Qudus Onikeku is never in just one place. Even with his body seated in one time zone, his face framed in a Zoom window, Onikeku’s mind often appears to be moving a couple steps beyond the Earth: a restless brain, always churning, satelliting, observing at interstellar angles, reconceptualizing the planet. He thinks on a constellationary scale—calibrating his satellite’s-eye view to both critique and seek access points for connection—and he catalyzes motion across the systems, the cultures, the institutions through which he moves.
“I became an artist at the borders of different cultures and different nations. I understood what it means to be in motion … and I understood what it means to develop a pedagogy of the migrants—where nothing is stable, where nothing is fixed, and nothing is stagnant. It is always in motion,” Onikeku says.
Dancer, acrobat, technologist, teacher, researcher, choreographer, curator: Onikeku is a self-described multimodal artist, community organizer, and social engineer who has toured and participated in festivals and major exhibitions across more than 55 countries. This summer, he completed a cycle that began in 2019 as the inaugural Maker in Residence at the Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship (CAME) at the University of Florida College of the Arts (COTA).
“I'm an engineer and a musician—meaning that there is a very clear space and order to the way I look at certain things,” says CAME director, Oṣubi Craig. “But it’s like Q is sitting on another planet, looking back at the thing, being like, ‘no, if you just think about it this way…’”
“That kind of energy is infectious inside of the organism that is CAME. It is infectious in the conversations that happen with other faculty members about the research and projects they’re working on … Having someone like Qudus at the nucleus—in the work of sharing ideas and momentum—has been really important, because things blossom into impact-and-effect based on what is happening in those conversations,” Craig says.
CAME and its Maker in Residence program were developed by COTA Dean, Onye Ozuzu, and former Associate Dean of Research, Anthony Kolenic, in response to Provost Glover’s 2018 call for “moonshot” ideas. Their development coincided with the university’s Faculty 500 initiative.
“When we think about artists who are working in diaspora, there is something valuable about what happens in the margins of capitalist contexts—where the cauldron of necessity and scarcity interacts with depth of culture that just happens to be different than what is mainstream, providing the opportunity to generate something new and different,” Ozuzu says.
"We chose the word ‘maker’ on purpose—as opposed to artist—because it could be an administrator. It could be a curator. It could be an educator ... somebody who is building a school … We don't know what it is! But the idea is that this is a human who is making in the context of a diaspora community; who might be playing by very different rules—or even making up new rules for how to generate value within, and in collaboration with, and along and across a cultural diaspora. We wanted to leave it as open as possible for that individual, their work, and the community they represent to come in and let us know what [the Maker in Residence] could or should be,” she adds.
In summer of 2018, while she was concluding four years as Dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Columbia College in Chicago, and following several years of engaging in online discourse with Onikeku, Ozuzu returned to Lagos for her second year, bringing several Chicago artists and students with her to attend the second danceGATHERING hosted by the QDance Center, which Onikeku co-directs with his partner, Hajarat Alli.
“Many of us are just a couple of generations removed from continental Africa. We were working in very different disciplines—film, design, architecture, dance. But there was this sort of ‘whoa!’ recognition of conceptual frameworks and certain types of positionality or stances; certain types of orientation toward reality. The way we were addressing contemporary conversations around technology and politics resonated in ways I hadn't experienced before in my identity as an African American artist,” Ozuzu says of danceGATHERING.
Months after the 2018 danceGATHERING, ideas instigated in Lagos inspired elements of the UF Moonshot proposal for a Maker in Residence program when Ozuzu, newly seated as COTA’s Dean, and Kolenic, penned the proposal.
“The intent was to experiment with our own value systems, as people working within dominant systems, and what it looks like to put world views and systems of value in conversation with each other. We needed to make sure that it was always lifting up the edges of what's coming, and carries with it the long histories of intersection, intersecting diasporic artistic practices, gestures, and concepts of value,” Kolenic says.
“The whole point is that the people across the diaspora who generate should be the ones who get to determine what value means,” he adds.
Onikeku’s residency as CAME’s inaugural Maker began in Summer/Fall 2019. Although the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic presented unexpected challenges through 2020 and 2021, taking a telescopic overview of the approximately four years of his residency brings into focus an outstanding array of research and creative output that dots locales across the globe, from Gainesville, Fla. to Lagos, Nigeria, and dozens of international stops between the two.
