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1000 WORDS: TIONA NEKKIA McCLODDEN

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, I prayed to the wrong god for you, 2019, stills from the six-channel color HD video component of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising twelve objects.

FOR THIS YEAR’S WHITNEY BIENNIAL, on view from May 17 to September 22, the Philadelphia-based artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden embarked on an ambitious journey to reconcile her artistic work with the spiritual work she undertook following her initiation into Santería/Lucumí, an Afro-Cuban religious practice developed by descendants of the Yoruba. McClodden’s project both mends and shatters, spiraling across the founding breaches of modern Western culture: the Euro-American colonization and enslavement of African peoples and the alienation of art from religion. It is a reminder that sometimes activism is the reparative adventure of making a place you can be.

David Velasco

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, I prayed to the wrong god for you, 2019, stills from the six-channel color HD video component of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising twelve objects.

I WAS A LIBRARY KID, super-nerdy. I spent all my time at the Greenville Memorial Library in South Carolina going through the art books. They didn’t have a lot, and the black-art books they had were really old-ass outdated.

One that stuck with me was Black Images: The Art of West Africa [1973] by Penelope Naylor. I remember being ten years old and feeling so blown away by these figures in the book. They looked like me. They looked like my family, like real black people.

It was in one of the book’s sections, “Oríkì Ogun,” that I first saw the god I now have as my head. I was raised Christian by a hyperreligious father until the age of twelve or thirteen. I knew nothing about the Yoruba religion, and wouldn’t have been equipped to accept it if I did. But as a kid I saw the book’s figures as art, not religion, which allowed me to bypass the notion of blasphemy. An oríkì is a poem or song for an Orisha, and Ogun’s oríkì was so serious, so hard, that the figure on the other side of the text came alive for me.

My installation for the Whitney Biennial is my way of confronting one of the major tools of colonialism forced on my lineage—enslaved Africans, black Southerners. My first, personal decolonization project is to decolonize the tool that was put into me without consent, working its way through my genealogy: European religion.

It’s called I prayed to the wrong god for you.

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, I prayed to the wrong god for you, 2019, stills from the six-channel color HD video component of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising twelve objects.

LAST YEAR, on May 30, I had a quarterly reading with my baba—the padrino, or godfather, who initiated me into Santería/Lucumí. He told me I needed to do work with Shango. I was immediately humbled. Shango is aligned with the head of all artists. You pray to him for confidence, good business, bravery. He’s got a certain . . . charisma. I guess he’s like the Rico Suave of the Orisha.Very different from me as a child of Ogun, whose children are known to be hardworking, keep-to-themselves, brooding people. Ogun and Shango don’t exactly have the best relationship. I understood that this work was intended to repair the worn-out, self-isolating state I was in.

My first, personal decolonization project is to decolonize the tool that was put into me without consent, working its way through my genealogy: European religion.

At the time, I was straight up burnt-out. I’d just had three back-to-back shows in New York and was having a hard time, because you can’t talk about fatigue when you’re in a seemingly successful moment. I had just found out that I was invited to the Biennial, which started a panic, because I was like, Oh God, I’m so spent. But my baba’s reading inspired me to confront what’s happened in my life since I was initiated into the practice. I decided to challenge the idea of work in my life. I could not separate my artistic work from my spiritual work in this moment.

After the reading, I went to Skowhegan, Maine, for a residency, and for the first month and a half I just rested. I took on gardening for my residency job, to relearn the names of trees and flowers I had forgotten while away from the South. The work began over six days in the first week of August. Shango’s number is six. I’m in my sixth year of practice, so I’m six years old. I would make six tools for Shango. His main tool is a double-sided ax. Then there’s a hatchet, an arrow, a hand knife, then a more curved knife, and a single-sided ax. They had to be made from cedar; it’s his wood, and the reddish tinge is important, as his colors are red and white. I went into the forest to look for a tree that was what I’d consider a mutt—a cedar fir—a tree of my diaspora, mixing African and American lineages. I cut one down and began the long process of preparing the wood.

This is very different from the work people are maybe looking for from me. But this is work that I needed to do in my life.

I’m not exactly skilled in carpentry, so all of this is intuitive. I used a Dremel rotary to cut the tools from the wood slabs, so my hand is very visible, but there’s a machine aspect to it, which I liked as an opportunity to talk about my lineage, the factory workers whom I come from. I sanded the tools in Havana, because I’m still trying to complicate the making by crossing lands, so now it’s not just American art, it’s of the diaspora.

I told my baba I was going to take the tools to Havana, where I received the religion, and then to Salvador, in Bahia, Brazil, where I spent a month as an Iyawó learning about Candomblé.

“No,” he said. “You need to go to Oyo State.”

“In Nigeria?”

This brought up a lot of feelings. I had first wanted to initiate within Ifá, but, during my search for a place to practice, I was turned away from priests in the US because of my sexuality and the fact that I’m visibly queer. This is not always the case, but it was mine, unfortunately. I made a pact with myself that I would not initiate within the practice if I couldn’t bring my full self to the table.

I thought, is this a chance for me to confront
my origins?

I was like, OK. Oyo State. The capital is Ibadan. I can go to Lagos, travel to Ibadan, and present myself and these tools I’ve made to the landscape, to Shango in his birthplace.

