Print Artist, Jite Agbro, graced Bainbridge Island Museum of Art’s (BIMA) Frank Buxton stage on Sunday January 19 as part of activities surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Day. She was joined by Kristin Tollefson, BIMA’s Education Director. Instead of a typical lectern-style talk, Tollefson and Agbro had a conversation.
It’s a privilege because we get to have artists who are local, from the region, who are able to come and share with us in person their firsthand information about their work. A kind of pulling the curtain back on their process, their thinking.Kristin Tollefson
And that’s what they did. Just talked. Tollefson and Agbro met in 1995 through the Seattle Pratt Art Center, named after Edward T. Pratt, a Seattle Civil Rights activist assassinated in 1969. Their decades-old friendship brought an ease to their conversation. Audience members were invited to participate and what transpired was an inspired hour filled with insight, laughter, and a window into a talented artist’s mind. Currents was there to capture some excerpts from this dialogue. (Some quotes were condensed or rephrased for clarity).
KRISTIN TOLLEFSON: Tell me a little about yourself. Where were you born and where did you spend your childhood?
JITE AGBRO: My family’s from Nigeria, on my Dad’s side. On my Mom’s side, everyone’s from Chicago by way of Louisiana and we all ended up in Seattle somehow. I grew up in the Central District about 40 yards from the Pratt Fine Art Center. This District was kind of the only black neighborhood that existed at the time – with the South end being a little bit more mixed. I grew up there, but I spent my first two years of life in Nigeria.
KT: Pratt is a studio school. It used to be a park district facility and then it became a nonprofit. You got involved because there was a youth program.
JA: I was 9-years-old and I walked through this park [to catch the bus] – Pratt Park. The art center was situated at the edge of the park…. One day I passed it and saw a bunch of kids making stuff in a room – with someone who kinda looked like an adult helping them out. This “adult-like person” invited me in to make potato stamps. It was my introduction to printmaking. They were making stamps out of potatoes and I stayed there for an hour and a half.
KT: How did [your art practice] get started?
JA: After I went into Pratt that day, I was sorta hooked. I wanted to keep doing stuff like that. And I wanted to figure out a way to make it part of my life. There really weren’t any art classes at school, so I kept going to Pratt.
KT: Were there people who encouraged you to continue?
JA: The “adult-like person” I mentioned earlier was an artist named Romson Bustillo [an interdisciplinary artist working in mixed media, printmaking and space coding based in Seattle] who has also shown here in the Museum. He was the first one to encourage me to keep doing art. I say “adult-like” because he was only 21 at the time. I remember him encouraging me and telling me to keep coming back.
KT: How did your path continue after that?
JA: I went to art school — Cornish for a year then to California College of Arts for another year. [After making the decision to leave] I started working in systems design.
KT: How does that work [systems design] influence your work as an artist?
JA: I’m interested in systems. Every piece you see out there in the gallery is a reaction to a system. Or converging with a system. Most of the stories accompanying the pieces of art is me trying to capture what happens when you come head to head with a system. Especially when you’re living in it and you aren’t aware of it. The large piece in the window, Deserving, is a portrait piece. Every silhouette is taken from someone who crashed my wedding, which I loved.
We had this big wedding (a year and a half ago) in my father’s village – about 6 hours outside of Lagos. We had a list of 150 people and more than 200 people ended up being there, because we had food. I realized that the Nigerian wedding was not that much different from a wedding here – a Black wedding in the States. [They attend] and contribute to the party, making it better. I used those photos to make those silhouettes because I thought, ‘Here I am, so far from the place that I grew up but interacting with the same system of generosity that I grew up with.’ I thought it was a sweet parallel.
KT: I see evidence of systems both in the content of the work and in the way that you assemble it. I’m interested in how you actually build your work.
JA: The larger piece is made up a mixture of paper and fabric. The smaller pieces are just paper, treated to look like fabric. I’m kind of obsessed with industrialism. The Industrial Revolution, the wave of wealth and suffering that it brought. By creating artist work in a studio, you create your own industrial system.
In my studio I have a sewing machine, a little printing press. I go from point to point and assemble the piece together, just like an assembly line. When I do it in that context, for some reason, it’s creativity! The minute I’m in a canning factory…it’s oppressive. I’m interested in how America, the world, tries to reconcile that.
It’s industrious. It’s something I can make by hand and I want people to see that I made it by hand. And it’s not a drawing or painting. It’s a print. I’m literally stamping an image over and over and over again. It’s a way to replicate things.
KT: What do you most want people to see in your work. People are going to come to your work in their own ways but what would you like people to see?
JA: I want people to see the influence of the system. Because it’s the thing we’re in every day that we can’t really touch.. It’s that thing that sort of takes away our choice. There are moments when…we have to remember that we’re part of a larger system. And that we’re placed where we are because of this larger system. The systems that create these things are invisible but they’re always working. So, that’s the broad landscape of my work.
Jite Agbro: Deserving exhibit can be viewed at BIMA’s Beacon Gallery from now until February 23rd. Agbro is a Nigerian-American artist from Seattle whose heritage guides and influences her work. Her inspirations include the human form and everyday objects, using wearable accouterments such as clothing, textiles, and jewelry.