Emerging Artist Prize Winner: Olu Ogunnaike

Olu currently lives, works and studies in London. He is currently finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of Arts. Much of his work uses wood as he takes trees as repositories of memory within the places and communities in which they grew up. We interviewed him to to hear more about his journey as a creative and the ideas that lie behind his work.

How did you hear about the KH Emerging Artist Prize?

"I was nominated off the back of a conversation. I had a solo at Cell Project Space in London last October,  it was going really well but it was in the middle of the pandemic. So, a show that was open for 5 months, was only allowed to be seen by the public for 3 weeks; it was a weird situation to be in. However, everything happens for a reason because as a result of not being able to see the show, I was reached out to by Robert Leckie who after a zoom studio visit nominated me for the prize. 
That was the first time I heard about the prize however, after doing my own research I realised that I knew the work of Evan Ifekoya, who had been the winner in 2019. It was nice to hear about it coming round again and being nominated for it was magical."

What was the content of the show you put on last October, which led you to be nominated to the KH Emerging Art Prize?

"My show last October was called ‘London Plain’ and I wanted to capture some idea of the ‘stillness’ that was felt across the country. We had been secluded to our houses and ultimately, I had been offered the exhibition because of the lack of activity that had been happening within these spaces. Everyone had sunken in on themselves and had become more self conscious over this past year;  I didn’t just want to put on a show that said “Hey! Look at me! Look at what I can do”."

"So, I made a parquet floor for the exhibition. Covering the existing concrete tiles of the project space with wood of London Plane trees that once lined High Street Kensington. The trees were felled in 2012 to make way for the new Design Museum; I made a mallet out of the same wood and a crowbar out of bronze. The public were invited to come inside and chip away and remove the floor. There was a mural underneath as well as a text piece I wrote whilst installing the floor. It was an ode to time spent with friends and family, and I wanted people to take time with something slowly, to gradually reveal a history. The general energy of people’s interactions with the piece was great. It started as a subtle intervention that lent itself to stillness yet eventually people being present and audience interaction drove it to becoming something else. "

You work quite a lot with different materials, but especially wood. What is the reason for this? 

"I have an affinity with wood and I pride it as being the most important material in my practice. I see my use of wood as a way of redistributing the history of one place in the world to another. In a time where we were breaking down social conventions and conducts because of the pandemic, I felt it was nice to highlight that to some extent."

"For me, wood is a marker of community. If you take a tree from London, then you can turn it into a table which is then found somewhere like Marrakesh. You could find that those dinners on that table in Marrakesh are somehow entwined with a history in London. 
I take trees as repositories of memory within the places and communities in which they grow. Wood is a marker of possible encounters: between past and present, between people and the spaces they inhabit. "

Do you feel you have a core cause behind the work you make?

"I would say my work is interested in collective journeys. I can spend time with loved ones, just as another can and we can find an affinity in that; I’m less concerned with grand gestures and more concerned with the subtleties that make up our individual existences. "

"For example, in my most recent Graduate Show I produced some charcoal screen prints that depicted tender moments with loved ones, friends. They are all somewhat decipherable, however are also quite coded. I am trying to give people enough to find themselves within the work, but for these also to remain personal memories to me. The photographs were printed on mirrored steel, which means the people could see themselves literally in the work. People being conscious of themselves in a specific space or setting has always been interesting to me."

As one of the three winners of the KH Emerging Artist Prize, what direction are you looking to take your work in the future? 

"I have a lot coming up in the near future. I’ve got two museum solo’s in the next 6 months, one museum group show, then a show in Beijing in a commercial space. So there are a few things on the cards and I think it is interesting to see how this will all marry up with the work I have done recently for my Grad Show."

"I am grateful for winning the award because it’s a continuation and helps me to know I’m doing some good things and going in the right direction. I’m grateful for that and I aim to keep ploughing through."