Inua Ellams looks at art, poetry and an immigrant’s life

Inua Ellams. Picture by Oliver Holms

Inua Ellams. Picture by Oliver Holms

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An Evening with an Immigrant is the emotionally charged title as Inua Ellams takes to the stage in The Old Courtroom, Brighton, on Saturday and Sunday, January 28 and 29 (7.30pm).

“The first time I created the show was in 2015, long before Brexit happened and all that,” says Inua, an award-winning poet and playwright.

“It was just an idea that I was fumbling around with, and the alternative title I had was An Even-ing with Inua Ellams, but that just seemed too big-headed and grandiose!”

So he used the word immigrant instead, a word he would dearly love to de-charge politically and take back to its much more neutral original meaning, free from all the negative connotations it has accrued.

“To me, it was a word that I embraced long before it became a political word.”

With poems, stories and anecdotes, Inua will tell his immigrant-story of escaping fundamentalist Islam, directing an arts festival at his college in Dublin, performing solo shows at the National Theatre and drinking wine with the Queen of England, all the while without a country to belong to or place to call home.

Born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother in what is now considered by many to be Boko Haram territory, Inua Ellams left Nigeria for England aged 12 in 1996 and moved to Ireland for three years, before returning to London and starting work as a writer and graphic designer.

He has now established himself as a cross-artform practitioner, a poet, playwright and performer, graphic artist and designer and founder of the Midnight Run — an arts-filled, night-time, playful, urban, walking experience.

Across his work, identity, displacement and destiny are reoccurring themes in which he also tries to mix the old with the new: traditional African storytelling with contemporary poetry, pencil with pixel, texture with vector images.

“For me, an immigrant just meant someone who had moved from one place to another. For me, it just acts as a mirror to everything else, but before they come along, I hope the audiences will think about what they understand by an immigrant. I think people associate it with people with a different accent who come to disrupt society, that don’t speak the language and don’t have a deep understanding of British values.

“But really it is just someone who has moved from one neighbourhood to another or from one part of Britain to another. For me, it really is that simple that it can almost be meaningless. It’s really just a neutral term. It is only in recent times that it has become more volatile. I think it is possible for it to go back to a simple meaning… but only if there is the political will.”

As for the show: “I would not say it is my life story. It is aspects of my life. I talk about wanting to become a visual artist. It is one way of looking at my life. I will talk about my immigrant background, and I will illustrate aspects of like. I talk about my poetry and I just talk to the audi-ence. I have a script in my lap and I have a lectern with my iPad. And I just talk.

“First and foremost, I am a poet. My first initiation into the world of the arts came with trying to be a visual artist and designer, and then I did a lot of designing for poets and then I started writ-ing poetry. Poetry is pure. It is an almost pointless act because of how ridiculous language and words are. The meaning of words change, like we were talking about the word immigrant. When you are writing a poem, you are putting together a set of truths that are constantly fluid. You are using words that might not have the same meaning for the reader as they have for you. You are working with a deck of cards that is constantly changing. And that’s what makes us human, the attempt to have faith in a constantly-changing world.”

Box office: 01273 709709.

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