Born Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1984 / BFA Rhode Island School of Design; MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
“Home is where the heart is,” as the old chestnut goes. But where is home when your life has had a multi-continent trajectory? Ceramicist, sculptor, and designer Ebitenyefa “Ebi” Baralaye explores this question through his work in clay and other materials. He draws on the spirituality and culture of Nigeria (his country of birth) and the Caribbean (where he grew up for a time) to document and mediate his experiences in living in the Midwest and on both coasts of the United States.
The sound of a beating heart gives the sculpture Dupp Dup (2016) its title—in part. Just as the undergirding of burlap and sisal rope makes itself known through the plaster surface, there are many layers to the title. The words are Caribbean slang that harken back to Baralaye’s youth in Antigua: dupp means “ghost,” and dup means “hello.” Thus, the title loosely translates as “hello ghosts” and positions the form as an invitational marker of spirit life. Standing at over six feet tall on its wooden pedestal, the sculpture is a monument to crafting a personal spiritual identity and iconography while listening to the ancestral echoes of one’s religious and cultural heritage.
The dual sculptures of Ibeji Ori (2015) reflect the artist’s research into the statues, shrines, and pottery of the Yoruba people from whom he descends. In Yoruba culture, twins are venerated in life and in death with paired sculptures known as Ibeji. Ibeji means twin, and Ori means head. In a personal sense, these twinned statues commemorate deceased siblings that his mother had been pregnant with before he was born.
In other family-focused work, Baralaye honored his mother and his father with the found-object assemblages Adesuwa and Kesiye (both 2011). These portraits seem to speak to the concept that identity is composed by that which a person inherits and accrues in life—not just the objects that one accumulates, but the generational knowledge, spiritual legacy, and immaterial experiences that make a person who they are. In this sense, home is what a person carries within them into the spaces they occupy throughout their life.
The effect of the spaces of daily life on a person is intimated in One Piece (2015). Four wooden boxes installed side-by-side represent various environments a person passes through every day: home, studio, the workplace, public spaces. Each of these wooden cells contains a single earthenware object, signifying that we each are just one piece of a greater context. The varying formations of the objects within indicate different states of being or different states of mind a person inhabits when they find themselves in one environment versus another.
ContAxts (Tenderloin), from 2017, is a set of eight ceramic pieces that the artist created to mediate his relationship with his exterior space. Displayed in a gallery setting, the rough ovals seem like deep frames of coiled clay. They are, however, outlines of the artist’s footprints, which he used to map out the area in which he lived in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco as a performance and installation. Now that Baraleye has returned to Michigan, to teach Ceramics at the College for Creative Studies, he has mentioned revisiting this piece in Detroit.
Teaching at CCS has led Baralaye to work more with wheel-thrown pottery, a foundation of ceramics instruction. It’s a method typically used to create functional items such as vessels and plates, however the artist has used this form to investigate the tension between utility and the purely aesthetic—a theme he has returned to throughout his work. Portrait #1 (2020) is inspired by jugs created by freedmen and slave potters, but it has no opening. The artist has said that this portrait of a tortured, distracted face reflects his thinking of “unfortunate realities around the way in which we’ve built society and created our structures as it relates to slavery, as it relates to police brutality, as it relates to the systems that we’re hopefully trying to dismantle now.”
Baralaye’s work encompasses multitudinous materials and methods and draws on ancestral culture and spirituality, family, and the context of life in the United States. His art might be saying that home is the accumulation of all these things inside of a person, and when you’re a maker, exploring the ideas that mean the most to you, you are continually fashioning and refashioning your home into something portable that you can take with you anywhere in the world.
Mariwyn Curtin, March 2021