“I’m not at all saying that it’s bad to make work about race, far from it. But I do think that it’s expected of you as an artist of colour.” A conversation with Millie Toyin Olateju

Millie Toyin Olateju is originally from Liverpool but went to London to study Fine Art at Westminster College of Art, returning again to her home town after a short stint in Peterborough. Since returning to Liverpool Millie has worked with artist Jessica Stanley on mural commissions and actively shown work on her Instagram profile. She was recently part of a project at Bluecoat, organised by Sumuyya Khader, titled Celebrating Liverpool’s Black Artists, featuring billboard style pastings along Bluecoat’s façade.

We met with Millie at The Bridewell Studios in September 2020, after the first lockdown restrictions eased. At this time, Millie had been making small works on paper, some of which she brought to our meeting.

Celebrating Liverpool’s Black Artists, installation, Bluecoat Liverpool

Millie: I’ve been procrastinating a lot lately.

Josie: I don’t call this procrastinating!

There were quite a number of small works, packaged ready for sale. Millie had been experimenting with using different papers, working with acrylic paint and selling this work through Instagram.

Millie: It was just something that kind of happened over lockdown. I’ve not long graduated. I graduated a year ago.

Josie: And did you like it in London?

Millie: Yes and no… I think the people are very different from here. You don’t want it to be that way, but there’s definitely a difference between Southern and Northern people, you know what I mean? But it was good and I learned a lot. I did find when I was at art school though, you kind of feel the need to conceptualise your work a lot, because obviously, that’s how it gets marked. So I found that being out of school, there’s a lot more freedom to kind of just do what you feel like you want to do. Whereas in school it’s kind of like, why are you doing this? What happened here? But sometimes you don’t know why.

Josie: Brendan and I have had this conversation with artists so many times. Sometimes it’s related to Art School and then sometimes it’s just in general, but there is this expectation that you should you know what your work is ‘about’. Some of the people we’ve interviewed or spoken to have told us upfront that they don’t really want to talk about what the work is about; other people, of course, have so much to say about the theory behind their work.

Millie: Before I went to Uni I did a course in Art and Design at Liverpool College. Throughout my childhood years I was always into drawing and stuff and then I thought I might want to be an illustrator, or go into design. I feel like that kind of influences my work now, because I like to look at graphics and illustration more than fine art at the moment. But surprisingly when I was on this course I just gravitated towards conceptual art, although you could try anything; book design, illustration, working with clay etc. At the time I was making work about race and being mixed race; it was like a celebration of that. My first big piece of work was an installation which I incorporated painting into. That’s something I’ve always done.

Then I went to uni and there was a lot of pressure to conceptualise my work, so I just went right down that route. I started looking at conceptual artists, in particular African American artists. I was looking at the work of Adrian Piper a lot. I was writing my first essay on her, but then I realised, it was not for me. It was killing off my motivation to make work because I was thinking too much about it. I think some people can do that, that’s why conceptual art exists of course, I guess because people like the idea of making something about something; for it to make a message. But for me, I just found it was too much pressure. So, I feel like I didn’t enjoy my first year of uni at all to be honest. Then in my second year, it was kind of like I had a little light bulb moment. I came across Fiona Rae’s work. I’d never seen paintings like hers before and I was like, whoa, this is a possibility? You can make work like this? I didn’t realise that.

Josie: I totally get that. I had similar feelings when I first saw Fiona Rae’s work. Like, what is that? That’s kind of a bit silly… but it’s also really good isn’t it? It’s that thing about seeing something you didn’t think was allowed and then realising that’s a license to be able to do something like that yourself.

Millie: Do what you want, kind of? So once I looked at her work I just thought, I want to make work like that. So then literally I just tried to copy Fiona Rae! [Laughs.]

It’s a tricky one because I feel like, actually, your work always is conceptual, even if you don’t want it to be. You still think about things as you’re making work, even if it’s just about yourself or if you just use making work as a means to, like, relax or whatever – that’s still a concept behind why you make it, I guess. So, there still were ideas around my work. I made big pieces with weed leaves in them and things, trying to explore ideas like kitsch, bad taste and things like that, things that you might not expect to see in a gallery setting. It related to being working class; with painting obviously being such an elitist thing for a long time, I just wanted to merge these themes together. And at the same time I was just trying to let go of the idea of feeling like I have to make something for someone else and instead I was just making to make. That’s kind of where I’ve ended up now.

