From his home in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Olalekan Jeyifous is busy building fictional worlds. The speculative architect and public artist — with commissions in the works for the Venice Biennale and Exhibit Columbus and currently showing as part of “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America” at MoMA — has taken a unique approach to the built environment ever since his studies at Cornell in the early 2000s. Borrowing tropes from science fiction, Jeyifous’s richly layered, narrative images, he tells Azure, are in fact reflections of current conditions and disparities. After a sustained viewing, here are a few insights we’ve gleaned.
After graduating, I was applying to artist residencies and focusing more on visual representation in order to conceive of these speculative ideas and concepts. I loved the studio environment. Pretty much out of the gate, I decided to pursue a non-traditional practice.
I’ve always liked science fiction as a means to examine present conditions, but to create your own framework for them. The primary purpose of sci-fi is to exacerbate whatever contemporary issue plagues us now. I’ve always thought it was a great medium for exploration.
The parameters shaping The Frozen Neighborhoods are dystopian in the tradition of predatory loans and redlining. But what I present is almost utopian, because it’s a sustainable community that has developed a variety of advanced green technology for the production and dissemination of food, seeds and fresh water. It’s a community of resilience and resistance, but through the lens of this “solarpunk” world view.
I’m deceptively not as tech-savvy as it looks. Using SketchUp, I have access to their 3D warehouse, so I can pull models down very quickly. I can chop them up, remix them, take them apart and reshape them. A lot of the scenes I make are much more collage than people think because they’re also a mix of my own photographs. It’s really a blend of all these things coming together and being organized in the digital space.
For Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies, I looked at the mercantile past of Alexandria, Virginia, but also its slaveowning history and how they connect. The final structure literally intertwines symbols and iconography that reflect the four main commercial and industrial enterprises of the city within the abstracted busts of enslaved figures.
For the speculative architect, imagined dystopian worlds help explore the challenges of our times.