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An Open Conversation with Cameron Ugbodu [Interview]

See You

Austrian born London based Cameron Ugbodu is a multi-disciplinary artist marching to his own rhythm. With practises specialised in the likes of photography, painting and many more - Nigerian gent Cameron is able to evoke a partage of his identity, while reaching for total societal liberation through art. In a pursuit of self-discovery, his captures examine complex body structures and his fondness towards the exploration of heritage. For the length of an hour, we sat on a call with Cameron to discuss his upbringing, artistic choice of expression and the man-made penroses roaming in the art industry.

“The camera became a tool for my artistic expression rather than a way to make ends meet.”

First and foremost, thank you for accepting to be interviewed for New Wave magazine. I think the first move forward would be to introduce yourself; who is Cameron Ugbodu to the world?

So, my full name is Cameron Ugbodu and I’m a visual artist in a variety of practices. I work in photography, and recently, I’ve also started painting. I guess you can say I roam somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, I dabble into video works and even a bit of writing.

Ok, nice. Would you care to share where you are based and where you’re from?

I’m currently based in London however, I grew up in a small town in Austria. My father is from Lagos State, Nigeria and my mother is Austrian. At first, I was living in the countryside before I moved into the city of Vienna for a bit, and then eventually left for London.

When did you start photography and painting in general?

I started photography when I was around 16 and so, about 6 years ago. With painting, it must have been about 4 months now since I made the conscious decision to fully dive in it.

Oh, so this was quite recent?

Yes, before that, I wasn’t really painting. I think that I’ve always played around with anything I could get my hands on. As a result, whatever I could find, I’d use to make something out of it. In that sense, a camera or a canvas is just an extension of my journey to self-discovery.

I read somewhere where you explained that for you to start viewing photography as a tool to express yourself was quite a journey. Nowadays, your art pays emphasis on the human body and its complex structures. What caused the transition from taking photos as a hobby to forming a particular aesthetic underlining your heritage and queerness?

When I was first introduced to photography, I didn’t know that it could be viewed as an art form. Growing up, the only photographer I knew was a man who was hired by our principal to take school photos of us students each semester. It never crossed my mind that there were in fact individuals who practise it as a profession.

At first, I would photograph the things around me and it very quickly developed into fashion photography. At that time, it was my scapegoat from the countryside, and just moving around, seeing different places and meeting different people.

As we know, you can make much more money with commercial photography and so, I followed that route to sustain myself and my artistic projects. After a while, things started changing. Initially, photography was almost therapeutic to me however, on the commercial side, I felt restrained. It came to a point where I sat down and realised all these commercial jobs made me unhappy. That realisation pushed me into starting to view photography as a tool I could use to express myself and communicate with the people around me.

I did certain things in focus of my sexual orientation, and a few things concerning my own heritage with the use of a camera - All of these elements that I was already exploring in the outside world however, placed under my choice of expression. At this point, I had taken a break from commercial work and the camera became a tool for my artistic expression rather than a way to make ends meet.

When I saw your work in person, there were quite a few things I’ve noticed outside of the imagery. There is this phrase ‘See You’, a play of words from your initials, that comes across your artworks and also shares the title of your latest exhibition. What does it mean to you?

I guess when it comes to my photographs, much like a subject placed in front of the camera, I try to make them (The observers) feel seen in some way. Yeah, I love it when people tell me that while observing my portraits, they also see themselves.

Moreover, there’s something about the phrase ‘See You’. I mean, I also use it as my street tag. If you were to drive through the city of London, you’d notice ‘See You’ somewhere on the street and being seen can mean a good or a bad thing.

Would you say that you are forcibly placing a mirror in front of our eyes through your signature?

Yes and also, when people see this phrase, you know, some people want to be seen and others feel as if they’ve been caught in the act. There is obviously meaning that I’ve placed onto this, however, the phrase can also trigger something completely different within someone else. I imagine for some it must almost feel like someone is watching them. I don’t know, it is a play around feeling seen in a wholesome way, but also, feeling pursued or watched.

You’ve created a series with mentor Campbell Addy titled ‘Masters-Teachers’. Perhaps you can tell us a bit about your mentorship and how crucial do you believe a mentor is to an artist’s development?

With that project, I wanted to show what mentorship can do and how a mentorship can look. There’s things that you expect from a mentorship within an institute, for example, learning new technical skills, but for me, it was much more personal. We occupied ourselves with things nobody would tell you. For example, we would talk about how to navigate the industry in a different way. People already look at us like we’re not supposed to be here and so, what your peers may be allowed to act upon, might not necessarily apply to you. It is those miniscule things that I’ve been taught through mentorship - on how to manoeuvre myself, what to watch out for, you know, there are many people who will try to take advantage of you.

Throughout the mentorship, I felt very protected because it would never just end right after a photoshoot. Campbell was also a person I could go to and talk about my mental health. In the industry, you will see a lot of people break down because they weren’t taken care of themselves. It is very easy to burn out in this space and so, it felt great to be able to open up to him. The photo series embodies the different facades throughout our journey together.

“As a black artist, we’re not able to explore outside the boundaries of our identity.”

Since you’ve spoken about some of the struggles you faced as an artist of a particular heritage. I read an article recently by Jeffrey Boakye ‘On being a black writer and a writer who is black’. I’m curious, what is your point of view about the distinction between your occupation and your identity?