One highlight is Re:INCARNATION (2021), a dance piece that pays homage to the complex tapestry of Nigerian Afrobeats music, dance, and urban youth cultures, Yorùbá philosophy, and African aesthetics.
Re:INCARNATION features a ten-person cast of prominent Nigerian dancers—world-class emerging artists and thought leaders in their own right—who are members of the communal network developed by QDance Center. Through a series of pandemic pivoting, Re:INCARNATION made its world premiere at the Centre Pompidou, followed by New York Live Arts, to virtual audiences in 2021 before making its U.S. premiere in its intended live format at PS21 Chatham, New York, in 2022. Re:INCARNATION heads to the Romaeuropa Festival stage in November 2023.
Visit this New York Times article, ‘You Are the Show’: A Hudson Valley Outpost of the Avant-Garde to delve deeper into Re:INCARNATION as presented at PS21 Chatham.
Onikeku’s newest creation, Out of this World, a heavily audience-interactive work that, in this instance, is part performance and part installation, premieres at the Centre Pompidou in June 2023. The installation aspect is a new software that Onikeku calls “Oraqu,” its framework and mechanics built on the Ifá divination system of the Yorùbá people.
The Oraqu is installed in a circle, its circumference delineated by 16 totems, each adorned with beadwork representing a different orisha (Yorùbá spiritual deity). Each totem is equipped with digital touchscreens that allow the audience to access a curated audio database via the user’s haptic interactions (accomplished by drawing patterns on 16 digital cowrie shells depicted on the touchscreens) with the Oraqu. The patterns drawn recreate the traditional Ifá divination chain, based on a numeric 16x16 binary system, that is traditionally read by a Babalawo (Ifá diviner/priest) based on the resulting pattern when the chain is thrown.
When patterns are traced onto the touchscreen cowrie shells, the Oraqu acts as diviner, selecting from a sonic archive curated by Onikeku that consists of spoken philosophies and spirituality, speeches from scientists like Stephen Hawking and Joy Buolamwini, science fiction authors, mythology, oral histories, and music and soundscapes by contemporary artists commissioned to create pieces for the Oraqu.
Presented in combination, the performance Out of This World and its accompanying app, Oraqu, invites the audience for collective listening, meditation, and action in an interactive concert that Onikeku describes as “a portal to the other world.” Onikeku outlines the setup for the Out of This World premiere at Centre de Pompidou as follows:
"From 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., people can come [to The Oraqu]. They can draw patterns and listen—I call it ‘collective listening as collective action.’ We then have a [one-hour] break, where we rearrange the space, and we bring in four different musicians. One from India, one from Nigeria, one from Greenland, and one from Morocco—two male, two female—and we re-invite the audience for a moment of gathering; for another two-hour session that we call ‘the archaeology of the present,’” Onikeku says.
“The goal of the Oraqu app is to create a project that not merely brings Yorùbá culture to contemporary consciousness, but also helps to render Yorùbá indigenous culture more visible through a technological lens, to cease to see it as a series of incomprehensible ancient traditions, and to re-present its appropriated epistemology as a fundamental part of our modern structures,” Onikeku says.
As his Maker in Residency draws to a close, In the Loop sat down with Onikeku to reflect on the journey—and what happens next in the partnerships and the research he generated at UF COTA.
Q&A with Qudus Onikeku
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Loop: Can you talk about your background and the work you were doing in the years leading up to your Maker residency at the UF Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship?
Onikeku: My name is Qudus Onikeku, and I am an artist. I am also involved in social engineering work, community organizing, curating, and performing. A lot of the things I do are based on my own interest in bringing about a world that has a space for creative people to participate in some of the most challenging questions of our time.
Loop: You did your circus training at the French National Centre for Circus Arts and launched your first dance company, YK Projects, in Paris before returning to Nigeria. Can you speak to that?
