Futura Free: An Interview with Funso

28 JANUARY 2021

PHOTOS BY BALINT MARJAI

 
Who is Funso?

“I was born in West London, and came to Sussex Uni to do Anthropology with Spanish. I did that for four years, I did a year abroad and lived in Canada, and now I’m back in London. Living in Canada I didn’t know anyone there, I had to start afresh. I feel like when you’re put in a place where no one knows you, you can almost express more of an authentic version of yourself because you don’t have anyone projecting past versions of you onto you, so you can kind of just be you and discover who you actually want to be. And that’s when I met the people that were closest to me, so I think that’s why it’s had the biggest impact on me.” 

How would you describe yourself?

“I guess I would just describe myself as a creative. I think that there are so many things that I like to dip my toes into and I would never say I’m just one thing. The woman I work with part time has a platform that showcases products by black female-owned businesses in the UK, and she calls me a Swiss knife! She’s like:

“Okay, Funso, do you know how to do this?” and I’m like, “No, but I’ll figure it out!” I’ll do some coding or something, and I’ve never coded in my life, but I’ll just watch a YouTube video and see how it works.” 

Why did you decide to become a creative? At what point did you know it was your purpose?

“I would say ATA RODO is the platform where I showcase the creative talents of black women and women from ethnic minority backgrounds - that’s my passion, that’s the one that I want to pursue and I want to curate. I like organising things and bringing people together. I feel like my purpose is to do that because of the lack of representation in that area. But that has come to a halt at the moment because of not only COVID, but the modelling is taking off, so it’s a juggling act.” 

What does ATA RODO mean? It is a powerful example of how culture can help to shape a societal shift – how did you begin your work on a project of such importance?

“Literally, it means in ‘scotch bonnet pepper’ in Yoruba, which is my dad’s native tongue. I chose that word because I wanted to spice up the art world, and also I felt like the scotch bonnet is a pepper that in West African cuisine and Caribbean cuisine really brings the food together. Like, you can tell when something has scotch bonnet in it, when it has that kind of heat. Also, spice up the art world because the art world is very white at the moment and doesn’t have that many women in it either. So that was my way of being like: I want to break this up and change things. Over the years, when I was in my last year of uni I did this workshop with Brighton Fringe where young people from BAME backgrounds came together and curated an exhibition. I’d never been in the world of curation and I really enjoyed putting everything on the walls, and I felt myself taking some sort of lead as well because I was so engrossed in that world. When I spoke to the creatives there, especially the women were saying “I’ll be in an art space and I’ll feel ostracised, I’ll feel like I’m being excluded or I won’t feel comfortable. Or when I put my art on the wall, it will just be ‘Oh, this must be black art,’ or ‘this must be feminist art’.” And it’s like, nah I just made it because I like the colours, man. Or like, something not to do with race or gender. Yes, I understand inherently those identities will be in the art because that’s an element of who made it, but that’s not what their intention was. So I wanted to make a space where it was explicit that okay, all these people are women and all these people are black or women of colour. Now let’s look at the art for what they want to show you. If they want to show you a racially charged or feminist piece, then cool, but some of them don’t want to show you that. I also wanted a space that felt very comfortable. When I did the exhibition in January, honestly the amount of people that came up to me and said “This is the best exhibition I’ve ever been to, I didn’t feel comfortable in art spaces before this”. For some of them it was the first exhibition that they had done and I wanted that to be an entry into the world of the arts for them. Exhibiting their work and feeling comfortable first so they can do it again, because some people have been put off when they go to those other exhibitions, and they’re like “Well, I don’t want to do this again because I don’t feel like I belong.” And so, the ATA RODO exhibition was a place where their art could really be seen for what it is.” 


Do you think the fear of discrimination can lead black artists to give up on their inspirations?

“One hundred percent. If you don’t feel comfortable in a space, then you’re less likely to succeed within it. Even in the modelling and acting world, there’s been times when I’m on set and the whole set is mostly men - mostly white guys. Sometimes I’m literally the darkest person on the set, and it’ll be a set of like a hundred people. When black and brown people are in those spaces, sometimes because I’m mixed race I can kind of dip into the different worlds. I’m very palatable to most people, so they still say things that they don’t realise are racially offensive or insensitive. So I can understand why it puts black and brown creatives off those worlds. Another example with the modelling and acting is that I’ll sometimes go to a set and the makeup is not for my skin tone - so imagine someone darker than me! And they’ll be doing all these fancy hairstyles on these straight-haired blonde girls, and they come to you and they’re like, “I think your hair is okay how it is!” And you've come in and your hair’s dry and crusty and you’re like,

“Oh, okay…” So it’s everywhere - things that put creatives off, or black creatives from pursuing what they want.”

ATA RODO London distilled so much about what was and still is happening in the world. You chose to spotlight such varied and fascinating black women and women of colour. How do black women and WOC get on Funso’s radar?

