Bariyaa Ipaa is an emerging Nigerian-Canadian Artist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. His art is shaped by his dual African Canadian Identity; as a refugee immigrant and first-generation Canadian, his artistic approach focuses on the continuous process of renegotiating and defining the liminal space that defines his diasporic identity.
Using photography as his primary medium to curate “still-life”portraits centered around reliving nostalgic memories that are about everyday life such as friendships, coming of age, and moms cooking.
Artistic Beginnings and Identity
How does your dual African-Canadian identity, shaped by experiences as a refugee immigrant and first-generation Canadian, inform your artistic journey and perspective?
B: Throughout my life, art has been a constant presence, particularly shaped by the unique blend of my dual African-Canadian identity and the experiences of being a refugee immigrant and a first-generation Canadian. When my family first immigrated, we unfortunately lost all our photos from back home, a common challenge for refugee immigrants. Moving forward, I became captivated by those affordable point-and-shoot film cameras, readily available at grocery stores for around $7. My first camera was a purchase my mom made during a routine grocery trip in our initial month here.
My initial foray into photography centred around a desire to recreate and preserve memories in our new home.
I vividly remember arranging my siblings and mom on the couch, attempting to construct new memories that would endure. I extended this practice to my school environment, capturing moments of friends, teachers, and the general atmosphere.
Photography became a means of grappling with the notion of lost memories by attempting to reconstruct and immortalize what was left behind.
This interest in creating and preserving memories served as my gateway into the broader world of art. Although I never envisioned myself as an artist growing up, engaging in artistic pursuits provided a sense of relaxation, tranquility, and a connection to cherished childhood memories. Drawing had been a constant pastime, and my exploration into photography became a natural extension of that creative inclination.
Challenges as a Newcomer Creative Professional
As a newcomer creative professional, could you elaborate on challenges in navigating the professional art world and share insights or lessons learned in overcoming them?
B: I'm currently in the process of navigating the intricacies of the professional art world as a newcomer creative professional. Figuring out the nuances of formal and institutional art, understanding the application process for grants, and securing opportunities to showcase my work in specific venues remain ongoing challenges. The realm of professional art appeared somewhat mystical to me initially, prompting a focused effort to demystify it.
The realm of professional art appeared somewhat mystical to me initially, prompting a focused effort to demystify it.
During my university years, I found myself alongside friends who, like me, were grappling with the uncertainty of breaking into institutional art. In response, we decided to proactively address this gap by creating our own space. As a collective of photographers, we collaborated on a zine named 'We'reHereToo,' specifically featuring Black artists in the Lethbridge area. The primary objective was to illuminate our lived experiences in Alberta.
Through this initiative, we embarked on a collective learning journey. Step by step, we gained insights into crafting artist statements, applying for grants, and navigating the entire process of producing the zine. The project not only secured funding but also served as a platform to support fellow artists submitting their work for the first time. Our intention was to extend opportunities for others to grapple with the same questions we encountered – from submitting work to publications and galleries to the intricacies of grant applications and artist representation.
Our community-focused zine became a learning hub, providing insights into the practical aspects of navigating the art world.
The process not only allowed us to share experiences but also empowered us to refine our own understanding of how to represent ourselves as artists and overcome the challenges inherent in the art world.
Photography as a Narrative Tool
How does your use of photography, particularly in creating 'still-life' portraits, contribute to renegotiating your diasporic identity, and can you share a significant project or photograph that encapsulates this journey?
B: Absolutely, my approach to photography revolves around presenting a vibrant and authentic portrayal of my life and the community I belong to – a perspective that often remains underrepresented. My focus is on offering a self-directed representation of the Black diasporic community, shedding light on aspects that may not receive adequate attention, including the beauty found in the everyday moments.
A significant motivation behind my work is the desire to share the joy inherent in our community, showcasing the richness of our lives.
One of the platforms where I actively engage in this narrative-shaping endeavor is my Instagram page, titled 'Returning the Gaze.' This title reflects my commitment to taking control of our own narrative, ensuring that we are the ones defining our stories rather than having them told for us. Through this visual storytelling, particularly in the realm of 'still-life' portraits, I strive to capture and convey the essence of our community, challenging preconceptions and contributing to a more nuanced understanding of our diasporic identity.
ICAI Collaboration and Influence
How has your collaboration with ICAI shaped your research and residency at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, and in what ways has it influenced your future creative aspirations?
B: I discovered ICAI through their Instagram in the summer of 2022, coinciding with my opportunity to work at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) in Lethbridge, AB. During my residency, ICAI conducted an informational session throughout the year, aligning with the focus of my work. Recognizing the synergy, my director suggested I connect with ICAI for valuable insights.
