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Abiona Esther Ojo | “Courageous Voice” |

by , | Oct 17, 2022 |, Courageous Voice, Listen

“With every art work I make, I start with my own story, I start with my own experience, but at the end of the day, it’s part of my healing journey…”
– Abiona Esther Ojo

Meet Esther. Vienna based, award winning visual artist and photographer whose work is based on identity and representation. Get inspired by our conversation about her artistic process and the beauty of expressing the verbally inexpressible through visual art.

In this episode we chat about:

  • How community affects artistic process
  • The artistic process: from imagination to visual creation
  • Processing emotion, grief, and life change through art creation
  • Documenting Black hair styles, hair care, and policy through visual art
  • Diversity into the Arts spaces in Europe (Austria)

To see her art work, simply Google! Abiona Esther Ojo.

Today is the day you vow to follow your heart and not your fear. If only it were that easy! The Courageous Voice podcast chronicles international artists, creatives, plus a handful of scientists, and their stories of fear, courageousness and creativity. Hosted by singer, storyteller and self-proclaimed joy spreader, Chanda Rule, The Courageous Voice inspires us to share our voices courageously in spite of our fears through courageous conversation and community.


Chanda: Hi this is Chanda Rule. I’m the host of the Courageous Voice Podcast. Thank you for listening. Today, I am being joined by Abiona Esther Ojo, and she is a visual artist and photographer here in Vienna with work that is based on identity and representation. And you can see her works throughout Europe, and she’s also the recipient of the Kunsthalle Wien Prize of 2020 for her beautiful work entitled "Weaving Truths, Untangling Fictions." Ah, welcome Esther. I’m so glad you’re here!

Esther: Hi Chanda. Just one thing, my last name is pronounced "oh-jow."

Chanda: My gut was saying "this is, ‘oh-jow’, this is ‘oh-jow.’" In the back of my head I was just like, Let me ask, because I don’t know, this sounds very Spanish and…

Esther: But, you know I was just thinking it’s so beautiful also. I think it’s a beautiful coincidence in my life that this word is like a Spanish word. It’s called "eye." I try to see myself, I try to see people, I try to see stories. So at the end of the day, I love this kind of word game somehow, and I wasn’t sure if I should say it, but now we are in it already. .

Chanda: Okay, I love what you just said , about the words, but it is, "oh-jow;" Abiona Esther Ojo.

Esther: I do have a little of a lifelong crisis with my names, I have to say… it’s not a crisis, but it’s just a constant change and figuring out how I wanna tell people how I want be called and…

Chanda: okay…

Esther: who gave me what name, so I think this name game… It’s part of me somehow. ,

Chanda: Okay, listen, you know what? I’m going to invite you to introduce yourself. Tell us your preferred pronouns, all those kind of things. Tell us. Yes.

Esther: Yeah. First of all, thank you so much, Chanda, for inviting me to your courageous podcast. And it’s been the while now. I’m very glad that we finally found time together and yeah. My full names are Victoria Abiona Esther Ojo. Yeah, all these names were given to me by my parent, but I was always called Esther actually. So although it’s the last name in the three names, that’s the name they always called me. So my whole life I was calling myself Esther. And at some point when I started diving more into my artistic self, and exploring myself as an artist, I just had the feeling I am also Abiona. And it’s also a very beautiful name because it’s a name that is linked to my heritage. And Nigerian parents like to give Christian names, European names, different kinds of names to the children. And this name is actually describing my birth circumstance, which was that my mother was on a journey while she was giving birth to me. That’s the whole description of the name Abiona. I still like to use this name as a symbolic way of describing parts of myself, but I always prefer people call me Esther. But maybe this will change in a year or so. So let’s see.

Chanda: Okay. Okay. Okay. This is beautiful. I didn’t know that. So there’s three names. Three first names. Wow. This is gorgeous. And you did mention that it’s been a while. We’ve been trying to connect. And the reason being is because you got this amazing opportunity in – was it Poland? Did you go?

Esther: It was Glasgow.

Chanda: Okay. You were in Glasgow and there was a residency on public art space, right?

Esther: Exactly.

