Eca Eps is a contemporary British-Nigerian artist whose practice is concerned with material notions of space and place in relation to rights and freedoms. Her work often investigates these interests loosely through performance and the materiality of tactile tapestry installations. She lives and works between London and Lagos.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your practice
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria and migrated to the UK at 15. I have since lived and worked between both countries. My work examines how places are mapped and contested and how rights are organised within those spaces. I’m interested in how performativity can be used to explore the universality of these issues.
Tell me about your recent works
My most recent work is currently at the Lagos Biennale, curated by Folakunle Osho who situated the show at a derelict train terminal in Yaba. The piece [GRA] is a site-specific installation that plays with the politics of the street, the boundaries between public and private, wealth, class, security, survival and the continual contest for space. In the context of Lagos, it had an immediate resonance because of how neighbourhoods are planned in entirely nonsensical ways but people find ways around them. While Lagos roads seemingly map class boundaries, they also ironically serve as levellers – as the fatality rate cuts across the populace. Beyond this piece, I always go back to mapping as a point of reference to explore these interests.
Since 2015 I’ve worked recurrently on Work This Earth, which has been shown as an installation and performatively. The primary element is the soil from Nigeria but metaphorically, it is symbolic of the place itself and the shifting contests around the rights and freedoms of its inhabitants. I was taken by the protests in response to the anti-gay laws that swept Africa from early 2014. It was a curious thing that the Nigerian activists that protested did so in London, New York and Berlin but not at home – unlike their Ugandan counterparts. I wanted to test the possibility of marching on Nigerian soil, not only in response to the specificity of that event, but the potential for subverting other bodily limitations imposed by the state. As well as performances of Work This Earth in Britain, Denmark, Germany and Holland, I followed with some interventions in Lagos. Over the years I collected soil from other African countries notorious for their sanctions against minorities and the soil was applied to canvas in the map piece Walk This Earth. While my process is concerned with rights issues, the exposition of the work is less so – there’s much more power in open work that is interpretative.
How does your work explore climate change?
My show [From Chibok to Calais] at ORT opened with a live piece of a melting ice wall that was built from saltwater and soil. The piece titled ‘unbuilding’ was created to be archived as a film time-lapse of the wall going up and collapsing. It alludes to the duality of water as both a connector and barrier between people and places. We expand on this notion a little more in the performance at Fierce festival, with the water pouches, which were shown in the gallery show as survival kits but were used aggressively as water bombs in the performance. After the ice wall melted, the remaining remnants was the soil. Through the rest of the show, this subtle material became a reminder of environmental depredation as one of the key factors effecting the migration of huge swathes of people globally. With a lot of western socially engaged art production displaying increasing emphasis on the Anthropocene, it was inevitable that the parallels would be drawn – although art production on the continent has been more concerned with the reverse – the impact on people. The documentary Nowhere to Run by Dan McCain provides a good insight into climate change and dislocation in Nigeria.
Water, like soil, tends to be a recurring material in my work. A 2016 film ‘Water Work’ involved a durational performance which can be described as a shower with 50,000 litres of water dispensed with a pumping machine at 40litres per second. Again, the correlating themes were about survival and subverting class barriers. Being a returnee to Lagos, positioned me in an in-between context where I may have very limited financial resources, but quickly acquire immense social and cultural capital in a place like Lagos where I’m considered a foreigner.
How are you funding this work?
The current show at ORT in Birmingham is funded by Arts Council England so I was able to work on a larger scale. The show is a series of commissions aimed at increasing diversity in cultural output particularly in locations outside London. All 6 artists are international with roots in multiple parts of the world. It’s an interesting position to occupy, where I’m able to access funding or paid gigs as an African artist, and in some cases, the same opportunities might be limited or closed if I could only tick a particular ethnic box of white or black British. A lot of the work I’ve done in Europe has also been funded on the same premise – that I’m a visiting artist from Africa, not a Brit, who they might be less willing to pay. So while the scope is expanding to accommodate international artists, it shouldn’t be at the expense of local artists.
Does the arts have a role to play in telling the climate story?
Certain mediums are better for particular themes, so the film or documentary format might fare better where an installation might seem didactic. Artistic intervention is crucial but a lot of ground has already been covered and there should be an awareness of that in the process.
Do we need diverse voices and artists?
Absolutely – as this can hugely impact not only how audiences engage with the work but also if they ever learn about it at all. I found Aida Silvestri’s show Unsterile Clinic on FGM to be very powerful and in that context, it required an artist with a connection to communities with high rates of FGM to make sense. But for the most part, the ethnicity of the artist becomes irrelevant, occupying a space that transcends the everyday. My favourite artists working with themes of place are Roman Ondak, Richard Wilson and Richard Long, who all happen to be white men, but their race is never presented in the context of the work. There’s an undercurrent argument that posits that their whiteness gives them artistic freedom to produce work that is removed from race but this doesn’t always hold. The issue of diversity is by no means a closed case -it should always depend on the context.
As a British person of colour I find it interesting that I may be competing with my White peers and Indians from the sub-continent for funding. Minorities in England are not a homogenous group or interested in the same things to say the least. However I think there are some perspectives and views I have as the child of a migrant from global south to north that are also of value and should not be ignored. Having mixed heritage allows for a developing nuanced view of global issues.
Whilst the arts has a role to play and should accommodate diverse voices, this is not necessarily always the primary concern depending on context. The art form must be appropriate, but then again its art so there should and can be a freedom to experiment. Art does not always have to be telling a specific story and preaching specific messages, it can also and often does give the audience an opportunity to be creative. Some artists may want to play, but some do make art as activists, artivists even, to make a specific point, which may be obvious or not. Whether or not it makes any difference or change is another matter, one could argue. But some, they are trying to make a point, wanting to make a social or political point.
Some artists of colour and artists in general may touch on climate issues in an obvious or subtle way, but not necessarily mention climate change as it may not be there primary starting point. It may not even occur to them and they get left out of festivals and events billed as Climate Change initiatives etc…is this a bad thing?
For an introduction to this series of articles see New Narratives on the Climate Story.
This project has been supported by Creative Climate Leadership, a programme supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.