Owo Ni Koko: Don’t Get Too Attached

Exhibition: “We Are All Bewitched”

Artist: Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya, a.k.a. Akirash

Location: Big Medium Gallery at Canopy

Event: East Austin Studio Tour

Unlike the other installations at Big Medium, “We Are All Bewitched” confronts the festival-goers with its part-art, part-consumer detritus concoction aimed at “addressing the economic systems that impact daily life.”

At the center of the room stands a cardboard toilet (money-clad toilet seat on backwards) with a red and yellow cardboard tree to match climbing out of the bowl. Laid around the centerpiece is a web-like net of the same material. Hundreds of colorful, fake bills are scattered around the toilet-tree, from all over the world—I counted at least eleven different currencies, not including the assortment of coins interspersed throughout the bills. Running up the trunk of the surprisingly sturdy tree are several sets of strings lights: red, orange, and yellow to complement the abrasive hues of the center sculpture. At the back of the room hangs a massive, crinkled canvas of a red, abstracted face with cash for eyes (depicted by iPads).

Another canvas takes up much of the right wall. It has, at its core, the same building materials as the rest of the exhibition: cash. Brightly colored, flimsy, provocative cash. After taking a closer look at this particular work’s title (it’s called Owo Ni Koko) and researching basic Nigerian languages and cultural history, I found that the phrase “owo ni koko” is Yoruba (one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups) for “Money is the Ultimate.” It’s supposedly a common first name given to baby boys, and I even found an African hip-hop hybrid song with the name. There was the subtly sarcastic, slightly cynical edge I had been craving since walking into a room with a cardboard toilet tree at its center. An edge, by the way, that I found to be quite paradoxical to the “declaration of joy and creative triumph” at the heart of Akirash’s practice as a whole.

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Speaking in a review of his latest installation at Big Medium, he explains, “Money has cast a spell on every human. They say that money is the root of evil. Is this really the right phrase, or should we say that we give this paper the power to control everyone?” As Owo Ni Koko takes a crack at a normalized yet questionable proverb embedded in Nigerian society, Akirash uses excess amounts of those all-too-familiar paper print-offs to test the onlooker’s depth of comfort with the capitalistic-to-a-fault web of economies our livelihoods depends upon.

At first, it reads as a celebratory outpour of joy. But…  it has an edge; cynical overtones pervade the entire work. Upon closer inspection, it reads more as a reflection on the necessary evil of capitalistic systems when money can literally control the livelihoods of entire populations, for better or for worse. It seems to be groping for the logical meaning within a system and a symbol that can hold so much power over those who prescribe to it (especially involuntarily). Is the subtle cynicism hidden under the mass of colors and forms what Akirash was trying to accomplish? Or, is the mass of colors and forms just acting as a set of visual elements that in turn build on each other and form another level of commentary? As Huxley expressed, “That’s what the human brain is there for: to turn the chaos of given experience into a set of manageable symbols.”

Through his mound of post-consumer visual elements, Akirash ties himself firmly to Robert Raushenberg’s combine experimentation of the 1950’s and 60’s, using post-consumer waste and a bright, painterly style to reflect on cultural binds the western world finds itself in. Like Rauschenberg, Akirash employs the forgotten leftovers of consumers’ past to further objectify and consume the materials, but in a completely different light.

For example, in Rauschenberg’s Odalisk (1955), he parodied an entire pictorial tradition of female representation by combining a squished pillow, a stuffed rooster, and the harsh lines of an empty box covered in a veritable plethora of nude women. By nature, parody always has a double meaning; Rauschenberg’s finished product simultaneously started a conversation about historical gender roles and their representations in western art as well as the methods used to convey those representations through a visual critique of the history of the ‘odalisque.’ Akirash uses his own personal visual style and an altogether different choice of content, but uses the same technique of visual parody.

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Akirash’s “We Are All Bewitched” also mirrors more contemporary art, as well. Specifically in regards to content, his installation was reminiscent of an auction held by Sotheby’s in London, called “To the Bearer on Demand.” Even as the ubiquity of money in the art market was literally on display, sources like the Telegraph and Sotheby’s themselves still attached expected price tags to each work, as if they were an implicit part of its meaning. Sotheby’s art specialist, James Sevier, says,“The dollar is more than just American currency, it is a symbol of aspiration, wealth, and glamour.”

Tim Noble and Sue Webster  had a light sculpture on display in the gallery ($, 2001), complementing one of the Warhol prints that Sotheby’s was so excited about. It flickered mesmerizingly, but that leaves one to question what they were suggesting about the stability of the massive symbol they had parodied. About their series of light sculptures (in reference to their more popular shadow sculptures), they state, “[they] reference iconic pop culture symbols… with the aid of complex light sequencing these signs perpetually flash and spiral out messages of everlasting love, and hate.”

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Although Noble and Webster have a decidedly more sarcastic ring to their work, they are inherently getting at the same message as Akirash in “We Are All Bewitched.” Even though it seems like an affirmation, the more time one spends with it, the more it becomes anything but. The rubbish-art sculptures present in Akirash’s latest work come off as much more of a warning sign than anything else. ‘Don’t get too attached,’ they could be calling out.

-Hannah Jurgens

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