Emerging from the lockdown period, there is a singular question on the tip of everyone’s tongue...
“What did you do during the lockdown period?”
In the past week I was lucky enough to speak to the inspiring young creative, Mimi Koku. Having worked predominantly in film and music, Mimi describes herself as a ‘multi-hyphenate’. Her interdisciplinary practice is one cultivated to encourage creativity as she simultaneously pursues other ‘Passion Projects’ (photography, graphic shirts and collaboration projects) alongside her main body of work. Though it is through the pursuit for ‘truth’ and the instigation of the ‘difficult conversation’ that her work becomes so incredibly powerful.
For many lockdown was characterised by an acute sense of anxiety. Though, as this once uncertain horizon of the dystopian social-distanced, mask wearing daily life now becomes the new ‘normal’ – we are given a unique opportunity to reflect. In juxtaposition, the lockdown period was simultaneously a rare moment for self-reflection and creativity. Moreover, it was a time characterised by demands for social reform and a global awareness of societal inequalities which were only exacerbated by the Covid-19 climate.
Mimi began her career in film in a slightly unconventional manner, graduating from the University of Manchester with a BA in Business Management and Economics - later to be introduced to the film industry whilst working as an art director. However, Mimi explained to me how she knew she wanted to do more than simply be involved in the aesthetic of the set. She wanted to be a storyteller.
‘I really wanted to focus on storytelling because I’m very inspired by people’s stories as human beings and human connection, and all the things that motivate us and inspire us and scare us. I wanted to try and take steps in becoming that kind of film maker. [...] I’m interested and inspired by the human experience.’
When asked if this notion of the ‘human experience’ was a consistent central factor within her narratives, Mimi replied:
[depending on the project] ‘I may want to be fantastical or ridiculous or really raw and honest – it just depends on the story. [...] I guess maybe central to things - to anything - I guess is just honesty not sugar coating things. The human experience is not always great. Sometimes it’s horrific or it’s sad or it’s painful. Though then it can be amazing and blissful, sensual [...].’
‘What I aspire to do in the future is to use tools in art and creativity to depict a human experience or critique certain things about society, or to challenge things in society and its’ ideals. Even to challenge things in myself – a self-challenge, challenging my own ways of thinking.’
The relatability and ability to self-identify within her films’ narratives consolidates her work as not only empowering but concurrently an important catalytical tool for conversation. Her film ‘Mosquito’ is a perfect example of both her talent as a director and skill as a storyteller. The film addresses the topic of ‘anxiety’, standing as a challenge to the audience as they are invited to contemplate the sense of isolation which many face – though unspoken – daily.
‘Mosquito’ was the first film which Mimi directed, following a young protagonist who finds herself battling with anxiety when confronted with the pressures of school. The film approaches the topic of isolation through a metaphorical lens, personifying ‘anxiety’ who stands forever on the peripheral of the frame. Though there is a grounded sense of the personal engrained into this film. Mimi recounts how she interweaved her own experiences as well as those of close friends within the narrative.
‘It was more of a metaphorical view of anxiety that film. [...] But however I approached it I wanted to go with that as it was a truthful way of how I viewed anxiety and the truth of what the experience can be like – for me and for many others. You feel very isolated even if you are surrounded by very loving people or with the best intentions. Sometimes people can still be very isolated in that space, you can still be struggling.’
Following the lockdown period, isolation is a reality with which the majority are all too familiar. Consequently, the need for an open dialogue whence discussing mental health is an issue which is at the forefront of many constructive conversations - be that discussing the need for accessibility to helplines, better education in school surrounding wellbeing, or simply the caring conversations held between families and friends.
‘I hope to use [Mosquito] as an opportunity to create spaces to have difficult conversations [...] as someone who struggled with those things [anxiety] I found it very lonely and I found talking about those things really helped. So I wanted to use the film as a tool to do that [...] to continue a conversation or to inspire one that maybe wasn’t being had or needed to be had.’
Mimi went onto explain how whilst growing up within the Nigerian community she had become increasingly aware of the stigma surrounding the topic of mental health.
