New Mo(nu)ments is the first solo exhibition by Nigerian-Austrian artist Cameron Ugbodu following their migration to London from Vienna. The artist tells Chelsea Mtada about their journery to creating New Mo(nu)ments and the importance of black art.
Art by Cameron Ugbodu.
Photography of Cameron Ugbodu by Luca Allick-Smith.
It’s lunchtime on a typical autumn afternoon in Elephant and Castle, and Cameron Ugbodu and I are sitting in the community curated art gallery; Flat 70, discussing his journey to his latest photography collection; New Monuments. “The people in the pictures have something within them that is deeply inspiring and royal. I just captured it.” My eyes can’t help but return to the striking imagery that surrounds us. I think to myself, you did more than just capture it, you shared it with us.
Six figures in total are raised above our heads. All were photographed from the top of the hair on their head to their bare chest. Cameron collaborated with hair and make-up artist Fey Carla Adediji to crown each sitter with intricately braided structural forms inspired by the natural hairstyle and crowns of African art, deities and current on-trend hairstyles in the black community.
Cameron comments saying, “Unlike European statues where you’ll see in their poses and faces that it is about the power that is higher than you and seeks to intimidate and look down on you. These busts hold the power within. I didn’t really intend to make them look powerful but it is what naturally comes out of the people we asked to be a part of it. There is still a relatability within them.” The models either look away from the spectator or close their eyes in meditation, self-preservation or a moment of peace. I feel emotional and not quite sure what to say. As he awaits my response, I am momentarily speechless but do my best to recover by simply asking, “where are you from?”
“My Mother’s Austrian and my Father’s Nigerian. I lived in Austria until November 2019 and then I moved to London.” Cameron continues, “ I grew up in the countryside, so it was very quiet and a bit isolating at times. The village only had 3000 people and there were no other black people there, except for those who were in my family”.
As a child, Cameron was curious about his identity and recognised that there was a clear difference between him and his peers. Growing up, there weren’t any representations of black art, culture or beauty in the village countryside of Austria. It wasn’t until Cameron began to take notice of the details of his home that he could source some details of his heritage and connection to his ethnicity.
He briefly shares the story of his first interaction with seeing blackness in art. When he tells me, “when my Father married my Mother, my Grandfather sent over some artwork from Nigeria. Some of them were traditional wooden sculptural pieces and statutes that resonated with me a lot at the time”. And apparently still do, as Cameron now returns to the tradition of West African sculpture art, through ‘New Monuments’. Some of these inspirations include the Benin Bronzes, Akan gold weights and traditional wooden and organic material sculpture.
By the time Cameron was a teenager, he knew that he wanted to find a way to move from his small village to be in an environment where he could meet different people. Although his only experience with photography was quite limited at this time. Cameron shares, “my experience of photography was my Mother taking pictures of my siblings and me. However, when I was young I barely touched the camera and the only photographer I knew, was the guy who would come to school and take class photos.” A detail I couldn’t help but break into some laughter as I reminisced over the incredibly awkward experience of forcing a smile at the lens of an overly keen school photographer. Cameron continued to say, “ When I picked up a camera for the first time, photography was not an art form yet. I hadn’t yet discovered that it was a tool to create art and express myself.”
It would be just a few years later when at only seventeen years old, Cameron made the decision to move from his home village to Vienna. “At this point in my life all I wanted to do was photography. I didn’t know anyone in the industry at the time but I knew where creatives would go and hang out so I would be there too”. He says, “I learned quickly that in the situation of not knowing anyone you have to make an effort to meet new people. It’s that experience that lead me to move to London which was a bit more intense but things began to move a lot faster when I got here”.
Since moving to London, Cameron Ugbodu has become a member of the Black Photographers Network, a UK wide group of contemporary black practitioners of lens-based fine artists. Most recently, Cameron also debuted his first solo exhibition with Elephant and Castle based community gallery; Flat 70. It is a non-profit art space that is a black canvas in itself and an “ode to the tearing down of historic spaces and communities in SE17”. Cameron says, “I got into contact with Flat 70 and Anthony Badu through a mutual friend. Flat 70 resonated with me because of how the gallery is sitting on the backdrop of Elephant and Castle being torn down and new things being built without our permission. I wanted to join Flat 70 and show people that we can build our own new monuments, no matter what you decide to tear down. I couldn’t have done it without Anthony and Senam.”
During the heart of the BLM movement in 2020, issues that face the black community from the gentrification of predominantly black areas to the calls for racist statues to be removed from where they stand were at the forefront. Cameron describes feeling inspired by those who had the courage to tear them down and so explored what kind of monuments should replace them. He says, ‘I didn’t see anyone creating new ones, so I decided to create my own new monuments”. All monuments that Cameron took it upon himself to print into life-size posters and distribute all over the estates in Elephant and Castle as a way to connect with the community this collection was created for. He commented on this by saying, “When I was growing up, I would have loved to see imagery like this. It gives me a sense of belonging.”
Cameron has given many the opportunity to experience the beauty and joy of the kind of black representation that offers pride, reflection and excitement for how the new generation of black artists are going to contribute to the art space. If you wish to check out more of Cameron’s work or make a purchase of a print. Click here.