Paul Hetherington interviewed Bambo Soyinka in October 2013 about her artistic identity, her collaborative and cooperative creative practice and her work in communities. Paul picked up the conversation with Bambo again in 2016 following her appointment as Creative Director for Paper Nations.
Paul Hetherington: I thought I’d start by asking you about your background and influences. Where were you born and what led you into your creative practice?
Bambo Soyinka: I was born in Nottingham in the UK, in the Midlands, but I lived in Nigeria for the first four years of my life—on a university campus village. The university had a thriving arts culture. There was a constant influx of visiting academics, artist and actors from around the world. The families lived in the campus village and made an active contribution to University life. I don’t remember much of it but the experience of living in a vibrant university village stayed in my emotional memory.
Although I felt at home on campus, I was sometimes looked on as an outsider, a European. Other kids would point at me and call me ‘Oyibo’, which means pale face. We moved back to England permanently when I was four. I spent most of my youth living in a small mining village. As in Nigeria, kids would sometimes point at me, this time highlighting my dark skin and thick hair.
But, my enduring childhood memory is that of community. I’ve been fortunate to experience the value of living in several close-knit villages. In, Calverton, the English village where I grew up, people tended to stick together and helped each other to get through hard times.
I’ve always been drawn to the arts, but there was a period in my life when I tried to follow a more conventional career. I returned to the arts because I enjoy this way of living so much.
As for creativity, what that is … well that’s a difficult question to answer.
Paul: It is a difficult question.
Bambo: I’ve always been involved in creative work of one kind or another. Nottingham had a vibrant theatre culture and at the age of 14 I joined a theatre troop called Acorn. Even though we were all under 18 we had a professional outlook and regularly took plays up to the Edinburgh Festival.
Paul: Did your artistic interests come from your parents?
Bambo: My mother had a strong belief in education and encouraged me to follow an intellectual career path. From a young age I really wanted to enter into theatre and she wanted me to take subjects at school that would give me better career prospects.
Paul: What was her profession?
Bambo: My mother was initially a teacher and became an educational psychologist. My grandma had come to the UK as a refugee during the war and was originally from a well-off Jewish family. When she came here she more-or-less had to start from scratch. She married a working class Englishman and became a midwife, even though in Austria she’d received entry into one of the top Universities to train to be a Doctor.
My grandma had to build her life again, and I think my mum’s sense of the importance of education came from that. However, there’s considerable interest in creativity on my dad’s side of the family. One of my uncles is a playwright — and, in a way, his success put me off writing. I used to enjoy creative writing assignments at school. But, when I produced a good piece of work they’d say, ‘well done, you’re just like your uncle’, or if I didn’t do something so well they’d say ‘well, go and have a look at your uncle’s work’. So, I tried to escape from a career in the arts, but I kept coming back to it. I’ve gradually come to realise that an artistic outlook on life is essential to who I am.
Paul: Was there a period when you didn’t work creatively?
Bambo: It depends what you’d call creativity. I was a youth worker for a while and ended up running a youth club for mixed race and black children. I started making films with the young people in the club and one of those films won an award. From then onwards, my youth work became focused around collaborating with young people to produce creative work.
In the evenings I was a youth worker, and in the day-time I worked for a young start-up digital-tech company in Brighton. There, I was the lead interactive developer on the first Big Brother. It was a fun place to work. I loved the team atmosphere and the entrepreneurial spirit. But from a creative perspective, it just wasn’t stimulating enough for me.
After my time on Big Brother, I was brought in to work with a group of ethnographers in a Social Science department at a Russell Group University. I learnt a huge amount from them about academic integrity and the value of rigorous research. But within this environment I felt that there was a constant pull between scientific and creative approaches to generating knowledge. In the end I stuck my flag on the creative side.
Looking back, I suppose that I’ve always combined creativity with something else, so it’s not really ever been a matter of either/or. I think that it’s possible to be both creative and scientific in your approach.
Paul: What is creativity for you?
Bambo: Personally, creativity is a way of living and something I need to do. If I’m working, say, on a piece of writing or an artistic piece, I enjoy the feeling of the work coming together and the collaborative process. I suppose I could compare it with someone who says they enjoy the feeling they get from running. I enjoy being creative.