‘Within Nigerian communities topics of mental health, that conversation is just becoming less taboo to talk about [...]. I think just the act of to address that for me was quite liberating because it was this – is a reality that people experience. Sometimes people suffer or they’re struggling whether you want to talk about it or not.’
Subsequently, Mimi chose to withhold the film from online streaming platforms until it had been screened in Lagos, Nigeria. This decision was incredibly important to her as she explained how proud she was of the steps the Nigerian community is now taking to develop platforms of mental health awareness.
‘...in any community or culture or society there are things that are progressive and there are things that need work or need to evolve.’
‘[approach to mental health in Nigerian communities] that is evolving now and that’s really really great to see. It’s really good to see platforms developing to create spaces for women to talk about whatever they’re going through, and men to talk about whatever they’re going through. [...] I’m very inspired and encouraged by a lot of the work that people are doing back home.’
In the previous months the need for progress and change was resonated through global outcry as the Coivd-19 climate came to not only highlight but concurrently exacerbate already existing societal discrimination and inequalities. When discussing The Black Lives Matter Movement and her own experiences as a young black female artist, Mimi stressed the power she embodied within her own sense of self, self-love and self-belief.
‘[...] when it comes to the lived experience of being a black female artist, I think it’s ridiculous to say that you aren’t conscious of the fact that we live in a world that historically, or is structurally designed to prioritise or benefit some groups in society more than others. It would be ridiculous for me to walk around and pretend like this doesn’t exist. However, I also try to be – to not deny that truth, but also not let it inhibit my desire to strive for things. Or I try to keep pushing past that because otherwise I’d probably be crippled by a feeling [...] what I mean is that I can’t tell myself that things are inaccessible constantly. That can’t be the language that I use to speak to myself, in any regard to anything. If it’s something that I desire to do and I’m passionate about doing – be it making film or making music – I just try to focus on doing that. And I guess that hope is that I can open doors for myself and open doors for people that are also in my position.’
Having found herself on various occasions to be the only female or black female on set, Mimi recounted the importance of representation within the arts and any professional field. The need to disband the isolating feeling of ‘otherness’, reinstated by the largely white, male demographic of the institutional film sector, is an issue which Mimi stressed to be at a critical point in the process of change.
‘[...] there is just so much work that needs to be done *in addition* to putting out a statement or post that says ‘Black Lives Matter’. Actually putting those things into practice is making sure that the actual practical work behind the scenes is being done.’
‘Seeing black women in certain roles and creative positions – representation really does matter. It makes it feel like those goals are attainable so I think that the more that we see black female creatives at different levels of industry then that will just – that is ultimately a positive thing. And it paves the way for other girls.’
This determination to address the ‘difficult’ conversation and emphasise ‘truthfulness’ echoes back to Mimi’s films. Her desire to celebrate the beauty in diversity and the importance of recognizing both the pain alongside the joy is what makes her films so captivating and powerful. Her documentary project, following The Cocoa Butter Club, emphasised the importance of representation. The Cocoa Butter Club is a London-based collective of black and queer cabaret artists, founded by Sadie Sinner The Songbird. Mimi recounted this project as being incredibly influential on both a personal and professional level. It simultaneously ignited her passion for the amplification of the underrepresented voice, whilst teaching her the radical embracement of self-worth.
‘[...] And just finding out the importance of why the collective exists and why it came to be in the first place as a response to what was going on in the cabaret and burlesque industry at the time. You were seeing a lot of blackface and a lot of underrepresentation of performers of colour within that scene. So this idea of just creating a space where you can do that for yourself and not asking for permission – just taking up that space I think was a very powerful message.’
‘And ultimately I learnt so much about the beauty of community when working on that and speaking with Sadie and other Burlesque performers. But also about resilience and self-love and a celebration of culture and the influence of decolonising your ways of thinking and unlearning certain things of the way you have internalized some negative things about your own self. Stepping into your own power and glory.’
However, when discussing the notion of ‘voice’ in relation to her films Mimi emphasised her role as a storyteller and not a substitute for other’s voices. The story already exists and the individual voice stands on its own. Mimi’s films stand as a tool to amplify – to empower.
