Personal Essay

With Lego, I explore identity — and build my own vision of the Canadian future

Ever since Ekow Nimako was a Lego-loving kid, he’s been building his life and identity on his own terms.

You never know what might happen when you reconnect with a childhood obsession.

Since Ekow Nimako was a Lego-loving kid, he’s been building his life and identity on his own terms. (Leah Snyder/Mixed Bag Mag)

If there's one thing I've learned in life it's this: if you want to create something truly original, there's no room for following anyone else's instructions.

My name is Ekow Nimako and I play with Lego for a living.

Growing up in London, Ont., I dreamed of turning the geometric shapes of the world's most versatile medium into a career. I just never believed it would actually happen.

To my surprise, it did — but I can't say the road to my dreams was paved with yellow bricks.

One need only examine my work to see the building blocks of my art and identity: my black Ghanaian-Canadian roots; my childhood in small town Ontario; my politics. Every piece of my story has made me who I am.

Pouring out the pieces

Ekow Nimako moved around a lot as a child. Here he is posing in his West London finery, while living in London, England. (Nimako family album)

My older brother, Joseph, and I were born at the Jewish General Hospital in Côte-des-Neiges, Montreal to two Ghanaian parents.

By the time I began Grade 1, my parents had divorced. Our family bounced between Quebec, Ontario and London, England before settling down in London, Ont.

My childhood in Canadian London was pivotal in my artistic development and love of Lego — but it was also where I experienced both extreme and subtle forms of racism that I still recall with regrettably accuracy.

On the extreme end there was the angry white n-bomb-hurling kid named Tony who would frequent my bus stop to pick on the black kids. (So, basically to pick on me.)

"The odd one out." Growing up in London, Ont., Ekow Nimako was often the only black child in the room. (St. Alfred School)

On the subtle side there were bumbling white teachers who didn't quite know what to do with me. Like that time a wayward classmate unceremoniously puked on my six-year-old afro during story time, and I was whisked away to the bathroom sink. There I stood as two women anxiously discussed how one goes about washing the impenetrable hair of a black child.

(Their quandary remained unresolved and I had to wait for my mom, covered in my own tears and Benjamin's half-digested Nesquik and Frosted Flakes.)

One need only examine my work to see the building blocks of my art and identity.

In retrospect I wish I'd talked to my parents about these moments, but I was just too young to process it. I would later learn that racism, at any age, whether subtle or extreme, is always too difficult to process.

London wasn't all that bad, though. I had my creek adventures, my half-Nigerian best friend Jason and, of course, I had Lego.

'My minifigs were white. Ok, literally, they were yellow; but as The Simpsons have so expertly normalized, yellow is often a stand-in for white,' notes Ekow Nimako. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

My process for play was near ritualistic. I most often played in front of the television with Transformers, G.I. Joe, Robotech, Thundercats and Voltron as my inspiration.

All I needed was my bin of bricks, one of my mama's Kente cloths (a simple Ghanaian fabric I would employ for Lego loss prevention) and my endless supply of imagination.

My imagination helped me glaze over a lot of things. Like the fact that kids who looked like me were largely absent from my favourite cartoon worlds, and that my beloved yellow minifigs, those cheerful plastic figurines that populated my Lego creations, were really white.

My process for play was near ritualistic... my imagination helped me glaze over a lot of things.

Much of the exclusion I felt as a kid morphed when my family moved to Scarborough, Ont. in 1988.

Starting over

In Scarborough, for the first time, most of my peers looked like me. Either that or they were Filipino.

In this exciting new environment, and with the sudden onset of puberty, I hastily traded in my healthy Lego obsession for more hormonally gratifying pursuits.

I didn't find myself casually building again until I was in my early twenties. I'd just become a parent, and I revelled in my role as a young father trying to raise strong daughters.

For the next decade, I would gather more and more Lego in the guise of birthday and Christmas gifts — all for my daughter's sake, of course.

But it wasn't until 2012 that I really had the time to get back into my childhood hobby.

You see, the successful start-up where I'd worked as a copywriter suddenly became a successful slow-down. I found myself jobless with an incomplete Fine Arts degree.

While job hunting, I found myself digging back into the bin. First, I built a bird. I wanted it to be… artful.

One of Ekow Nimako's bird sculptures, "Blue Phoenix-Jay of the Tower City" (Janick Laurent)

From birds I moved on to cats, and from cats I moved on to facsimiles of human beings.

I started noticing that Lego artists like Nathan Sawaya had thriving careers. Around this time my consciousness around identity began to develop as well. I engaged with radical, queer, black feminists and discovered artists like Kara Walker and writers like Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorafor.

The pieces were coming together.

It wasn't long before I had my own exhibition: one that challenged me to really examine my identity as a black man, a Ghanaian man, a Canadian man and a visual artist. All this from reconnecting with my childhood obsession.

Building Black started as an exhibition. One that Ekow Nimako says was 'pivotal' to his Lego sculpting career. Now it lives on as a workshop for a new generation of builders. (Michelle Clarke Photography)

Building the future

These days I'm running workshops that didn't exist when I was a kid.  

We're here to build a future where we get the same visibility and opportunities awarded to white artists who have been raised by the very same country.

I invite young participants to build their own Afrofuturistic descendents out of Lego as a means of highlighting black sci-fi and fantasy and reimagining our collective future. I call it Building Beyond.

I get to meet young people who perhaps don't have access to Lego, and who haven't been introduced to identity-based artwork that pushes their imaginative capacities. I'm learning as much as I'm teaching.

I'm also working on a new body of work that draws on West-African metaphors and mysticism as embodied by melanin-rich, inter-dimensional children. 

Ekow Nimako leads young kids in building their own futuristic figures. (Dennis Langley)

It is this kind of artwork — as well as the artwork of other West African-Canadian artists like Komi Olaf, Ojo Agi and Oluseye — that can help sharpen the lens of our experiences as Canadians. We're here to build a future where we get the same visibility and opportunities awarded to white artists who have been raised by the very same country.

I do this for every kid who looks like me, and who has felt the same way I have felt, whether playing with Lego or playing the violin. 

I do this for all black Canadians. And I do this for the child within myself that has been there every step of the way.

Pitch your own personal essay to Canada 2017. Do you have a fascinating first-person story about Canada? Is it a point of view that we don't often hear from? Does it present a vision for the future of our country? Read more about how to pitch your essay to Canada 2017. You don't have to be a professional writer.

About the Author

Ekow Nimako

Ekow Nimako is a sculptor and author who uses Lego and a surrealist approach to explore, expand and preserve the black and West African mythos. His first Lego-themed book, Beasts from Bricks, launches in the summer of 2017.

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