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‘My project explores coping mechanisms of terrorism and violent conflict survivors in Nigeria’

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Yvonne with the organiser of ARTX, Tokini Peterside

Winner of the 2019 Access Bank ART X Prize, Yvonne Etinosa, chats with GuardianWoman about her journey to winning the coveted prize, her plans for the future and also advice for other aspiring artists.

How does it feel to be the winner of the 2019 Access Bank ART X Prize?
I’m very excited and I feel very honoured to have emerged the winner of the 2019 Access Bank ART X Prize.

Can you walk us through the project that secured you this win – inspirations, motivation and so on?
It’s All In My Head is an ongoing multimedia project that explores the coping mechanisms of survivors of terrorism and violent conflict in Nigeria. The project aims to advocate for increased and long-term access to psychosocial support that will improve the mental health of the survivors. Sometime in February 2018 I watched a documentary called “Salam Neighbour”. There was a young boy in the documentary that made me think deeply about the state of mind of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The young boy happened to be a Syrian refugee living in Jordan, at the time he refused to go to school in the camp. After much persuasion by the producers of the documentary he opened up to them and it became obvious that he was somewhat distraught and traumatised by the things he had witnessed in his country, which was why he wasn’t really willing to go to school. At the end of the documentary, the young boy, returned to school.

After viewing the documentary, I was curious to understand how some of the survivors of terrorism in Nigeria coped with their new and rather unpleasant reality amidst little or no psychosocial support. The norm here is that whenever there is an attack, humanitarian organizations, government agencies and others focus on providing relief materials, setting up makeshift clinics, schools and the list goes on. However, very little priority is given to assessing the mental health of the survivors.

I started this project so that I could draw the attention of the society to the state of mind of some of these survivors. During my chat with some of these survivors, I realised that a lot of them haven’t gotten over the sad events they witnessed. Some of them were never even asked about their experience nor how they felt. Hence, while a lot of the survivors struggled with depression, PTSD, and vengeful thoughts, others have found solace in their existence and religion.

I had initially planned to work with only survivors of Boko Haram attacks, but then I realised that Nigeria has been plagued by violent conflicts in recent years. So I decided to work with survivors of terrorism and violent conflict. By using layered portraits of the survivors and the things that they do to help them move forward or otherwise, I try to show people what goes on in their head.

When did you realise that you had an interest in visual art and photography? How did you recognize your calling?
I used to work as a social media marketer but resigned in February 2015. I tried to start a travel blog and that was when I first picked up a camera. Although it didn’t work out, but I got more interested in photography. However, later that year, I started working and focused more on my job, but I took pictures for the organisation whenever there was an opportunity. During my time at the organisation, I volunteered to take a couple I met while on duty for a fistula surgery. I took some pictures of them and that sort of increased my interest in photography. My last working experience was quite traumatic; when I had had enough, I resigned in March 2017 and decided to explore a career in photography.

What role has art played in your life?
Art is powerful. Since I began using photography as a medium of expression, my life keeps changing. Every journey I make to meet with people and listen to their experiences and views on life and other things changes me. I will use my project, It’s All In My Head to illustrate my point. I’m a Christian by faith. Whilst growing up, there are perceptions I had about certain issues especially issues that have to do with mental health. If someone had reached out to me two years ago to speak about issues that affect people’s mental health, my only advice would have been that people with mental health issues need deliverance or some sort of spiritual help. However, since I began working on this project, I no longer share such notion. Not that I’m down-playing the role of prayer, but I have learnt that there are ways to help people who are struggling with their mental health, not just by prayer. In the last one year, I have gotten close to a few people who have struggled and are struggling mentally, and based on what I have learnt and seen from people that I have interviewed for my project, I have learnt to at least always lend a listening ear. Little things like checking up on the people I interviewed goes a long way in their journey to recovery because for some of these people, it’s the little things that count. Just a little bit of love and kindness makes them realise that they are not alone in this journey. I have so much to say about the transformative power of art, but I’ll stop here.

When and how did you find out about the Access Bank ART X Prize?
The first time I went for Art X was last year November. I’m a big fan of arts and, believe me, I was blown away, inspired as well as intimidated by the works that I saw. It came as a surprise when I received an email that I was nominated for the Access Bank ART X Prize. I was so close to not applying because I had so many crazy things in my head but I thought to give it a try, and the rest is history.

How do you plan on building this project out during your residency in Gasworks London?
I’m at the point where I feel like I really do need a residency. So it is so timely to have this opportunity. I will definitely do a lot of research as it relates to my project all through my stay in Gasworks.

I’m constantly thinking of new ways to push the boundaries of the project, so I’ll see how I can learn more about more immersive ways to present my project. I will also do some soul-searching because there is a part of me that is connected to this project on a very personal level and I will have to figure it out. I also hope to build new networks as well as set the stage for future collaborations with artists and see how I can leverage on these networks for the growth and development of artists in Nigeria.

Who is your biggest inspiration?
That has to be King Solomon in the Bible and I’m quite serious about that.

What message do you have for aspiring artist like yourself?
Work hard, pray hard, don’t get tired. Dream big, don’t dare settle for less. Be open to criticism. Let your passion be your fuel and don’t be afraid to be different. It’s okay to fail, to go slow, at least you made an effort, keep pushing. Lastly, leverage the limitless power of the Internet and social media. It has made the world a global village, make the most out of it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to anyone, regardless of their societal status.

Let’s talk next steps, what are you looking forward to mostly now?
Well, I’m committed to working on this project for a while; I hope that at some point, the advocacy will begin to pay off. I have other projects that I’ll be putting together in the coming months.


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