New Additions: Brandon Ndife
New Additions is a series of interviews with artists whose work was newly acquired in the Studio Museum's permanent collection. This conversation features artist Brandon Ndife in conversation about his work A Master’s Tools.
Habiba Hopson: What led you to painting and now to sculpture?
Brandon Ndife: I have had a long journey here as a visual artist. I was always drawn to symbols and signs growing up. I copied them in notebooks. I went to a magnet high school. For those who don't know what that is, it's a specialized, almost vocational, high school. I went to a high school for the arts. So, during high school, I acquired a lot of history, especially about art. Learning about oil painting and historical works and copying historical works during school hours led me to New York, where I went to Cooper Union, in 2009.
At Cooper, I had a [sculpture professor] who was interested in us not using the sculpture shop. So, no tools, no fire, no hand tools. It was prefaced on the immediacy of making work and the concept rather than the technique. That has followed me in my practice—the way materials can be a conduit for thought rather than the other way around. Both are valid. Both have found their place in my work.
HH: That leads so beautifully to my next question. I’m fascinated by how you work with domestic objects, items of the everyday. Can we talk about your relationship to objects, those objects not being for our use anymore that go through decay and then rebirth [in your work]?
BN: Excellent segue, because it was around that time when I was still in school that Hurricane Sandy happened in New York. The city was under this blanket of darkness and duress of collapsed infrastructure. We were all ushered outside because the inside was dark. I think it was also seeing people’s belongings pile up on the street, seeing the inner workings of the labyrinth we live in here in New York.
The main takeaway from that experience was seeing the way in which I think about objects in the same way that practitioners and believers of many faiths think of sacred objects or sacred relics. Objects hold things—we put them on ourselves every day. To think of them as these blank drawers and mirrors and vanities and cabinets when they are so much more loaded than that.
These things that are seemingly innocuous like wood and MDF, all these materials we imbue with spirit every day because it's our hands, it's our food, it's our clothes, it's our goods, it's our keepsakes. We put them in places. I think that's a very human thing.
HH: How do you explore interconnectedness and human impact on the environment in your practice?
BN: There's just a surplus of things. It's a funny kind of irony that so many people don't have things. There’s this discrepancy that’s so plainly seen and so obviously felt. There's a crisis of how to get people the essentials. In a very metaphorical sense, I'm always thinking of these jettisoned objects as these analogs to jettisoned people.
It's difficult for me to think of consequences or solutions to problems in the world. It's hard for me to take on that. I'd rather illustrate a moment where we can pinpoint where we went astray, so to speak, and maybe potential for a new appreciation for where we are.
I'm always talking to people who feel that they have some resonance with a simple part of the sculpture like, “Ah, that green reminds me of my grandma's cabinet,” or “I have a similar looking thing in my house,” or “That looks like under my sink.” It's this common experience. But this is actually a found thing—it's rendered, hopefully, very carefully as something from scratch. Maybe that can feel like the audience could have made it happen.
HH: What is it that we are looking at in A Master’s Tools?
BN: This was for a show in February 2022 at Wesleyan University, curated by Ben Chaffee. This sculpture in particular is a perfect time to talk about process. My typical way of making work is I will either try and find something that has some inspiration or has a potential to be part of the work. I'll look at it; I'll try some sketches to see if maybe some pieces of it aren't so necessary. I think of it almost as how our ancestors would have gone out and figured out what part of a natural world would have been beneficial and discarded the rest. Say, for instance, the table legs were part of a larger piece of furniture that I didn't end up using. So, I took the leg off the top. That part in particular has a sense of an antique. I made the tabletop myself. The form is handmade; I'm finding other pieces of historical furniture or I'm finding an interesting shape that works for me in the studio. Then I Frankenstein the two so it becomes my own piece of furniture. I'm always thinking of the title too.
This piece is called A Master’s Tools, and this title comes from Audre Lorde. I have thought about the ways in which infrastructure and systems of oppression and inequality have led many in this country—not only Black people—but the workers, the builders, the cooks, the cleaners, the help—to build our lexicon and histories of art and architecture and all of these marvels we have. But the hands that were involved in the making of it were very much the invisible ones. These cast and painted yams and wild gourds and squashes, these indigenous foods, these indigenous hands, these cuisines that have fed our historical forefathers, those are the tools.
The systems that dictate where we live, how hot it is, what's on our shelves, are all these objects that work from above to create the landscape we have now. To work inwardly, almost to the atomic level, then to blow it back out to these larger themes is something I grapple with how to explain. I typically refrain from using a lot of figures and a lot of human touch. I think standalone objects can describe a lot of these complications clearly without having the body be this conduit.
HH: Do you want to share more about your relationship to abstraction and how you focus less on the figure, less on the body?
BN: My definition is that abstraction is like a refraction of the world. The natural world has an interesting way of guiding abstraction. Many cultures describe abstraction in a beautiful and enlightening way. You think of the philosophy of wabi-sabi in Japan, and not trying to force a natural form to conform to histories stemming from Greco-Roman times. And how math has solidified our simple shapes and that our manmade way of moving through the world is dictated through rigid formulas.
