Jebila Okongwu critiques stereotypes of Africa and African identity and repurposes them as counterstrategies, drawing on African history, symbolism and spirituality. One of his preferred materials is banana boxes; their tropicalized graphics articulate an ‘exotic’ provenance, much like the exoticization of African bodies from an ethnocentric perspective. When these boxes are shipped to the West from Africa, the Caribbean and South America, old routes of slavery are retraced, accentuating existing patterns of migration, trade and exploitation.
Okongwu often investigates methods to communicate what it feels like to be embedded in structures of domination such as colonialism, racism and exploitation, and how to represent this aspect of blackness. His frequent use of imagery related to BDSM is not an attempt to allude to the histories of domination and oppression by analogy with these practices, where acts of submission are obviously voluntary, but as an instrument to examine roles of difference and the embodiment of certain types of sensations. The artist is questioning how difference becomes material within the contexts of race and power. By the layering of the exoticized and stereotyped corporate logos of multinational banana importers with imagery related to BDSM, he attempts to articulate the complex histories of physical experience on the body of the other, where domination and brutality have not only been profitable, but also eroticized.
Born in London and then raised in Nigeria and Australia, Okongwu currently lives and works in Rome. He received a BA in Visual Art from Monash University and a Graduate Diploma in Fine Art from the University of Melbourne. His work has been exhibited at prominent international institutions including the Schlossmuseum, Linz, Austria (2020), the American Academy in Rome (2015), the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples (2014), and the MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome (2013). His work is featured in the recently released ‘100 Sculptors of Tomorrow’ published by Thames and Hudson, and 'Graphite Interdisciplinary Arts Journal' published by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.