Staging an Afterglow: Interview with Nwando Ebizie

Nwando Ebizie is an artist, composer, writer, DJ, curator, dancer, ritual creator, Afrofuturist and musician. Working across media and genres, Ebizie’s artforms explore the neuroscience of perception, mythopoesis, alternate possibilities and sensations using experimental performance, ritual and sound.

Drawing from her own experience of the neurological disorder Visual Snow, which causes distortions in the field of vision with flickering flecks, dots, lines, auras and static; Ebizie’s work offers alternate versions of reality and different worlds of experience. Her immersive, multi-sensory installation Distorted Constellations offered an ‘Afrofuturist, mythical landscape that explores what it’s like to see the world through someone else’s eyes’. We spoke to her about her artistic practice, process, ethics of self-care, lime rendering, and how she plans to stage Hildegard: Visions; which is a retreat that will span across multiple days, engage in rituals that invite audience members and performers to reflect on the line between the sacred and profane, in order to reflect on the subjective nature of perception. 

Distorted Constellations Exhibition

I first heard about your work through your installation Distorted Constellations, which sounded incredible. I’d love to hear a bit more about the process of how it all came to be, and how you staged it? 

I work in a very long, slow way. Well, ‘expansive’ is maybe a better word: it doesn’t always feel slow – I’m trying to make it slower. ‘Distorted Constellations’ took three or four years – although I still wouldn’t really consider it finished. I’m still developing the project for the next time it will be shown. So… then it’ll be five years! And Hildegard: Visions, that’ll take about five years too. ‘Distorted Constellations’ came from some research time and from a bursary from Arts Admin. I knew that I wanted to explore what was then called palinopsia, which is what scientists now call ‘visual snow’. It came at a point in my creative life where it was the first thing I’ve done where I started out not knowing exactly how it was going to be art. I knew it was going to be art, because that’s my lens on the world and the way I understand things – is by creating things.

Distorted Constellations.

I knew that there was this way that I experience the world that is different from most people. I started to get the sense that there were other people who experienced the world like that. I didn’t have any of the titles – I didn’t know what neurodiversity was at this point – but it all came together when I met a neuroscientist called Ed Bracey at Secret Garden Festival. It was a magical meeting. We became close friends – that’s a great way to work with neuroscientists as they’re just the busiest people in the world – they work so hard! They really have to get how your creative vision can connect to their interests. So, they got it – what they introduced me to was this idea of neurodiversity, the scientific understanding that each person’s brain is completely unique and the way each person’s brain models reality individually. It all just resonated so much with me and things about myself fell into place. 

Do you see your creative practice as changed from that meeting? 

Yes, absolutely: it revolutionised everything. It also happened at the same time I had a breakdown or breakthrough, with depression, anxiety: a real crash. I was working on a really big show, and I had this big breakdown. I pushed through, which is something I hope I’d never do these days.  I’ve learnt from that and got an understanding from my creative process from the very depths of that: an understanding of this very extreme version of me. 

It taught me a lot about my brain and the way I function. I couldn’t ignore being a bit tired and pushing through – it was too much. What does it mean that I was putting myself through that? What reason was I doing that and creating art that way? If I’m doing that to myself, am I doing that to other people working with me? It led me to think about creation and work in a much more ethical way: a much more caring way. 

Care and self-care have to be really centred in everything that I do. Also, understanding that for me, and I think for a lot of disabled and neurodivergent people, care and self-care are actually real access issues. If you’re pushing yourself and the people around you then some people are going to crash. It’s not fair. It’s also not necessary. […] The idea that if you’re doing that then you’re doing the “real art”, that you can’t create a good performance without doing that, is blatantly untrue. 

Distorted Constellations.

You write that your work encourages people to come to a crossroads or an edge of their own reality or experience. I’m interested in how you present those crossroads without that extremity? 

Do you think that those go together, extremity and crossroads? 

I think that those meeting points offer some sort of transgression or coming out of your own sense of reality to perceive those alternative possibilities. It’s definitely not linked to extremes in this sense, but it does seem to me that there’s some sort of precipice or edge of something that your art works towards. 

I really agree – I’m just interested in those liminal states, in the states in between. 

One thing I found when I was exploring what my neurodiversity is all about that I don’t think I’ve found a rigorous position on within contemporary neuroscience is lucid dreaming. Within lucid dreaming, you can have atypical perceptions that are actually quite normal but they’re still pretty weird, and not much research has been done on them. So with ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response] and lucid dreaming, you have interesting states that some people can achieve can achieve so simply (I lucid dream a lot) and to some people (I’ve spoken to some friends who don’t quite believe me), it sounds like complete fiction.

How would you describe that sensation of lucid dreaming? 

It’s so simple! I realise that I’m dreaming so I actively do stuff. I normally fly. 

I love that! 

In my work, I’m interested in creating these in between states that are involved in healing and self-care and transformation. There’s a piece I’m making that’s set in a hammam so it’s a space about ablution, pre-prayer and preparation for transformation. They can be so soothing. 

In between sacred and profane: that meeting point fascinates me. It’s accessible for western audiences too – some who might be religious, some not – but we all need to access that meeting of the sacred and profane. Sacred in a non-religious way; everything that’s outside of the profane. 

How do you stage those rituals and prayers? 

We have this awful word now, that’s become a genre: it’s immersive.

In any ritual there’s different levels of engagement. I want it to be accessible, so people can choose who and what they are in a space. There’s rules in a ritual, there’s a goal. To people outside of the ritual, it might be meaningless. To people inside of the ritual, it can be so meaningful. It’s all different depending on who you are and what you bring, what your cultural heritage is, it’s going to vary and that has to be okay as well. So I like to create the space that’s appropriate for the ritual. This will be part of Hildegard: Visions. 

I’ve done projects before where people go to sleep and with lucid dreaming. The aim is not for people to lucid dream there, but I think the more interesting thing is: for people to question reality. Am I awake or am I asleep? Is this real or is this not real? That’s something I’m on the edge of a lot. 

I love the sense of that fluid line…

A semipermeable membrane!

Distorted Constellations. Photo by Sarah Hickson.