Excerpts from the Manifold: Olukemi Lijadu

Olukemi Lijadu
An exhibition of black female emerging artists in Soho
Greek Street, Soho, 2022
17-24 November 2022

Tell me about this work and the photographs that led to you making it

This work really began last year, when I was at the antique market, on Portobello better road. And I was looking through one of the stalls  and I noticed a stack of pictures. And as I open them, I mean, obviously the first thing I recognise is that it was a black family’s photographs. And then almost immediately, I was aware they were a Nigerian family and I had a sense of place and space associated with them. And I was with non Nigerian people. So that experience made me think about the ways in which I was able to identify who this family were. After picking up the photos, I spoke to the guy whose stall they were at, and he was selling them for two pounds. And he explained to me that when families move out of a home without clearing it out, oftentimes, in a sudden way, they'll call antique dealers to come in, grab the stuff, if there's anything of value before they take care of the rest. So, I just thought that I should buy them since they were on sale. And they kind of just lived in my house for a year. And so, what this work is doing really is exploring the way in which photography says just as much about the viewer as the subjects or the photographer. 

I was also reading this philosopher Nelson Goodman, and Goodman's aesthetics are a branch of philosophy. And he talks about roots of reference, and how every single picture is dense. And how pictorial representation is always relative to the conceptual framework within which a picture should be interpreted. And I thought that that really resonated with me because I was thinking about the amount of people who, especially being in the UK, who would see  these collections of photos and just not have the context to see them.


I was validated in these ideas because the photographer signs a lot of the photos and I researched the company, and it's a Lagos based company, which is where I'm from. And, in addition, on the back of a few of the photographs, it says 2003. So all my intuitions were really validated. 

It really feels like an embodiment of what I was speaking about when formulating Manifold, when it comes to bringing the past into the present. I know we’ve spoken extensively about treating the images with care and the ethics of presenting black family photographs. What are you hoping to achieve with this work? Whether it is thinking about those ethics, or reuniting a family with their archive

Yeah, I would like for the photographs to be reunited with their owners. That would be the goal. I've already gotten in contact with the photographer who now owns a studio by a different name. He wasn't able to speak with me on Friday, but hopefully we’ll speak this week. I think the tension with the work is that if I worked with their faces, it's probably easier for them to be reunited with photographs. But I also want to respect their privacy. So the photos (in the show) don't really depict their faces. But privacy is paramount. I think the art world operates, especially in this country, in a way that makes me feel quite protective of black people and our stories. Because these photographs were taken so long ago, who knows what their story has evolved to be now?

Your film is a comment on photography I think, on how the viewer is also an author in the photograph. I used to do a lot of work and research on authorship in photography, and I think it is interesting because the author is always shifting. Is it the person that commissioned the photograph? Is it the photographer? And then there is also room for the idea that the viewer is an author, in the experiences and biases they bring into looking at a photograph. I feel like this work touches on that a lot. Do you want to talk about that? And what ideas do you think you’re bringing to the photograph?

Yeah, I think the context I'm bringing is one of someone, I mean, I’m in Lagos quite a lot but at least at the point when I found the photographs, and now, for the show, I’m not in Lagos. So a sense of displacement in that regard. I think that was a real comfort when identifying the photographs because when one is not in the place of one's childhood, things can feel a bit less real. And so in recognising so much of what I felt was my own story, in this series of photographs, there was a deep sense of comfort I think I got as someone who's a foreigner [in London]. And I hope to be able to communicate those feelings through the work. I think there's also notes on capital and what it means for these photographs to be sold. And if not, me, who would have bought them? And a desire to frame them in a way that has reverence for the time and place that they’re depicting.

What does manifold mean to you? 

I'll just go with my intuition, which is of like an ensemble. I think of holding hands, I think of time and care and being spent, but together.