Brooklyn Borough Series Logo

April 14, 2016

Drawing the Future:
A Q&A with Brooklyn artist Olalekan Jeyifous

Our cover’s creator, Olalekan Jeyifous (pronounced “oh-LAH-lake-ahn JAY-uhf-us,” but you can call him “Lake”), is a Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist and designer. His signature intricate style has been shown at galleries as far away as Paris and Rotterdam and as close to home as MoMA. Jeyifous talked to City & State’s Jeff Coltin about the cover, Afrofuturism and finding inspiration in strip malls.

C&S: What were you thinking about as you drew the cover? What were your inspirations for the future of Brooklyn?

OJ: I always like mashups of old and new. As cities evolve, they still maintain a bit of their architectural history and language, even if the evolution is pretty bizarre. That was the idea I wanted to go with, blending the classic Brooklyn brownstone iconography. Not necessarily historical continuity, but more of a juxtaposition with technological architectural edifices growing out of the historical brownstone language.

City & State Brooklyn cover designed by Olalekan Jeyifous.

C&S: There’s a huge architectural influence in all of your art. Where does that come from?

OJ: I actually went to school for architecture. I had a small practice, more like a collective. It’s still in operation, but I’ve stepped away to focus more on creating art. My relationship to architecture is pretty much woven into all I do. And I treat my studio practice very much like my architectural education, which is giving myself a narrative, or some sort of project to look into, or some sort of condition to reflect on and illuminate. So very much of what I do is architecturally inspired and based.

C&S: There’s also a sense of disorder. A lot of your work is intricate, with overlapping lines. It really takes a long time to look at it and make out all the details. Would you agree, calling it disorder?

OJ: I’ve never heard anyone say disorder before, but I’m not opposed to that at all. A lot of my stuff is dystopic, so it definitely has a feel of disarray. But I would say more “chaordic,” kind of like chaos, order, coming together. I also really like informal settlements. Even though they look very ramshackle – and in terms of the way they’re built, they are ramshackle – but there’s always a highly evolved organization to the way these things develop. So disorder is not far from what inspires my work, but I would say more like controlled chaos, or a disorganized order.

C&S: The focus of our issue is the future of Brooklyn, and much of your art has really riffed off of the concept of Afrofuturism. In Brooklyn, there’s this great fear of the whitening of historically black and Latino areas of Brooklyn, from Crown Heights to Bushwick to East New York. Do you see Brooklyn’s future as being an Afro-future in any way?

OJ: I would probably say not at all. Just in terms of basic historical precedent. I’ve lived in Crown Heights for 16 years. I’m actually not from Brooklyn, I moved around a lot growing up. And I’ve lived pretty much in the same four- or five-block radius the entire time. And it has changed tremendously over a very short time frame. Drastically. From 2007 to 2009, the Franklin Avenue corridor had almost completely transformed. So that’s definitely one of the major issues, the classic confrontation of neighborhoods. Like Brooklyn, like Oakland, like New Haven, Connecticut, it’s just one of those things that happens – an attempt, a fight to maintain at least some sort of cultural semblance of what these communities were. But it really just seems that in the end, money, development and high costs per square footage always seems to prevail. Realistically I don’t see Brooklyn’s future being Afrofuturistic that much at all. There may be preservation of certain enclaves, but historical precedent doesn’t really support that evolution.

Olalekan Jeyifous.

C&S: What’s Brooklyn’s future look like for artists, then?

OJ: The thing about art is that art evolves with whatever culture. And art maintains simultaneous cultures. If you’re just speaking of the idea of artists being inspired, artists are inspired by the good and the bad. Art is inspired by destruction and chaos as well as triumph and hopefulness. Motivation for artists will always be there. I’m not one of those people who think, “Oh man, this neighborhood is now so glossy and clean, it’s saccharine, there’s no resistance, there’s no creative energy.” I personally operate under an idea that there’s always creative energy. I don’t know if other artists or movements within Brooklyn really feel that way, but even when the neighborhoods change completely, the work of the artist could be to work in opposition. It would still be inspiring if this place turns into one big glass steel strip mall. It’s still something that artists could riff off of. That’s what art really is, responding to whatever’s going on.

C&S: You work out of your apartment in Crown Heights. Was that a conscious decision to avoid a more studio-heavy neighborhood with a more obvious arts scene?

OJ: It’s not an active thing at all. It’s really more my personality. I’m more of a laid-back, non-scenester (laughs). That’s just really me. That’s why I’m talking about inspiration being broad. It could be good, it could be bad. I’ve never been one who’s motivated by a collective, or group, or idea, just because I draw inspiration in my own artwork from many, many things. Visually, sonically, as well as stuff that I read and encounter. I’ve never felt a need to be in any sort of environment. That’s not really how I get inspired. I’m not opposed to it! I have friends who live and work in Bushwick and Williamsburg, and I stop by their studios all the time. But for myself, I don’t view my art in terms of living in a certain neighborhood or point in time – you know, “I was in Washington Square Park in 1974 and the vibe was electric.” That’s never really been me.

C&S: Your website is called Vigilism. Where’d that name come from?

OJ: That’s such an old name. I came up with that when I graduated from college in 2000. Vigil or to keep vigil is sort of a watchfulness, being observant. And the idea behind Vigilism is that it’s observant design, paying attention to all things. But now that I’ve been moving more into gallery exhibits and art shows, there’s been a lot of confusion as to whether Vigilism is my nom de guerre or something. It’s not really! I’m thinking of changing the name of my site because there’s been a lot of confusion, even among clients. They’ll write a check to “Vigilism” (laughs). I’m not a one-name artist person.