A few weeks ago, I was gifted a small artwork by Kandis Williams from Amber Esseiva and the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond, VA. A Field is an exhibition curated by Esseiva showing at the ICA through September 12, 2021. Within it, Williams educates us on the history of prison labor farms in Virginia. Like the Virginia State Prison Farm in Goochland, which officially lasted from 1896 to 2011, but is still used partially for prison labor today, and otherwise available for the film industry to use, like in Lincoln (2012), as a set for participants to pantomime slave labor. Herein, art uses the presence of history for authenticity in a story that has been watered down and propagandized beyond its relevance to our current reality. Kandis, however, uses the story of this history to illustrate the urgency of this continued reality. Williams’ multimedia collage of plants and representations of labor illustrates both the adaptability and resilience of a plant, a people, and the violence and destruction from colonialism, capitalism, where all aspects are subject to commodification.
The piece I received was a promotional print for the show. The image was a collection of sexualized or pornographic images of Black women from magazines and nature photographs printed on a pulp paper threaded with various seeds. On the back were directions on how to plant this artwork and have flowers for Spring. The object itself was beautiful, and after over a decade working in the Art World, I struggled with the idea of framing it. Outside of being visually appealing, I was inspired by the concept, bitter that I hadn’t thought of the idea, though I know any application I used it for would inherently be so much less profound. Even with my complicated feelings on ownership, I thought it might serve as encouragement for future work. Also, historically I’ve been terrible with plants. Despite my best intentions, I’ve found ways to starve, drown, or discourage even the most independent and resilient plant life. Fortunately, in a moment, I found myself decentered. I began soaking the print in water and obtained a pot and soil to invest it into, to attempt nurturing, to return the labor of the artist and those of who it represents back into the Earth.
Anxious in my own power over life and death, I thought of my friend, Artist and Gardener, Clement Oladipo, and reached out for advice. The last few years, he’s been running his own business as the Bed-Stuy Garden Guy, reviving locals’ yards and empty spaces, filling them with nature and the opportunity to flourish. Also, investing in his neighborhood and neighbors, laboring for community gardens, and helping schools construct educational planters without seeking profit. All of his reviews online site not only how kind, knowledgeable, and generous he is to share the information he has, but his own inclination against waste. He’s often cited as reusing aspects of what was to be discarded in a job and educating clients on how to best take advantage of their new space and care for the plants in it. One reviewer, Louis, mentions that after a tree had fallen in his yard, Clement came to dispose of it, and in the process, cut portions of the tree into stools for his fire pit in a gig-rare act of generosity to both his client and the Earth. For years now, he has collected objects unusable in the gardens he builds, both from the reclaimed spaces and the streets they’re surrounded by, to repurpose them into sculptures that reflect both his experience and the stories embedded within them and on their surface. He moved into a new studio during quarantine and happily invited me to his space to talk about his work.
I rode my bike to Ridgewood, Queens, where Clement was already outside rolling a cigarette. Impossible to miss, towering over most things in his orbit with a smile big enough to welcome you from across the street. Walking in, there’s a quilted dog bed in the corner under a fabric relief of one of Clement’s mask pieces, belonging to his dog Sticks, who was unable to join us. The rest of the studio is cleaner and more meticulously organized than any I’d set foot in. One wall, a work table, and tools, across from it a wall-length assemblage of wire racks filled with bins and partitions of objects ordered by shape, symmetry, and stage of completion, or “half-cooked ideas,” as he put it. “It’s kinda hoarding, but half the stuff I’m grabbing is like, this is gonna be useful eventually, I just need time to see it.” He insists the relationships between these objects, himself, and his community reveal themselves in time, when they, or he, are ready and stumbles on the right perspective. Outside of artistic intuition, there’s a general sense of purpose in extending the life of something, a renewed usefulness to the world waiting to be activated. “Sometimes I collect shit just because I don’t wanna see it in a trash can,” laughing, “some stuff there’s so much of I just crate ‘em away. I don’t have to scatter them to get a new view like the others. It’s just like I have so many bones; I just pull from the bone box or rusty nail box.” There’s a bundle of those thick-plastic resealable dog food bags, and I learn that Sticks’ bed is continually stuffed with the shredded remains of his toys. “We grew up poor, so it was always about repurposing whatever you had into whatever thing you need or function you see it fulfilling.”
“Mom would fit so much shit in her suitcases going back and forth to Nigeria. That’s probably where I get the OCD from and learned how to fit so much in tight spaces.” He recalls all the seemingly random assortment of goods she brought back while insisting they too would find their use with time. The most subtle for Clement being the Art, which took its time to reveal its effect on him. “I used to get creeped out feeling like these bodies were submerged, and it was way later that I had this ‘oh shit’ moment of realizing it was so embedded into my personal aesthetic that I didn’t even consider it ‘Art.’” He recalls being exposed to the bronze head sculptures of the Ife in modern-day Nigeria and how they are a direct influence on his affinity for facial representation in his work. “Colonizers thought it had to be made by Aliens because it was so much more advanced than what Europeans were doing.” Clement went to school for Urban Planning and expresses that he also hadn’t really thought of his work as Art, the way we represent it today, for some time before befriending fellow artists like Johnston Foster, who also makes sculpture from discarded material.
We decide to go to Bed-Stuy Community Garden, where he’s most active, so he can complete some errands he’d been putting off and teach me more about gardening, among other things. As we prepare to go, he’s watering the plants around his studio. I notice that both natural light sources—a single studio window and a bathroom window—are nearly completely blocked by walls of infant plants in improvised vessels. He transfers maturing plants to larger containers and plucks buds into hanging water orbs. “Anything I find with a vacancy, I try to put a plant in it.” There’s a collection of old work shoes hanging in the corner. “Yeah, you know the shoes you see thrown over light poles and shit? I’ve been wondering if I can plant something in them.”