Onikeku: I moved back to Nigeria in 2014, after having an interesting career as an artist in France, because I was feeling this kind of standstill. We were producing and touring in a kettle, where we were not participating in the most striking, important questions of our time. I feel like we were just dancing around them, and not even realizing how much we were also participating in a bureaucratic technology—which is [defined] by racism, by inequality, by access, by acceleration, by burnout … I wanted to step out of that machinery.
In France, the Minister of Culture is at the top of the pyramid, and everything lines up, with artists at the very bottom of the pyramid. [The top] is deciding, bureaucratically: ‘what should we be funding this year? What kind of work should we be interested in?’ and national interests are placed above the artist.
Nigeria is interesting terrain because it is very unlike France. There are no theaters; there are no festivals. There are no audiences. There is no funding. There is nothing—but, yet: the level of creativity and innovation in France is so low compared to what was happening in Nigeria. I knew that I wanted to be in that pool. I wanted to be part of the creative landscape where things are really being done because they're being done out of necessity—not because they're following some funding.
Loop: You launched the QDance Center with your partner and QDance Executive Director, Hajarat Alli, when you returned to Lagos. I believe that’s how you met UF College of the Arts Dean, Onye Ozuzu. Can you say more about that?
Onikeku: When we started the QDance Center, even we didn't know what it means to have a dance center! We started to investigate and engage by trial-and-error. I call it ‘entrepreneurial improvisation.’ Let's improvise our way through it. Let's try things. If it works, we do it again. We build on it. If it doesn't work, we learn from the failure and we do something else.
Loop: So, QDance Center is like a research laboratory…
Onikeku: It is absolutely a laboratory … because I realized that this whole idea of ‘work in progress’ is something we are often denied as creatives. Look at SpaceX, or NASA, or cancer research. So much funding goes to cancer research, but there is no cure for cancer. I feel like artists are the only ones who are pressurized to produce something in a matter of a short time. But even Elon Musk has said that without the science fiction writers he was reading, there’s no way he would have done half of what he's doing now.
Artists have always been ahead of the scientists because we are the visionaries. We call it ‘prophetic vision’ of what the world is because we can sense it in our bodies and in our sensibilities.
So, I'm saying, now: where are we, as artists in the 21st century? What is our role—aside from being entertainers, content providers, and image laundry for billionaires, sponsors, and governments? … For me, the experiments [at QDance Center] were just to see: how can an artist do all of this work and still figure out their freedom?
Loop: What kind of experiments?
Onikeku: Most of our activities were actually decentralized. Really, we were using social media as the ‘center’ of QDance Center as early as 2014.
Loop: Wow, that is early for using social media as a virtual gathering space.
Onikeku: We started getting attention and people writing to us from all over the world: from the U.S., from France, from Germany. And that was when I was like, ‘okay, what I’m experiencing and what I'm trying to achieve—I think I’m not the only one. I think a lot of people are beginning to feel that malaise; that sense of unease with the system.’
So, I said: what if we organize a yearly, two-week gathering that is not completely defined … It's not a festival. It's not a conference. It's not a retreat … Let's come together in what we call an ‘anti-disciplinary gathering’ and let's rehearse the future together.
We call it ‘danceGATHERING’—but we're not only interested in dances. We're interested in all sorts of creative thinkers and misfits who feel this unease with our time. Instead of calling it an ‘international network,’ we actually call it an ‘intercommunal network.’ The idea was: what you're doing with your community and what you do with your community [Onikeku gestures with hands to represent two separate communities]—let's start to exchange. Let's start to share notes. Let’s start to share practices.
In 2017, the very first edition of danceGATHERING, I invited Onye Ozuzu, who I had met on Facebook. The conversation that started in Lagos, among this small group of thinkers and creatives who are thinking of alternative spaces and alternative visions for the future of creativity and art—that is what brought me into the cohort [at UF CAME]. It was why I applied [for the Maker in Residence].
Loop: Coming back to the ‘work in progress’ idea—this concept of a ‘Maker in Residence’ is pretty ‘outside the box’ for a public research institution in the U.S. Can you talk about how the Maker in Residence differs from a more traditional artist residency, where the expectation is often an end product—like ‘the sculptor sculpts a sculpture’ or ‘the choreographer devises a dance’?
