While at Art Basel Miami this past December, I had the opportunity to scope out and interview eye-catching booths and their artists. One such artist was Marcellina Akpojotor. She is a Nigerian artist currently represented by Rele Gallery, and her solo booth at Art Basel Miami was her first showing in the United States. Akpojotor’s pieces focus on her great-grandmother and utilize fabric to create highly textured works. Through her work, Akpojotor initiates a dialogue about her family history, the nature of archives, the celebration of one’s memory, and how one will be remembered for generations. She utilizes photographs from family albums and the internet in her solo exhibition Ode to Beautiful Memories to remember and commemorate past lives and ponders how they impact the future.
Shaina Pearl: How did you become interested in art? What made you pursue this as a career?
Marcellina Akpojotor: It started when I was drawing and doing calligraphy. It was an opportunity to be around my father for a long time, and he was into the arts. Watching my father allowed me to pick up many artistic skills from him, which greatly influenced my work. When I was there, I did not think I would pursue art as a career; instead, I thought it was something I could do over the weekend, as a hobby. Finally, I decided to study art because I was passionate about it. That was how I started my art journey!
Shaina Pearl: How do you choose what you will paint?
Marcellina Akpojotor: What I paint usually comes from what inspires me, what story I am trying to tell. Usually, my family.
Shaina Pearl: What goes through your mind? How do you decide the motifs? So many of the pieces depict nature. Is that something you are trying to replicate in your work?
Marcellina Akpojotor: Yes! All of my works come from familial memories. I explored my personal history and looked at my family, starting with my great-grandmother. I look at things that my grandmother experienced and owned in her life, like photographs of family members, which are seen throughout my works. There is a lantern, bell, and sunflower. When I visited my town, there was a wall of sunflowers, and I wanted to show that in the work. There are also soybeans in my hometown. There is red soil, so you will see the choice of color in my works impacted by the natural landscape. My great-grandmother is no longer alive and I didn’t get to meet her. I didn’t know what she looked like, so I created an idealized portrait of who she was after searching photos on the internet of Nigerian life and looking at images taken of my family. With this, I created an ideal of who she was. The leaves are inspired from the farm that she had while she was alive and I was able to bring that motif to the present.
Shaina Pearl: I am interested in your artistic process. What inspires you? How do you come up with your work?
Marcellina Akpojotor: I am mostly inspired by everyday events and personal history. I like to explore the terrain and education. I go to a fabric store for my artistic process and buy these vibrant fabrics. It is very popular with the West Africans because you see them wearing very intricate garments. Some families will wear the same garment styles with the same fabric. In ceremonies, you see different families wearing different fabrics, which showcases the culture of the entire community. The fabrics in my work represent the community, and I am very interested in how the community shapes family.
Shaina Pearl: What has your experience been like at Art Basel Miami so far?
Marcellina Akpojotor: The experience has been amazing! We have been getting great reviews. This is my first time and the gallery’s first time at Art Basel. I feel good! It is great to be here surrounded by artists and their creations. It has been amazing, really! It is my first time in Miami. I am doing my residency at the Fountainhead here in Miami and it has allowed me to meet new people and see new collections.
Shaina Pearl: What is your plan after Art Basel Miami?
Marcellina Akpojotor: After Basel, I want to continue painting and telling stories!
Shaina Pearl: What is the most memorable thing that has happened to you as an artist?
Marcellina Akpojotor: While I was walking and talking about my body of work in the booth, I met a man, and he felt very moved by what I was portraying in my pieces. I was talking about my great-grandmother and literacy. He mentioned that the pieces reminded him of his grandmother, who passed away last year who had a similar life as my great-grandmother. It was the first time I connected to the work and could see the depictions leaving a legacy with the viewers.