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Successful AER resident, Antoinette Oni, shares letter of motivation for Guest Artist Space (G.A.S.) Foundation residency

  • Written byPost-Grad Community
  • Published date 16 March 2022
Image: Antoinette Oni

Antoinette Oni, MA Architecture at Central Saint Martins has been selected for the AER residency at Guest Artist Space (G.A.S.) Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to facilitating international cultural exchange, located in Nigeria

Set up by Professor Lucy Orta UAL Chair of Art for the Environment - Centre for Sustainable Fashion in 2015, The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) provides UAL graduates with the exceptional opportunity to apply for short residencies at one of our internationally renowned host institutions, to explore concerns that define the 21st century – biodiversity, environmental sustainability, social economy, and human rights.

Read Antoinette's successful proposal

A decade ago, my family and I took a vacation to Lagos, Nigeria. For the majority of our stay, we experienced torrential downpours due to the Summer Rains — a season that seems to lengthen with each passing year. The heavy rains flooded the roads leading water and sewage to swamp the already crumbling public infrastructure. During a drive, we witnessed the aftermath of a fatal vehicular accident. An okada motorcycle taxi and danfo minibus had collided; both vehicles burnt beyond recognition yet the distinct canary yellow of the danfo was the only survivor of the inferno. Witnessing this incident as a teenager shaped my perspective around the climate emergency and the vulnerability of working-class Nigerians to the consequences of environmental degradation. As an architectural designer and artist, environmental regeneration and the design of climate-resilient urban spaces have been at the fore of my practice.

The current title of my project is The Honourable Harvest; a material exploration of the abundant biomass generated from agricultural processes and other plant life. For the Art for the Environment residency at the Guest Artist Space, I hope to experiment with fibres derived from the water hyacinth plant— a tropical, aquatic species which grows at an alarming rate on waterways in South-West Nigeria. Locally known as ‘gbeborun’, the water hyacinth blooms in natural waterways as an invasive plant that fishermen and boat owners alike want to eradicate. It is considered a pest as it forms dense, fibrous mats, infesting rivers and depleting the supply of oxygen to marine life; consequently depleting biodiversity. The government goes to great lengths to remove the noxious weed from congested waterways to prevent further flood risks during the rainy season. From my research, there is a remarkable opportunity to use the biomass of the fibrous water hyacinth to produce materials for agricultural, commercial and artisanal use.

Antoinette Portfolio for AER
Image: Antoinette Oni

As a material precedent for the water hyacinth, I looked at the manufacture of Lokta paper in Nepal. This artisanal paper is made from fibre stripped from the Daphne bush native to the Himalayas. For centuries, the indigenes of this region have handcrafted the paper for sacred, religious texts. This is an example of an honourable harvest sustainably practised by indigenous people adding cultural and commercial value to their community through slow making.

If accepted for the AER, I aim to establish the material flow map of the water hyacinth artisanal paper production process. Through a weekly series of co-design workshops with participants from the local community; the aim is to collaboratively explore the feasibility of

using the water hyacinth fibres for artisanal paper making. What are the existing uses of the ‘gbeborun’ water hyacinth plant in Ijebu? Is there a demand from local people for artisanal paper making and other plant-based materials? How can this help stimulate the local economy in Ijebuland? Can this production sit within the existing framework established by the Yinka Shonibare Foundation?

I believe the water hyacinth has the potential to be the ‘King of Crops’, a term borrowed from Chinua Achebe’s 1958 fictional novel Things Fall Apart which documents the pre-colonial life and customs of an Igbo community in what is now known as Southern Nigeria. The community's spiritual, cultural and political activities centre around the harvest cycle of the yam crop— a symbol of wealth, social status and masculinity.

Antoinette Portfolio for AER
Image: Antoinette Oni

Due to the rapid growth rate, water hyacinth fibre is arguably a regenerative source from which significant biomass can be provided for a myriad of uses from bulking animal feed to biofuel. The water hyacinth paper project sits within a larger body of research looking at the cultural, environmental and commercial potential of readily available plant matter. Other potential material loops to be explored include the immense agricultural waste generated by banana tree bark. Banana linen is made from the stem of the banana plant which is often disposed of by farmers. The practice of spinning these plant fibres into yarn is practised in various indigenous cultures around the world, most notably in Okinawa, Japan where the banana linen is used for traditional robe-making. The Honourable Harvest project aims to develop these material loops from craft material to materials for construction, bringing my architectural knowledge to the project.

Of course, the full scope of the gbeborun plant research and production cannot be achieved within the four-week duration of the residency programme. However, I do aim to use the time in Ijebu-Ode and the unique ecosystem developed by the Yinka Shonibare Foundation to connect with local craftspeople, farmers, artists and stewards of the land to push this material exploration along and develop a working prototype of the water hyacinth paper.

As an output for my time at the residency, I hope to document this creative process with a short eco film centring on the waterways in Ijebu, the infestation of water hyacinth and the making process of the artisanal paper. The eco film will amalgamate the various themes, environmental challenges and material aspirations with the rich agrarian heritage of

Ijebuland and its industrious people. To foster collaboration, I hope to commission local musicians to produce the score for the ten-minute eco film.

As a British-Nigerian artist and designer, I have been greatly influenced by Yinka Shonibare CBE RA’s exploration of colonial identity, global history and material exploitation throughout my education and career. I was incredibly excited to see the AER residency at the G.A.S. Foundation was open to students of the University of the Arts London. Completing the architecture master's programme at Central Saint Martins has made me sensitive to the concept of care for the community through decolonisation and decarbonisation in the creative process. I hope to put this learning into practice by marrying material innovation with indigenous practices through maintaining a network of farmers, artisans and makers. The portfolio included in my application visually demonstrates my ambition for the residency, written research centred on Nigeria’s architectural, urban and ecological heritage as well as my architectural speculation for the project.

Antoinette Portfolio for AER
Image: Antoinette Oni

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