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Ahamefule J. Oluo: The Things Around Us
“Prior to this pandemic, very little of what I did artistically was solitary,” Ahamefule J. Oluo says of his latest work The Things Around Us, commissioned by Meany Center,
On June 25, Meany on Screen will premier this 15-minute virtual solo piece—a work “made from the objects and thoughts and people, and lack of people, around me.”
For those of you who attended our virtual gala in May, you saw Aham perform live from the Meany Stage. For those of you who didn’t, you may have seen him in other venues, here in Seattle or elsewhere in the country. As a musician, he is a founding member (and trumpet player) in the award-winning jazz-punk quartet, Industrial Revelation. As a playwright and composer, he has created two musicals—the experimental pop opera, Now I’m Fine in 2016, which premiered at On the Boards before making its way to the New York Public Theater, and Susan, which was also produced at the Public Theater in 2020. The same year, his first film, Thin Skin (adapted from Now I’m Fine co-written, scored by and starring Aham) premiered at the Harlem Film Festival where it won Best Director. He is a Stranger Genius Award-winner, the inaugural writer-in-residence at Town Hall and recipient of the prestigious Creative Capital Award among many, many other accomplishments.
He is also a Mellon Fellow here at Meany Center, as well as the first artist from whom we’ve commissioned virtual work.
Meany has been commissioning new work for many years. However, a global shutdown that shuttered venues and deprived performing artists of their audiences almost overnight made the idea of a virtual commission a priority. And though Meany Center traditionally presents touring artists from around the world, in this pandemic year it felt important to support local artists who are doing great work. The Mellon Creative Fellowship Initiative proved the ideal home for such a project since its mission is to support open-ended creative research for artists.
In fact, it was through a previous Mellon project that we first encountered Aham, when he participated in a symposium produced by Mellon Fellow Meiyin Wang in 2019. He had also worked with our stage crew when he shot portions of Thin Skin in the Meany Theater in 2019. And of course, his work was already well-known by many on the Meany staff as a great interdisciplinary artist—performance, standup, theater, music—with both a local and national following.
To say the least, we were excited at the prospect of deepening Meany’s relationship with Aham through an open-ended commission: length, theme, topic, and the number of artists involved was up to him, as was the delivery date of the final product. The main purpose was to get sorely needed funding into our local community and to share a brilliant local artist’s work with Meany audiences who might not already be familiar with his talent. A partnership with some of our Major University Presenters colleagues nationally who have similarly commissioned new virtual performances will help to expand the reach of more artists like Aham around the country.
As for Aham, he was excited by the prospect of creating work on his own using looping technology and filming at home. He was also scared—by nature he’s a collaborative artist who usually works with groups. The pandemic made group work impossible, so he turned the challenge into an opportunity. In his performance of The Things Around Us, Aham captures the feeling of isolation, of the mind spinning—and maybe even slipping its leash a bit from time to time—even as it is anchored by the homely everyday objects and activities of more normal times.
For Meany, the opportunity to form a new relationship with a local artist—and through that artist to other local artists and communities—has been a profound experience. And in a year when so many performances intended to be seen live have been presented virtually instead, it has been deeply satisfying to present a work that was created specifically for a virtual platform—and that couldn’t have been presented in any other context.