When Jite Agbro begins a new mixed media work, she starts with harem cloth. The lightweight material is similar to cheese cloth and serves as the foundation for what will eventually become a vibrant and patterned piece of art incorporating portraiture. Next steps in the process include gluing strips of kozo paper to the cloth, cutting out a figure, printing a design on paper several times, creating a background, sewing the layers together and, finally, a wax finish.
“It gives it a translucency and changes the texture of the paper, so that sort of leathery sheen is because of the wax,” Agbro said. “And it gives me the ability to sort of store and bring things back to life. So those wrinkles in the paper — I can just iron them out.”
Agbro’s work isn’t just layered with paper. It’s also a stratum of thoughtful observation and personal experience. The silhouetted figures in her present works are based on real people. They include her father as well as guests who weren’t technically invited to her wedding in Nigeria, but were welcomed just the same.
“Deserving” hangs in the window of Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA). It’s part of an exhibition at the museum that shares the same name. The mostly blue piece is rich in texture. Chief Curator Greg Robinson asked Agbro to create a piece that would not only fill the two-story window, but also be double-sided, so those inside could marvel at it, too.
In “Deserving,” Agbro is exploring what people are worthy of, partially in regards to immigration. Agbro was born in Nigeria but when she was 2, her family — her and her parents and older siblings — relocated to the U.S. Her mother is from Seattle, so she was returning home. Later, her father moved back to Nigeria.
Three years ago, Agbro began the process of helping her father get a green card. She described the undertaking as brutal, particularly so in a political atmosphere created by the Trump administration, which is openly hostile to Black and Brown people from other countries. Her father’s application for a green card has a happy ending, but not first without continuous obstacles. He was ultimately approved and now lives in Seattle.
In “Evidence,” Agbro is referring to what she had to provide when she assisted her father. Her birth certificate had several mistakes, including the country she came from. That was listed as Nicaragua. When she spoke to a woman about getting it changed, Agbro’s word was not enough.
“I had to produce evidence and pay $240 to change it back to Nigeria because someone made a mistake,” Agbro said. “It’s so bureaucratic, but it ended up costing me lots of time and money 30 years later. And I just thought it was a poignant piece for art. Yes, evidence. More evidence that you are who you say you are.”
Agbro’s work complements BIMA’s “Face First,” a group exhibition centering portraiture. Robinson described her mixed media collages as having a beautiful, three-dimensional presence.
“Agbro’s work is meticulously conceived and created, strong and bold while also delicate and ethereal,” Robinson said. “It is highly narrative and personal, a diary of sorts hung as an offering, an invitation to engage.”
Agbro’s entry into art was through Pratt Fine Arts Center. She lived nearby and would walk by every day on the way to school. Agbro said one day, when she was around 8 or 9 years old, she wandered in. They were holding a free art class for kids and a teacher asked her if she’d like to join. Before long she was hooked and instinctively knew this is what she wanted to do.
Agbro finished high school early so that she could enroll at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. At 16 years old, Agbro was ready and determined to venture onto the next step. She later attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, then completed a degree in Design and Engineering at the University of Washington.
Agbro works full time as a designer for a tech company that creates location-based games. Because of this, she’s careful with how she budgets her time.
After her day job, she heads to her Ballard studio to work for another three hours. Completing 10 to 15 pieces takes about four months. Eventually, she hopes to work solely on her art. Her hard work is paying off. She’s exhibited in several shows and was recently named a finalist for the esteemed Netty Award from Cornish.
Agbro’s current body of work is a departure from what she’s done in the past as a traditional printmaker. She transitioned to mixed media as she became more interested in apparel. She was fascinated by what people were wearing and why. This was spurred in part by a trip to Lagos, Nigeria.
“You’re trying to put something on to convince somebody that you are whatever it is you want to convince them,” Agbro said. “Depending on the context, that choice is going to be different.”
While each series is specific, Agbro said the overarching through line in her work is how we present ourselves in public spaces — that we are communicating within a system.
“Whatever system you feel connected to and how those systems are intertwined, you end up with an idea of what you’re supposed to project to the world,” Agbro said. “And sometimes that’s toxic and sometimes it’s positive, but being aware that you are communicating this system is what’s important.”
Agbro’s work is absorbing and expressive. She’s chosen to present concepts and people in a broad sense so that the audience can place themselves within it.
WHAT: “Jite Agbro: Deserving”
WHEN: Runs until Feb. 23, 2020
WHERE: BIMA, 550 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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