which artists made which works immediately I walked through the door. I remember being ten and being very emotionally invested in art class. I also remember being four and being equally invested in colouring within the lines in my colouring book. So I wouldn’t say I had a single moment of realisation. Art and I are like one of those stories where it wasn’t love at first sight; it was on and off at first so it took a lot of learning, growing and dedication.
NATIVE: Your predominant mediums seem to be pastel pencils and mixed media. How did you arrive at these choices? Did you always start off this way?
Bunmi: When you do IGCSE Art & Design, you’re encouraged to try as many mediums as possible so I guess that’s when the mixed media habit stuck. My brain rarely allows me to use a single medium for an entire piece now, but that keeps it fun because I’m constantly experimenting. I also started using pastel pencils while in secondary school and once I used it for the first time, that was it. It was a match made in heaven. Now, my works largely involve drawing, which has a history of being used to capture thoughts quickly in sketches and for preparatory drawings, so it feels important to me as a practice. It ‘s like I’m documenting this large world in mind that would have simply been a fleeting thought without the hundreds of drawings I have across notebooks. I like making small-scale drawings because it feels like I’m writing a journal entry at my desk. It’s very personal and intimate.
NATIVE: Do you think you have a distinct style and how has it evolved over time?
Bunmi: People always say my use of pastel for my figures is so realistic but I’m usually hesitant to accept that because although I work from photographs and they are realistic to an extent, but I change and exaggerate some details. I’d actually consider myself a student of El Greco’s works so my figures usually look like some very well-done VFX that isn’t perfectly done but tease and distort reality.
NATIVE: Who are your biggest influences and what about them inspires you?
Bunmi: My biggest influences are more so what’s than who’s. By that, I mean certain bodies of work often have a greater impact on me than individuals. Literary and cinematic works that were very influential for me were Amos Tutuola’s ‘Palm Wine Drinkard’, Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘Freshwater’, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and all the iterations of ‘Alice In Wonderland’. The fantasy worlds that are built in these stories are so special to me; some are super weird, some are super intricate, they’re all very magical to me. Although Freshwater is based in our known reality, the story is mostly written from the perspective of a spirit residing in the main character’s psyche which completely alters our lens as readers. There is this quote in it that I bring up all the time: “The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside—maybe that’s the exact definition of madness […]” so I’d say the people whose works inspire me the most are the people who get a bit lost in their own worlds.
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NATIVE: What themes are you currently drawn to when creating?
Bunmi: A little bit of everything I love and find interesting; that’s what makes the work so authentic for me. I move from cultural theory to psychology to the subconscious to surrealism to the Fantasy genre to modern cinema to video games to world-building to narrative to language to history, which then often brings me right back to culture. That tends to be my general cycle of interest.
NATIVE: Explain this “surrealist wonderland” embedded in your head and how it translates into your works.
Bunmi: So, as I’ve expressed, I have built a world from my imagination and evolved it through thought for almost two years now and I call it ‘Within’. I visualise Within as a dwarf planet floating in a void in the crevices of my mind. It is populated by eight clans of hybrids who each have mutations based on objects that activate a sense of Lagosian childhood nostalgia for me such as agama lizards and palm trees. The terrains of Within are filled with braids as funny, a linguistic nod to the idiomatic expression’ “the world in your head”. So if the world is in my head, why not have my hair embedded in the landscape? Also, although the hybrids are the indigenous peoples of the world, humans can emigrate there and that journey made by the humans is what is covered in ‘Escape to Within’.
NATIVE: Describe the creative process for “Escape To Within”?
Bunmi: Well, the first decision I made is that I definitely wanted the exhibition to follow humans migrating into Within so that it acted as an introduction to the world for both the humans in the works and the people viewing the works. I had already established that braids were in the landscape of Within so after that it was about letting my brain run wild with what this fictional migration would look like. I generally don’t swat away ideas that my imagination offers up to me. If I have an idea that doesn’t necessarily fit into the world, I don’t simply dismiss it. Instead, I consciously expand the world and create a narrative that makes room for that idea to exist seamlessly in Within. What that then does is give me this constantly expanding, complex world where I can do whatever I want.
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NATIVE: What predominant message were you trying to communicate in the exhibition?
Bunmi: It was not my intention to communicate a message. The way my practice is set up positions me as more of a griot —a living archive of the fictional stories of Within— simply sharing those stories with my viewers. Will there eventually be morals embedded in this large body of work? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes, things happen in life and they are complex and they have conflicting morals to take away. I don’t believe it is my role to tell people which moral or message they should believe in, I’m simply the one telling the story. Plus, Escape To Within is barely even a full chapter of the overall story I’m telling. It’s like one page.
NATIVE: If you make art for anyone, who for? Essentially who is your target audience and how do they affect the work you create?
Bunmi: I certainly do not make work with a target audience in mind. If I did, that would mean I’d be creating from a realm that already exists and forcing myself to stay in that lane, which sounds incredibly boring to me. I actually struggled with that for a while in art school —making the work people wanted versus making the work that I wanted— and I eventually decided that I don’t care if people find my work “too weird to put in a home”. Honestly, I think being weird is a compliment. One could argue I have found an intersection of making the work I want to make and works people want and that’s nice but at the same time, I’m not going to go out of my way to try to continue to please those people either. I’m going to continue to do what I want, grow in the ways I want, experiment in the ways I want, and create my own lane.
NATIVE: In light of your earlier projects and exhibitions, did you ever anticipate a solo exhibition so early in your career? What were the moments leading up to the exhibition like for you?
Bunmi: Left to some people in my life I would have had it even earlier. Ever since I started my degree, family and friends around me have been like, “So when are you going to have a solo?” I definitely felt pressure for years but I only decided to do it when the time was right and the work was at the standard it needed to be at conceptually. I wasn’t even expecting that my first solo would be with a gallery; I’d always imagined it would be a very DIY thing so thanks to Oyinkan Dada [owner of DADA Gallery] for giving me the opportunity to it on the scale we did. The moments leading up to the exhibition were hectic and nerve-wracking because I am a perfectionist.
NATIVE: Now that you have had your first solo exhibition, where do you see your career going in the future?
Bunmi: ‘Within’, as a body of work, is a very vast, ambitious project which can come in many forms so that is just a long, unpredictable, experimental journey. I do have other ambitions beyond making art so I just hope to be able to tailor a career that plays to all my strengths and interests, but making art will remain central.
NATIVE: What’s the best advice you can give to other African female visual artists in Africa or in the diaspora?
Bunmi: Do what you want and do it to the best of your ability.
Featured Image Credits/Instagram.
Nwanneamaka couples her creative interests with her individuality and uses writing as a vessel for her expression.