Onikeku: I applied for the residency because I understood what the UF Moonshot was all about … but if I was being told that there was going to be a very strict and precise deliverable, I wouldn't come, because I felt like that is the order of the previous world.
It was clear to me that what [CAME] wanted to create was a sanctuary. That is: we have identified an artist, or a thinker or a maker who is doing an enormous amount of work within their locality, and we want to create a space where he, she, or they can be embraced.
One of the things that it means to be an artist is that you have a restless mind. You wake up at 3 a.m. because your mind would not allow you to sleep, because you are burdened by the collective will for a better world … because the reality of climate change is not something you think about—it’s something you feel within your body. And that burdens you.
I felt like that was what the whole idea of ‘Maker in Residence’ was investing in: everything that comes out of the mind of this restless individual is part of the outcome of the Maker in Residence.
The outcome [of my 2019-2023 residency] is creating a new work in Lagos called Re:INCARNATION, which is being toured all over the world at the moment. It is coming up with this new software in my new work, titled Out of This World, which premieres in Paris in June 2023. It is coming up with Atunda—a research project that we are still working on, and will be in the years to come. It is mentoring artists, not only in Nigeria, but also [elsewhere] in Africa, in Europe, and here in America. It is inspiring the artists who have passed through UF, who are now graduates … All these things are what I consider to be part of the outcome.
But I don't want [my residency] to be reduced to a ‘product.’ I am already a product of this world, of this society, that ‘Moonshot’ ideas like CAME were thinking about. I am the product, actually. [Onikeku laughs].
I think it's our own responsibility to pay enough attention and know how to capture the value. We think in transformational value. We think in human value. We think, ‘how important is this to the human people we are working with?’ That's our matrix.
Loop: Your residency at CAME started not long before the pandemic hit. Of course, no one could predict COVID-19, so there was an added layer of complexity, due to global travel restrictions, through much of the duration of your residency. As you said, you created Re:INCARNATION in Lagos, largely during lockdown. Not to mention, there’s no existing model for a residency like this. You’re the first! So, what aspects of this inaugural Maker in Residency do you feel were successful? What was not?
Onikeku: Has it been an interesting journey? Yes, an amazingly interesting journey. So, I will speak from the point of view of ‘interesting’ and ‘not interesting’—not ‘success’ or ‘failure.’
I would speak from the point of view of: ‘Have you met some really amazing people that inspire you; that you also get to inspire?’ Oh, absolutely, yes! ‘Have you really made an effort to understand the problematics of this place, and also participate in conversation with people who are actually doing active work on the ground?’ Yes, I have.
My logic is this: the visitor is also the visited. Because, as you're visiting—the people you are visiting are also visiting you in return. So I am not just a ‘visiting artist,’ no. It’s a two-way thing. I'm also learning, and I'm also being changed by that experience of being here. And wherever I go next, there is no doubt I will carry that [experience as] baggage with me.
Loop: Thinking about your backstory: leaving funding in France to choose the ‘orphan artist’ [lack of] patronage model Nigeria and launching QDance Center, and then coming to a Maker in Residence program that’s seated in a State university in the U.S.—in Florida… How do you frame ‘value’ generation? In terms of ‘who creates value for whom’ between the artist and the institution? And does value-creation go both ways in that context?
Onikeku: I think if we really need to speak about value … it’s as simple as saying, ‘let’s all agree that the world that we all have inherited is inadequate’—that the commodification of human beings, of natural resources … is going to lead us to our own doom, collectively.
We have inherited a world that is thriving on injustices and inequality; that is thriving on one idea of progress, and one idea of temporality and epistemology and aesthetics and beauty and race … Some of us are saying, ‘what if the world was not designed this way?’ How do we redesign the world? Based on what? Based on what values? Based on what ideology?
I've always laughed when people say, ‘oh, in Florida, of all places…’ I say: where else do you think would have been more exciting? Why do you think artists in Nigeria are so productive and innovative? It's simply because of the tyranny under which they live. When artists live under this kind of condition, they are fired up. Their creative energy is fired up. They are happy to be in a space where they have something concrete to push against—and that is how their work gets substance!