‘I don’t subscribe to the idea that people are voiceless in society. I think everyone has a voice and it’s about just if they don’t have a voice creating opportunities where their voice can be elevated. But I would never say or subscribe to an idea that one can give a voice to the voiceless. I hate that term. [...] Everybody has a voice, everybody has an interesting story behind them and what’s important is just us respecting that voice and seeing it as just as valid as everybody else. But also creating opportunities for those that have been consistently side-tracked by society or marginalised or didn’t get the opportunity - giving those people an opportunity to shine as well.’
It was during the lockdown period that social media timelines became on-screen soup-boxes, raising awareness around social issues and inequalities. Mimi recounted how the constant bombardment of information and opinions which, though positive in unified action, were simultaneously exhausting. Moreover, Mimi highlighted the privilege that many ignorantly wielded whilst sharing posts regarding the Black Lives Matter Movement.
‘The Black Lives Matter, ‘quote on quote’ resurgence in recent months - and I say ‘quote on quote’ because it never subsided or went away. I definitely think that – and what I’ve found very interesting about this season maybe because people are less distracted, there was a different and more enthusiastic response by allies and non-black people towards the cause of justice for people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and so many others. And I think that is always really beautiful to see because unified I think we can make all the change we hope to see.’
‘But it’s important to know this has been the experience of black people for hundreds of years, and black lives have always mattered. And even if there was no slogan beforehand there has been a continuous fight to be seen as equal in society and worthy of love and happiness and safety and opportunity - just as everybody else. And so I think that was really interesting to see, that outside ‘quote on quote’ response to that, just because one would hope it was not a knee-jerk reaction.’
[Discussing George Floyd] ‘The normalisation of circulating someone’s lynching is very disturbing to me. And that even in the use of social media you recognise how some people’s experience of that is really privileged and others isn’t. Because it was lockdown there was already a limited of places to go for escapism. And then you go online and that is also traumatising. So yeah, it [lockdown] did feel quite dark in those aspects. But in many ways it has also been fulfilling and teachable.’
It was through music, nature and her creative practice that Mimi was able to find stillness within the chaos of the pandemic. Contrasting her usual collaborative mode of film work, lockdown provided an opportunity for her to develop ideas and explore new ways of creating. I myself am incredibly excited to hear the end product of the EP that Mimi has been working on over the last year. Her haunting music is akin to poetry, resonating with this notion of sanctuary and solace. Mimi went onto describe her music as a ‘tool of freedom’,
‘[..] like freedom of expression and I feel really connected to something almost higher when I’m doing that. Which is really nice because even though I was raised in quite a religious home I’m no longer that religious but I feel anchored to some kind of spirituality because of things like music or nature [...] it is really important to me and helps me survive and keep going. I’d say it was my first love for sure, before I picked up a camera I was doing piano lessons – not that I’m the best piano player. But yeah, before I picked up a camera I picked up a guitar.’
‘One thing I’ve learnt in this lockdown period is relinquishing control and letting things happen because things will happen if you like it or not [...]. And sometimes you just have to be willing to let go and accept things as they move organically and be at peace with that. That’s been a really big lesson for me during this time period.’
Following this interview with Mimi I was left with an acute feeling of empowerment. From her inspiring practice of self-love to her striking films and hauntingly raw music, there is an feeling of truthfulness. Whilst we all try to navigate this uncertain post-lockdown life, I encourage you all to explore her work and remind yourself of your own capability to instigate change. Mimi reminds us that it is through our own voices and recognition of self-worth and love that we are all empowered.
Mimi Koku’s Work:
Mimi Koku’s recommended books to read from over lockdown:
- Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
- The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
- Pleasure Activism, by Adrienne Maree Brown
Mimi Koku’s recommended podcast:
- ‘We Need To Talk: Me and White Supremacy’, with Layla Saad and Emma Dabiri
This piece was written by EH*V Edinburgh President and EH*V The Arts Team Member, Emma Lake. Emma is a multimedia artist studying Fine Art and History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. She works predominantly in installation and through the amalgamation of visual imagery and sound I explore the fluctuant nature of sexuality, identity, gender roles and mental health.