What brought your mother to London?
My mother migrated in the mid-70s. She left Nigeria because of the Biafran war – my grandfather wanted her to have a better life and sent her to London when she was about 20. Five years later she had my sister Erika, and I was born in 1983.
What kind of upbringing did you have?
I grew up in Eltham and went to Henwick Primary School and then Crown Woods – both local to where I grew up.
It was a tough upbringing and felt isolated at times as we had no other family in England. We would often go to Nigerian parties held in Hackney or Brixton and engage with other migrants from Nigeria, in particular from the Igbo community. They were fun do’s where you would meet other Nigerians, and reminisce together while eating and dancing to Nigerian classics. It was a contrast to where we lived: the 90s was probably one of the most difficult times to grow up in Eltham, there were huge levels of segregation and racism. The murder of Stephen Lawrence affected me deeply as a child; I was only 10 at the time. It was a confirmation for the handful of black residents in the area that the level of racism we experienced could potentially lead to death. This was a very scary thought to comprehend.
I learned a lot from living there and made loads of amazing friends. The town shaped me as a person and enriched my understanding of the complexities of human behaviour. This is something I try to insert within my art practice.
When did you first go to Nigeria?
I went at a very young age, my mum took my sister and me to Owerri so we could see where she grew up as a child and experience the culture. I remember it being a unique experience and a complete contrast to where I lived in London: seeing this land where the majority of its inhabitants were black was a million miles away from the small town where I lived.
My mother would always refer to Nigeria as home and the love I experienced from my family made it feel that way. However there is something about being raised in a city like London that really moulds you as a person. In Nigeria I still felt like a stranger: the difference in skin colour is replaced by my London accent. The idea of not fully belonging has always created a slight tension for me, one which I embrace and enjoy exploring.
What started you in art?
I was always interested in art. I was good at drawing as a child. But two things hindered that development. The first was the way art was taught at school. They would talk about art in a binary way of being good or bad, rather than taking a conceptual approach which tries to understand a piece of art rather than judging it. As I got older I started to appreciate art more, I started to realise that art is about experiences and sharing.
The second obstacle was my mum’s views on such a profession. My sister was very academic and became a doctor. My mum wanted me to do something similar like law or medicine. Being a very creative person, I felt stuck for many years until I saw the Media & Communications BA degree and thought – maybe this could be for me.
What made you choose UoG?
I was born in Greenwich. The beautiful university grounds made such an impression on me: I always thought, how perfect would it be for me to come back and study here! Then at the Open Day I had a chance to meet the other students and some of the lecturers. I got such a nice feeling from the university, I knew it was the place I wanted to study.
“I was born in Greenwich. The beautiful university grounds made such an impression on me…”
How did Greenwich uni help you?
My degree shaped the way I think about things. I realise that we had some of the best lecturers. They were enthusiastic and passionate about their subject, and about encouraging us. One of the most memorable courses was about new media. It geared me towards a world, which was fast approaching, focused on the Internet, digital communication and critical thinking.
“It is a testament to the university that I still have a strong communication with some of the lecturers. It has been an ongoing dialogue and relationship. Not every uni has that. And I have been given the opportunity to share my experience with students.”
Greenwich was named one of the most international universities on the planet by Times Higher Education and in the top two most globally diverse universities by Hotcourses this year. What was your experience?
I really liked the multicultural, international environment. People from Eastern Europe, Bangladesh – all over – coming together to learn and share their experiences. That is Britain. That is the future. It’s nice to be part of.
What advice would you give your younger self just starting out at university?
To enjoy the experience. To engage and learn as much as possible. To meet as many different people from all cultures and backgrounds, and learn from each other. It is a unique time. I think I played it well and got such a good experience from it.
My Granddad’s Car, the current exhibition, is the culmination of a project stretching over several years. Where did it start?
As a boy on holidays in Nigeria, I was fascinated by the abandoned Beetle car in the garden. When asked, relatives would just say: “It’s your granddad’s car.” My granddad passed away, but he left his car on the surface. In 2011 a friend and fellow photographer Sayed Hasan and myself were sitting in a pub. He told me that he wanted to ship his grandfather’s car from Pakistan to the UK as it meant a lot to him and he wanted it to be part of his life here in London. I thought it was a brilliant idea and shared my story of my grandddad’s car with him. We decided we would ship both cars to Britain and exhibit them side by side in an expression of migration, shared histories and what it means to be British today. We documented the process and the project was funded by the Arts Council.
By the time of the exhibition a year later, both cars were still in their respective countries, tied up in bureaucracy. The project started with a simple premise to move two cars across borders and park them side by side. However, the project today has come to symbolise so much more than we ever intended. It gave us the opportunity to explore each other’s homelands and document our friendship in the process, whilst raising fundamental questions on identity and migration.
“As a boy on holidays in Nigeria, I was fascinated by the abandoned Beetle car in the garden. When asked, relatives would just say: “It’s your granddad’s car.”
You work in different media – tell me more:
Art is a progressive form. I primarily use photography because it is a beautiful medium but my practice is always evolving. There is only so much you can do with a still image. Sometimes you reach a limit and need different tools to express what you want to put out there. Sometimes this requires video sometimes text etc. In My Granddad’s Car sculpture was needed: the car had to be cut up and ‘disguised’ as an artwork to get it out of the country – its fragmented pieces form the artwork What Remains – 2016, which was my way of resolving the legacy of My Granddad’s Car.
“I primarily use photography because it is a beautiful medium but my practice is always evolving.”
Your work is currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery in the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 exhibition. The picture of the boy scout, how did that come about?
I was in Lagos to do a solo exhibition called Sweet Mother at the Omenka Gallery, and Riikka Kassinen and I decided to take a stroll and talk to people. We were photographing a group of bikers – known as Okada motorcycle taxi drivers, when I looked up a boy scout was there, watching us.
I was fascinated: he made me think of UK and how the idea of culture is shared and exchanged around the world. He let us take his portrait and the backdrop we had been using worked perfectly.
Karl’s Boy Scout portrait in the National Portrait Gallery until 26 February 2017
Boy Scout is one of the images pasted all over the London Underground to advertise the Taylor Wessing exhibition. How does it make you feel?
It makes me feel very proud. The image was made in Nigeria. It’s important to me. I hold both British and Nigerian passports, being Nigerian is a massive part of my identity. I want to share that.
Being part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize is an amazing feeling as it’s a very difficult exhibition to gain entry to, due to the high levels of submissions. The fact that Boy Scout was chosen as one of the promotional images for the exhibition really sums up a great year.
Let’s see what 2017 brings, it is a journey – there are times when things are going well, then things can all slow down. You have got to enjoy the moment and keep doing what you do. If you are passionate about something you keep going despite the ups and downs.
I am working on a project entitled Lagos Studio Archives with Riikka Kassinen. The project is about preserving a photographic archive of studio portraiture from Lagos I came in contact with in 2015. I discovered that with everything being digitalised, many studios in Nigeria were discarding their archives or leaving them to rot in humid conditions.
As a lover of photography and archives I would like to show some of this amazing photography to others and hopefully give the photographers a chance to be recognised for creating such beautiful images. Some of the photos date back to the 1970s. I am collecting them and creating a vernacular studio archive for others to access.
“As a lover of photography and archives I would like to show some of this amazing photography to others and hopefully give the photographers a chance to be recognised for creating such beautiful images.
“Some of the photos date back to the 1970s. I am collecting them and creating a vernacular studio archive for others to access.”
My Granddad’s Car opens at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, one of the University of Greenwich Galleries, on 12 January.