If we look at our reality for what it is, especially in a country like [the United States of] America, we realize that at the base of it is still the ghost of slavery … As long as that continues to show up in the ways we set up our institutions, in the ways we set up our idea of ‘success’ and ‘not success,’ in the ways we design who is a ‘good artist’ and who is not a good artist, and in how we decide who should get the funding and who shouldn’t get the funding—as long as it continues to show up, then we continue to be a crop of artists, or thinkers, or makers, or scientists, or hackers who will continue to push against the anomalies around which we are framing everything.
So, the value, if you like, that artists bring is: to push against our value system and on our moral codes. The value is us asking: how can we re-code it? How can we create a different flow?
We try, as much as possible, to let the institution see the reality around our existence right now ... that the institution, itself, has a whole lot to lose. We are trying to protect the institution at the expense of its own disappearance. Because you're going to disappear if you don't listen. You're going to disappear if you don't realize that times are changing. Changeability is going to be a real challenge to the upholding of the university system as it is right now.
Loop: Let’s talk about a significant research project you initiated during your Maker Residence. The Center for Arts, Migration and Entrepreneurship and the Digital Worlds Institute recently received $440,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to continue working with you to develop your Atunda project.
Atunda, as I understand, was catalyzed by some really big questions for the social media age around equity and power-share that have been brought about, specifically, by TikTok. Young people are creating dance moves that go viral on TikTok, and then having those dance moves co-opted by corporations who use them in their ad campaigns, or in video games like ‘Fortnite,’ without cutting the creator of the dance in on the profit. It gets tricky because dance is considered the ‘last frontier’ of copyright law, meaning that a full choreography—say, the written notation of a ballet—can be copyrighted, but a dance move—say, Michael Jackson’s ‘Moonwalk’—cannot be copyrighted… so, these TikTok creators currently have no legal way to protect their dance moves as intellectual property.
Put very simply, Atunda is an AI-powered method for dancers to protect their IP by using motion-capture technology to record the dancer’s movement. The idea is to create a data repository where dancers can prove ‘I created that.’ Am I on the right track in understanding? And what happens in a few years when TikTok is replaced by the next opportunity to extract movement data as capital?
[Editor’s Note: to learn more about dance copyright, see: Literally Stealing the Show: A Brief (and Recent) History of Dance Copyright (2021, Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association.)]
Onikeku: To focus your attention on TikTok as the problem is undermining the tentacular aspect of the problem. The problem is braced by the culture of extractivism that has been laid as the base of Western economic development.
[In Western economic development] we extract from the land. We extract people from their land. We extract intellectual property from their owners. We extract the oil from the ground. So, it’s about penetration. We penetrate and we extract, we penetrate, and we extract. It’s very masculine. This masculine idea of talking about ‘value’ is what I've been pushing back at in all of this conversation that we've been having.
[Atunda is] against this whole notion of extracting data. So, for me—even though Atunda is an ‘AI project,’ it is actually a project that doesn't like AI. It’s deliberate that we are taking the tool … and then using it in the protection of those who are continuously being harmed by that tool.
The AI race already began long ago, before many of us even woke up to it. [AI has] already been hijacked, it’s completely colonized already—completely.
What I am trying to do with AI is say, ‘since you [AI] can do all of these amazing, crazy things in the world—how can we hijack you in the protection of the same people that have been completely molested by your emergence?’
Loop: Thanks so much for sharing your time and knowledge with us, Q. It’s really cool that you’re going to be working on Atunda with researchers here at UF, even after your Maker Residency concludes. Looking forward to following this project!
Learn more about Qudus Onikeku on his website.
The road ahead
Onikeku’s Maker in Residence at the UF Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship drew to a close this summer. Now, CAME is preparing to launch a search for its next Maker.
“The Maker in Residence is meant to create a space for someone that is innovating in a diaspora community to come to UF and have a spot for a significant chunk of time—and have access to the resources of the institution, as well as space in their assignment as a researcher, to deeply focus on and grow the work that they're doing in their community,” says Dean Onye Ozuzu.
“We want to see what the institution can offer to that type of generative work, and also, what the institution can learn from having a relationship with a Maker [in Residence]. We are grateful for what Qudus has taught us. We look forward to continuing to be networked with him and his work, and we look forward to what the next Maker will bring."
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