Meet the artist: Carmen Okome

Following her feature for the Black History Month edition of In the Middle, we caught up with student and artist Carmen Okome about ongoing processes and projects.

Hi Carmen! You’re a fine art student – how did you know you wanted to study that? Have you always been into art?

In reality, I think I have been on the art train in terms of academic study since day one. Every art-related after–school activity, award or course I had access to, I did. When I hit A-Levels, I was choosing my courses and making ‘serious decisions’; I decided I would follow art as, like, my fun course to keep sane during A-Levels. I think that A-Level art ended up being the only thing I devoted my energy and time to with joy and not resignation. So, about half-way through my first year of sixth form, it became clear that this was it. There was no other avenue of study that I had found that allows for almost all forms of creativity and gives you the freedom to self-determine as a Fine Art course does.

Photography isn’t your usual medium, right? What is your favourite?

I am a photographer in terms of the sum of my artistic practice but to get to a photograph or photoshoot is a journey. So I self-identify my practice as research-led. That research could be through trying ideas out in painting, sculpture, performance, critical writing and theoretical study to find or create the composition of what becomes a photoshoot or photography. So now, for the sake of simplicity, I am a photographer, but my portfolio includes sculptures, paintings and drawings, all of which were made on the way to a photoshoot.

Could you tell me a bit more about the setup and idea behind the photo on the ITM back cover?

The work came from finding a community and strong network of other Black students, specifically Black female students, in the second year of my BA. That community provided a moment of connection you don’t get when you are the Black person on a white course. So, the work is a snapshot of performance where I invited my friends to sit with me and just talk about being a Black woman. The performance would start with me sitting them in front of a mirror and asking what you see. I wanted to dig a bit deeper than the surface level monolith of a Black woman and highlight the plurality of titles, labels, nicknames or names that any persons can identify with. Specifically, how the label of Blackness overshadows the pluralities of being a person and also what being Black felt like then.

Where do you get the inspiration for your art from?
Surprisingly, a very confusing and tumultuous relationship with Beyoncé recently. Not personally, but from my experience, I can never decide if she is a good representation for Black women or not. I respect her work and her careers, but I have many issues with her politically- I think she initially encapsulates the weird capitalism in the representation of minorities. She is very much in the business of appealing to ‘the Black community’, so giving
her a good look over now and again usually presents some controversy to work out through my artwork. If not Beyoncé, it’s the people around me, and whatever media I am currently obsessed with. For example, 2 years ago I was obsessed with Gucci Mane’s Mr. Davis album artwork for like 6 months, I just kept picking it apart for inspiration.

I’m always curious with artists about how much of their work is spontaneity and how much is meticulously planned before a piece is produced – where do you think you fall on that spectrum?

I think I am spontaneous, but I am not. I am just someone who looks at a lot of points of reference and pulls it together in one idea unconsciously. Once any piece is finished, I can see where I got it from, but I can’t see the direction the work is going in while I make it. So, by definition of being research-led, I land more planned than spontaneous.

I’d imagine your course and department of uni was hit pretty hard this year with lockdown etc., in terms of studio space and exhibitions – how has adapting to that been?

Honestly, I think we are at that point of “It’s fine”. We are in the studio for a week every three weeks and get access to facilities at the same rate. So it sucks but, honestly, everyone is just trying to make do at this point. The social-distancing and travel restrictions create the irritating reality where you just can’t have exhibitions in the same way but, like anything, there is
an incentive to make it work, so there is a lot of trial and error going on.

Your art was part of our Black History Month issue – what Black artists are you loving at the moment?

Julius Eastman is an amazing ethereal composer who tragically died way too under-appreciated. Toyin Ojih Odutola- I went recently to see their work in the Barbican, which is still on. There are amazing drawings of this linear story they created about a Yoruba society lead by women with indentured men, with a prohibition of heterosexual relationships. I highly recommend both.

Where would you like to take your art next?

I have a lot in the works right now, all about exhibiting and doing public-facing work. The two central one’s being a Decolonisation project coming out in January in partnership with FAHACS about how to make a sustained student-led change towards Decolonisae Leeds Arts education. The second is a project creating a time capsule of the feelings in my network and community of POC people about BLM and SARS. The piece will focus on how we feel and what we think as a community, giving my community room to talk about it together and reflect.

All featured images via Carmen Okome.

You can check out Carmen’s work here.