I became aware of the huge gulf and invisible hierarchical walls between fine art and graphic design when I got enrolled in art school in Lagos, Nigeria. The course structure at the school was anything but interdisciplinary and the graphic design students and fine art students were constantly bickering about their respective discipline being ‘better’ and more relevant. This situation naturally left me an art student in the foundation year feeling confused and did nothing to assuage the feeling I had of being like a raisin in a bowl of cornflakes.

Prior to being in art school, I was on the science path with a focus on becoming a computer scientist or engineer and on deciding to be in art school, I went in with a heavy interest in footwear design, with a focus on the line, curves and patterns found in sneakers and also an interest in fashion (streetwear culture). This interest was at variance with the attention given to fine arts and graphic design hence the confusion. What position do you take when you draw sneakers and tiny people living in a streetwear universe in a place where everyone was focused on either getting into a gallery as a painter, sculptor etc or an advertising agency as a graphic designer? I felt my work didn’t fit into any of those disciplines but, I thankfully kept on making it and doing what I had to do, to meet the requirements for moving on to the next semester, until a book gift I got from my parents literally changed my life.

In the midst of working and feeling out of place, I got a book from my parents titled "100% Cotton: T-Shirt graphics". This book introduced me to people making work that blurred the lines between fine art and graphic design, it was simply all about making, collaborating - all from a place of deep interest and a desire to express oneself as fully as possible. This book made me realise that the work I was making was valid and also made me more aware of the fluid, interdisciplinary nature of things. It was also at this point, that I think I started consciously questioning why walls should exist between disciplines.

After my studies, I worked in advertising and brand marketing and then decided to trade the relative comfort and safety gotten from working in those fields, for a life in an uncertain space where I could make a fluid connection between my constantly changing interests and the desire to express myself freely.

The invisible hierarchical wall between art and graphic design become evident in my life again in 2015. In 2015, I was one of the artists invited to participate in the 56th Venice Biennales’ main exhibition “All of the Worlds Futures”. While there, a gallery director (whom I had met about two years ago) and I got into a conversation, “You need to decide if you want to be a graphic designer or an artist” he said. I wondered why I had to make a decision considering the exposure I have had, and the presence of individuals like Robert Crumb, Javier Mariscal and Horst Janssen, renowned graphic artists who have successfully and seamlessly moved between art world, commercial and personal spaces in the creation of their work and most importantly Arnold Bode the initiator of the first Documenta exhibition who trained as a graphic artist, painter and furniture designer. 

The seemingly innocuous question by the gallery director got me thinking about the power of extraneous influences i.e money and the function of galleries, curators and art institutions in shaping and defining what art can and should be - is art a construct of a gallery director or curators respective interests or their arguably ever-changing worldviews? What power can ‘artists’ glean from being able to assert their right to
express themselves independent of these external forces and how does this assertion of rights affect their output and their being accepted by art institutions? The question also made me realise more why a huge gulf exists between these disciplines of fine art and graphic design where none, in my opinion, should exist.

The huge gulf between fine art and graphic design is driven by the Western-led economic system of capitalism which has a bent for control, power and ownership, the commodification of just about anything and also by class structures. Naturally, in a system that has a bent for the aforementioned attributes, exclusivity and all that makes for it i.e labelling and categorisation become a salient part of the decision-making process hence, graphic design becomes the non-exclusive, accessible, service driven discipline and fine art the high value, exclusive discipline. Arguments can be made about graphic design being the poster child for industry, hence the place it occupies in the ‘creative’ sphere but, graphic design also can be and is a tool for the free expression of personal, political, social ideals (the work of Emory Douglas and the French design collective Grapus comes to mind in this regard) just as much as fine art can be. 

Considering the myriad of interests and perceived and real benefits of having a capitalist system that supports the need for power and control and the upholding of class structures, I don’t see this desire to label and categorise changing anytime soon, so as a graphic designer working in art world spaces and commercial spaces, I find that being aware of these labels and also having the presence of mind to navigate my way past the restrictions they foster whilst trying to express myself becomes an essential attitude to have in a system that favours the need for control and exclusivity. I also realise that being able to navigate spaces can also be tiring and is only an individual, short-term solution to a deeper problem that goes beyond invisible hierarchical walls between disciplines to issues surrounding inclusion and exclusion in institutions on the basis of race, gender and class, its an individual approach that is also pretty much capitalist in nature. Hedging on your privileges and advantages to rise above the storm a system has created isn’t exactly a way to create lasting and meaningful solutions for equitable living and fairness in a world driven by stark inequalities.

As these hierarchies are well established, I find myself being interested in how these hierarchies can be circumvented. I sometimes think of how amazing it would be if there are more graphic designers actively creating and showing work in art world spaces and not just been a ‘support structure’ for art exhibitions through the design of promotional materials and publications, I wonder how or if that could possibly lead to a change in how programmes in museums are structured. Graphic designers formally or informally trained have the privilege of shaping culture and creating messages political, social, personal and disseminating same in the most accessible and populist ways possible. People connect with and are more familiar with graphic design much more than fine arts, as the former is more ubiquitous and more prevalent in the everyday lives of people. Having more graphic designers actively ‘exhibiting’ their work in art world spaces might lead to programming that mirrors the realities of everyday living in the communities where these spaces are located and certainly might drive up the number of visitors to these spaces and probably make them more diverse, this would be in line with the push by art institutions to increase their visitor rates and connect more with the communities they are situated in. These thoughts linger on my mind and I realise that thoughts like these can only gain traction to the extent that they don’t disrupt the power and control structures already in place in these spaces, an unfortunate fact that rings true given the recent ousting of Helen Molesworth as the curator of the MOCA, Los Angeles due to "creative differences". Whilst my thoughts are focused on the possibilities graphic design can offer for more diverse and everyday life relevant programming in art world spaces, I’m also aware that power structures and hierarchies also exist within graphic design circles. The existence of power structures, hierarchies in art world spaces and graphic design circles and the conversations their existence generate regarding issues of inclusion and exclusion are a reflection of the structures that exist in the world outside these spaces.

If any structural changes are to happen, they may not come from artists and art institutions; as the space we occupy is heavily influenced by extraneous forces that being in a capitalist space offers. It may come from people having a greater sense of value for their right to express themselves and them being more aware that in a capitalist system, nothing is ever free and we are constantly in a battle to fight for the time and space to create independently and that no matter what benefit we may glean from the system, we are all affected albeit in varying degrees by the strains the system brings to bear on our spiritual, mental and physical beings. 

I don’t know, it’s complicated but, I choose to be optimistic and hopeful for a future where these structures are constantly being challenged by people (myself included) creating work, telling stories in however way possible leading to the formation of a critical mass of activity that will ultimately birth these structural changes.

Karo Akpokiere
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