Odera Igbokwe's New Yams Festival reimagines traditions, recentres joy

Artist Odera Igbokwe’s exhibition New Yams Festival, part of the Queer Arts Festival, reimagines the New Yam Festival celebrated by the Igbo people in Nigeria. Celebration and joy for Queer and Black people are common themes in this series of colourful portraits, which was on display at the SUM gallery from June 22–July 28.

Igbokwe’s works have previously been exhibited in and outside Vancouver, including at the Museum of Anthropology. With this particular exhibition, Igbokwe wanted to create their ideal New Yams Festival, that includes and celebrates Queerness where it traditionally has been repressed.

“I think I should serve myself as my main client first,” said Igbokwe. “In doing that, I will be serving the rest of my community who is closest to me in proximity, like other Queer Africans, other Queer Black people, other Queer people of colour and other Queer people of any identity.”

The exhibition’s five works feature one or two Black central figures that are life-sized or even larger — some of the figures have a mix of physical attributes associated with traditional femininity or masculinity. Even when portrayed to be facing the viewer, the subjects do not appear to care about their audience; they simply exist, surrounded by bright colours seemingly flowing from their bodies.

Free-flowing celebration and joy inspired Igbokwe’s practice in creating these works. They consider art that centres improvisation and playfulness crucial for their community.

“It was important to me to capture that feeling of ease and pleasure, which is something I feel like Queer people during pride really need to experience, as well as the protest aspect,” said Igbokwe.

They found that it was important to include the concept of pleasure in their work about Black people, not just resilience and conflict. Drawing on Afrofuturism, their work visualizes joyful futures for Queer BIPOC, bringing it beyond science fiction.

Igbokwe’s definition of Afrofuturism includes “envisioning any type of future, whether that's tech or sci-fi, but moving away from that tradition. It’s more about connecting to your roots, and thinking about a right to human pleasure and feeding yourself spiritually.”

There is something magical and dreamlike about their work. In “Mmamwu Mothering,” the large central figure holds a moonlike face in their arms above dancers, and in "Handsfree Futurity (Dripping from the Arkestra)" a spiked sphere is placed like a crown.

At its core, the exhibition explores creating inclusive traditions and celebrations. It’s hard not to smile at the vibrant colour and fun in each painting.