As we ride our bikes to the Community Garden, Clement stops every couple blocks to examine something he sees thrown on the street but doesn’t collect anything, indicating his eye is much more discerning than his packed studio would have you assume. Meanwhile, as we pass through Bushwick into Bed-Stuy, I look at the old sneakers, and occasional fresh pair of Jordans slung by their laces over wires and street poles, imagining them overflowing with flowers, soaring against the blue sky. I’m reminded of last year at this same time, the crowds of people marching these same streets after George Floyd’s murder. I remember Clement then telling me about his experience at the first major protest in New York City—which happened to be on his birthday—where he was maced point-blank by an unprovoked police officer. He recalled being blind in that crowd of people, hearing the roars of pain behind the shutter clicks of cameras in his face. Eventually, a young woman grabs his shoulder and asks permission to dump milk on his face to nullify the burning effects. The image of hurt and relief as the white milk pours in contrast over his dark complexion attracts photographers like flies to sugar, with just one waiting to see if he was okay and ask permission to use the image of his suffering. Days later, we planned to meet at another protest, understanding the importance of having a friend present to look out for you, or know where you were. He texted me just before we were both leaving our apartments to tell me he had taken the time to fill his bike basket with water balloons that he had filled with urine. I laughed at what felt like a childish antic that I didn’t quite understand yet. When I arrived, I saw some messages he sent while I was riding. His bike wheel got caught in a slim pothole riding down Broadway. As he tried to turn out, it folded his wheel and sent him over the handlebars. Balloons of piss exploding everywhere, he had to go home. He says he took it as a sign that he needed somewhere else to guide what he describes as an utterly helpless rage. “Like, I can’t hit a cop without expecting the worst. I can’t throw these balloons, apparently. That’s when I started introducing wood carving back into my work; I needed to hack away at these chunks of wood, get some rage out in making these objects.”
We get to the garden, and Clement walks around, checking on his plants and his neighbors’, before opening the compost bin. He teaches me more about composting, the three-step process, and what can and cannot be broken down in a non-industrial setting as he sifts through the tied-off plastic bags of trash left in the bin by others. I think about Sticks’ dog bed stuffed with the destroyed remains of his toys. I’ve been consistently warmed by and admirable of Clement’s kindness and sincerity since I’ve known him, but the way in which he had found and embraced this role in this adopted community is inspiring. I ask about his relationship to place, as a first-generation Nigerian American born in Waco, TX, who I met in Richmond, VA, that calls Bed-Stuy his home enough to take it in his professional moniker. “Five years was my cut-off, but then the business started, and now Bed-Stuy is my home. Which was kind of random because I was just couch surfing at first.” Reminiscing on the places he’s been, “My parents were immigrants, and they just went to ‘safe places’ by the books, and that ends up meaning just mostly white. Waco, Catholic schools, Mechanicsville, VA. I took my first visit to northern California a while back, that wasn’t for a skate trip, and it was so racist. Trump flags and shit everywhere. A white friend was scared to drop me off at a gas station to be picked up for a date, so he left me at a Home Depot instead. It took coming back to Bed-Stuy, being able to take a deep breath, and smoking a spliff outside to feel finally at home, calm. Like, I made this my home. Even being part of the Community Garden made me feel involved, part of something.”
I’ve always tried to be a pretty competent observer in whatever setting I find myself in, also being attracted to things people leave behind or lose on the street. However, my interest usually stays in the possible story behind what led to that moment or where the players of that scene may be, and my time with the object ends at best with documentation. Its reality becomes malleable in my thoughts. Clement sees things for both exactly what they are and their potential to be so much more. The distinct individuality of their shape and textures, the weathered skin of every surface. He proposes that he sees faces in everything, or does so instinctually, to make sense of more ambiguous forms, to make characters, neighbors, out of the objects that fill our space. This, next to the sculpture of Ife, is a driving force behind his Mask sculptures. “People see other peoples’ faces on a daily basis, but nine out of ten times, there’s no story to go with it. Similar to the disregarded object, they got stories and nobody to tell them. So, in a way, I make them to make up for stories not being told. Kinda like saying ‘what up’ to a homeless person, who may be happy that someone just acknowledged their presence. So, kinda shedding light through the personification of the object. Personifying the discarded object like, ‘hey, I see you, man.’
Here we acknowledge a truth in the power of Art and its vitality and generosity to a community outside of any market. I go home with a better understanding and appreciation of the gift I had been given to be able to receive this knowledge and to plant this artwork and to help grow, as opposed to collect, or document, the object-concept of its potential and its possibility. The proposal and stasis of beauty are comforting and subject to the intention of who holds it and far from the pained self-responsibility and effort necessary to nurture a future reality. As gardeners, we’re tilling the soil rather than watering the wilting majesty of single-cut flowers. Kandis’ work is in education, about understanding our present through a defogging of history. The seeds of hard truths bloom toward the sun of a better future and honor the power and resilience of nature and an oppressed people. Clement’s work is sore-armed labor that constructs and fosters dreams into possibility. As crucial as dreams are to hope, something needs time, attention, and light to truly grow. We, as they have, should be more attentive to the present we find ourselves and our neighbors in. And righteously, with every small action we make, word we say, picture we paint, tend to the perpetual garden that is reality and help it blossom to its highest, most colorful, limitless aspiration.
For more information on Clement Oladipo visit https://www.clementoladipo.com and follow them on Instagram at @clemadipo or @bedstuygardenguy
For more information on Kandis Williams and A Field visit https://icavcu.org/exhibitions/kandis-williams-a-field and follow them on Instagram @kandis_williams
COREY DURBIN is an Artist and Writer from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, living and working in Brooklyn, NY.