To craft powerful and controversial political messages and statements, artist Eto Otitigbe combines two of his passions – art and engineering. One of his latest subjects is the Confederate flag that flies outside the S.C. State House.
By Sarah Martin
April 30, 2015
Activist artist Eto Otitigbe sought to make a powerful statement about social justice and politics by sprawling out on the pavement with his neck pinched under a larger-than-life copper mousetrap.
So when Otitigbe, who focuses on expressing political thought through engineered designs, sees the Confederate flag flying in front of the S.C. State House, the artist in residence at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art sees an opportunity for expression, defiance – and art.
“While I explore my curiosities, I find ways to generate dialogue about race and politics, because I think there is a lot of disparity in how people are treated,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll result in any large scale change or anything like that, other than perhaps through personal connections with people I speak to.”
“The people that I respect most in life right now, that I feel proud to know, are the artists who are taking risks,” Otitigbe says. “They’re not taking risks for money or fame, they’re taking them because they’re really passionate about what they believe in.”
That passion came through to USC art history professor Peter Chametzky at the recent open rehearsal for “Ruptured Silence.” Chametzky said he saw a strong statement against the flag’s intimidation.
“He has a lot of technical knowledge and skill, and that combines with his social engagement to produce very compelling work,” Chametzky said.
Otitigbe says that captivation is what he hopes to craft through his art activism.
About that mousetrap? Otitigbe called it “Victory! Welcome to the Sidewalk Sucka …” and put his head under the copper spring as the sculpture sat in the middle of a busy, dirty street. The sculpture’s name plays off the Victor brand of mouse traps, and Otitigbe, on his website, has adapted one of Victor’s instruction sheets for his “How to use Victory!”
Otitigbe, 37, was born in Buffalo, New York. His parents were from Nigeria, and, according to his biography, he has lived in the United Kingdom, Puerto Rico and across the U.S. He has held several artistic residencies in New York, San Francisco, Baltimore and St. Louis.
He says his passion about engineering and design dates to childhood.
“I was inspired by the desire to invent and take things apart and see how they worked, and I’d put them back together again as something else,” he said.
(Listen to Eto Otitigbe share what kinds of things inspire him, including artists he believes are truly committed to their work.)
He earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999 and a master’s in product design from Stanford University four years later. He also holds a master’s in fine art from the Transart Institute in the U.K.
“The perspective of technology and science and engineering and problem-solving is definitely evident in a lot of my work and the way I approach my creative practice,” Otitigbe says. “That’s not to say my work is about technology, but I think it uses it.”
Lexi Cirillo, a sophomore biomedical engineering student at USC, said after viewing his political works that she was inspired by the way Otitigbe was both logical and creative in his art activism.
“The best engineers use both sides of the brain to do the unthinkable,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me that he also makes art because engineers are artists themselves, with biological systems or materials or industrial structures.”
Otitigbe says there was no transition from engineering to art. “I’ve always just done it; I’ve always been an artist,” he says, whether it was copying characters from comic books and making dirt sculptures or, later, moving into portraits.
Otitigbe says he found “a safe haven” from the pressures of MIT in the school’s Student Art Association and its director, Edward McCluney, who “gave me an understanding of what it’s like to take out space and time for yourself to be an artist.”
He points to “Looping Back” on New York’s Randall’s Island as combining his passions for art and science. The sculpture of poplar shingles on a plywood frame forms a 20-foot loop that people can sit on and was born from studying the history and use of the area.
“I thought, ‘What if I made a concrete pillar that was like a tree?’ So I started researching different engineering materials that could have an organic look but an engineered aesthetic as well,” Otitigbe said. “I research into different fields to generate my ideas.”
In “Ruptured Silence” he says he was able to use those materials to create new works, like a blue, oversized puzzle piece on the floor. He also projected images onto a screen during the dance performance.
Otitigbe said he had worked with Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis over the past few years and that they introduced him to the board members of 701 CCA last fall, eventually leading to his current residency after he completed one at USC.
Another USC art history professor, Andrew Graciano, said artistic activists explore political and social issues because “art will always be connected to culture in some way.”
Otitigbe says that instead of the flag he could see a permanent balloon flying in front of the State House, with video projections by different artists each month.
“But I’d have to go through my whole research process again and figure something out,” he says, laughing.