Artist Spotlight: Olalekan Jeyifous

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Artist Spotlight: Olalekan Jeyifous

To celebrate Black History Month, we took a trip to see Olalekan Jeyifous’ work in nearby Alexandria, VA. Jeyifous was tasked by the Alexandria Commission for the Arts to create an original site-specific piece inspired by the city. The Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist and designer began by understanding Alexandria’s unique history: a once prosperous port city home to one of the largest domestic slave trading firms. Alexandria was a major center for shipping and manufacturing with an economy inextricably tied to the work of enslaved and free African Americans.

Featuring symbols that represent Alexandria’s merchant and manufacturing history, including factories, railways, and tobacco warehouses, Jeyifous’ work, seeks to sew the City of Alexandria’s story together. The ground mural incorporates African American quilting and textile traditions historically tied to storytelling and oral tradition. When viewed as a whole, the pattern becomes an abstract grid or map, with the manufacturing icons appearing throughout. From this colorful, rich surface, four large figures face the water. Their ornate metal profiles are wrapped at the base in sculptural seating platforms illuminated in low light.

For Jeyifous, the projects aim is not to make observes forget about race, rather think about race in a productive context.

“There’s a phrase people use, ‘I’m colorblind, I don’t see color’, I think that does more to discourage harmony than saying, ‘I see you, I see your background, I see your history, I see these difference, but I see we are connected by being part of this very diverse fabric that makes up the United States,’” Jeyifous said. “Acknowledging these things in a way where it’s not shameful to discuss it, it’s not incendiary to be honest about certain realities, we can then move forward with a more equitable society.”