Nigerian-American Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde teaches at New York University’s ITP program, as well as at Parsons School of Design in New York. His work spans the gamut including, painting, speculative design, physically interactive works, wearable technology and explorations of Afro-futurism.
We sat down to discuss his latest projects:
What’s new on your radar?
I've been thinking about the idea of the American dream and how it affects immigrant populations. Even Nigeria, you hear people say, “Oh, God's own country,” talking about America. So what does it mean to come here?
There is this idea that if you could come here, you have some sort of money. You must be rich as soon as you get here. I wanted to make that contrast of wealth of America and then the tragedy of the American dream and how the two could be represented in the fabric of some sort of record.
Is it just a pure fabric? Any electronic components?
No, there are no electronic components. This is one of things that I tell my students and I try to live by... Just because you know how to puts electronic into things doesn't mean you should.
It [my piece] works perfect. It says exactly what I wanted to say. So there was no need for more. The tailor even said that, you know, it's sad when you look at this. The tailor got that.
It embodies everything in that it moves you straight into the concept and into the idea. You totally understand what the piece is about. So because of that, there was no need to embellish it with anything else.
So speaking about your creative technology, how did you get into this work?
My sister was teaching me how to knit. I forget how old I was. My father saw that, and didn't like that. So he gave me a battery and a light bulb, and showed me how to light it up, because he's an engineer.
I wanted to be an engineer early, really, because I wanted to be like my father. Then I started out in engineering in college, and then I realized that didn’t really like that. So I switched to fine arts and painting. I studied painting and philosophy. And then when I got to graduate school, I decided I wanted to pick back up on the engineering part that I really loved that I that I sort of left.
I always kept these books about building calculators from from logic gates that I created myself. Then I was just trying to build everything from scratch taking things apart, and rebuilding them. And I wanted a way to sort of use technology and art together. So that's why I applied to Parsons.
So what would you say is your personal design process?
It's really about collaboration. When I say collaboration, it's not in the sense that I'm collaborating with people per se, but the sense that everything that I could learn is from collaboration.
When I think about teaching, I actually think about it as if I'm collaborating with the students to learn more, or when I think about collaborating with people I'm thinking that we are putting our brains together to learn more.
When I think about issues of diversity, and think about the way that I think and the way that somebody else thinks…, combining that is sort of a collaborative process for us to learn more.
I've been thinking a lot about my background as a Nigerian where I grew up an what I've learned. How I have a different culture; a different epistemology; different cosmology, and ways of knowing how the world changes informs one’s own ecology.
So in a sense, I argue that because of the way I think about the universe. The objects that I make are sort of reflection of that.
So if one then thinks about institutions that have a particular way of thinking or irregular output, it's because of the of the culture of the institution because of the epistemology of the institution.
How does how does one challenge that?
If you think about ideas of machine learning and a lot of the outputs that are coming out of machine learning... That [model] may not be considered right about me, and may misrepresent people of color. It's a function of the system.
So the question is how to use different ways of thinking, different ways of understanding the world to have people in systems that embody those different ways of thinking that work together, that could then produce works that would shift, you know, the output of some of these systems.
How does this flow into your work as a professor?
The question then becomes, "How do I take Yoruba cosmology and apply it to my work, which is also teaching? How do I teach about cosmology in a system that is based on this sort of Western epistemology?"
So I've been creating classes that take just a little bit at a time. So a class I created was called New Mythologies that looks at the formation of myths on new technologies. We looked at Yoruba mythology, and we sort of applied that to design.
The one that I'm teaching here [at NYU], ‘Prototyping the Margins’ of sort of looking at how you you look at the margins of society and taking a look at marginalized communities. You ask yourself, “What are the outputs that they have? And how could we take those outputs and create products from that as a way to teach about the present?