Additionally, a lot of the work I’ve done has been with supporting disadvantaged communities, or communities of creative people. For instance, I’m currently involved in developing a major new project funded by the Arts Council. It’s called Paper Nations. It will be the UK’s only creative writing hub for young people and it aims to develop a sustainable network of creative, cultural and educational organisations. I’m also heading a Centre for Transnational Creativity at Bath Spa. The Centre aims to bring artists together across cultural and disciplinary borders.
Creative communities are important to me because they make space for artists to produce work and generate new meaning. We need to develop a new discipline, that of ‘the creative ecologist’ who understands how to nurture, develop and make space for creativity.
Paul: That’s fascinating — the idea of generating meaning.
Bambo: Many people regard creativity as a fuzzy and unscientific process, but there is a definite technique or ‘method’ to creativity. It comes down to the ability to place attention (your own and that of others). I’ve moved across many artistic disciplines and within each there’s what I might call a toolkit for creative attention.
For example, writers can project their attention forwards through observation of people and environments, or they can place their attention behind them, in memory. When you teach writing, there are techniques that help students shift their attention to these ‘writerly’ spaces.
Within theatre you are trained to place your attention within and between two people. It’s relational, and there’s a whole set of techniques available to actors. Some are more successful than others. There was a technique of Stanislavski’s, called Affective Memory, which created a very stylised form of acting and almost isolated the actor from their peers.
Creative attention is important because it opens up channels through which artists can connect to their audience and to the world around them.
Paul: Is this just relevant to artists?
Bambo: My dad is a preacher and within our family there’s a spiritual tradition. A lot of the forms of attention used within creative communities map on to forms of attention used within spiritual traditions.
I worked on a project about the Trickster with storytellers in 2013, and through this project I experienced a shift in the way I thought about these issues. At first, I thought of creative attention in individualistic terms. However, it became apparent that Trickster narratives are — in part — about creativity, and about the use (and abuse) of this important capacity.
Trickster narratives are essentially about vulnerability. Often Trickster stories emerge from societies or cultures where resources are scarce. The question that arises for the Trickster is: how do I tip the balance in my favour? The Trickster answers this question in very individual and playful way.
I examined the Red Cross’s definition of vulnerability. The flipside of vulnerability is capacity, the ability to withstand trauma. According to the Red Cross, we can build capacity into an environment. If there’s an earthquake, a house with strong foundations may survive, whereas a house with no foundations may be destroyed.
I think that creativity, like the foundations of a house, can provide people and communities with the capacity to withstand the ebbs and flows of life.
Paul: Is that a key reason why you’ve been involved in so many collaborative projects?
Bambo: Well, certainly, pretty much all the projects that I’ve done have been collaborative; and one of the things I’ve discovered is that collaboration doesn’t really work — or it’s extremely difficult if you’re trying to produce a creative result at the end. What usually works better are cooperative structures.
Paul: Do you mean two or more people working together but each producing their own component of the project?
Bambo: I’ll give the Trickster project as an example. I brought people together from different backgrounds — so there were traditional oral story tellers and contemporary writers, a magician, a criminologist. They were all excited about the Trickster concept, and a lot of the terms they used were similar. But when it really got down to discussion they had different views and ideas — and actually discussion can be really quite hard and often pointless within that context.
Traditional oral story tellers love mythology and story telling, and have a strong belief in its social value and its social good. Whereas, say, a cultural theorist may be suspicious of mythology because, following Roland Barthes, they see myths as a form of mass deception. If you put storytellers and cultural theorists together, you are likely to reach a point where one half of the room is saying ‘well, isn’t storytelling mythology wonderful’ and the other half is saying ‘no’.
In the Trickster project, and a similar project in Greece called Silent Revival, a couple of conversations got very difficult. People had different working practices and used words in a very specific way. Where they tried to discuss areas of joint interest together it didn’t work. I’ve learnt from this that the best creative work emerges when people are isolated and work in small groups.
Paul: Small groups?
Bambo: Small groups that allow people to occasionally meet as a larger group or entity. Research shows that even within a small group brainstorming everything together doesn’t always work. The structures that I’ve created allow people to enjoy the benefits of individual creative work, small group co-production and a large creative community. Within this structure, people can carve out space to do their own stuff without interference, then come back and share with a small group, or meet in larger groups to let ideas cross-pollinate.
It’s really important for writers, in particular, to spend time on their own—and it’s the same for all sorts of creative people. It’s important to preserve areas of specialist understanding and knowledge. It’s also important to have moments when you work out how to bring that together, or what it means within a wider social context.