Chanda: Okay. Tell us about that. How was that? What did you do?

Esther: Yeah, it was a very beautiful experience. It was two weeks of a residency in the city of Glasgow and I was invited by two artists who run this project in different cities of Europe, where they invite different artists to come together, stay together and explore the city they are staying in a very playful way.

There are no restrictions. There is maybe a lot of open space to decide on what to work on and the ways of working. And for me it was mostly going there. Figuring out how would it be to live with people I’ve never met for two weeks in an Airbnb. How will this kind of living together inform my artistic practice? How will it inspire me? And I had no specific idea when going there. I was just thinking, "let me go there and be open to whatever comes my way." And the first inspiration came by flying to Scotland to me. I was mesmerized by sitting at the window and watching the clouds for two hours.

Chanda: Okay.

Esther: I took this experience with me for Glasgow. Two weeks of being, trying to find a way of… how can I recreate myself? How can I be an artist and not only count times when I "make art" time, but also the time of recreation and being present. And also what does this quality time before I make art do to myself when I decide to sit down and take out my paper, my materials, my textile, et cetera. So I’ve been focusing on holding space for the group somehow also, by cooking for the people by…

Chanda: Okay

Esther: …by sharing my time with them, by joining them while they was rolling through the city. Walking around the city looking for green spots. Relaxing or meditating or, I don’t know, just being .

Chanda: mm-hmm. ..

Esther: I struggled with with this approach also because I knew I was there to also have something that is visible in the end to show to the people that invited me, and to the audience that would come to the spaces. And in the end I mixed it around to have a playful approach to it. So I was having a lot of ideas and thoughts coming up all the time, but in the end I tried to be also playful with the way I make art, and I made an artwork out of marshmallows and feathers and.

Chanda: Nice, okay.

Esther: I just thought, "how can I make something silly?" while making art. So I tried to be brave in not having an artwork that pleases everybody but tickles my childish self. Or just, something that is maybe not sellable, but it’s something that gave me the joy of making it. So I had this kind of marshmallow feather ball, and I bought the players also for it. And then while we had the opening on the evening of the show, I just invited people to play around set with me.

Chanda: Okay, so people actually got to interact; they got to play with this feather marshmallow ball.

Esther: Exactly.

Chanda: Oh my gosh. This is lovely. I love how you are integrating this concept of creating for yourself and not always pleasing other people. And this is also interesting because you mentioned that one of the purposes was how living in this space with other people is influencing what you’re doing.

And I don’t know, I find that that’s one of the things that being with other people often does bring out: how is this gonna apply to the group or to the community? So I love that you took on the challenge to do something a little different with that. So that’s gorgeous.

But what did you find about that process – living with strangers for two weeks? Did that influence you at all or were you more just focused on yourself and doing something you wanted to do and that gave you joy?

Esther: It was all of it. From the very first day it was family, like without even knowing them. We were open towards each other, but also giving everybody as much space as possible. Let’s say like this; we’re having the first few days and community time and walking around the city together and getting to know each other.

And after the first phase, everybody was drawn out by themselves to the city. It was a mixed experience of course, but it was like living in a really

Chanda: Yeah.

Esther: The people here already had a very common ground and it was the art. And I think it was maybe very easy for us to connect. It was all of the feelings you can have when living with somebody; frustration or annoyance, but also joy and compassion with each other… sharing stories. And for my own artistic work, it was beautiful because I took a lot of time to also give my time to others that were saying, hey, I have this and this idea/ approach, and I need to helping hand. I was more willing, at some point, to go and help them than sitting down and working on my own, whatever that is.

It was very precious for me to also just be the helping hand in somebody’s own project if they had a very precise picture of it.

Chanda: Okay. That is gorgeous. And it’s reminding me of something that I saw on your Facebook page. You wrote that you were grateful for the gifts that you’re receiving and for the courage to give them back.

. When I read it, I was thinking about this particular piece, that I wanna talk about, that you did last year called A Time for Rain. But listening to you it’s going even further- this giving back. So not just your creative self, these other things, these other like just human qualities of care that you can give to other people.