Especially now in the UK due to black history month, you can walk around looking at gallery windows and even on a street level, quotes of < black art > dot, dot, dot… Everywhere! Which only ever pops up once a year in October. It is a bit performative to me because you never see any of these artists in any other season of the year.

Personally, I’ve been part of one of these shows and it felt very cringe because they wouldn’t take me seriously for the rest of the year but now, I’m at their disposal. It’s like they are putting on a show to please political crowds. At this point, there’s a mutual understanding between us artists that we’re only ever considered for I guess what they’d call ‘black shows’ centred around very specific themes such as the black struggle.

Also, these institutions have a very narrow understanding of black art and always end up going with what’s on trend for example, African portraiture as of late. For that reason, I believe they view us as a commodity, and as a black artist, we’re not able to explore outside the boundaries of our identity. Don’t get me wrong, an artist can choose to express themselves however they see fit, but what gets showcased in galleries is only a tiny fraction of what we truly represent. Rather than body positivity or mental health, they prefer that we display black struggle and what resonates with white guilt. Personally, I don’t feel that I’m always responsible for educating white people through my art pieces.

Let me follow up with another question because I think you brought up a very important subject that doesn't get the light of day often enough. Do you feel pressured to express yourself through the lens of your heritage?

Sometimes I do but now, with my painting for example, I am granted to explore whatever the fuck I want. In general, I never would want to cater to anyone but me and my own happiness. There is a pressure, clearly, but you can navigate and tip toe around their expectations. I think my photo series ‘New Monuments’ was institutionally celebrated, whereas my newer paintings would not, even though they came from the same person. This is because one project falls under the bracket < black artist > and the other falls under < an artist who happens to be black.> It is complicated.

I really appreciate you speaking about it because sometimes, what outsiders don’t understand is that artists can choose to express themselves through their heritage but they are not limited by it. Moreover, I think you’ve proven that with your newer work that I was able to pick through.

Actually, a new series that I am working on which is called ‘Stargazing’ is a combination of travelling through time, the bases of freedom and not being bound to any concept. This is because my tribe in Nigeria, Esan basically means those who jumped or those who went away. In other words, space travel and as a result, a lot of the new work gravitates towards sci-fi themes. That being said, I still work around the idea of my heritage however, tackling it from a different angle.

“Through acceptance and healing, I was able to overcome these hurdles.”

It would be interesting to know from you; How important do you think it is to include different narratives in the art world?

I think different narratives should be included but also, we should analyse which of these narratives are celebrated more often. This is because when a narrative gets hyperfocus, it can result in artists fearing to be themselves and then, pushes them to create of the same calibre. At this point, some of these narratives have appeared again and again, and it feels as if they’re just a copy and paste now. It seems like a filter was placed within the art bubble on what gets displayed and celebrated.

Are you suggesting that perhaps our idea of narrative is flawed and there is still room for improvement?

There’s always room for improvement because only a group of people truly dictate what can be categorised under a certain label at the moment. Since we’ve talked about black art, within that branch, there are narratives that get very much celebrated and exposed whereas others are left out. Even though there’s an abundance of artists dealing with different subjects, it would be phenomenal not to always go off what people think might sell. Let’s push more narratives we don’t see in the market instead of tagging along with what is already doing well. Let’s go against the stream.

I think you’ve already mentioned it previously, but perhaps we could head deeper into this subject; What are some of the challenges you face as a black and queer artist?

One of the challenges was that within the educational system in Austria, I didn’t get to see any black artists. The only black artist they touched on was Basquiat however, there’s something odd to me about glamourising artists who had a fatale end. For that reason, breaking out as an artist and seeing my self-worth was challenging at first. That’s why moving towards commercial photography happened quite fast as it didn’t require for me to dig deeper into my blackness and queerness. Through acceptance and healing, I was able to overcome these hurdles.

Another challenge is the double standard within our society. In any field, having to work harder for less, watch your back twice, people already have a certain perception of you and you having to break out of it - Sometimes, I feel like black and queer art is seen separately and I have to pick one over the other.

That’s interesting because I think it draws parallels with literature as well. If we take James Baldwin for example, there is an undertone where he may only be viewed into one category, which is quite unfair for him and an individual like you who recognises every part of themselves. What would you hope to change in the near future?

The idea of categorising yourself is bullshit to me. There is no clear distinction in anything and you can be a part of more than one category.

You shouldn’t have to choose.

Also, you can be all of these things and you can be neither of them. Everyone has their own story to tell and being boxed in all the time can be a headfuck. You basically have to rip yourself apart because all of these things are a part of you. We are all of these things at once. I should be able to express myself and not be labelled at all. If you ask me who Cameron Ugbodu is, then he is all of the things but also, none of them. Sorry, I’m just rambling…

No, not at all! I think it is really needed - Especially coming from someone who has to navigate through these different boxes. As a final question, what is next for Cameron Ugbodu? Where can we find more of your work?

My main focus right now is ‘Stargazing’. I want to take the time to produce new work so that I can continue to display a different side to me. Also, I have a website which will be updated very soon, but I guess the best way to experience my art is in person. There is something in Lagos that may come up sooner than expected.


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