A Nigerian American New Yorker in Berlin

Art, Conversations
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The King of Now!

Last year’s Brooklyn Open Studios organized by the Brooklyn Museum  got some criticism from the New York Times for the crowdsourced exhibition that followed.

We agree that the competitive nature of the event was frivolous.  However, GO Brooklyn made it possible to meet some incredible artists in their studios. One of them is Eto Otitigbe, a polymedia artist who combines sculpture, video, installation, and performance to create illusions, sensitive spaces, and dynamic actions. We talked to Eto about the time he spent in Berlin last summer.

S2S: Eto, you just returned from Berlin where you finished your MFA from the Transart Institute. Can you explain what this program is and talk about your experience in the program in general and in Berlin specifically (i.e. who was your advisor, what was it like to live in Berlin as a New Yorker, etc.)?

Eto Otitigbe:  Transart is an international low residency MFA program.  The faculty and students come from all around the world with a majority from North America and Europe. TI is unique because it brings together a diverse group of art practitioners to one space that doesn’t have a rigid departmental structure.

Throughout the year each student is assigned a studio advisor, research advisor, and small group of peers to critique each others work.  At certain points during the year the entire school comes together to discuss each others projects and participate in workshops. The program is progressive and things can often change.

I had a good experience in the program.  It wasn’t perfect but what is?  I think being forced to work through some of the difficulties I had at TI forced me to become a better artist.  My studio advisor was Dread Scott and my research advisor was Laura Gonzalez.  Together they pushed me very hard to articulate what I was doing and why I was doing it. They were critical of my proposals and the work that came out of them.  The low residency structure allowed me to work from my Brooklyn studio which I spent a lot of time and energy setting up even before I decided to attend TI.

KingofNowDuring my first year I stepped out of my comfort zone and worked on performance art and development of an alter ego that I refer to as The King of Now.  In my second year I returned to sculpture and installation but I was able to bring some of my earlier findings into my final project.

The program includes a winter residency in Brooklyn and a summer residency in Berlin.  During the summer I’m far from my studio, friends, and distractions so Berlin turns into my art lab and playground.  Looking back on the summer I think the best part had to be the people that I really connected with as friends and creative agents.

S2S: Besides your MFA, you have a BS in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and a MS in Product Design from Stanford. You have stated “I have learned to negotiate the various poles of my identity: Nigerian-American-Artist-Engineer-Designer-DJ-Musician.” How did your complex identity play out in Berlin?


EO:  Berliners tend to be rather quiet even in social settings.  If I am having a good time I can be pretty loud so that made for some interesting moments.  I really like the ingenuity and craftsmanship that went into a lot of the artwork I saw.  Many artists had a sincere commitment to their ideas and clever approach to representing them.  There was even a small African community in Berlin who directed me to a Nigerian restaurant in Tiergarten.  In terms of music, Berlin is techono-centic, but I didn’t have a hard time meeting artists who put out original music like the band Paris Suit Yourself.

S2S:  Your thesis show took place at the Atelierhof Kreuzberg. What was your final project?

EO:  My final project was about loss and loss prevention. It included sculpture, photography, and animation.  Throughout the whole year I was dealing with the aftermath of losing some very important people in my life.  I used the work to come to terms with a lot of the discomfort that I felt and move on to a place where I could continue to celebrate life and give thanks for what I have received thus far.

S2S: Some of your work is political in nature, such as the triptych Becoming Visible which you made in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin. What was the reception of this work in the US and did you produce any political work in Berlin?



EO: The response to Becoming Visible has been very rewarding.  I have exhibited the series in Berlin and New York; receiving different reactions in each place.  The Trayvon Martin incident is less familiar overseas then it is in New York so Berliners were more attracted to the technique used to create the work.  Since New York hosted major protests for Trayvon the message hits home and more people understand that now wearing a hoodie is a symbol of protest.  Since the work comes into focus at different viewing angles; I noticed people dancing around the work to see it.  Oddly enough someone in Berlin said that this dance reminded them of the way people “dance” around conversations about race in the Unites States.

S2S: What are some of the cultural differences between New York and Berlin you find most interesting?


EO:  New York has a lot more ethnic diversity than Berlin.  There are just so many people from very many different parts of the world here.  A lot of whom still live together in established communities. Most of the people I met in Berlin were either German, Turkish, or New Yorkers!  Berlin has an important voice in the International arts scene whereas New York influences fashion, film, sports, and commerce in addition to the arts.  I think that affects the type of people who pass through these cities.  I noticed that people from both places seem to live in the moment; but the pace of life in New York is a lot faster than Berlin; where it seemed like people had more time to enjoy life and take things in.

S2S: You are the founder and director of es ORO Gallery & Polymedia Projects; a non-profit artist run project space that was in operation from 2007 to 2009 in Jersey City, NJ and now continues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. What events take place at your new space? What alternative spaces or galleries in Berlin and New York do you recommend?

EO:  Berlin was like a playground.  I went to some fun and interesting art spaces like Savvy Contemporary and LEAP.  I partied all over the city in venues like Mind Pirates, Same Heads and Raum.   I saw the premiere of The United States of HooDoo, a film written by Oliver Hardt and Darius James.  I took a day trip out to an open air concert called the Greenville Festival.   As for New York I really like whats going on at Reverse, Microscope Gallery and Underline Gallery.  Though I have to be honest when I’m in New York I spend most of my time either at home, in my studio, or checking out music.

S2S: Now that you are back in New York, what are you working on at the moment?

EO:  This fall I am split between a new series of my own work and a few collaborative projects.   My personal projects involves a series of public interventions that use objects and video mapping.  I’m really excited about using sculpture and video to disrupt sites with specific histories.  One of my collaborative projects called “Outersides” is also an experiment with sculpture in urban environments.  I’m working with artists from Cairo and New York to create a series of “false doors.”   Theses are 2D, 3D, or video based representations of doors or portals that we plan to install around New York and Cairo.  (Attached is one image from the series.  A collaboration between me and artist, Bashir Wagih.)  When I’m not making art, I jam for fun with my new found band, Cake Pan.  We have a “funkyrockybluesything” going on.

S2S: Are you planning to go back to Berlin anytime soon?

EO: No immediate plans to be in Berlin.  But I hope to make it out there again soon perhaps for Transmediale.

This summer in NYC check out Eto Otitigbe’s 20-foot-wide, undulating, doughnut-shaped structure, Looping Back on Randalls Island Park (212-860-1899 – flowartnyc.org). Free. June 15–Nov 15.

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