Ghanaian–Canadian Artist Ekow Nimako Builds Black Futures from Black Lego

EKOW NIMAKO FIRST DISCOVERED working with Lego evokes that his artistic aptitude as a four-year-old playing with Lego — early creative inklings that led to a lifetime of pursuits, from drawing comics to playing music to writing fiction. In 2007, as a first-year visual art student at York University, Nimako was set on becoming an artist but wasn’t yet sure of his practice. But a pivotal moment that year helped clarify his path: the release of Transformers, Michael Bay’s action sci-fi juggernaut about shapeshifting robots. Watching the heroic Autobots take on the evil Decepticons inspired Nimako to return to his favourite childhood hobby — playing with Lego — and use it in his art.

Nimako, now 42, has since established himself as one of Canada’s foremost artists and sculptors. His whimsical, architectural sculptures reference African folklore and mythologies, exploring Afrofuturism through a surrealist lens. Ni- mako has even been exhibited in museums and galleries from Toronto to Seoul. Here, Ni- mako shares how his experience of otherness has shaped his practice, how Transformers changed his life, and how he built a career out of Lego.

Anansi, 2021.

What are you working on right now?

There’s a solo exhibition I have in Saskatoon in the fall of 2022, so I’ve started with that show for “Building Black Civilizations: Journey of 2000 Ships”. My Civilization body of work is what I’m focused on, medieval African civilizations and reimagining them in a different future.

I love the interplay of using a humble material like Lego to such impactful creative ends. Where do your artistic impulses come from?

I had a lot of fond memories of playing Lego with my best friend [while growing up in London, Ontario]. It’s interesting when we talk about interplay, because there’s this dichotomy to London, Ontario, which is hella racist — that is where my love of Lego was born in many ways; the harsh realities of the world also kind of fell upon me, where I experienced subtle and very direct, malicious racism as a child at five or six years old — but I’m happy to say that my memories of just being free to play and working on my Lego skills at an early age, that’s when it all comes together.

Working with Lego evokes that sense of play, I imagine.

Oh, definitely. It’s all creative play for me. When I was younger, I would watch cartoons and build; now I listen to audiobooks and build. That sense of wonder, things that can create various kinds of worlds in my mind as I’m building. I listen to Octavia Butler Star Wars audiobooks while I’m building. So, it’s typically a lot of science fiction and supernatural stories from a lot of Black authors.

You went to York University in Toronto for your BFA. Did you find your education restrictive or were you able to explore your creativity?

I say it all the time: if you really focus on the experience on being in post-secondary education, it’s an invaluable experience, depending on what school you go to. It could be a terrible experience if you are not a fit at the school. I really, really appreciated my time at York. To be clear, I didn’t actually graduate. I was there for three years, I was a student there for BFA in studio practice, but I was also really into writing and reading a lot of stories, fiction. There were days before school where I was really consuming a lot of fiction and I wanted to be a writer. When I went to York, I knew I wanted to go there to get this creative awakening — it wasn’t always go there, graduate, and everything. It made way more sense to study visual art because I’ve always been drawing my entire life, but not really sculpture.

I went to York and found that I really enjoyed sculpture, and I even used Lego in school a few times before I knew it was a medium I could actually cultivate. I just had Lego, and because it was such a familiar material to me, when we got tasked to make a drawing in one of my classes in second year, I brought in some Lego and built this drawing machine. So I used it then and I used it another time to avoid failing a sculpture class. It was quite a tragic experience.

Khartoum, 2019.

It was in 2007, the year that I went to school, that the Transformers live-action movie came out, the Michael Bay movie. I am a lifelong Transformers fan, so seeing a live-action movie was like one of those pivotal moments in my life. That pushed me to start playing with Lego again. When I was a kid, I’d watch Transformers and then I’d build and try and create things. After the movie, I had all this inspirational creativity in me and I didn’t know how to get it out. And then I started building the Transformers from the movie. Most of my life was spent around other musicians that I grew up with, so it wasn’t until this time that I was surrounded by visual artists all day long, and seeing kids [in school] that were much younger than me and that were so talented really pushed me to be better.

“The Black women in particular that were around me were instrumental in my own development and Black consciousness, who I am and understanding where I am in this world.”

When did you focus your work on the themes you address now?

Honestly, it was really just my entire life and the experiences that I’ve had as a first-generation Canadian. Both my parents are from Ghana and experience otherness in a very different type of way, the otherness from living in a colonial stateside country like Canada and a particular kind of racist system that exists in a country on stolen land. There’s also the more minute experiences, even within the Black community, of being Ghanaian. Where I lived, there were Ghanaian kids around, but my more immediate circles at schools were a lot more Caribbean kids. There is a kind of strange relationship [that’s] often good but sometimes a bit adversarial between Caribbean folk and continental Africans, so there was a certain kind of otherness experience in my social group. Especially coming from London, Ontario where most of the people around me except for my family and extended family were white, and I had to deal with the racism there, then coming to Toronto, where I was now around people that looked like me. That was a great experience, but there was still that otherness; I felt ostracized in a way. So there are those experiences that filtered into who I am and therefore what I do.

