ọkan àbíkú, 2016


ọkan àbíkú is a design piece I created to unpack the Yoruba ontology of  àbíkú as a merging point of critical disability studies, critical queer studies, and black feminist epistemology. àbíkú is a Yoruba ontology that describes the one who is predestined to death.  àbíkú  reconceptualized as people in between worlds who haunt their parents with their deaths or with the threat of their death. Those who live beyond the first initial months of birth exist in a liminal space in between worlds, constantly on the verge of death or transition. ọkan means mind in Yoruba but also heart. ọkan bíkú is thus the heart/mind of the one in between world. The work pushes against the dichotomous dualism separating heart and emotionality from mind as well as body, a separation that is at the core of western epistemology. ọkan àbíkú undoes the thinking/feeling dichotomy set forth by the likes of Descartes and reaffirms the need for a unified epistemology that recognizes feeling as an intellectual mode of production.


My grandmother Umuaani Adeknubi Atunnwa Ojewole-Folorunsho was an  àbíkú who lived until the age of 104. She was also the bearer of  àbíkú giving birth to 13 children, only five of which survived. My mother has always suspected that my grandmother’s children who passed were, like myself, children with sickle cell anemia. My grandmother always told me that I was a reincarnation of one of these children. It is through these understandings and the liminality of my displacement in diaspora that I enter abiku as a subjectivity that can encompass my being unlike the normative Western ontology of the liberal subject.

In the piece, traumatic experiences felt through the heart, mind, and body at once converge into a materialized form of clothing that is informed by both narrative and critical theory.  ọkan  àbíkú  is an expression of the radical ambivalence of queerness that Jose Munoz describes in Cruising Utopia as “the rejection of here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (Munoz 1). It builds on his hope methodology of a “backward glance that enacts future vision” (Munoz 4). I took experiences of ableism and abuse, and created a suit meant to be at once a form of protection and an expression of my pain and journey towards healing.

The execution of the work comes to encapsulate the my many liminalities and desires for translation. The silhouette is adaptation of a traditional Yoruba silhouette for warriors that is just as easily legible as a contemporary t-shirt with jogger pants. This choice of silhouette and the ambiguities I’ve created within it are a form of contamination, a flattening of time and space, between tradition and modernity, between home and diaspora. The design is in white and red, a reference to Shango and the evocation of the strength of the god of thunder. Beaded across the heart of the tunic are handmade beads that are at once references to American military badges and the talisman of Yoruba hunters. Each bead is a piece of waste material, including old fruit and pill bottles from my sickle cell prophylactic shaped into sickled blood cells. Through the use of decaying organic material I engage ephemerality and the realities of my own humanness and sense of being in a body with chronic illness. Each of the beads were cut, gilded with gold paint or copper leaf, and sanded. My use of these waste materials is the expression of an inner dialogue throughout my work on reclaiming worth. As a subjectivity that has been treated as valueless in both my personal and professional relationships, as a black woman with a chronic illness, I take objects that are, like me, treated as disposable, reclaim them and ornament them to make a statement about their intrinsic worth.

The pants portion of the suit has an ode to the ambivalence of the àbíkú: 

                                                                    àbíkú'n roju/ ese kan laye/ ese kan lorun; 

                                      the abiku is weary, undecided/ one leg in the world/ one leg in the afterlife.

Along the bottom panels of the pants are a print of sidewalk concrete. Like the tunic portion, in which the placement of materials is symbolic and strategic (the beads both badge and protect my heart), the poems and panels have a significant relationship to my legs. They reference a memory in which, as a result of a sickle cell crisis and abuse by medical professionals, I was left unable to walk for two months. The poem is thus an homage to that near-death experience and the new relationship it created between my spirit, my legs, and myself. The print panels  similarly represent the broken and altered relationship to the sidewalk, to the ground, and to grounding. Through the various symbols present in ọkan àbíkú Through the various symbols present in Okan Abiku, as well as their ambivalences, I hope to build on what Monica Miller describes as the Black Dandy’s tradition of disidentification in which the subject “neither opts to assimilate within [dominant] structure nor strictly oppose it”…thus producing a “strategy that works on and against dominant ideology” (Miller 12).

In the West, sickness, illness, trauma, and being differently abled are often viewed as signs of weakness, loss, and lack. ọkan àbíkú allows me to explore my trauma, and my sickle cell as part of a legitimate subject position able to access liminal space in ways that a body without these experiences cannot. With ọkan àbíkú I traverse an indelible link between making, wearing, and being; steadying me on the path towards healing.

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