Yétundé Olagbaju is an artist and maker, currently residing in Oakland, CA. They utilize video, sculpture, action, gesture, and performance as through-lines for inquiries regarding Black labor, legacy and processes of healing. They are rooted in the need to understand history, the people that made it, the myths surrounding them and how their own body is implicated in history’s timeline.
A woman from Kentucky makes 10,000 or more pancakes for thousands of visitors for a popular pancake mix company. An enslaved rice laborer digs 780 miles of canals for rice cultivation in South Carolina; many of which are still intact today. A Khoikhoi woman’s body is posthumously cast in plaster, preserved in jars, and displayed for millions to see in Paris and London.
Recorded accounts and research help us to know that these stories are indeed based in fact, and yet they often read as myth. How did they do this work? How does a human body feel while hosting and entertaining millions of people, while making 10,000 pancakes? How can labor still be conducted after death?
And finally, how do these records transform from recollection, to myth, to archetype, to effigy?
With myths in hand, I excavate, investigate, and canonize the lives lived and the labor conducted by these Black people. In my work, this often manifests in reenactment of the unseen labor, experiments in erasure, and rituals to transmute any harm inflicted.
I achieve this endeavor by employing color, photography, myth building, detritus, my body, plaster, clay, time-based media, and imagined landscapes.
A few years ago, I decided to research the first “Mammy” I could remember, which was Aunt Jemima. Her smiling face and cheerful demeanor left an indelible mark in my memory. I found the story of Nancy Green-a formerly enslaved woman who would go on to be the first brand ambassador for Aunt Jemima Pancakes. In 1893 at the World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago it was rumored she made upwards of 10,000 pancakes for visitors. While she flipped pancakes, she sang songs, told stories, and danced. Later that year, Aunt Jemima Co. would go on to sell 50,000 units of product, with Nancy Green’s face on every box. Nancy Green’s face would go on to become an icon that is inextricably linked to the American household and the Western collective consciousness. Green’s family would later file a lawsuit against Quaker Oats (the current owner of Aunt Jemima) to compensate for her and others like her 33 years of labor and continued use of her likeness. The case would later be dismissed.
As I read this story I wondered: what would a monument to her labor look like? Could a static sculptural object encompass the weight of her myth? How could I reference her work and the deep impact of her labor? I made my piece 10,000 Seconds for Nancy Green, a large 400 pound sculpture made of plaster, flour, baking powder, and repurposed aprons, to begin that work.
Through this piece, I honored Nancy and her labor through slow and soft destruction. For 10,000 seconds I shaved down the large plaster monument I built up. With rake, sand paper, and chisel, I scratched away at my sisyphean metaphor for White Supremacy. This action of shaving lent itself to a revealing and visibilizing of Nancy’s labor and body.
This illumination through sculpture, action, gesture, and performance is the foundation of my practice.
My practice is upheld by the desire to understand how facts can straddle the line between labor and lore. These bits of myth can flatten the complexities of hard work and as such collapse time completely. But it is also about how, in that collapse, new narratives can emerge, new ways of coping can form, and a better understanding of self can arise. And, through this process, a kind of catharsis can arise.