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Meet Jimi Agboola, A Visual Artist Pushing The Boundaries Of Sexuality Through His Art

His works explore themes of sexual identity relating to the male body.

In 1964, a leading figure in Pop art and multidisciplinary artist, Andy Warhol, released his controversial short movie Blowjob. For the entirety of its 36 minutes runtime, the experimental film featured an uncredited actor (DeVeren Bookwalter) who is the sole subject of a fixed camera. Bookwalter’s expression continually changes throughout the movie, sifting from bliss to boredom, indifference to engagement, implying he is on the receiving end of the movie title. The act itself isn’t shown but that seems to be the point: Blowjob censors itself as if to criticize the tyranny of censorship and the austereness of the society at the time.

This intriguing film is what inspired Lagos-based visual artist Jimi Agboola’s latest short movie HEAD: “I’ve always wanted to make this, and it’s finally coming soon,” he announced on his Instagram page, teasing the movie months before its release. Primarily a photographer, Jimi Agboola’s works distinctly explore socio-cultural issues and themes of sexual identity relating to the male body. But just like Warhol’s Blowjob, HEAD is vague and suggestive, leaving room for various interpretations and inferences: “..the film only shows the expressions of the artist’s face which implies a sexual act is happening but is not actually seen, the viewer must assume it is happening,” Agboola reveals in his artist statement. It appears to be a lot and nothing at the same time. It’s provocative, confusing as well as amusing all at once. But, again, that seems to be the point.

We recently caught up with the 25-year-old to discuss HEAD, his journey as a visual artist, making the switch from civil engineering to art, and much more.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

B.Side: Congratulations on the recent screening of your short movie and its current screening at the “Making Face” group exhibition at Rele Gallery. Can you tell me a bit about the movie HEAD?

Jimi Agboola: Thank you very much. I appreciate that; I mean HEAD showing at a gallery as important as Rele feels really good. It feels like a step forward in terms of appreciating more experimental visual works, especially within the film medium.

HEAD is a 15-minute silent short film that, for the entire runtime, focuses on the face of the subject as he’s reacting (or not) to who-knows-what outside the frame. That’s the simple version but interpreting the movie isn’t really something I want to do. And it intrigues me to learn how viewers of the film describe it as meaning different things to them.

I guess that’s the strange and familiar thing about art – it’s within reach and out of reach at the same time.

Many of your previous works have explored social, cultural and sexual identity issues concerning the male form. With HEAD, were you looking to explore similar issues?

These are the broad subjects I tackle with all of the work I’ve been making especially with my photography and while there could be elements of these themes in HEAD. I believe the film represents a bit more than that.

What I mean is, take, for example, any of my photographs of the male body; one could see that and easily say it’s about sexual identity or whatever. But HEAD is this moving image that’s subtle, seemingly without narrative, so that you’re almost forced to cultivate context (by yourself) around the movie in order to interpret it satisfactorily.

But then again, every work of art is one way or the other political. And my work can’t escape that.

Considering your previous works, you’ve dabbled in fashion and Documentary photography and now film. How do you combine these different elements in your practice?

I don’t feel the need to combine these elements to make whatever it is I might be making next. Whenever I’m working, be it fashion photography, documentary, or film, I’m looking for that unnamed & unknowable thing that speaks to me. I think it’s a matter of finding that thing in whatever I’m making.

You studied Civil Engineering at Covenant University. How did you make the switch from that to art?

Haha! Civil Engineering was tough! Covenant University was much worse. It was really a struggle between focusing on this course I had no interest in and trying to focus on my “art” at the same time, especially in an institution as conservative as Covenant University. I’d been taking photos since my 200 Level in 2014 but honestly, leaving CU was when the switch really happened. I had finally graduated and then the world was hit with this pandemic, and I find myself thinking, “if I die now can I say I’ve been able to do things I’ve wanted to do?” So when the lockdown had eased a little, I just decided that I’m finally in a position where I have no real excuses not to pursue this weird “dream” I’ve had, and I’ve just been going ever since.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times that you are a self-taught photographer. Can you tell me a bit about that? What was the experience like?

Haha! I’m still learning. When I say I’m self-taught, I mean I’ve had no formal training in the medium. I just bought a camera, and I have been learning while using it since 2014. YouTube has helped a lot. Asides from that, I believe the most important thing I’ve been fortunate enough to learn is that it’s more than just taking a clean photo. For me, it’s all about creating a feeling. That’s so vague, but that’s the best way I can put it. I’ve always wanted the work I make to just make people feel something

With your different modes of expression in the visual arts, what would you say your creative process is like generally?

Haha, this question should get easier to answer the longer you practice your craft, but I think it’s pretty hard to say I have this one creative process that I rely on for each project. But what’s constant from project to project is curiosity about some idea I’m obsessed with exploring at the moment. I iterate and experiment a lot, as I imagine every maker does, so for every one decent project; there are like five failed attempts at creating something I’m proud of.

Circling back to your movie HEAD, what was it like being in front of the camera for a change, seeing that you’ve mostly always directed proceedings from being behind it?

I’ve been wanting to make “Head” since 2016 and I’ve been casting for a while, but nobody wanted to be in it. The few people who decided that they would be in it had to drop out for some reason or the other. And it goes back to me realising that I’m in a place where I can make whatever I want to make, and I’ve always wanted to feature in front of the camera somehow, so I thought if nobody’s going to do it, I will.

Are there other things you’re working on that you can share?

I have another film coming soon, and a photography series in the works.

HEAD is currently screening at Rele Gallery until September 5, 2021.

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