In early May 2019, Alexandria’s Office of the Arts named Olalekan Jeyifous as the next artist to be featured in the Site See: New Views in Old Town series at Waterfront Park for the 2020 spring season.
The Brooklyn-based artist is known for his larger-than-life structure featured at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2017 and other city-inspired creations throughout the United States that were inspired by his architecture degree from Cornell University.
He has visited Alexandria with eyes wide open to get a taste of its culture, history and interaction with its own identity, and is continuing to do research through the summer before his proposed design will be submitted this fall.
We spoke with the artist as he continues his brainstorming process to discuss what he hopes the art will encompass and how his own perspective will transform its narrative, but not define it. Highlights from our conversation are below.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What made you get into art?
When I attended school for architecture at Cornell University I really loved the studio environment. Our education was structured in that we were given various projects with particular narratives to explore. I liked the immediacy of seeing my ideas come to life very quickly and I just really liked the idea that I could make an artistic career out of creating kind of fictional and speculative architectural projects that could address a variety of contemporary issues. So, there’s this conceptual narrative that I am creating in order to create visual art with meaning that reflect things that interest me, including science fiction. Whether, for me, that’s issues around gentrification, housing discrepancy, housing design or urban planning, science fiction inherently tackles contemporary issues in a very fascinating way by taking a problem and projecting it into the future, either solving it or making it worse, and the fantastical and speculative ties in by playing around with various issues and looking at them in certain ways.
What has your experience with Alexandria been like so far?
So far I’ve done one site visit where I visited the artwork’s future site (Waterfront Park), did a little bit of a walking tour around the neighborhood, visited the Torpedo Factory Art Center and the Freedom House Museum. When I had the sit-down presentation with various folks from different departments and aspects of Alexandria’s history, I got some interesting things to consider, such as the city’s social history, merchant history, architectural history and just some different ways of looking at things. There seems to be a very strong Southern legacy and there’s the huge history of the slave trade. After getting a crash course about the city’s history, I want to identify certain things, celebrate certain things and commemorate certain aspects.
Do you think the city’s history in the slave trade will play into your piece?
The Franklin and Armfield Slave Pen is so enormous and impactful, but it almost seems quaint. It’s a juxtaposition of sorts. (According to the city’s website, Alexandria was home to Franklin and Armfield Slave Pen, and prior to the Civil War as one of the largest slave trading companies in the country). And it’s always interesting because being a black artist you always feel it, right? On one hand, you just want to make art sometimes because it is fun and you want to make something pretty or exciting. But then on the other hand, there’s always that sense of responsibility. That’s something I don’t tend to burden myself with, but just for Alexandria, it’s hard to avoid because the history is just so enormous. It would seem ridiculous to ignore it entirely.
Do you have any current ideas on what the piece will look like?
Well, there could be multiple things. I want it to be compelling, attractive and to draw you in visually, and I like the idea of having multiple readings through the audience’s interpretation. I want something that might look benign and fun, but then if you know a little more about the history, you can get a sense of what it’s addressing further. I would like to leave certain things open for interpretation so people can experience it over and over in different ways.