Josie: Your current work is quite clearly abstract. Is there nothing in there that you feel is representational?

Millie: No, and because I have been quite hard on myself in the past about making work that looks representational, trying to made portraits that are exactly like a photo for instance, this work is kind of like me trying to push myself to make without fear of it going wrong or it not looking right. So this is really just me having a play and seeing what happens.

Brendan: There are basic elements in them that you would recognise from your previous work. The palette, sort of browns and earthy colours, is quite unusual in abstract work. Is it that you just don’t know where that comes from?

Millie: I think it’s just me trying to explore my own taste really – for example, that big red one, that’s kind of like my own taste and the colours that I would like to see in a piece. Like you said, you don’t see earthy tones as much in abstract work so it’s just me trying to figure out what I like really.

Josie: They feel quite like collage in the way they’ve been constructed.

Millie: Yeah, drawing and collage have been my two go-tos really. When I was making other paintings I would make a collage beforehand. I’m thinking about doing that again, because I am finding that these are a bit too impulsive. I do feel like I need to start planning a little bit. With these I’ve literally had all my paints out and just picked them up as I went along, which can be good sometimes, but other times it doesn’t work. It’s all a learning experience I guess.

Josie: Maybe this is what artists are always searching for? A kind of balance between doing things spontaneously and well, you know, figuring it out more consciously.

Millie: I think that’s exactly it yeah.

Josie: There’s so much to be said for just having a go and not worrying about whether it is right or not or if it is going to work out.

Millie: Yeah. It’s a weird one isn’t it, because obviously, art is such a subjective thing and there is no right or wrong. But when we go through school or go through an institution, we get this feeling that there is a right and a wrong, so that is then internalised a little bit when we’re trying to just have a go.

Brendan: It’s really interesting that you broke out of conceptualising your work when you were at college – when you’re in the place where you might expect to have been pushed into that sort of thing. You went, oh no sod it, I’m not doing that, while you were there, that’s quite unusual.

Millie: I had a really good relationship with Pete, one of the tutors there, and he was also a painter. I was struggling and I was basically very honest with him about this and where I wanted to go with my work. I think it was just him kind of telling me, just do what you want to see. You need to just make what you want to make and forget the reason. He introduced me to a lot of different painters. At the end of the degree you had to write a sort of critical evaluation about your work, which the tutors look at, and I think my opening line was something like, “In these four years I have found more things I hate than I love”. I knew I was probably just going to piss them off!

They were all lovely though. Every tutor I had was amazing, but I think because Pete was a painter as well I just clicked with him a bit more. My first tutor was a photographer and that was when I was making conceptual work, mainly about being mixed race. He suggested artists to look at and he was lovely, but the discourse was not there with him. I had another tutor, who was a conceptual artist, making objects that were symbolic.

Untitled, acrylic on canvas paper, 14.5cm x 17.2cm

Josie:  They were probably matching you with conceptual artists at that time because you’d come into it with that view, that this is what you wanted to do. But that doesn’t always help to progress your work, because you’re not offered an alternative. You can lose something because of that echo chamber effect.

Millie: They were just feeding me what they thought I wanted to be fed basically. Because I did come to uni with artwork about race. They were quite understanding when I did make the shift, to be fair. But I think, because of the way that it’s graded, they do prefer work that is about something or that’s a bit controversial or has some sort of message behind it. Sometimes I think it’s like they don’t really care about the object. I think that’s an interesting thing about painting, that it is an object isn’t it? To be looked at.

I think when I was at uni, because it’s quite a rarity for minority ethnic people to be in an art institution, I found that it was praised to make work about race. It’s kind of like, okay, the black kids can make work about race, whereas the white kids can do whatever they want – and it’s a tricky one because obviously work about race is needed; it raises lots of awareness. But for me, I just felt like it wasn’t fair for me to have to make work about that when I don’t want to.

