Hawaiian artist Ekundayo, which means ‘sorrow becomes joy’ began his art career before picking up a pen or a paint brush or a spray paint can. Ekundayo’s art doesn’t begin with paint or pencil, it begins with philosophy. That philosophy was cultivated in an unstable early childhood in which he traveled the United States with his father. With his father’s death at age eleven that inherit need for security and shelter was something that Ekundayo learned to cultivate within himself. Childhood was difficult, but it set the framework for the philosophical message he would later in life deliver through art. By transmuting early childhood reversals, Ekundayo passes on his wisdom gained through enduring hardships and realizing that the destination is only the starting point for the next journey. Through his works we are inspired to take an internal eternal journey of self realization and discovery.
The motion, the ennui, the organic crawl of spiritual evolution are washed over psycho-surreal hybrid creatures that reflect our psyche turned inside out. During his opening reception at Thinkspace Gallery I had the chance to speak with the artist, and what I discovered was that Ekundayo truly does live up to his name.
Ekundayo’s “Collective Reflections” at Thinkspace Gallery
January 31, 2015 – February 21, 2015
Would you say that you’re inspired by traditional Hawaiian culture?
The ancient Hawaiians, before missionaries came and started to change their culture and tell them that the practices they were doing were wrong, used to believe very firmly that man is connected to all living things. They’re connected to the universe and everything around us. And man can harness the power of all that and utilize it for him to create and build something great. And so they believed that and they thought that it all started with planting a seed of thought in the mind and envisioning what it is that you want to have happen. I thought that was so amazing that a culture so long ago on an island could have that understanding, and it’s something that I personally feel myself when I’m painting in the studio. I feel a closeness of something bigger than me when I’m lost in the zone and painting. All the characters here are going through their own transformation. They’re all seeking and searching for something. And they’re on their way to find it. And on that journey, they’re connecting with the animals, the plants and the environment around them. So that’s what the whole piece is about. It’s about motion, transformation, progression.
I noticed in many of your paintings there is a house, which represents stability, however that house is always in motion.
The houses and the reason why I placed them on the heads and in weird places where houses really wouldn’t be is because I want to show that it’s not a literal house. It’s more like metaphorical house, meaning that the idea of shelter and the idea of safety is something that you can foster within you rather than something that comes from outside of you. All these characters when they have these houses on their heads it’s kind of like their little crown, it’s like their own inner safety. It’s about having a little piece of home with you no matter where you go. It’s always inside.
Where did you start off with art?
When I was a kid, I moved around a lot. It was kind of a rough beginning as a kid. Me and pops moved around a lot and I was really observant as a kid. I never really picked up the pen or started drawing until my pops passed away. He died when I was eleven years old right in the middle of us travelling all over the place. When that happened, it broke me as a kid. I was only eleven years old, and I didn’t know what to do. And I was staying with my sister at the time and I found one of my uncle’s black books. He was in a graffiti crew at the time—this was in the early nineties. So when I found that book it was the thing that saved me. I had never seen art like that. I had never seen characters like that. I didn’t know you could do that. I was obsessed with having ideas in my mind and putting it down on paper. That’s all I wanted to do and from that moment on, I was just stuck, and I kept doing it and doing it. And along the way, little gems were given to me. Like people told me, “Oh, you can go to art school, or you could do this,” and I just kept going from there and it’s just been an evolutionary thing.
So, you have formal training in art?
It was the graffiti that introduced me to art and introduced me to line and color and techniques, and it was me wanting to progress and transcend that and so I went to the Art Center in Pasadena. But it was graff. Graff was the thing at the beginning, the fundamentals of graffiti that really spoke to me as a kid.
And you did graffiti?
