Lego artist Ekow Nimako digs into the past to imagine the future
Ghanaian-Canadian artist Ekow Nimako sculpts visions of the far future and the distant past, imagining what could be, and what might have been, in Black and African history. He crafts these visions out of Lego, inviting his audience to imagine along with him. Nimako’s 15-foot diptych sculpture Asamando is now on display in the University of Wyoming’s Visual Arts Building. The artist spoke with Wyoming Public Radio’s Jeff Victor about found objects, speculative history and the role imagination plays in the struggle for liberation.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jeff Victor: I know you've probably gotten this question before, but I think we should start there anyway, why choose Lego as a medium?
Ekow Nimako: Well, I honestly have the most experience with Lego elements as a material. I experimented with different materials when I began focusing on sculpture as my primary artistic outlet. Prior to that, it was music, writing, and — as far as visual art was concerned — drawing. But after art school and experiences in the sculpture studio, it became clear to me that I wanted to use a three-dimensional form. It was kind of like a no brainer. The only missing component was knowing that I could use Lego elements as an artistic material. And it would actually be recognized as that, because prior to that, it's hobby stuff. It's geek culture — which I'm happy to participate in — but I hadn't seen contemporary artists using Lego. And then once I started grasping that, and seeing examples of it from people around the world, then I knew it was really feasible.
JV: I haven't gotten to see any of your work in person yet. I'm excited to see it when it's installed here. But something that stood out to me was that a lot of your work feels very fluid — in a medium where the pieces are literally called bricks. How do you do that?
EN: Well, the funny and truthful answer is: I don't know how I do it. Truly it's an impulse. But I'm very interested in stripping away what I call the Lego-ness. The Lego elements and pieces — they have such an iconic presence in the world that it was important for me to try to strip away some of that iconography, and just embrace it as this raw material. While I still am using one source material, it is an extraordinarily varied medium. There's hundreds of thousands of different parts — most of which, in fact, people that don't have an affinity for Lego, or use it regularly don't know about. So often people question the materiality of my work when they encounter it, because it's something they've never seen before.
I have an aversion to Lego bricks and that term — much to the chagrin of the LEGO Group, because that is like their trademark. So whenever I work with them, it's funny, they always have to remind me, it’s like, “Could you say Lego bricks?” And I’m like, ‘“Yeah, okay, I can say it for you.” But for me, I don't say Lego ‘bricks,’ because it's hard to find bricks in my work. I don't expose the brick. I do use it as a structural foundation, but that's on the inside most times. I like to cover the bricks, not just because I'm trying to disguise the brick, but because my aesthetic doesn't require the brick to be visible.
I'm looking for the parts that are smooth and fluid and curved and angular … because things in nature don't occur on one angular plane, right? The petal of a flower, the curve of a person's cheek. It's not just one line curve. It's multiple curves interacting at the same time, creating something that is rounded. And there are Lego elements that do that in various different forms.
JV: That's fascinating. I would have expected you to know every single Lego piece at this point, but you're still like discovering new ones.
EN: Absolutely. I'm sure the people that do Lego play as a hobby are far more versed in the types of parts and the types of techniques that the LEGO Group comes up with. (But) it's in the sets, right? That's how they find out about these things. There's so many techniques that I don't find out about until much later because I haven't built a certain set. So I'm kind of behind in one way. But then that also liberates me to come up with my own techniques that are a bit more avant garde or undiscovered, and that gives me a certain kind of freedom.
JV: And by techniques, you mean like new ways of combining pieces, or new ways of using them to achieve some effect? What do you mean by techniques?
EN: Techniques meaning how all parts are used. There's a whole set of techniques that are used to put together their (official) sets. And then there's a whole subculture of techniques, which have garnered the name ‘illegal techniques’ in the Lego community — because they're not techniques that the LEGO Group would sanction or use in their sets. They may not click all the way. Or the way that they click might put stress on the Lego elements themselves, and that stress could possibly lead to breakage. So (the Lego Group) is very particular about making sure that the integrity of their sets, and the parts, are not compromised in any way. Whereas the people that have been using it for years know there's ways you can use it that don't really compromise it. But they're not something you would find in a set, because they're just a little too nuanced.
Those illegal techniques are great. I came up with some of them on my own, not knowing that's what they are. You just do what you need to do to achieve the thing. And as long as you're not cheating — which is like gluing something where it doesn't click — that's not something I do or participate in.
I wouldn't want, at any point, people to question the integrity of my Lego play and usage. You can question the materiality because, at the end of the day, I know it's 100 percent Lego. But I don't want how I've done things to be questioned or called out for not being authentic or for ‘cheating’ — so to speak. So I try to stay within the rules, even though the illegal techniques allow everyone to just kind of bend the rules a little bit.
