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Verbatim: Isabel Okoro on Magic Dreams

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On March 6, 2022, Nigerian visual artist Isabel Okoro premiered her solo work exhibition magic dreams at Toronto’s Mason Studio for the ‘6ft (a)part’ artist residency formed by FLDWRK and DesignTO.

In exploring interactions between “the motherland and the diaspora, and visualising an imagined world, Eternity, as a space to immortalize family, friends, and those she meets along the way”, magic dreams asked the artist herself and audiences to explore three guiding questions:

Who stays when the fear hugs you?

Who said that all that is, is what is true?

What do you dream that is true to you?

These questions took shape as three ‘portals’ of understanding and interaction—mediated by a six-minute video created for the exhibition—where the designer-in-residence could connect and find intersections between art, architecture and design.

While these methodologies may use physical and tangible forms, this residency’s intensive three-month period reveals the intangible ‘materials’ that drive them to take shape: Relationships, community, shared history, experiences, families, and friends.

What is your take on bridging the gap between art and architecture with a spatial experience, where your two-dimensional art and the feeling behind it achieves a third through a created environment?

I see it all as a linear progression.

It begins with the art, thinking about the stories, thinking about the aesthetics or thinking about actual representation, and then you you start to design, start to think about ways to actually represent those ideas beyond just what’s in your head. How can I make sure that this thing is possible? How can I make sure that I can actually bring this thing to real life?

That’s kind of like the early stages of architecture. Thinking in the context of this residency, it started firstly with me thinking about the art. What stories am I trying to tell? How do I think I can tell these stories? I then moved on to the design of the portal, moving to the design of circular structures… it’s a natural progression.

Architecture relies on art and design, design relies on art and architecture… They are all aligned with each other, and they all come together to create whatever we experience as people when we move through the world.

How did the idea of portals and the thresholds they create come to be? Each portal represents a different idea that you were exploring throughout the residency, but here, they’re sequentially experienced.

When I initially applied for the residency, I knew that I wanted to create work that was centered around the concept of the normatopia.

This was an opportunity to explore the experience of a journey and what it means to enter a space, and travel within that space, in the same way design and art can shape the way that people experience space.

I was thinking about how to contrast the sophistication of these circular structures with the childlike messiness of my dreams; that’s the thing with negotiating space, like, how can you balance sophistication with real life as an artist?

I’m naturally attracted to things that look cleaner, but my dreams and ideas are also never clean or direct. The solution was to treat the insights as an art project that I would do when I was a kid—sticking things to the wall however I thought I wanted to, cutting things and not cutting them in a straight line because things are not always in a straight line, having people write on the walls.

What about the questions those portals asked?

The first portal asks “Who stays when the fear hugs you?”; that’s my mom, but also my childhood memories, a younger me, a younger Isabel. When I think about my childhood I realize that a lot of the dreams that I have now actually stem from when I was much younger and it’s just all so vivid and bright and colorful.

The second portal invites my friends to speak their own truth: “Who said that all that is, is what is true?” It’s basically thinking about who decided that the truth is truth; if everyone comes to speak their own truth, you realize that the truth isn’t truth.

And you ask the audience to reflect on their own experiences and dreams with the third question, “What do you dream that is true to you?”, leaving notes and asking them to share. What did you learn from some of those notes on the portal?

The third portal showed me that deep down everyone innately wants better; they hope for better and they dream about something better. Sometimes our environment kind of forces us to sacrifice those dreams because, if you dream of these things, then you’re naive because, well, look around. Everything is bad.

But I think that the only way to make things better is just to say the things that you want to be better. That’s the only way you can make them real. Seeing how such a simple and personal question can provide a mental exercise reminds us that it’s OK to dream. It’s OK to have dreams and it’s OK to have dreams that you have and not whatever everyone else says you should dream about. You can dream about whatever you want and it’s fine because it’s true to what we are.

The audience could really get the sense of being in two worlds, Lagos and Toronto, through your photographs. How are communities a resource in creating your projects?

Something I’ve realized very early on in my life was that You can’t make it through life alone. You shouldn’t. Life is not supposed to be lived or experienced alone.

Thinking scientifically, in terms of evolution, as human beings we need community, we need a like-minded group of people on our journey with us or it’s just not gonna work out.

When it comes to my practice, having people around, whether it’s to help directly with creating the work or just to have a community, is so important because perspective is so important. Art that’s made with singular perspective is kind of useless because then no one else can get anything from it. And then what’s the point?

The multitude of perspectives is refreshing, and it brings things to the work that allows it to be felt by people wherever. Community presence in the work allows it to resonate with more and more people.

I create because I have to in order to survive; I have to think about these things, these ideas or these feelings, I have to process them and creating is my means of survival. I share my work and I invite others to come along on the journey with me, because then it could also help other people. Those perspectives, those opportunities to engage with the work, to interact with the work, to participate—it can really help people and touch people in the way that it’s really important to me.

 

Read Isabel Okoro’s artist statement for magic dreams and more information on FLDWRK and DesignTO’s ‘6ft (a)part’ artist residency here.