“The exhibition that I did in January, I put an open call out for artists and then people would approach me. Then from those pieces I chose work that fit the theme or that I felt, as a curator, fit the theme. I would post the exhibition to my socials, and because I know so many creative people they’d belike “This is cool!” and they’d repost it, and so I guess I was lucky in a sense. Also I don’t think something like ATA RODO has really been done before, and so people are more likely to jump on it and be like “Oh my gosh, this is something that I’ve really wanted to be in.” I intended on doing another exhibition, but with COVID I had to cancel it. For that open call, I had five times the submissions because I’d done a video during the first one so they saw how it went, the following grew a bit, and people know it’s been tried and tested.  I got the people at the first exhibition to all do surveys and tell me what I could do better and what they enjoyed - and the feedback was amazing. So in terms of getting on my radar, I intend on having [an exhibition], God willing with everything going on, in the beginning of next year sometime.”

What makes finding undiscovered and underrepresented talent so important to you?

“I think societies flourish when everyone is heard, and so if one group is down no one can have a good time. If some people are having a good time and others aren’t, no one’s having a good time. When I saw the statistics after speaking to creatives over the years that’s when I realised: this is an issue. Not many people are actually doing anything about it that I can see. I think in small ways some people are, but from the minute I saw the statistics and I saw that representation is near to zero I was like, “Something has to be done about this.” Because there is so much amazing art, especially with everything that goes on, the emotions and the struggles that you go through when you are from black and brown backgrounds - the art is going to be incredible! I like organising things, I like doing things for others, but I think that when I was younger it would be to my detriment and I would give because I didn’t feel like I could receive. You know when you try and find self worth in others? I think that was what my pattern was. But now it’s like, okay, I need to change that. I still like to be generous and I still like to give to people, but let me do it in a way that is fulfilling and not draining. I think it is important to be selfish. I don’t think that selfish is necessarily a bad word, there are just bad connotations to it. If you haven’t sorted yourself out, then you can’t serve others in the best way, and so it’s like you should always put yourself first in order to help people.”

Modelling and acting are other creative elements in your life. How did that start?

“When I was going through school I was quite overweight - I was a very big child. When I was like sixteen/seventeen, I lost a lot of weight, and then suddenly it was like all this attention and whatever, agencies calling me. I’d be on the street and be scouted, I was just getting called into agencies frequently. They would always say my weight was not low enough for normal models, but I wasn’t big enough for curvy models. So then I left and went to uni. Near my end years of uni I was dating a guy at the time and he was a model, and he told me I should put myself out there again. And so I was like, why not? I also got scouted on the streets of Brighton by a representative of IMG, a huge modelling agency and although I didn't get in, it really motivated me to start to look for jobs and agencies, and that’s why it started again. Since then it’s just continued and I just kind of fell into it. I’m grateful for every single thing that comes my way. I will never knock any opportunities that come my way. If it so happens that this is the path I keep going on, then sure, but always at the end of it I will have the passion for ATA RODO. Even if I get really big, I can be like, now I have a platform to show ATA RODO to the world. Either way, that is the passion and that is the purpose and that’s what I want to do. I also find with creative work, people feel more connected with it when someone shows their face a little bit more. It might not even just be because they are fetishing or whatever. You feel more connected to someone when they show elements of themselves. I would like to think that I have a balance where I don’t overshare, I don’t think everyone knows everything about my life.” 

Being of Nigerian heritage, how do you see yourself and your work in relation to the global black community?

“I think having a background where half of your family are from Nigeria, and my Dad came over to the UK and seeing him be here, I think that you learn so much about being outside and different. That kind of feeds into my work because again I’m trying to do things that bring people from the diaspora together so that they can create. There’s so much that we have in common, even though my Dad is Nigerian and I’m from the UK. There are so many things that if you have black in you, that you have in common with other black people.” 

You’ve been such a vocal advocate for change, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic - it’s been inspirational. How do you see your work as a creative and the way you use your platform for activism?

“I have debates about this with myself. I think that there are always pros and cons because one, when you put things on social media you’re not only contributing to this ‘slacktivism’ where everything is happening in bubbles online and nothing is really changing on the outside sometimes, and at the same time I recognise that I could also be preaching to the choir. Like I’m speaking within an echo chamber of people that want to listen to me and maybe already are doing things or trying to change. But in that, I think that even if I was trying to make something and one person watches it and there is some sort of change or they are interested in it or they have a conversation with someone else, I think that is how I justify what I’m doing. I think that it’s difficult as well because especially when you’re doing things and you almost inadvertently profit off of them it can sit weirdly because I know that my following grew when I started posting videos during Black Lives Matter. It’s very bittersweet because I even think that some of the work I’m getting is because maybe companies know that to have someone working with them that is doing this work will look better for them. Even if they don’t give a shit, they’ve got someone that they’ve hired that is speaking up, so it looks better on them. There’s always debates in my head of like, “Is it even worth it?” But my mindset is: do your part, do what you can within your sphere, your bubble. Even just having a conversation with someone, they might hear something I say and think about it. Or I might hear something they say and think about it. It’s not getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture. I think that what we do is we think, “Oh wow, okay, things need to happen now.” We're so used to the instant gratification of social media, that we get frustrated wondering why is nothing happening immediately, or why is everything so terrible? And then you get overwhelmed, and then you don’t do anything. And so, it is just about, okay, what can I do in small ways to help better lived experience. I think that’s a really important thing, that sometimes we can’t change things single-handedly or systematically, but we can affect lived experience of the people around us. That’s my motivation.” 

