My Process: An Interview with Adebayo Katiiti
by Ashna Jacob
As I wait for Adebayo in the SNAP studio, I scroll through posts about the rainbow that graced the sky a few hours earlier, on the Monday after Pride Weekend. It’s a busy time for the LGBTQ+ community, especially organizers like Adebayo, a founding member of RaricaNow, an organization for LGBTQ+ refugees in the city. Ade himself arrived in Edmonton as a refugee in 2016, after having been outed just a few days prior in Uganda, his home country, and being subjected to family rejection and abuse.
Since winning his case to stay, he and his team have been helping other refugees who are in similar circumstances, as well as advocating for and supporting the QTBIPOC (Queer Trans Black Indigenous and People of Colour) community in the city. Adebayo’s work has earned him the Changemaker Award at the 2018 Pride Awards, as well as being appointed a member of the Government of Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council.
Adebayo arrives for the interview with a telltale smile—the day has been a good one for RaricaNow, thanks to a successful court case that morning that allowed one of their members to stay in Edmonton and avoid deportation back to an abusive community. A success like that often means saving a life, and it is these powerful moments from his experiences in organizing that show themselves in his printmaking.
Ashna: Where did you start printmaking?
Ade: I got to know SNAP through Deana, a neighbour of the people I was staying with when I first came here in 2017. She suggested I do art for my first fundraiser [to raise legal fees to help me stay in Canada] and introduced me to Michelle Lavoie, a curator and printmaker. They together invited me to SNAP and helped me print my first woodcuts. We did a project called Re-Imaging Normal that took our pieces traveling around exhibitions in Alberta. After that Michelle invited me to continue working on prints with her, and I’ve been making work at SNAP ever since. And I don’t want to print anywhere else because of how welcoming the place is and how easy everything is. Everyone is helping you all the time and complimenting each other like ‘that’s so good, you made that?’ and I got this idea in my head that there is no bad art, especially if you make it at SNAP. I connect to SNAP because the work I make here is healing and being here releases my stress.
Ashna: What attracted you to woodcut?
Ade: I like the physicality of carving, like I’m carving out all the trauma in my life, like I’m making my mark on this object and it’s not going away. Even after a long day of carving I don’t feel tired. It feels good even if you don’t print. I do a lot of carving at home.
Ashna: Your prints are full of figures, bright pride colours and heavy symbolism and storytelling. What are some of the things that inspire you?
Ade: My prints are related to my story, my lived experiences, things I’ve survived. I heal and survive using art. I survived a lot of things and I put it on paper so that I can talk about it, so I can look at it and own it. The community work I do is also really heavy emotionally and mentally, you have to go through the legal battles, you have to go to hospitals, some clients are suicidal or have attempted. You have to be a safe space for 20 to 30 people at a time and take in everything they’re going through, and you have no outlet for it. Using printmaking I can work through it and process it. It doesn’t go away because it’s a part of me, but it calms down and that helps me move on.
Ashna: What are some of the themes behind these prints?
Ade: The piece entitled Mother’s Love is about resisting what my family did and about my relationship with my mother. My family kicked me out and disowned me, and when my father and brothers and sisters rejected me, I refused to accept that my mother would reject me, because we had such a deep connection. I just depended on that love. Which is what she’s doing now—she’s started to call me again after a year of not speaking to me [after my move to Canada]. In fact, last night I came out to her as a trans man and told her I’m transitioning. She was surprised but it will be okay.
Ashna: Another example of the symbolism that informs your work is the WAIT piece.
Ade: WAIT was made at a time I was at the peak of helplessness and feeling suicidal. I was scheduled to meet Michelle for a printing session, and I started crying on the bus. There were a lot of heavy things happening in the community regarding Pride—people sending us hateful messages, hate group activity in Edmonton, and one of my clients at the time attempted suicide, and I had to call the cops on another client, which was all really difficult. I had to keep all that in me, and I have to hold a safe space for them within me, but it was all a lot, and I felt I wanted to sleep and not wake up. And when I got to SNAP, Michelle gave me a paper and I put it all down. I was telling myself it’s okay to wait, wait to take your life, you can resist it and you can survive it, it’s okay to take a step back, you don’t have to move so fast, you don’t have to move at everyone’s pace. And that’s where the WAIT project came from.
Ashna: And I think it’s really interesting that you’ve been printing the WAIT images on t-shirts and it’s out there for other LGBTQ+ people to wear; this imagery that symbolizes the realities of your existence, and the visibility of literally wearing that, so the LGBTQ+ people who wear it are adopting it and saying ‘I feel this too.’
Ade: Exactly, I wanted to share what I feel every day because I realize a lot of people have the same lived experiences. And I feel my art can save someone if it saved me, and anyone can look at it and say wait a bit, someone will hear you out. So that was the message behind making the shirts; it’s for more than just selling.
Ashna: And most of your work has themes that a lot of us QTBIPOC can relate to. This is especially the case with A Long Road To Peace, which has become quite familiar to the LGBTQ+ community in Edmonton as the logo for RaricaNow as well.
Ade: I connect personally to A Long Road to Peace a lot. As a LGBTIQ refugee, I had this thought that whenever there is a rainbow person going through something, there is always someone watching their back, to take care of them. There is always help around the corner. The two figures in this piece are doing that—watching each other’s backs. And this is something that the whole team and all the members of RaricaNow face. Especially for BIPOC, you feel isolated in your communities, but there is hope because there’s someone watching your back and someone willing to help, who knows your story and who believes in you, who knows you matter, you’re human, whatever discrimination you went through is because of homophobia, and you are you. And that’s the Long Road to Peace, it’s there but it’s a long road, especially if you wear the rainbow, especially if you wear trans colours.
The work I do, I relate personally to my life story. I came with nothing, and no one, that grounds and connects me. And when I put that on paper it strengthens me and gives me hope to turn around and watch someone else’s back. With RaricaNow my experiences have taught me a lot. It has helped me know this community and society more, that my skin colour can be perceived as a threat. The advocacy work gives me strength to keep going. A lot of friends of mine were very worried about me [during the time I made WAIT], especially because sometimes we have unsuccessful cases with RaricaNow members. But my friends strengthen me and it makes me want to give back.
Ashna: I feel like a lot of people take up this advocacy work out of necessity, because of scarce resources and because a lot of times community is the answer. And that goes back to that idea of watching people’s backs.
Ade: I’m working with LGBTIQ refugees so it’s family, it’s community. I can’t describe how strong it is. I keep reminding them that we have power, you have power, there is power that is unseen that we can show people. There is power where we stand within our stories, even if you don’t move how society wants you to move, you have power even in your existence, even in you being alive. It’s like community itself is a powerful hidden movement. People who don’t have clear eyes, they will never see it.
Ashna: What are you working on next?
Ade: I’m going to continue building a series of prints in the WAIT project, and then I think I’ll put up a show. I’m getting there. No pressure on me. I’m slowly building up the project. That’s the thing about WAIT — you don’t have to do things fast. It makes me take time.
Header image: Adebayo Katiiti, Please Don’t Go Away, “WAIT”, woodcut, 2016