February 2, 2018

Time Travel with Yetunde Olagbaju

The Oakland artist explores the healing nature of reconsidering time

By Emily Holmes, Digital Communications Specialist

Have you ever wanted to travel back—or forward—in time? Oakland-based artist Yetunde Olagbaju gets it, and she finds her own way to do just that. In her multidisciplinary creative practice, she explores the notion of visiting past selves and ancestors, among other compelling topics. Her ethereal and enigmatic video i gave myself space to go II (2016) is on view through March 4, 2018, in the Oakland Museum of California’s Gallery of California Art. 

What ideas do you explore in your artistic practice? 

My artwork explores, exists within, and expands on the idea of nonlinear time. I’m Nigerian, Yoruba, and have always been connected to the idea that we are in constant conversation with our past, present, and future selves. To go even further, I also believe we are in constant interaction with other people’s past, present and future selves. 

Ultimately what that ends up translating to, art wise, is a sort of “emotional excavation” practice: learning about time travel, and sorting through how we, as human beings, orient ourselves through our emotional and physical landscapes—our internal and external worlds. At the end of the day I care about being able to create other worlds where we can communicate with our past, present, and future selves, and about building worlds in which we can heal those aspects of ourselves. 

Tell us more about i gave myself space to go II and how you created this work.

Honestly, much of my creative process is rooting myself deeply in a certain thought or ritual and divining imagery from that place. When I was coming up with the idea for i gave myself space to go II, I was thinking about my original photo series from a couple of years prior, i gave myself space to go back…, which utilized mirrors as a metaphor and tool for multidimensional communication. 

Through the mirrors (in both pieces), light would reflect, get caught in them, and—in my head—create a portal of sorts. That got me thinking about how our eyes perceive light and color, and how we might utilize those occurrences as markers of time passing. And, to get even more abstract, I thought about how my future, present, and past self could use light and color as a way of communicating. 

I began reading a lot of books and essays on astrophysics, optics, time travel, and the like. I started feeling pulled to make sure that, wherever I did this ritual would be a timeless landscape, one devoid of historical markers and landmarks. My artist residency with This Will Take Time in Point Arena, CA, was a perfect choice after that. I wanted the viewer/experiencer to not have a sense of what time or date the video showed. 

The clothing choices started with that same intention of timelessness. However, as I started coming up with the script in the beginning, which talks about how our eyes process warmer colors first and cooler colors last, I began thinking of that “past, present, future” narrative again. I then dressed in yellow, blue, and green clothing, which became another physical/spectral manifestations of past, present, and future. 

What might be gained by time travel, or by visiting one’s past or future self? 

That’s a beautiful question. For me having the opportunity to access the past—as a living, breathing, changing, archive—is in itself radically healing. Being able to access your past, the past of your ancestors, and to understand that this level of complexity exists within all of us, allows you to orient yourself within your own humanity. In my experience, that leads to feeling deep appreciation and gratitude of the legacies that have gone into making us who we are and who we will become. 

I like to think that visiting these lives and moments of the past—through ritual, art making, narrative building—can help us heal the nethermost parts of ourselves. If that isn’t time travel, I’m not sure what else is. 

What brought you to Oakland? How does the creative community here affect your practice?

Like many people, I came to be in Oakland through a series of actions that include, but are not limited to, migration, displacement, gentrification, genocide, survival, love, and the need for community.

With that history in mind, I’m thankful that I’ve found a sense of purpose and community while here in Oakland. The thing that is the most important about my life here in California is the access to nature and timeless landscape. I grew up in Minnesota and much of my childhood was spent outside, talking to the sky, building worlds, and spending all day by creeks. Being able to be here in California where there’s so much “outside” to explore and create in, has allowed me to access a kind of wonder and awe that I only felt in my childhood. 

Also, being able to truly cultivate and actively participate in a heavily people of color and Black creative community here has healed so much of me. I didn’t move out to California until 2007, so much of my own Blackness was initially created in relationship to white Scandinavian culture in Minnesota. Being able to find myself creating here in Oakland, in relation to so many beautiful and varying versions of Blackness has been a blessing. Being able to recognize myself in and align with so many other Black people has been healing. I’m thankful for the opportunity to heal and grow and learn and reinforce my own existence, in Oakland in this vast and expansive way.