Josie: Did you feel that there was pressure from your tutors for you to continue to do that?

Millie: Yeah, if I’m honest. I don’t know, I feel like, well, their attitude was, you’ve got this about you, so you should take advantage of it. You know what I mean? Obviously, I don’t know where life is going to take me, but right now, making work that is not about race is a kind of like an act of rebellion, because I know it’s expected of me and I don’t want to play that part, in a sense. I’m not at all saying that it’s bad to make work about race, far from it. But I do think that it’s expected of you as an artist of colour and I do think it’s very praised if you do it. Even with Chris Ofili, for instance – he still makes work about blackness, you know, he’s a painter, but it’s still about identity. Work about race is a critique a lot of the time, you know what I mean – it’s not so much a celebration. For me, art is something to be fun and making work about racial injustice and racism is not fun. It’s traumatic a lot of the time you know, because you’re constantly looking at how things like history have shaped things. Of course, it’s important to be aware of it, but what about time for yourself to enjoy art? That’s what my work does for me.

Installation of works

Josie: When you decided to go to uni to be an artist, or even when you decided to do your foundation course, were you always supported through that?

Millie: Yeah, so I’m half Nigerian and it’s quite a common thing to be expected to do more academic study, especially with Africans who came here to study themselves, like my Dad. My Dad lives back in Nigeria now, but he has a twin brother who lives here. My uncle comes into Cass Art where I work quite a lot actually, just to see how I am and stuff. He sends me links on WhatsApp for accountancy apprenticeships [laughs].  I just have to say, I’m happy where I am, thank you though. But my Dad was just like, no… what are you doing? You’re mad.

First, before I went to college, I went to sixth form. I did History, English, Psychology and Art, because I thought, I want the best of both worlds and if I have to be academic I’d like to do something with art. So I thought I’d like to go into art therapy, but I just couldn’t hack it. I hated it, I really couldn’t stand it. I ended up dropping History and then I failed Psychology, just because my heart wasn’t in it. So then I said to my Mum, “Listen, I think I need to go to college and just do Art and see what happens.” My Mum was like, “Okay, I’m fine, but you need to talk to your Dad.” I was just like “Yeah, Dad, I’ve failed Psychology and I think I’m going to just go and do Art,” and he was like, “Woooh I don’t know… I think this is a bad idea.” He was very much against me going to London as well, because it was so far away and things like that. My dad and my uncle are identical twins, it’s like they are literally the same person…so our families we were very close growing up, but my uncle’s kids – one of them is a doctor, one of them works in a lab somewhere and the other one wanted to be a vet. So then there’s me, who does art and my twin brother who does music and then my little brother, he’s into sport, but he’s the most academic of all of all three of us. So I think my Dad was just like, what’s going on with my kids? Why can’t they just be doctors? [Laughs].

Brendan: How did it feel coming back to Liverpool after college?

Millie: It’s a weird one for me because I’ve been in London for a long time, I was there for four years and I moved there when I was 19. So I’m trying to figure out how things work in Liverpool, it’s kind of been like I’m not from here, in a weird way. I finished last July so it was all new to me. I was like, what do I do now? Where is this going to go? And for a while I didn’t make anything. Just because… I don’t know, it’s scary I guess, and maybe I didn’t really see the point.

Brendan: You don’t have the structure as well. It’s been easy being in an institution and suddenly you’re just meant to be doing it.

Josie: Have you ever thought, I’m just going to get a job now and forget all about it?

Millie: Yeah I was like that probably this time last year. I came back here and I got a job at a call centre. And after two days I was just sat there thinking… is this it? What is going on? And my Mum, bless her, she’s always been super supportive of what I’m doing; she rang me up on my lunch break asking how it was going. I said, “Yeah…” She said, “You don’t like it?” I was like, “No.” She says, “Leave.” I say, “I can’t just leave. What’s gonna happen?” She says, “Who cares, just leave.” That’s my Mum. I didn’t just leave… I waited till the end of the day… [Laughs.]

You can find out more about Millie’s work on her Instagram page www.instagram.com/millietoyinolateju