But tell me about this because you don’t post a lot, but sometimes when you do post… cause I’m a Google stalker… I love your writing. How integral is your poetic voice to your work?

Esther: I’m actually just developing it. It’s a beautiful synchronicity to be here on your podcast and to be courageous; to share my voice, because I did that through my artistic work already in the different medium.

I’m just learning the last few years to really embrace my voice… write out my thoughts and not be afraid of my own thoughts. And as you say, I don’t post a lot. I also have this weird part of me that has very longtime resistances toward some things, and at some point I think it was like the button is opening and then it just flows out. And it was the same with the post I wrote about this artwork. And it normally happens when I have this finished piece of art, and then I give time also space to rethink of it in a different way or find words to it.

I don’t know how to put it, but it’s also a new thing for me to discover my writing voice also; to give this kind of expression space.

Chanda: Okay. Please continue doing it cause it’s so gorgeous in how you are wrapping this around. Even in this post you were talking about imagination and you were talking about your dad who told you that your imagination was wonderful.

This was in Hungary, right? Or was this here? In Vienna?

Esther: Yeah, it was both.

Chanda: Okay

Esther: I was invited by Gallery Krinzinger to this artist residency in Hungary last summer. That is where I developed this work. And it changed throughout 2021 and 2022 until I showed it the second time in May. It was an intense process of also making this work because it was the summer after my dad transitioned and just left this physical space to call it like this. And I also had this opportunity.

So he died in June last year and I went to this residency in July, August, and September. So I was grateful to have space to go somewhere and process , although it was away from my family. At the same time that there was also no pressure of the gallery side for me to produce anything at all.

So it was a beautiful space for me to be… and maybe come back after this two months with an idea that I want to continue working on, or make it with something physical that I, in reciprocity, give back to them as well. Cause that’s the way of their corporation: dividing artists to these residency spaces, then asking them for a work. And this process was intense because of the one thing very present on my mind: how can I get to live with this new reality of my dad not being here anymore? And processing everything of it, and learning to also realize that there’s more than this physical space we’re living in.

I know he’s still there. That’s the weird thing. But I’m still learning to let go of his physical presence and all the things that we went through together through my whole life. And even things that he went through before me are going through me and I’m trying to close instead.

And this is very hard to describe also because. By feeling, I know there are so many things there, but I cannot prove it to nobody other than myself that I am aware of some things.

Chanda: Yeah.

Esther: And yeah so this work was very much about accepting the fact that he’s still visible, but in a different way. And he’s still present. And that’s why these kind of objects and sculptures are made to resemble the form of eyes and eggs and seeds… have to do with me. It’s very precious to go through this experience and I’m in spaces where I can be really open and free to speak about it. And there are other times where I’m still in the grieving mode and process more ideas than words. And it’s the next thing to it.

So I think I try to find a way of talking about death which is, in the same time, another way of being reborn. Where does it start? Where does it end? So it’s the beauty of this life we’re in.

Chanda: Yeah.

Esther: I think it’s nothing you can learn by reading one book, but it’s something that flows for you and what you have to learn and re-learn all over again.

Chanda: Mm-hmm.

Esther: If it’s with lost ones or if it’s with yourself, because sometimes part of myself has to die also for me to become a different part of me.

Chanda: Yeah. I think it’s beautiful that the thoughts about it and what we try to say are so complex. And then when I’m thinking about just the pictures that I saw… I’m getting like chills because how this was represented in art, right? It gets all of these things across without the words.

There was so much, and it’s funny because I only saw pictures, but I didn’t see the egg and the seed. But I saw this blue and I saw water, and I saw air and space. And how this was suspended in the space brought in all these things that you just talked about; this cycle of life, and not just like the human life or the cycle of the life of our ideas and the life of our projects and our growth.

So it did- all of these things came across in so many different ways that like, I also cannot repeat in words, and this is the beauty of this visual art. And it’s… wow, yeah. Is this still up here in Vienna?

Esther: No, it’s packed in my storage.

Chanda: But you’ll show it again?

Esther: I hope so. I continue working on this. So for now, I had a little bit of a break, and now I have more energies again to go back to it.