But I have to say that the “Building Black” show was what made the shift for me. The Black women in particular that were around me were instrumental in my own development and Black consciousness, who I am and understanding where I am in this world. That led me to an opportunity to present during Black History Month with the TD Black History Month series, which they’ve been doing for years, where they’d create brand new local organizations for Black artists to present in key cities across the country, from Halifax to Vancouver.

There’s an inclination when we talk about Black history to just focus on the transatlantic slave trade. There’s these narratives of oppression, and I get that and it’s important to know, but I also feel like the exposition of Black pain is so consumable. When we share videos of Black people being brutalized and even killed, like, I get it — Information Age, share share share — it helps spark outrage and get the movement going, but there’s exhaustion there, too. Every time we look into the future, we harness what the past has shown, but we trailblaze and point toward the stars and think about Black futures, because we have to imagine the things that we want for ourselves.

The Bandit Queen of Watalah.

What are those Black futures that you’re looking toward?

The futures that are free from colonialism. If they do touch on enslavement, it’s not “These are the things that happened during enslavement,” it’s “These are some of the stories of resistance.” Let’s focus elsewhere and let’s try to imagine something different. Let’s imagine what those rebellions really looked like. And then adding these futuristic and fantastical elements to it. For example, I have an artwork called The Bandit Queen of Walatah, and it’s a triptych featuring these three figurines, more of a smaller scale, but they’re archers and they have this aura of heroism about them, but also an aura of menace. The whole point behind that came from when I was exploring medieval Africa and learning about these empires that existed in West Africa during that time, the kingdom of Ghana, of Mali — there’s just so much content there. The first universities in the world were established there, and there was so much learning and cross-cultural pollination of Islam ushered into the country. There was a lot happening, and the world doesn’t typically know about all of this. So, I really wanted to bring these mythologies and experiences of this particular kind of past, but directed into the future.

The aesthetics of the things that I build — they come from looking at Star Wars and looking at sci-fi structures and wanting to recreate them so we can have a physical documentation of these kinds of mythologies and storylines. Getting back to The Bandit Queen of Walatah, it’s really a story about a girl who escaped enslavement and was left for dead in the desert, and instead forged a will of vengeance against the enslavers. She would descend from the canyons in the desert and rob the slave caravans and free more and more people, and she eventually developed an army of 100 free women, and basically would rob from the rich and feed the poor. And that came about when I was thinking about the medieval era. I was thinking about Robin Hood and all that, and I wanted to challenge my own indoctrination of a Eurocentric worldview. Because why, when I think of the word “medieval,” instead of thinking of my home country, my continent, am I immediately thinking about things that were happening in Europe? That is a product of Eurocentric movies, TV, education in school; any time “medieval” is brought up, it’s rarely in conjunction with what was happening anywhere else in the world besides Europe. And I wanted to challenge that.

That’s when I developed this theory called “speculative reclamation.” I wanted to have something to call this process, this reclamation of narratives that are speculative. I can’t say for certain — and since I made it up, it’s likely not for certain — but someone from England went to the Sahara, heard about the Bandit Queen, and went back to England and whitewashed the story and then created Robin Hood. Who’s to say that didn’t happen? Because there was so much destruction of culture and so much appropriation of culture that happens even now. You can add it to the way that Black progress, Black stories are consumed, repackaged, co-opted. That’s where the speculative part came up, where I can’t say that’s what happened but doesn’t it seem like something that would’ve happened?

What have you been working on during the pandemic?

I was doing a lot of these workshops in school, and then when COVID hit, it shifted into the virtual realm. That also overlapped with my time getting really pressed; I was building more, there was more demand for my work, and I found that I didn’t have much time to even do the workshops virtually. It was my wife’s idea to create these tutorial videos, so the work that I was doing for young people could still exist and be global, because it’s not tied to the actual live experience of talking to me. I’d still be doing the things I need to do in the studio while people are learning and having fun building their descendent in the distant future with an Afrofuturistic flair. A lot of these legacies that we build in the vision kits — they are of brown and lighter brown faces, just because I wanted to fill that gap, because we just don’t have the learning materials. It’s also a corporate thing, too; I’ve done the workshops with university students, corporate groups, teachers’ groups, educators. It’s not directly marketed for children, it’s for anybody who has an interest in Afrofuturism and wants to also have this burst of creativity, fun, and play.

Kumbi, 2019.

Photos courtesy of Ekow Nimako Studios.