This text, by Camille Bacon, is a rare feature on a design practice in the pages of The Funambulist. The creative spirit through which Martinique-based studio ibiyanε engages with its work will, however, be familiar to our readers, as it draws from Black radical imagination and a commitment to the notion of relationality between the material, the symbolic, the ritual, the oniric, the corporeal, and the object’s autonomy…
Somatic practitioner Prentis Hemphill notes that “a measure of liberation will be found in our capacity for intimacy.” If we consider the design industry’s infamous exaltation of ostensible “individual” genius and the Western genealogy from which such an ideology emerged, we may also consider the work of ibiyanε—a design studio comprised of Tania Doumbe Fines and Elodie Dérond—and their commitment to thinking and making together as an embodiment of the “capacity for intimacy” that Hemphill speaks of. In the world of ibiyanε, the material and spiritual environment serves as a guide, collective rest is a requisite part of the fecund soil of a life well lived, sanctuaries for gathering are plentifully available and dutifully maintained, and we all possess a place to wander and lift our burdens up to the sky. Materialized from their collective sensibilities is an imagined land where dreamers prevail.
ibiyanε was seeded in Montreal in 2020, when the two made their first pieces of what they then understood as “sculptural furniture,” thereby highlighting the work’s functional and aesthetic prowess. The resulting forms were shown in two exhibitions: Black Experience isn’t a Spectacle (curated by Venessa Appiah of afila.si) and Wet Metal (organized by Éditions 8888). After leaving Montreal in the Winter of 2020, the pair now dwell in Dérond’s rapturous homeland of Martinique and have since shown in New York, Miami, and now, Milan.
After drawing from Black Quantum Futurism as well as several other texts that ground their haptic methodology in the crucible of the Black radical imagination, ibiyanε think of their artworks as maps that aid both themselves and their audience in imagining and actualizing material conditions, ideological frameworks and spells for sustenance that extend the viability of the breath that circulates within and between all life forms.
With this in mind, the nomer “ibiyanε,” which is derived from the Batanga word “to know one another,” succinctly articulates one of the pair’s core concerns: that their work contributes to the actualization of a lived reality in which all living beings are adequately resourced and cared for. To this end, their work has, from the outset, been deeply influenced by their respective backgrounds and heritage as people of African descent. As Dérond exuberantly notes, their racination in afro-centric ways of being “nourishes” their creative practice from end to end. For example, their first project involved the construction of an African birthing chair, which have been used across millenia to bring those giving birth greater comfort and which Fines notes were a seminal part of the Cameroonian domestic visual landscape she grew up in. Their heritage also informs how they source and sculpt their material of choice (wood) and how they relate to it as a teacher of sorts, which will be discussed further below.
Moreover, ibiyanε’s work is interested in excavating and nurturing what the pair described as “new imaginaries” in which the development of relational intelligence (i.e. the individual and collective practices needed “to know one another” in a mode that does not demand the reduction or exploitation of either party) is a tantamount priority. On a practical level, they bring this ideological commitment to bear on a formal level through the diligent study of texts on African sculpture, including the eponymous book by Ladislas Segy. Such study allows them to place themselves within a broader continuum of makers and within an ancestral framework that can be considered a citational practice of sorts, in that they explicitly recognize that their work emerges from a specific set of histories, just as the wood they coax into new forms emerges from landscapes that once aided and abetted liberatory acts of maroonage.
Amidst their time spent studying, Dérond and Doumbe-Fines realized that sculptures are not merely objects that stand sedentary and silent in space. Rather, they are objects that can think, act, and feel all on their own. Moreover, if we consider sculpture to be a mode of ritual object, such vessels are then also objects through which we may access catharsis and guidance from above.
Rest and reverence, in particular, have been on Fines and Dérond’s minds lately. Thus, on the occasion of “Love Letters,” ibiyanε presents a headrest, elombe 016, a form reminiscent of the sprawling rhizomes that comprise the Martinican mangrove. This work serves, in tandem with a newly commissioned poem, as an homage to those who have supported ibiyanε’s practice and shaped their worldview as a duo since they began working together. More specifically, the headrest honors those ibiyanε calls “dreamers,” i.e. those who are invested in “capturing ancestral knowledge and/or practices, and crafting the world they want to live through, while also echoing the elements of our sculptural method of learning, archiving, remembering, and ultimately releasing.”
The devotional nature of this work comes to bear in how, exactly, Fines and Dérond went about sourcing and sculpting the material. After an arduous work day, they decided to go to the beach to access a palmful of renewal and chose, specifically, a cove in Tartane, located on the North-Eastern peninsula. On their journey back home, they happened upon branches that had either fallen or been cut from a canopy of Spanish Lime trees and felt an impulse to take two large pieces back with them, which they later intuitively shaped into what is now elombe 016. Here, they were interested in allowing the process to unfold organically through a mode of collaborative improvisation. Together, they let the wood exert its own agency, listening when it resisted their push, and allowing the material itself to tell them how it wanted to look, be and feel. “The wood just took over,” notes Fines, reflectively, with a tranquil and all-knowing smile stretched gently across her face.
Of all their work to date, elombe 016 is perhaps most resolute in its existence as a collaboration between ibiyanε’s dual consciousness and that of the raw material itself. Hence, it also bears noting that amidst Dérond’s study of pre-colonial sculpture, they learned not only of the aesthetic dimensions of headrests, but also the ancient protocols through which they were made and used. Alas, for elombe 016, ibiyanε wished to not only pay homage through form, but also through process. Normally, they coat the sculptures in chemicals to maintain their structural integrity. Now, however, they have employed the natural protective properties of shea butter to coat the headrest just as their ancestors would have. Additionally, they are learning to make their own dye.
elombe 016, taken in tandem with ibiyanε’s work to date, demonstrates a continued interest in world-building through a mode of experimentally poetic storytelling and communion with both the mundane and the miraculous dimensions of life itself. To think, feel, and convene in the midst of ibiyanε’s work is to behold a collection of prayers that take on material form: an invitation to raise one’s hands up to the heavens in praise of our earthly condition and to call our fingers forward as we chart forth realities that love us back. ■