Much of artist and performer Olabayo Olaniyi’s work centers on a simple aim: “to understand the role of objects in defining daily life experiences and cultural identity.” It’s part of an aesthetic philosophy that Olaniyi somewhat straightforwardly calls “Life Is a Performance,” which he developed as an artist in residence at the University of Michigan from 2000 to 2001.
Certain objects, including shampoo bottles, empty honey jars, newspapers, brochures from D.C. art galleries, and rolls of ever-useful duct tape, have had a profound impact on Olaniyi’s own life and identity. In fact, these items figured prominently in an experience that, his lawyer says, “has wreaked havoc on his personal life and professional reputation.”
After combining the objects into a curious-looking costume, which he strapped to his chest, Olaniyi took a trip two years ago to the U.S. Capitol, where he and his future wife, Reena Patel, were arrested for, the indictment states, “engaging in activity that was perceived as a bomb threat.” They ended up spending five days at the D.C. Jail and the next five months under court-imposed travel restrictions before the charges were dropped.
Not that Olaniyi blames this rather unpleasant example of performative existence on “the role of objects.” Far from it. He blames the role of government—specifically, arresting officers Preston Nutwell and Joseph DePalma of the U.S. Capitol Police, FBI agent John Doe, and the District of Columbia, according to a complaint filed last month in U.S. District Court. Olaniyi claims that his constitutional rights were violated during his March 6, 2003, arrest, and that his creative rights as “an artist, philosopher, scholar, performer, and director who was born into royalty in his native Nigeria” have been compromised since.
That fateful afternoon, the Michigan couple was inside the Capitol’s Crypt when they were “observed by security moving around in circles singing,” court records show. Olaniyi, then 32, “was observed to be wearing a vest like object made out of duct tape and cannisters” and “was also holding an object, officers described as a ‘mask.’” Patel, then 22, wore “a belt like object made out of duct tape.”
At the time, Olaniyi and Patel had been touring the country selling their artwork and staging impromptu performances intended to “illustrate to audiences across the United States the way in which objects in one’s physical space tend to shade one’s views of different experiences,” according to court papers. Along the way, “Olaniyi collected items identified with each location for his research and art.” As the artist himself later told the Washington Post: “Duct tape is a hot item in D.C.”
In other words, Olaniyi was not only exercising his First Amendment rights, but, hey, he was also just following government orders: “Olaniyi’s costume was created in reaction to an announcement by then Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge instructing people to purchase duct tape to combat terrorism,” the lawsuit explains.
Not that it would make much difference to Capitol cops. “Our officers are trained to respond to anything that appears to be or possibly could be a potential threat,” says Capitol Police spokesperson Michael Lauer, who declined to comment further on the incident in light of the pending litigation.
When questioned about their outfits, the couple explained that they were art. Authorities, though, took them into custody. It wasn’t the first time for Olaniyi. Iowa court records, citing Michigan police reports, show that “at a minimum” the artist threw former girlfriend Dana Rush off a porch during a dispute over a painting in 2001.
Though perhaps understandable given Washington’s “heightened anxiety” these days, the lawsuit argues, Olaniyi’s debacle at the Capitol has nonetheless impaired his art business. “His livelihood has really been threatened by what has happened,” says the artist’s Washington-based lawyer, Lory Stone, to whom the performer referred all questions.
Apparently, reports of Olaniyi’s arrest by the Post, the Associated Press, and News of the Weird, among other media outlets, didn’t provide the best publicity for Olaniyi’s traveling exhibition/event, “David/Dafidi.”
Many of his benefactors have since backed away from supporting the object-oriented performance project, Stone says. Olaniyi was able to stage his show last April at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe, N.M. But Lensic General Manager Bob Martin notes that the booking occurred long before Olaniyi’s D.C. incident and that the artist rented the space himself. Other places aren’t exactly jumping at the chance to host him. “Olabayo thinks that it’s in large part due to these charges,” Stone says. “No one wants to be affiliated with an alleged terrorist.”
The D.C. incident also left Olaniyi with a lot fewer of his beloved objects to work with. In addition to Olaniyi’s duct-taped Washington Experience costume and the hand-carved alabaster mask that were seized at the time of his arrest, Stone cites 10 other items that allegedly got trashed during a subsequent search of his 2002 GMC Savana van, including:
•a stone sculpture called Axe of Shango, Olaniyi’s “most valuable and acclaimed” work;
•a drawing by Olaniyi’s father, noted Nigerian artist Twin Seven Seven;
•a brass bell adorned with white beads made by the artist’s grandmother;
•a rectangular black-and-white beaded and mirrored object called Eyes;
•a marble carving of the half-human, half-elephant Indian deity Ganesh; and
•a soapstone carving of a woman adorned with shells, beads, and peacock feathers.
“The FBI pulled them all apart to see if there were bombs in them,” says Stone, who argues that authorities’ search of the vehicle “lacked probable cause” because, according to an affidavit, a bomb squad on the scene had previously determined that Olaniyi and Patel didn’t have bombs on their persons.
Appraisers have valued the damaged goods “in the tens of thousands” of dollars, Stone says. But to Olaniyi, she notes, many of them are “priceless.” So she and her client have decided to let the court decide their true value: The artist is seeking compensatory and punitive damages at trial.
THE HEAT IS OFF
Artomatic isn’t known for making money. In fact, the next-to-last incarnation of D.C.’s sprawling nonjuried artistic orgy, held in 2002, ended up in the red. Heck, organizer George Koch even had to pay some bills out of his own pocket.
Heading into Artomatic 2004—minus the services of the Cultural Development Corp. (CDC), which had put paid employees in charge of managing the event’s books in prior years—some officials were quite skeptical of how the now entirely volunteer-run exhibition would fare financially. “I’m gonna be very interested to see how well it really does with truly an all-volunteer scenario,” CDC Executive Director Anne Corbett told the Washington City Paper back in September.
So it was with self-described “unvarying amazement” that Artomatic organizers made an announcement this week: “We’re In The Black.” “[W]e paid off the pre-existing debt, managed the event ourselves (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), watched expenses carefully and pulled it off,” members of the event’s steering committee proudly declared in a mass e-mail sent on March 28.
Not only did organizers meet their $121,197 budget, they also ended up with what the e-mail described as “a small nest egg that we can use to jump-start the next bout of craziness.” Steering-committee member Sondra Arkin valued the surplus between $10,000 and $20,000.
How’d they do it? Well, for starters, Arkin cited “good donations at the door,” and strong sales at the bar, where artist-volunteers hawked $4 cups of wine, $3 beers, $2 sodas, and $1 bottles of water.
But the biggest reason? They got lucky. “It could’ve been a completely different story if the weather had been really cold,” says Arkin. But throughout November, when the monthlong exhibition took place, the weather in Washington was unseasonably warm. The average temperature, according to the National Weather Service, was a mere 51 degrees—2.3 degrees above average.
It was so warm, in fact, that Artomatic’s five-story, 110,000-square-foot exhibition space in the former Capital Children’s Museum didn’t need any non-patron-generated heat. So organizers turned it off. “And we never turned it back on,” Arkin says.
That single flip of the switch ended up saving the exhibition a bundle. Heating and electricity were expected to cost about $20,000, says Artomatic financial director Chuck Baxter, but turned out to be less than $8,000. “That’s a lot of what saved our butts,” Arkin says.
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