Ibiyinka Alao is an Arts Ambassador to the United Nations from Nigeria. Trained in architecture at the University Of Ile-Ife Nigeria, he is also a painter and became the first-place winner of the United Nations International Art Competition. Ibi visited Cairn University a few weeks ago where I had the pleasure of meeting him and hearing him speak. The following interview was conducted via email following our meeting.
You grew up in a village in Nigeria, correct? Can you tell us a little bit of what your life was like as a child?
My little village is called Ponyan. My Father, Bamisaiye was a Public Administrator and my Mother, Grace, is a tailor. I have two brothers and two sisters. My childhood was filled with the freedom to play, the joy of being alive, the love of family, friends, and the knowledge of an Almighty God. Sometimes I wish time will take me back to the days I used to know then: nights when we listened to Father’s stories and Mother would sing those songs of Freedom, the Life and Times of playing hard without a care in the World!
You are a visual artist in your own right, winner of the United Nations International Art Competition. What are the influences you draw on when you are creating your own art? What themes do you see coming through as you create?
My greatest influences in life and in art are my Father, my Mother, and the ways they showed me about loving each other, loving others, and loving the Almighty God. The greatest theme that comes through my work is Redemption.
Sketch out for us your journey from your home to winning the United Nations International Art Competition to becoming and Arts Ambassador from Nigeria to the United Nations. What experiences and events highlight that journey in your memory?
After my study of Architecture, I started practicing with a firm in Nigeria, specializing in residential home design and construction. At the same time, I started mentoring a group of children who came to my Father’s house after work. One day, I saw the announcement for the United Nations International Arts Competition in one of the local newspapers. In an attempt to get the kids to participate in the children’s category, I had to enter a painting of mine titled “Girls and a Greener Environment” in the adult category. My entry won the first place in Nigeria, and then amongst the 61 participating countries in New York City. As a result of this, the Federal Government of Nigeria asked me to serve my country as an Arts Ambassador and embedded me with the Embassy of Nigeria to the United Nations.
When I heard you speak recently, you mentioned that in your homeland, art belongs to everyone; it is out in the streets among the people, created or performed in collaboration. How is that different than your observations of how we treat art in America?
Not long after I won the United Nations Arts award, I had a meeting with the curator of the Museum for African Art in New York City in which she asked me to be a part of a group show about Contemporary African Art. I felt honored to be asked however I had to tell her no for this very reason. Art, being Art, should never be anything more or less than Art and should always be opening people’s Hearts in the present as well as everywhere they are.
I have never been able to conceive how any rational system will take the very things that were given us to travel better on this spiritual journey, lock them up in a building, and only open up to tell people about how great journey the artist undertook or what a great time the Art was made in. I sometimes feel as if in the West, most art institutions are set up this way and rarely engage people in the present. We therefore feel alienated from the Art and most people end up feeling Art is only for an elite group of people.
This is why it was very difficult to set up a Western-style Theater, Museum, or even a Movie Cinema in Nigeria. People just weren’t used to sitting for a few hours to look at a movie, play, visual art, or listen to a song without the audience participating or reacting to it themselves. That is why Herbet Ogunde, one of the finest playwrights from Africa came up with a version of the Theater that is more traditional to African cultures and sense of Art appreciation.
What elements of your cultural background do you bring into your work with the UN? Are there elements from American culture or other cultures of the world that you see as valuable in the work of diplomacy?
I have been a peace builder for a few years and my philosophy about conflict resolution can be reduced to this: Above everything we do in life, it is necessary to listen well. And by this I mean to listen to things that people are not saying which they really mean to say, to listen to silent voices, and also to extract those things that people really mean from too many things they are saying.
This I learnt from the African tradition of not interjecting whenever an older person is speaking, taking turns to speak, etc. This is not so in America as people are taught at an early age to speak up. Ironically, this could also be the valuable element from American culture that I apply in my work of diplomacy. That may be why a lot of social justice issues, human rights issues and many more are at the forefront of things in this country while in Africa, we still have some dictators and human rights violations because of people resigning everything to fate and wanting decorum instead of speaking up.
You’ve mentioned that in your work as an ambassador to the UN, you’ve used art as a tool for conflict resolution. Can you tell us what that looks like?
In the world of conflict resolution, there comes a point when one realizes that talking has its limits either because of language barrier or exhaustion of that dimension of communication. Then we have to employ extraordinary means of communication which are higher dimensions than mere speech.
Art really does open our hearts and our minds to extraordinary ways of thinking about love and peace. What I do is that whenever I see that a peace negotiation is going nowhere, I begin to talk about art and various wisdoms we can derive from familiar and even unfamiliar cultures. For example, we can learn a lot about forgiveness from just looking at and discussing about a painting with such a theme. Afterwards, I will invite the parties to join me in a painting workshop, usually very simple and about 30 minutes to 1 hour long. I will start by painting a picture and then inviting everyone to do the same. In the process of accomplishing this task, irrespective of their feelings towards each other, the fact that they are all doing the same thing and becoming successful at it resonates in the shape of what is to happen with the sometimes-heated discussions we were having. People, who did not want to talk to each other, begin to ask each other questions about their work, compliment and appreciate what each other are doing. Then they forget that they were not supposed to be friends. Even when they remember, the atmosphere of the room has ruined it for them so they want to and believe that they can resolve the issues as well which the key ingredient in any conflict resolution is: for the parties to believe that they can resolve their differences.
When I heard you speak, I jotted down this sentence: “An artist is a person with a hole in his or her heart that is equally sized to the universe around him or her.” Can you expand on that idea?
I got this idea from the Bible: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV).
I believe that to learn to live in harmony with our likeness of God in the ability to be creative beings, we have to look up to God for the answers, and He has provided the answers in the Bible. We all experience emptiness, a void inside us as the earth was void in Genesis. But the good thing is that as the spirit of God moved over that void to create things, He has given us that spirit as well so that we can create things. Sometimes, that spirit mixes with our body and it gives forth an artist, sometimes it’s an engineer, sometimes an administrator and at other times a tailor, farmer, musician, teacher and so on. When I paint a picture, all I am doing is filling this void, or hole in my heart. The reduction of the universe to a single being is human. The expansion of a single being even to infinity, this is the universe.
At The Curator, we talk about art and culture celebrating or announcing signs of a “world that ought to be.” As I’ve heard you talk about your work, it strikes me that diplomacy has a similar goal – moving toward a world that ought to be. In what ways do you see your work in the arts and in diplomacy seeking that world?
Today, many people believe that to learn to live in harmony with each other, we must look up to Art for the answers. This may sound like a utopian idea, but like every idea that has advanced the history of civilization, it is a necessary one. One of such ideas is to use art as a means for evangelism and also for conflict resolutions. Art comes from a deep understanding of our various cultures and as it burns in our souls (by this I mean when we use it for the aforementioned purposes), it turns back to those cultures helping us to see our beautiful common humanity and producing no deaths. Tomorrow, I believe this idea will help revolutionize the relationship between humans, our environments, and the justice we seek.