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  • Megan Clarke

In Conversation with Funmi Lijadu

In the following interview with Funmi Lijadu, she shares her passion for the art of collage, highlights her experience as a Black woman in Edinburgh, and reflects upon some of the important lessons we have learnt during Black History Month, which we should endeavour to remember moving forward.

First celebrated in the UK in 1987, Black History Month dedicates time to recognising and celebrating the achievements of those with African or Caribbean heritage, and their contributions to British society. Furthermore, it opens up an alternative discourse to the history curriculum taught in British schools, particularly concerning Britain’s colonial past.

Studying English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, Funmi Lijadu is an artist, graphic designer, creative consultant, and journalist interested in surrealism and postcolonial realities. Funmi speaks to a largely female audience, insisting, “We really do drive pop culture”.

Making mood boards and collaging from the age of 10 years old, Funmi always felt that collage was a medium of art that worked most naturally for her. At the age of 21, Funmi’s career portfolio is already highly accomplished; from launching a t-shirt campaign featuring her artwork in collaboration with @everpresshq and @shapearts, to creating the album cover art for Raelle’s EP Wake Up Sunshine, 2021 has been a year of notable achievement for Funmi. One of her collages has even been purchased by the Kanyer Art Collection in Washington, USA.

Starting her Instagram (@artbyfunmi) in the summer of 2020, amidst the fraught backdrop of a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, Funmi was at a peak in her creative flow. Funmi describes the complexity of this period, for although it was fraught, it provided a fertile ground for creativity; “I tried to consume as much as I could without exploding. There was a lot to talk about, and it provided a lot of opportunities”. Describing her relationship with art during this time, it “was probably like, my therapy for myself”, Funmi shares how the tactility of collage forces you to be present and conscious, becoming a kind of “meditative process”; “I think, to be honest, I just need art to be able to kind of reconcile stuff that’s going on with me, it’s almost like writing a diary”.

Funmi’s artwork often mixes digital collage with handmade elements, and centres on a broad array of socio-political issues such as reproductive health and well-being, ‘anti-maskers’, the experience of non-white women in the workplace, and the intersections between academic success and mental health, to name just a few. A place where “visual culture and social change meet”, Funmi’s Instagram feels personable, yet informative, as she achieves a skilful balance of the two.

A self-proclaimed “gal of the contemporary” and “social media babe”, Funmi loves pop culture, drawing upon this to inspire a lot of her art. Consuming culture, while also speaking back to it and creating it, she is invested in this constant interplay.

For Funmi, the beauty of collage, and the faith she places in this medium for communicating social and political material, in part rests on its ability to translate contemporary politics and multifaceted debates into an accessible and more visual format, which then slots seamlessly within our social media feeds. Essentially, the art of collage assists Funmi in capturing large scale issues within a 1:1 square ratio and a capped caption on Instagram. Funmi’s collaboration of both visual and written avenues of communication is immersive and effective, to say the least.

The personal touch to Funmi’s Instagram fuses the personal with the political. Resisting the binary of creator and consumer, Funmi hopes to create an open and conversive environment on her page. With the rise of parasocial relationships and quasi-friendships in this digital age, she values a connection with her audience; “It’s nice to know people have seen something and that it might have spoken to them”.

Naturally an open person, Funmi finds that first-person pieces work well for her;

“I find this style quite nice to do, and I don’t feel bound by it in some kind of gendered expectation. With male artists, there’s not always that impetus to share your personal experiences, but the gag is, a lot of men’s stuff is autobiographical. It’s just that they phrase it in a way where it’s posed as universal.”

In light of the contemporary debate concerning female writers ‘selling their trauma’ to magazines to get a head start on their careers, a conversation was sparked regarding the troubling narrative that continues to dismiss and undervalue genres of writing and art that are predominantly female.

Often not taken seriously as a form, collage is hardly viewed as ‘high’ art; however, Funmi takes this art form to great heights, not just offering up information, but solutions. Aware that open-ended commentaries have the potential to be counter-productive, instilling fear and confusion, Funmi speaks to her audience of largely young women in a reassuring, embracing, and supportive way. Despite the largely female demographic of her audience, Funmi notes, “there are a few kings in there as well, I feel like the brave ones follow me.”

Working with the Tate Collective for Black History Month in both 2018 and 2021, three years on I ask Funmi if today’s picture looks any different; “Has anything moved on since then?”