As a business woman and creative, what’s been the proudest moment of your career so far?

“The exhibition in January that I had. I remember that opening night was the best night of my life. It was in South East London, in this small gallery/café, and they don’t really get many people coming in. Even when she was giving me the space, she was just thinking like, “You’re not going to get many people, it’s the first week in January, everyone’s going to have spent their money on Christmas, New Years and whatever. I’ll give it to you for a discount.” And I was like, “Okay, cool!”. I mean if it’s the first one, I was thinking even if one person turns up - that’s always my mentality. Even if the one is me, then it’s still worth it. Like, even if I did that whole exhibition and looked around and I was like, “I’ve just put all this stuff up, I’ve just organised all this.” I would be so proud.” 

Do you feel changed as a person by the events of 2020, and if so, in what ways?

“Oh yeah, one hundred percent. I think every day you learn something new about yourself and I think that lockdown period where we were essentially forced to confront a lot of things that maybe when you go into the outside world you’re distracting yourself from. You’re so busy with life that you don’t actually go within yourself and look to see if there’s anything going on inside. I think that the events of 2020 really pushed me to do that. I think that’s why I came out of lockdown and I also was doing all this work because yeah, okay, I understand that companies want to make up for lost time and just in case there’s a second lockdown they want to get content. I also think that my confidence in myself grew during this time. I also realised who I am and what my purpose is during the first lockdown, so I was ready to come out of it and get to work. However, people cope in different ways and not everyone goes at the same speed. But yeah, during that time in particular I was like, right, okay, I need to confront everything that’s going on mentally right now because it’s a mess and I want to fix it so I can grow - and I think I begun to do that. This isn’t to negate or say that nothing has gone wrong or bad this year, but I feel like I’ve had a good year mentally, because I’ve gone through really shit periods but it’s been great.” 

Who are some of your favourite black businesses and creatives at the moment?

This is probably the hardest question! There are SO many Black businesses and creatives that I’m loving at the moment, so narrowing it down to 3 took forever! However, these are the people who came straight to mind:

Janet’s List is a platform highlighting black women and women of colour owned businesses. I’m probably bias as for those that don’t know, I have been working with Janet for over a year now  after sliding into her DMs to ask if I could shadow her at her next popup shop. She did me one better and offered me a job. Janet is an amazing woman. She has provided me with valuable business insight as well as being someone I can depend on and I am always grateful for the knowledge and love she’s given me over the past year.

Rhoda B is a photographer, writer, jewellery maker and all-round creative. Although I’ve never met her in person, I’ve been following her on instagram and the content she creates is GORGEOUS. Her self-portraits are breathtaking and the curation of her projects is stunning. Her jewellery line “house of blue collections” is testament to her Ghanaian roots, with each design being named after a different day in the week. I’m really excited by this woman and I am super eager to work with her at some point.

Lisa Grand is a singer/songwriter and artist with the most incredible voice. Although she sings like an angel, it is Lisa’s whole aura and being that I fell in love with. She is one of the artists who put their trust in me to showcase their talents at my last exhibition and already through emailing back and forth with her, I could tell she has the most amazing heart. It really translates through her music and practice - I admire her consistency, her trust in the process and her overall vision. Lisa is definitely one to watch and deserves so much recognition!

Futura Free (Rapid Fire Questions): 

What’s your name?

“My name is Funso. My full name on my passport is "Olufunso Foluso-Henry”

What do you do?

“I do a lot of things. I’m an actor, a model, a photographer. I have a platform called ATA RODO London, showcasing the creative talents of black women and women of colour. Lots of side hustles too!” 

What’s your first memory?

“My first memory is when I was two and a half. I was born with a dislocated hip, so I didn’t walk until I was three. So when I was two and a half I had to go for an operation to remove a bit of the bone in my hip, and my first memory is my eyes closing as I was passing out the gas they gave me before I went in to the operation. So like, pretty traumatic! Apparently you build memories during childhood from trauma, so a lot of people’s first memories as children are traumatic memories.” 

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve witnessed?

“The thing is - and I would never just choose one thing - but it’s when I’m in a space, normally in nature or something, that’s so expansive and you feel so small because everything is just so grand and wide. For me, that’s always the most amazing thing.” 

Which three superpowers do you wish you had?

“I would like to be invisible, I think that would be fun! I could play pranks on people, and be in different rooms and witness different things that are happening that I wouldn’t have seen anyway. Super speed, just ‘cause I like to exercise and be active and so I just want to be extra good at that. I’d like to also be able to change my size, be smaller or bigger, so I can go into places where animals and stuff can go. See what’s going on in there, you know?” 

If you could speak to Funso from five years ago, what would you say to her?

“I would say: stop trying to be a people pleaser, and don’t suppress who you are to impress others.That includes your emotions, your feelings… embrace them, and know that experiencing them will make you even stronger than you already are.” 

For More: FunsoAta Rodo London