HH: There's a quote I always bring up when I think about abstraction. It's from Melvin Edwards, who said it in an interview with Michel Oren about the Smokehouse Associates. He says, “Everything that you create is abstract except a baby.” The only thing real that you're going to create is your child. In a 2022 interview with Chris Molnar in BOMB magazine, you shared: “I have an intense desire to work on a film set. From a sculptural context, I think my approach is well-suited to illustrate a story. I have worked previously with fellow artists, writers, and poets in collaboration in further illustrating my ideas, pushing past just the physical, sensory experiences in a typical gallery setting. I want to be able to use sound, lights, and other filmic components in work moving forward,” which I thought was so interesting. I'm so curious to hear about these interdisciplinary interventions and inspirations.
BN: I think the world in which I'm always thinking about, it always exists somehow a little better in fiction. The first time I read Octavia Butler, the first time I picked up “Bloodchild,” it was like, “Wow.” Her story is very fresh. There wasn't a way for me before reading her work to really think about how I'm feeling all these things about my family and my friends and where we live and how crazy the things that we see every day. It's sometimes so bewildering to be alive in America that it feels like fiction.
I think from a very practical way, in a very tactile way, really thinking about films like those of David Cronenberg and the practical effects he was using. I think it still comes down to other artists who I find kinship with, and a big one always is David Hammons.
When I was an undergrad, my show title was based on an ancient Greek word for speaking for an inanimate object. Now don't ask me to pronounce the word because it's super difficult but the word really hit.1 To me, theater and the stage, especially with set-heavy plays and works, a lot of times the actors are that conduit for the object or this or setting where it is just as important as dialogue. My dream would be to either stage an entire movie or a play and, as the dialogue goes on or as the story changes, each component will have the same intensity. I think about the setting of the gallery a lot, and I think about the setting of institutions that we have prescribed to be white walls and how that's not enough to convey the potential of bringing a huge idea such as the earth and its things together.
HH: As you were talking about sets and plays, I was thinking about the German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. Her sets are so important graphically to the piece itself. There's a work she made with a bunch of chairs everywhere [Café Müller], and there's a couple dancing between the chairs. That then becomes part of the choreography; the spatial limitations imposed on them are essential to the act of dancing in it, but also viewing the work itself. It's quite loud, it's quite intense. It's all the things.
Before we get into the rapid-fire questions, what are you thinking about in relationship to your practice now? What lies ahead?
BN: I’m in the studio right now. It's a daily practice, so there's always some new idea or new experiment happening in here. But my next show is my first solo show in September at Greene Naftali. Every show, every exhibition, every opportunity is clarifying. So, it's going to be, as always, more of an exploration, deeper thought, more ideas of the painting, more ideas of the construction of these sculptures.
HH: Walk me through your version of a morning. How do you start your day?
BN: My mornings usually are waking up by the window. The sun is definitely getting me up. I usually get up around 7:45, 8:00, wash my face, wash my teeth. In my home, I do a lot of small sculptures or small drawings that are littered around my house. I do a little here, do a little there.
HH: I love that.
BN: Yeah, it's walking around and dusting all your stuff off or something. It's like a small ritual. That may last until around ten o’clock or so. When I get to the studio, I mostly am writing stuff down as a complement rather than “This is going to be a start to a finished thing” or “I'm going to start a sculpture.” I spend a lot of time looking at stuff that I'm making rather than acting on it.
HH: Funny you mentioned cleaning because your text for My Zone at Bureau was about cleaning it out. You're always cleaning up.
BN: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
HH: This next question you kind of answered, but maybe there's something else you want to share about what's a dream project or activity you would take on with access to unrestricted funds?
BN: A funny thing I always think about in the world, especially with this project, is the fact that rent centers exist and how you can rent your home. You can be renting furniture and be renting semblances of normalcy with objects and household furniture. Those things are predatory toward people. They hold you on credit and you're using your credit card to be doing these things that so many people can't do. They obviously don't have credit cards and bank accounts.
Wouldn't it be so cool if you could rent things, but it's not based on income or credit? Or, if there's a way in which people who live under public housing can have the flair of variety and taste rather than these basic things that come with the apartment or things that aren't able to be inherited. So, I always think about a system where people can learn how to refurbish furniture and when they're done, they get to keep the thing. Especially in lower-income communities obviously is where we're speaking of. So, coupling things like skills with goods is something I've thought about.
HH: This last question is from Zora J Murff who was the previous interviewee, and he asks: “How are you gassing yourself up right now? How are you turning the volume up? How are you getting in your bag?”
BN: Yes, yes. Felt. I love that question. It's looking back at truly how far you've come and what you've already done. Just really say, wow, you really did that, you really did that, you really did a lot. I don't do it enough. People from outside can be like, you're killing it. You're really doing it. It's so important to really remind yourself you’ve come so far.
HH: Celebrating the big wins, but also the small wins too.
BN: Yeah, the small wins really though truly, truly, truly the small wins that you're just like, well, I had to get through that. If you didn't do that, that big thing couldn't happen.
HH: Celebrating the things that no one saw, that no one witnessed.
BN: Big time.
HH: Lastly, can you please share one question that you'd like for me to ask the next artist?
BN: My question is always, as artists, have you changed a mind yet? And another sub-question or a part two is: but is that our job?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
1) The word was "prosopopoeia," or communicating by speaking or acting as another person or thing.