Participating in ICAI's informational session and seminar, I later reached out to Toyin, seeking to explore specific questions related to working with immigrant groups. One key aspect that resonated with me was a reflective question posed during the seminar, prompting us to reconsider our perceptions of immigrant and newcomer arts professionals. Until then, I hadn't fully envisioned myself in the role of an Arts Cultural worker in such spaces. This realization challenged preconceived notions and dismantled the mysticism surrounding the professional art world.
In my residency, I grappled with the realization that I, too, occupied a significant role in this dynamic field.
My initial disconnect with this realization stemmed from a perceived barrier between the formal art spaces and the grassroots projects I had engaged in with friends before joining the gallery. These community-led initiatives, while seemingly separate, embodied the same essence of the work I was attempting to navigate within formal spaces. I began to bridge these seemingly distinct realms, recognizing that the impactful work I envisioned was already underway, both within and outside traditional gallery spaces.
Being in this role has proven invaluable, providing the confidence to reevaluate the initiatives we undertook during our undergrad years. It's been an enlightening journey to find terminologies that resonate with our experiences, connecting with art-run centres and understanding the diverse ways artists come together to create and sustain spaces.
Observing various examples of these collaborative efforts not only affirmed the significance of the work we were previously engaged in but also presented opportunities for further learning.
I've been able to apply newfound insights back into my current role, enhancing my understanding of collectives and their common challenges, particularly regarding resources. One illuminating example I encountered was a collective named after a calculated number, representing the funding available for their projects. This model emphasized the financial realities artists face in their daily lives, balancing conventional nine-to-five commitments with the desire to foster artist-led community projects.
Witnessing such innovative approaches was informative, prompting me to reflect on how to avoid common pitfalls, such as burnout or a heavy reliance on external resources. The key question became: How can we navigate these challenges and ensure sustained momentum, independent of fluctuating resources?
Community Engagement and Advocacy
Can you share a specific initiative or project from your involvement with 'We'reHereToo,' addressing barriers for black creatives, and discuss how your advocacy contributes to the broader artistic community in Lethbridge?
B: During my time at university, a group of friends and I engaged in discussions about creating opportunities to showcase our work and advocating for the broader art world. Although these discussions lingered throughout our undergrad journey, tangible action did not materialize until the later stages. One friend proposed a transformative idea: instead of merely discussing and conceptualizing projects, why not take the initiative and bring our ideas to life?
This marked the inception of 'We'reHereToo.'
Over a two-month period, we mobilized a group of friends to collaborate on the project. We issued a call for submissions, and leveraging my position on a school board, I applied for funding to cover the printing costs of the zine and provide honorariums to contributing artists. The initiative has now entered its third year, and 'We'reHereToo' stands as a testament to our commitment to addressing barriers for Black creatives. By providing a platform for artists to showcase their work and compensating them for their contributions, we actively contribute to breaking down systemic barriers.
This project not only advocates for increased representation in the artistic community but also fosters an inclusive space for dialogue, creativity, and the celebration of diverse voices in Lethbridge's broader artistic landscape.
One unexpected outcome of 'We'reHereToo' was the opportunity to work closely with a group of artists who were submitting their work for the first time, a reflection of our shared experience as emerging artists. Creating a space for our community to actively participate and witness their stories reflected in a tangible form was a profoundly rewarding experience. Witnessing these narratives come to life in the pages of a zine, with physical copies in hand, was a powerful testament to the impact of our collective efforts.
The project extended beyond our immediate community, allowing us to share these stories with the wider Lethbridge community. Featuring images capturing the essence of families, friends, and community interests, 'We'reHereToo' became a conduit for sharing the vibrant tapestry of our lives. The zine not only serves as a celebration of our diverse experiences but also as a means of fostering understanding and connection within the broader community. It's a testament to the power of community engagement and advocacy in breaking down barriers and creating a more inclusive and interconnected artistic landscape in Lethbridge.
In conclusion, are there any additional insights or aspects you would like to bring to light that haven't been covered in our conversation?
B: I would like to emphasize that the projects I've been involved in, including my work as an artist, have always been rooted in community. These initiatives are not solitary endeavours but rather collaborative efforts where my peers play a significant role in shaping the work we produce. It's important to recognize that the work is a collective creation, and I want to highlight the invaluable contributions of my peers. I hope to convey that my artistic endeavours are not created in isolation; rather, they are the result of collective efforts. The support and dedication of my peers have been instrumental in showcasing aspects of the Black community in Lethbridge to the broader community. I want to extend credit and appreciation to the collaborative spirit that underpins these projects.