Austin Uzor’s work operates in places of in-betweenness, fluctuating between countries and locations. As an artist from Nigeria who has settled in North Texas with many stops along the way, Uzor has re-evaluated his definition of stability, favoring an adaptation to continually shifting circumstances. His work reflects these shifts, opting to balance the in-between, where places come together as a vehicle of creation.
On the occasion of his solo exhibition Windows for Forgotten Landscapes, opening at the Rockport Center for the Arts, I had a chance to correspond with Uzor about his practice, and his show.
Leslie Moody Castro (LMC): Your work speaks to displacement and the complexities of being in a state of flux. Can you tell us how your work does this, and why these themes have such a profound impact on you and your work?
Austin Uzor (AU): Over the past ten years, I have moved from place to place for different reasons. Some of these reasons are related to school, work and family. The most impactful had to be my move from Nigeria to the United States with my family in 2016. The idea of stability is always far-fetched in these situations, because one has to psychologically let go of the past and rapidly adapt to the present in order to properly integrate into a new environment. This brings about the subject of duality that I explore in my work: the idea of being both Nigerian and American at the same time, physically and psychologically.
I always find myself in these situations where I question who I really am, as a result of being in a state of constant movement and change. What I do with my work is find that balance. I also find a way to create a space that blends both worlds together so I can create room to start accepting the reality of not being able to have physical access to the past. Instead, I create a new world from it.
LMC: Can you give us some examples of how you do this in your work? What are some of the methods and techniques you employ to find that balance both now and historically?
AU: I am always drawn to the idea of space creation, be it physical or psychological. For a long time I explored psychological spaces in my work; I still do. I use paint and wood as a medium to create liminal spaces that can serve as temporary abodes if one connects to them with honesty. Introducing fragments of made objects by way of installation also helps with the process of creating these spaces, which I call the “third world,” thereby helping bridge the gap between memories, dreams and imagination. As far as the methods I lean into historically, I will say one that is a guiding light is that of post-modern abstract expressionism. I experiment a lot with mark making, and I use unconventional painting tools to distribute color on surfaces in a quest to create new worlds.
LMC: Specifically for this show at the Rockport Center for the Arts, you are looking at windows as portals, and within that, abstraction as a tool. Can you elaborate on why your work has moved toward abstraction within these portals, and what you want to communicate or convey with the work?
AU: Abstraction has become a way for me to blend realities with dreams and a bit of imagination as a subtle way to deal with fading memories. Over time, I have discovered this method of expression through the act of making/unmaking, and letting that action give birth to new images and compositions that are somewhat relatable to recurring images that have become symbols in my life. For me, abstraction provides a sense of freedom and expression that most other forms of paintings do not. Most times I start with photographs and I use traditional representational methods to paint these images until I have nothing else to visually mine from them, and then abstraction comes in as a way to transform these frozen moments into motion pictures. I love how fluid abstraction is, how it defies time and space. I think of it like a performance. In a very meditative way, it gives new life and meanings to a version and fragment of an image I am so familiar with.
For the portals I created for this show, I started solely from abstraction. For some reason, I wanted to connect to the spiritual aspect of my untapped imagination, which is largely a library to butchered memories. I let the paint and material dictate where it wants to go; it uses me as a tool and vehicle for this movement. One after the other, after months of moving paint around, these works began to look like recognizable spaces from my past, spaces I thought I had forgotten about. At this point, I only reinforced these visuals by placing and displacing figures from my personal photos to create scenes that I could relate to. As far as what I hope to communicate with the work, I am going through this very personal journey of reconnecting with my past using these metaphorical windows to provide access into these mindscapes.
LMC: How did the process of painting in abstraction lead you to these portals, and why portals as a bigger theme or motif?
AU: As an artist, one of the hardest things to do is to relinquish control. After spending so much time mastering your craft, it is hard not to be able to put it into direct use on a daily basis. I trained as a traditional and formal painter and draftsman, and over time I have realized that giving up control while still being used as a tool is a difficult skill set to maintain. The forces of collaboration and creativity, like paint and material, are a special kind of gift that exists alongside the artist. Over time, I have come to think of my process of abstraction as a collaborative dialogue between me and material. I never force a conversation. Time becomes a deciding factor, as I only contribute when it is my turn. I started these works in September of 2021 — at the time, I only moved paint around these panels on a daily basis as a way to respond to my then-current daily emotions. Without any visual images to guide me, I looked to stick to a process of creating, ranging from the unknown to the known.
Following my intuition, I kept building layers of paint without expectations. It was a meditative and therapeutic process, and as a result of that you can get a sense of a layered history of heavy textures locked into these paintings. Sometimes during the process I stumble upon new images, but I do not keep them because I see the whole process like a motion picture cinema instead of a still image. These intermissions could take days or weeks before I revisit the painting, and completely transform them again and again, leaving more layers of buried mindscapes on their surfaces. This process of making and unmaking continually pushes the idea of presence and absence, where there are a thousand images buried under one painting and the painting is still never complete. Instead, a version of it becomes ready in time for it to be shown or exhibited. So, painting intuitively through time led me to these landscapes, and I do not know why, but I do know they look like landscapes from my past — that’s why I call them portals.
LMC: Do these portals or windows evoke specific places? Can you share some of these stories of specific places, if they do?
AU: Some of these portals are unintentionally manufactured to reconnect with recognizable spaces and moments. The shutters are very iconographical and repetitive, in the sense that they always reoccur in places and spaces throughout my life: from my grandmother’s house in Agbor to the schools I attended growing up in Ibusa, Ejeme and Asaba. These were local architectural designs and low-cost choices only available to a certain class of people I identified with. My very first one-room apartment I had in college in Nsukka had these shutters too. From my window, I always watched my neighbors do basic, everyday life activities like farming and laundry by hand in their backyards. These were visual imageries I consumed everyday. I feel so privileged to be in a developed country now, but the truth is I am a product of a developing country, and I almost forget that was my home for 25 years. These paintings provide a more symbolic and metaphorical window into my biographical past, growing up in South Eastern Nigeria.
LMC: What is that everyday transition like, living between the worlds of a developing country and a developed one? How did this influence your practice when you first arrived in the States, how has this evolved the longer you have lived here?
AU: It is not as easy as it appears. I am grateful to be here and to have to experience life in a different environment, different from one that I have been used to for a longer period of time. However, I always feel so out of place in most situations. I talk and act differently, I look and think differently. Everything around me is a daily reminder that I am a visitor here. Everything around me reminds me of that. I am stateless. I am neither here nor there. The only way I know how to psychologically balance it out is through my work. When I first arrived it wasn’t a big deal because I knew Nigeria would always be my home but going back to Nigeria in 2018 I found out the country had moved on without me. I felt homeless. I still feel homeless. Tackling this duality through the years has always shone through my work. I am embracing it and I am learning to create a new world from it.
Windows for Forgotten Landscapes is on view at the Rockport Center for the Arts from August 5 through September 16, 2022.