Paul: When you’re spending time by yourself working creatively, what are you working on?
Bambo: I’m currently working on a book about Utopias and a Screenplay about a Trickster (an adaptation of a play that I developed with National Theatre Wales a few years ago). Both of these projects involve some co-operative work but are largely driven by my own artistic practice and process.
Paul: Speaking about universities, can you say a little bit about research? How do you connect your creative work to research outcomes at a university? Are your creative processes inflected explicitly by research activity?
Bambo: I can use the screenplay that I am working on as an example. The three key characters are a Trickster, his victim and a vigilante hunter. When I’m working creatively on my own practice I focus on the small picture. For example for my screenplay I began by thinking about the Trickster as a person — wondering what kind of person that might be — and also what kind of person would be scammed? I was fascinated by the interplay between all three characters, and the story came out as a perverse love triangle.
But there is a big picture dimension to the story — each of the characters says something about the current state of their society; the prevalent desire for status, community and justice
Paul: And a materialist culture in the west as well, where people may not have a significant engagement with community or playfulness?
Bambo: Yes, each character lacks access to certain resources whether that is playfulness, material well-being or culture. So, at the centre of this triangle — which is important for me in terms of creating a drama — is the sense of longing felt by all of the characters.
Paul: A sense of longing — for different kinds of connection?
Paul: Can I ask you more about research? How do you articulate creative work into the kinds of research that universities want to see produced?
Bambo: It comes back to a sense of community and generosity. The official criteria used to define research in the UK is actually very good—the focus is on originality, having a clearly defined process and sharing insights.
But there is, also, conflict between these objectives. Universities need to uphold the importance of open knowledge: they need to create communities where creativity can flow and where all people have access to learning. But an artist might (rightly) have an objection to the principle of open knowledge. An artistic originator doesn’t necessarily have time to share insights about their work, or might be worried about sharing insights because the work has commercial value.
So, I don’t think it’s necessarily the university’s job to promote originality. Rather, at the meta-level, the role is to create environments where originality can emerge. Arguably, that’s the difference between being a researcher-creative as opposed to a trickster-creator who works alone and sets out to grab all the resources he can to create that one, indelible, masterpiece.
Some artists have a lot of success from that approach and it is valuable in its own right. These solo artists don’t set out with the intention to contribute to community in a meta-sense. But they do make a contribution. Their artistic work is, in itself, a gift to the community.
Paul: Are creative works actually a research output? Can you say that a play you write or new media stuff is a research output or outcome?
Bambo: I’m not sure if I can answer that question. I want to say that it’s about the extent to which the author who’s created that output is willing to share something beyond the work itself. And having said that, and having worked as a creative person, it takes a huge amount of effort to produce a creative piece of work.
The artistic process is an intuitive one. It is too much to expect the artist to always explain the ideas underpinning their work, or to develop a theory about the process of making the work. This additional cultural work, arguably required to justify our creative work as research, can be exhausting or even destructive to the primary act of creation.
I think the problem with the question you ask is that, again, it goes back to the individual—we need to address this challenge by turning to the community as a whole. There may be some individuals who are just producing creative outputs; there may be some people who aren’t creatives but are writing about creative people; and there may be some people who are doing a bit of both. We need to develop a research culture within which all of those activities are valued.
Looking at the larger picture, what’s needed is a research environment where — and I’m being completely idealistic — it’s possible for people to make choices about where they want to position themselves. Do they want to primarily focus primarily on the making of their own art or do they want to develop and contextualise wider ecologies for artistic production?
We should encourage a diversity of approaches to artistic research. But, a lot of the time people are pushed into corners. Researchers are continually asked to justify the choices they’ve made — whether that’s a choice to do more contextual research than creative research or whether it’s a choice to do more creative work. This tendency to force people into absolute positions creates a lot of anxiety and resentment that isn’t productive in either a creative or a research context.
So, yes, to be clear, a piece of creative work should and does count as a research output. There’s still a lot of confusion about this and not everyone is aware that a film or novel can be submitted to the UK research council as a valid academic output. At the same time creative ecology — the discipline of developing and framing art is equally important and valid as a research endeavour. The outputs of the creative ecologist are often ephemeral, but there is a growing commitment to this type of cultural work, and a recognition that we need to develop new cultural models for supporting the development of artistic communities, production and knowledge.