Funmi answers;

I’ve moved on. I’m no longer going to bang my chest and tell white people ‘I matter’, ‘I am human’. I have a life outside of convincing people that I’m human and that I shouldn’t be discriminated against. At this point, if you don’t think that, then let’s just go our separate ways. Am I going to be banging on my chest every year with the same message?”

An important aspect of Black History Month is its educational impetus and the space it gives to voicing different perspectives on Britain’s colonial past, allowing us to perceive this part of history through a different frame of reference. Having been educated in both Nigeria and the UK, Funmi insists on the value of having these global perspectives; emphasising how critical a non-Eurocentric understanding of history is, Funmi believes, “It makes you a more well-rounded person to know what your country has stood for at a certain time, and most importantly, what it didn’t stand for and who was excluded”.

Shifting back to a discussion of her approach to her art, Funmi speaks about how conscious she is of being trapped in what she calls the ‘leftie bubble’, and the importance of understanding alternative perspectives before producing the socio-political content on her Instagram. Funmi tells me, “I try to read stuff that makes me uncomfortable, which sometimes, like, makes me sick?”.

In combining art with the political, I believe we can all learn something from Funmi’s approach to her artwork, and can integrate this into our process of educating ourselves on British history; unfortunately, academia has shown us time and time again that it will not be honest with us, as institutions continue to omit alternative perspectives. The ‘leftie bubble’ Funmi speaks of could here be reconfigured as the ‘Eurocentric bubble’, which our educational system works to keep intact, and which prioritises white comfort. White people should feel uncomfortable when educating themselves on Britain’s colonial past, and the Black experience should no longer be made palatable for white audiences.

With a lot to learn and reflect upon during Black History Month, Funmi believes;

“It’s important to know how far we’ve come, but how far we need to go as well. There’s the celebration of cultural and intellectual contributions of Black people, and there are the darker aspects and the sad aspects, but I think we need all of those to show, celebrate, and highlight the humanity of Black people. It’s a nice way to just say, ‘We’re here. We’ve been here. These are our stories. Our stories matter. Be proud.’”

With white people being the majority demographic in Edinburgh, I ask Funmi about her experience as a Black woman in Edinburgh, to which she replies in her classically light-hearted Gen Z style, “It’s the trauma for me”.

Funmi describes how there is often a subtlety to the racism she has experienced within academic settings at the University of Edinburgh, whether this be from her tutors or her peers. The experience of people not expecting her to be educated, or not expecting her to have something to say, is disturbingly common; “A lot of tutors think that me speaking articulately means that I’m ‘doing the most’. Like, I’m here, I’m trying to show you that I’m interested in the content. You literally asked me a question, so I’m answering.” Funmi moves on to talking about being targeted by her peers, “In first year I always had that one white guy in the tutorial that was coming for me, and I was just like, why? It almost felt like a kind of medieval quest.”

Outside of an academic setting, Funmi delves into the topic of desirability, and her personal experience of meeting Black men whose preference seemed to exclusively be white women; “I would try to talk to Black guys and they would be like, ‘Only white girls for me’. Obviously, they wouldn’t say that, but it would become apparent. There’s a lot of ‘coons’. Like why must you write on your forehead, ‘I don’t care about Black women’ ?”

Part of Funmi’s journey in Edinburgh has been learning to go “where the interest and the acceptance and the love is”. She concludes;

“There’s no way to sum up the Black female experience. It’s tough, but my response has been to block out the noise of how people are reacting to me in situations, and to walk around with confidence, and to be true to myself.”

Posted on Funmi’s Instagram here (image on the left) and here (image on the right)

Instilling the lessons we have learnt during Black History Month, we should all commit to continuing to educate ourselves beyond this time frame; Black Lives Matter every month of every year.

Not only holding aesthetic value, Funmi’s art pieces also become a beautiful home for a variety of important messages, which she incorporates into our daily social media feeds. Her layering of materials reflects the layered meanings embedded within her work, as Funmi’s intuitive decision making during the artistic process displays a precision and competency that is reflected in her intelligent building up of images and ideas.

This time of celebration is still fraught with tensions and contradictions. With organisations facing public pressure to align themselves on the ‘good’ side of history, people have increasingly turned towards Black creators to perform this labour. However, it is important to question whether it is for the right reasons. It is unacceptable that in 2021, organisations are still exploiting Black talent; celebrating Black History Month for a day on their page, but at the same time, expecting Black talent to provide free work during this month. It is problematic hypocrisy that needs to stop.

Where to find Funmi:

Instagram: @fumlij and @artbyfunmi


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