Chanda: Ah, this is so beautiful. And I do wanna add that Esther just finished school two years ago. So this is like insanely incredible, right? And in the same year that you finish, you get this amazing prize, right?

And so since I’m from the States, a lot of the listeners are also from the States. So if you don’t know what Kunsthalle is, it’s an institution here in Vienna for international contemporary art. It’s a big deal, it’s a big deal! And so you have this prize for this work.

Please tell us about this. I’m gonna say it again. It’s Weaving Truths and Untangling Fiction. This is like textile art. There’s photography. You tell us about it because this was amazing. This was my first time seeing your art aside from photography. And I’m telling you… even right now, I’m blown away. I’m like, Oh my God, this is amazing! Okay, I’m gonna stop talking. Tell us about this piece.

Esther: Thank you, Chanda, thank you. Yeah this artwork was– it’s a lifelong project also to me because it’s the next thing. I don’t even know where to start or where would this end. Cause this project was the diploma work of my starting time at the Academy of Fine Arts. And, both the Academy of Fine Arts and Die Angewandte (The University of Applied Arts) -they are two different arts institutions in Vienna. They give this artist prize every year to one student of each the universities. I finished my diploma work with a topic that is very close to my skin; it’s beneath my skin. It’s underneath my skin, actually. It’s about hair. It’s about my hair.

It’s about the hair of people who face the same life realities like me, or who can identify some part of part of those realities or who are black people who have an experience of having the topic of hair very present in their life. Since the academy, since I started studying, I had finally the space, but it was a little bit of both to explore things that were very personal to me, and they’re very private to me.

And since the day when I decided to make this artwork, art works, I had this trouble of why would I make art of my private things? And I kept having this all of the time. With every artwork I make, I start with my own story; I start with my own experience. But at the end of the day, it’s part of my healing journey because I say, "okay that’s what happened to me." and it’s a way of how I can work it through; how I can process it.

So I was thinking about my hair since forever. And I already made different photo projects about hair, but for my diploma show, I decided I wanted to document my friends, my family, people that dare to be open to me. I wanted to document them while they take care of their hair, while they take care of somebody else’s hair, while they go to the hairdresser to get their hair done. And I wanted to show these processes because there are many processes involved behind the beautiful hairstyle. I wasn’t just satisfied by taking beautiful pictures of beautiful people with their beautiful hair, although I also loved that.

But I wanted to really try to document the processes of hair braiding, the washing, the oiling of the hairstyle. All of these little things that we need to do to make our hair be healthy, actually. And also not only our hair, but our whole well being.

I had these interviews with the people I was taking time with. So I interviewed them, I was asking them questions – or they were just speaking freely to me – and then I took pictures. And all these pictures that were taken, I had to find a way of presenting them. And that’s also the big thing about art always. How do you present the things made?

And for me it was very clear in the beginning, I need to show these pictures on the medium I’m talking about. So I made big texture sculptures that resembled hair styles or even forms out of nature, which is the same somehow. And our curls are like part of nature, and hairstyles are so diverse somehow. I just took different kinds of hair styles and I printed the pictures I took on the fabrics, and I created large scale sculptures that kind of send a really huge hair piece like the bantu knot or a big twist, or a braid. And the more I explored and played with it, the more I could free myself also to have a perfect format.

So in the end, I was having a lot of fun in actually showing very intimate photographs of people in their private spaces, taking care of themselves, being very vulnerable, and at the same time, while making the sculpture, I could decide; I printed this picture on the art piece now, but at the same time, I can braid it and hide it again.

So it was always a play of showing intimacy and hiding it again from the public eye or from the public view. It was also the big topic of afro hair, somehow; that people with Afro hair are used to–– we have questions about our hair, or have all these weird experiences of people touching our hair and all these things.

And it’s a debate also in public spaces. So in the U.S. even more, I think, in the public space, than in Austria. I’ve heard people also speaking, in Austria, about hair policies at some places, but not in the way I know it’s happening in the US or even in African countries. So this is a very political topic, actually, which is weird because it’s so private and personal choice also.