JV: Tell me about the subjects that you sculpt, and maybe we can start with the basics. What is Afrofuturism?
EN: Afrofuturism is a movement, genre, a philosophy, a mode of thought that is interested in future landscapes, future ideologies, future narratives, that center Black people in those stories.
I find it's also a vehicle for achieving change — or liberation, even. Because when you operate from a place of being oppressed — historically and in modernity — liberation is always at the forefront of your mind. When you see the kind of violence and disparity that is experienced so often by racialized people, then trying to overcome, trying to create a better world for your children and, by proxy, all children — it becomes extraordinarily significant. So Afrofuturism allows you to do that. All movements of liberation started with some kind of future imagining, right? If you're not free, then you have to imagine yourself free in order to try and achieve that kind of freedom.
And as well, it's important to highlight Africanfuturism, which in many ways, is much like Afrofuturism but takes place typically on the continent of Africa, and deals with decidedly African issues and African spirituality and things like that. Whereas Afrofuturism sprung up in the diaspora.
JV: So something like Black Panther would be more Africanfuturism than Afrofuturism?
EN: I would say actually more Afrofuturism just because it's part of the Marvel Universe. The Marvel Universe, despite being global in many ways, is very American. And that's why, in the film, they even started in Oakland. They rooted it in many ways in Oakland. Despite the fact that, yes, it did take place in this fictional country in Africa, it still had its connection to the U.S. and U.S. culture. So it's kind of both, but I would say probably still more Afrofuturism.
Whereas if you were to look at the author who coined the phrase Africanfuturism, her name is Nnedi Okorafor. She’s an award-winning novelist, creates extraordinarily beautiful works and complex characters, and her writing style is amazing. And she coined the phrase Africanfuturism because she is a Nigerian-American. She lives in America but is Nigerian. And her stories take place not so much in America but on the continent. So she felt it was necessary to have this “Africanfuturism” term, which I also agree with.
I walk the line as well. I was born in Canada, but both of my parents are Ghanaian and were raised in Ghana. So I grew up very much as a Ghanaian, but outside of Ghana. So I feel like Afrofuturism is something I gravitate to — but at the same time, in my soul, in my heart, Africanfuturism is there as well.
JV: So tell me about the work that's going on display.
EN: The artwork that's going to be displayed at the University of Wyoming in their art department for two months is a piece called “Asamando,” and it’s indicative of the afterlife for the Akan people. The Akan are a meta-ethnicity in West Africa, comprised mainly in Ghana. And my people — the Fante people — our tribe is part of the Akan.
And this afterlife is somewhere that is underground; it's not celestial. And it is where the Nsamanfo, which is what we call the ancestors, dwell. So when you die, you pass on to Asamando and become Beings of Light. There's no need for it to be light because the beings that inhabit the place are all beings of light. So I was fascinated by this story, fascinated about this Ghanaian land of the dead that I'd never heard about growing up — and just started plunging into this research and finding out more and more about it.
So “Asamando” represents the afterlife in Akan mythology. “Asamando” also represents the end of a journey that is illustrated in my body of work called Building Black Civilizations: Journey of 2,000 Ships. And that is based off of a real life expedition that took place in the 14th century: the story of Monsa Abu Bakr II. So he was the intrepid ninth ruler of the kingdom of Mali that decided he would abdicate his throne and have 2,000 ships built and take those ships across the Atlantic Ocean.
So these 2,000 ships went across the ocean and disappeared. And there's some evidence that suggested they did make contact with the Indigenous peoples of Central and South America.
But any contact that doesn't necessarily support the Eurocentric vision of Christopher Columbus and all of that, or the transatlantic slave trade, isn't really highlighted, historically and academically. So it was important for me to create these works. And even though a lot of the things I've built are speculative — they're not saying that this part of the journey 100 percent happened — but it could have happened. And it's always kind of been interesting to me the things that happen in places people don't often go. Deep sea travel or outer space travel — it's like plunging into the unknown. And the fact that it's unknown just gives so much space for me to have these musings and these imaginative adventures, and then create them so that people can also experience that same kind of wonder.
JV: It's just fascinating to think about if contact had been established at an earlier time, or by people other than monsters like Columbus. It's just interesting to think about what could have happened.
EN: Right, exactly. And what probably did happen — but just not on the kind of scale or with the same kind of mercenary violence that sometimes excites people in the historical realms. It's like, if there was contact, it was peaceful contact. It wasn't poisoned by violence and chattel slavery and exploitation and colonialism. It was about fostering solidarity and true scientific expedition.