Yeah, that’s how I got started. At eleven years old I was just trying to draw my own pieces, I was copying other people’s pieces, and going out and painting, and it was just a culture I was very deeply in, and really still am. My pieces still have that vibe to it, that’s why they look the way they look. It’s a transition, but to me the thing about graff is there are no rules and so that was the thing that always spoke to me and that’s how I look at my art. There are no rules to my art. I can do anything I want to do. I don’t have to have all the same style. I can have drawings, black paintings. I love to flip it. I love to keep changing and growing with my art. I don’t want to stay stagnant for any reason.
What are your thoughts about street art entering the mainstream?
Labels are labels. I feel graffiti and street art are separate things. Graffiti is one thing that’s against the establishment. It’s something that you do to break free and go against the grain—to do something different than what’s there. Whereas street art, it’s a reaction to what’s going on around us. So we have these big cities popping up—concrete, we’re losing trees. So we need something to see. We need something people want. I feel like street art is a reflection of that.
There’s quite a contrast from these paintings in this room to the paintings in that darker room across from us.
(Walking over to the darker room) What’s going on with these pieces is that I look at them and the color and the movement as what’s going on inside of us. It’s the energy and the vibrations that are going on inside of us—that pure raw energy. So it’s kind of like if you took the pieces that are on this wall (referring to the paintings we just walked away from) and flipped those characters inside out. This is what would be going inside of them. This whole room here is my idea of a manifestation of a dream. All of these other characters are all on their journeys. They’re all searching in their own ways for fulfillment. They’re searching to get somewhere, like all of us. Sometimes we have an idea where we want to be but we’re not totally sure and we’re searching. So like I said, all these pieces are a manifestation of a dream. The first piece here is called Rest. That’s the first stage of having your dream come to realization. You need rest for that idea to hit you out of nowhere when you weren’t expecting it. The character is in repose and just chillin’ and then it shoots over to the next character and that’s titled, Awake. He’s finally alive now, he has his mission, and he knows what he wants to do. He’s awake, he’s alive, and the energy is flying, and he’s doing it.
And then it jumps off into the next piece and that’s called, Manifest. He’s finally grasped what it is that he wanted. And then like in life when you have the things that you want sometimes you need to let them go in order to grow into the next thing. And so this piece here called Transcend. So as he finally has what he wants, he floats into transcendence, and then floats off. And if you look at the wall, it starts with this organic matter, this seed of thought. All these swatches of color start to flow and bring your eye through the pieces and then up and out. And as it changes and becomes more angular that’s where the energy starts to change just as this last character is transcending and it shoots up out. So it’s a full completion.
When did this dream concept become part of Creative Reflections?
I started this style of work October 2013 on a trip to New York. I was just walking around Manhattan and there was something about the people and their vibrations I really felt. I was doing something at Comic-Con and I had a black board just by chance and this just came out of me. I was always thinking I wanted to do something with color and I always feel like creation sparks out of the darkness. It’s sparks out of emptiness. It just kind of happens like a divine thought. That’s how I like to look at these paintings too. They’re just vibrations that are created like miniature big bangs.
You’ve got the light and you’ve got the dark.
Just like life, right. Just like in that journey you’re gonna have good smooth, coasting times … and then shit’s just all going to hell. But when you get lost and all that shit happens that’s kind of when you really start to know who you are, right. That’s when you really start to discover something about yourself.
Well, you found this show, so what are you looking for next?
So now, I get to start my journey. I get to take off from where these characters have taken it. I don’t know where I’m going to go. I have a studio in Hawaii and I can go anywhere I want. It’s limitless. I just want to paint more walls. I love doing large scale work. I’ve really started focusing on that last year with a trip I took out to Richmond, Virginia for the Richmond Mural Project. I’ve been evolved in Pow Wow Hawaii doing some large scale murals, which I’m going to be doing next week in Hawaii. That’s going to be my mission for this year, to get out there and interact with more people and learn more stories, and have more stories of my own to tell.
And then that will become your next show.
The way I look at art, there’s no top. There’s no finish. There’s just a constant keep going.
Event photography courtesy of Ambrose Gardenhire.