I WAS ONLY GOING to be in Nigeria for two full days. I had no contacts in Lagos, so I booked a luxurious hotel by the airport. The hotel hooked me up with a driver, who picked me up at 9 am. His name was Courage—literally! I got in the car with my tools, and he told me it was going to be more than an hour’s drive to Ibadan. I had a motorcycle helmet that had been with me since I started the work at Skowhegan; it would sit near me, to act as my witness, kind of like that Wilson volleyball that’s Tom Hanks’s surrogate companion in Cast Away [2000]. A ritual needs a witness, and I liked the idea of something that could reflect me and that I could also film through. I would extend the concept of ori, or “head,” to an object that I could see at all times. The helmet is like an inner self I can look at.

I gave the driver two destinations, both drawn from my childhood engagement with African literature. The first was the University of Ibadan, from which Chinua Achebe graduated; Things Fall Apart [1958] blew me away as a kid. The second was the Agbeni market, where I knew the Agbeni Shango shrine had once been located. I had this 1998 article by Norma H. Wolff and D. Michael Warren that I found on JSTOR that goes through this old shrine’s documentation, starting in the late 1800s, and it mentions that seven carved wooden posts had been taken from it to the Detroit Institute of Arts. I was struck by the article’s commitment to a single shrine over a century, before it had even been photographed. As far as I knew, it no longer existed.

Courage took me to the University of Ibadan, and I stood outside the main gate. I planned to film myself standing there with the tools. People thought I was famous, maybe because of the small camera and my leather jacket, and began gathering around. The security guards were not having it. So Courage drove me around the campus, and I filmed from the car. It was really beautiful, him describing all these different areas to me in this epicenter of African intellectualism that I’m invested in.

Then we headed toward Agbeni market. He would stop and talk to people selling stuff on the side of the road, asking for directions. He would ask if they were Yoruba, and I came to realize the nuances among different tribes and the influence of Christianity in the area. Not everyone is open to Ifá. It’s a tense place.

Courage drove into the market—and when I say drove into the market, I mean he actually drove straight into this pedestrian area. I couldn’t really film because it was so dense and people were looking at the camera and pointing. I told him we could just get close to where the shrine used to be, but he kept driving, saying, “No, no, we’re gonna find this.” And I’m just like, Oh Lord. I was shook by the sheer number of people. It was a massive market!

Eventually we parked. I asked how much it cost so that we didn’t get pressed for a crazy bill afterward. The man we paid said he’d take us. We walked for a mile or so, and these two other guys joined and walked ahead. I started getting worried. And the guide said, “It’s just by that church.” And I’m like, “I’m not trying to go to this Christian church.” He was like, “No, it’s by the church.” We rounded a corner, and then everything got silent.

These men took me to the fucking shrine. I was like, “Oh my God.” Just the honor of it. And the men were looking at me like, Why is she like this? In a daze, I handed them the JSTOR article and walked in. I asked if I could film myself doing a foribale, which is a salute to a priest in the practice, or in this case, to the shrine itself. I asked how much, because I needed to pay, out of respect for their time, and they said eight thousand naira. Courage started to bargain, and I said absolutely not: I’ll give them twenty thousand. And they’re just like, What?

The men pointed at the paper and then at the shrine. Courage explained to me that their grandfather is in the article. Then, as I looked closer, I realized that the objects taken to the Detroit Institute of Arts had been remade. I was floored!

I immediately felt the gravity of these two things: One, I had just delivered to them a document about something that is so mundane to them, but which allowed them to see their grandfather, in ceremony, at this shrine that they now take care of.

Two, I thought about current conversations around restitution. People say these objects should be sent back. And I’m humbled, because what I’m confronted with is that these objects were taken, and yet here we have copies—maybe not as precise as the ones in Detroit, but here, nonetheless, and they are very much active.

These particular objects are part of what is called the altar’s screen, meaning they safeguard the ceremonial area. They are also extensions of Shango’s features and characteristics—like a multifacted portrait of his traits and oríkì. More importantly, there are many women figures set in place to protect and provide context for the god. They are a requirement of the religious practice, so if they are removed, they must be replaced. And so, what are we talking about when we consider sending back something that is active but has already been remade by the practitioners? This is what gives them value. How dare we think that if something was taken the people who made it can’t make it again? I was humbled and reminded of the practice and why these objects were created to begin with. The object is a crucial part of the oríkì. Everything came full circle.

I set up my witness. I put my tools in front of the shrine, and I performed my salute.

The whole thing was like a time warp. When we left, reality resumed. A small gang followed us to the car. Courage told me that they were just trying to make a scene. They claimed I didn’t belong there, and they wanted money because we’re not supposed to be on their land. And Courage tells them that they can’t say that to him as he is from Benin, and whose land is it?

The trailer for Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s I prayed to the wrong god for you, 2019.

It’s poignant as fuck, because the whole project is about my dispossession as a diasporic practitioner. My prayer, my practice in creating these objects, is what brought me to this land. These objects are my land.

The thing the art world fears most is religion.

THE THING THE ART WORLD fears most is religion. Part of the project of restitution is to engage with a mind-set that, for years, people have called “savage,” to understand that African religious intellect is the base concept for these objects, and that it must be respected. To me, the only way to even start the restitution conversation is as a reparative project around knowledge—and you can’t just get this knowledge with a degree.

What does it mean to think about this work in the Whitney Museum of American Art? Is this not African art? Is it not American art? Where do you place me and these objects?

Now I have to go to Detroit. I must talk to the objects. I want to go tell them what I did. Because that’s the only way to close it out. I mean, everyone talking about restitution is talking about the objects. Nobody’s talking to the objects. And the objects are alive.