Chanda: Yeah, you’re right. I haven’t heard it much here, but I expect it too. I think that my time in Europe has not been so long, but just in the States, I know that… I mean, it’s been more than 20 years, but let’s say we go back the past 40 years… that like people have really been getting out of straightening their hair and things like that.

And the more people push those… they’re really not boundaries, as you said, it’s a personal choice… but the more people go out of those boundaries that have been like… I guess standardized based on white hair. The more we go out of those things, the more kind of pushback people have gotten in certain places. And that could also happen here because I do see different trends in black hair here also that I didn’t see even 10 years ago.

So, yeah. But I love that you’re doing that. The exhibit was so gorgeous. It was beautiful. And, also I’m seeing that this work that you’re doing is also stepping out of just visual arts, because you did something this year called de-transformation. This diversity in decision-making positions in public sector. And I didn’t know about it, but I saw it when I was Google stalking you, and that you curated this event. So, does this tie in at all to that creative work? Or is this something totally different?

Esther: Yes and no. So I was invited also a year ago to be part of this curational team, to organize this one event in a bigger framework. And it was the first time for me to create in this format at all.

So I was a little bit hesitant to even say yes to this opportunity. In the same time, I was, um, what’s the word?

Chanda: Curious!

Esther: Yes. To explore, "okay, what’s waiting for me there?" To go into this direction and learn about myself. So it was a process of me exploring a way of thinking about concepts and processes in the Diversity world. Because the project was a lot about how Austria can become a place with more diverse perspectives in all these bigger art institutions. And I think I was especially invited from my own perspective as an artist to speak on the issues that artists have with these institutions, or the strategies, or the barriers.

Even if I never curated, I think my perspective was of course, unique, and I learned so much about how to be organized in the team work. Cause that was the biggest struggle- to get together and work on an event where there’s a lot of theory in place… where you also have to find a way to not only stick to the theory, but also bring more practice in it. I don’t know if I can really describe it properly, but it was definitely a journey for myself. And there was a lot of writing for me in finding the right words to describe… to talk about this topic of diversity; whatever that means in these spaces where there is a lack of diversity. So I think that the tests start with the definition of diversity, which is also a paradox, because how can you define something that is always changing?

I don’t even know how to put it, but it definitely informed my way of how I want to continue in professional spaces of my own perspective and where to use this energy for the work that I’m already doing where I know how I can voice myself. But it was definitely a part of a new growth. It was a seed that was put in the Earth, and it was very tiny and it was growing and it’s probably continued to grow. If I keep watering it and taking care of it. But it was was a different, difficult journey also, for me.

Chanda: Okay.

Esther: In this position of making decisions, actually. But that was the point of the event. They wanted to have people in the decision-making positions that had diverse backgrounds and ideas about what diversity could look like somehow.

Chanda: Okay.

Esther: I feel you know what I mean?

Chanda: I do. I do. And Is this an ongoing thing or is this…?

Esther: Yeah.

Chanda: Okay, that’s great.

Esther: Yeah, yeah. So they kind of had this project for two years now, which was grass roots with a little bit of funding, but now they try to make it bigger and establish a project office for diversity in arts and culture in Austria. So they have many things going on.

Chanda: Good. Alright, well, I have enjoyed this conversation. I wanna chat with you longer but that’s okay, that’s okay. Because we can meet again. Tell us where we can find you.

Esther: As you were saying before, I’m not really good at posting a lot about me.

Chanda: It’s okay.

Esther: I’m going action by action, step by step, and I just actually finished my small photography site. So if you Google, you will find the page with my photographs, and I’m also working on having a page visible for my artistic works soon.

Then you would find it under the same name and just see that I just do too many things at once and yeah.

Chanda: Okay. Beautiful. Beautiful. And if you also just Google the name, you will get a lot of information. You’ll get to see this beautiful work, these different exhibits, that have been featured around the world.

Esther: Yeah.

Chanda: So thank you so much. I have enjoyed our time together.

Esther: Thank you for inviting me, for having me, for being open, and asking so many beautiful questions. Thank you.

Chanda: Oh, thank you.