Yisa Akinbolaji is a Winnipeg-based painter, artist and founder of Creative Foundation Inc. He was recently bestowed with the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal for exemplary service to community by the Province of Manitoba, Canada. Honoured along with 69 other Manitobans, Yisa was in 2011 featured on the cover of Art Business News, New York. Yisa’s work has also been published in Redemptive Art in Society. On September 18, 2020, Yisa’s work, Stolen Identities, was displayed at the Senate of Canada Building in honor of Canada’s Black Artists. On September 30, 2020, Senator Patricia Bovey presented an account of Yisa’s work and his biography at the Senate Chamber of Canada.
Yisa was appointed to the board of the Manitoba Arts Council in 2010 and served for 9 years. Yisa’s painting, Wisdom Thread, is featured in the Government of Alberta Department of Education’s Curriculum, since 2021. Yisa is a recipient of the Manitoba 150 Award. In 2018, Yisa received the Manitoba Premier’s Volunteer Service Award. Minister Rochelle Squires recognized Yisa at the Manitoba Legislative Assembly on April 12, 2018. Yisa was elected to the membership of Manitoba Society of Artists in 2000, becoming its President in 2001 at the 100th Anniversary and serving until 2003. His passion for experimentation and knowledge of materials resulted in creating his own unique base-medium, known as Remoglue.
BY EMMANUEL NWANERI
This conversation took place on the premises of the 102-year-old Manitoba Legislature Building in Winnipeg, Canada.
Emmanuel: Let me start by asking, when did you first find out that you had been selected to receive this award?
Yisa: To be very honest, I got the message first from Hon. Rochelle Squires and her office, and then about two weeks ago I got a notice from the Chief of Protocol of the Premier that the award is confirmed.
Emmanuel: This award is known fully as the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal, right?
Yisa: It is precisely that. The Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal.
Emmanuel: I just wanted to be sure about that. I believe it was presented also to mark her 70th Anniversary on the throne as the Queen?
Yisa: That’s very correct. It was for her 70th year on the throne as the Queen, and you’ll agree with me that it’s a position of grace. I recall that when I was growing up in Nigeria, my father told me of the Queen’s visit to Nigeria in 1956. He said because he wanted me to know the value of education and elegance; he told me of that story of the Queen and said to me that even though the Queen did not come to Ondo town (that was where I was born), the ceremony was heard on the radio across Nigeria and that was something that touched him. My father is 96 years old and he is doing very well. I am the first child of 13 kids.
Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne at a young age, in her 20s, and God gave her the grace to be on that throne for 70 years, which is amazing. That was why every leader, every President around the world wanted to see and meet her to witness the glamour that surrounds that position. Which was exactly why she was very gracious in so many ways. I learned that she visited Manitoba on at least six occasions.
Emmanuel: I learned that there were altogether 70 recipients of this award and that you were the only African-born recipient amongst them. How does that make you feel, because I don’t think we will witness another 70th anniversary Platinum Jubilee Medal in our lifetime again?
Yisa: To me, it shows the evidence of grace and the rewards for hard work and for contributing to society. To know that there won’t be another Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal again, I feel is the proof of grace in my life. This work I have been doing was never for recognition. When I think of this type of recognition, I just mathematically multiply the number of hours, days, weeks, months and years that I have committed to my work by 70, and I see it as a very wonderful system. I love it very much.
Emmanuel: To the best of your knowledge, are you the first Nigerian-born recipient of this Platinum Jubilee medal?
Yisa: I would be expecting more Nigerians to receive such recognition, because there are many Nigerians—some younger than myself—who are really doing great things now. I hope their work is noticed. What I can say as a matter of fact is that in my local community here, I am the only one from Nigeria who received the award, because everyone who was selected by the Minister was presented on that day.
“I don’t want people to serve because they want to receive an award. I want people to offer their services without expecting an award.“
Emmanuel: What do you think this award does for Black arts in Canada and for CBAU, your organisation?
Yisa: I think that it is likely to encourage Black Canadian artists, whether they belong to Canadian Black Artistes United (CBAU) or not. I think this recognition is going to encourage black people who hear of it, even beyond Canada. It’s going to encourage them to believe that every good thing is possible. As for CBAU, the institution already has a life of its own and whatever destiny has in store for it, I may not understand it myself.
As an individual and the founder of this organisation, I am passionate about it because it is an organisation of necessity. It is not just an organisation that I wanted to establish for personal purposes, because I realised the need to create a foundation… For example, I recognised that a lot of immigrant artists who are newly-arrived in Canada are always in search of a solution that can provide logistical help for them. This is something that CBAU was established to offer.
Emmanuel: Thank you so much. Have you received any congratulatory messages from fellow Africans or fellow black artists, or people of the immigrant community here since you got this award, and what did they say to you?
Yisa: Interestingly, I think I received over a hundred… Not only within Manitoba. The world now is a global village and as soon as something hits the internet, it spreads across the globe quickly. There’s one message here from one of my former students in Nigeria who said “CONGRATULATIONS, CONGRATULATIONS, CONGRATULATIONS”, in capital letters! And he added that: “The milestones of success are priceless”. I also got messages from actress Karen Cornelius who wrote to me and said: “Congratulations Yisa for the recognition and what you have given back to our community here in Winnipeg”. I also had one from Larry Parter, who was my mentor when I started the Creative Foundation Inc here.
Emmanuel: Interestingly, about three months ago you were yourself giving out an award to Senator Patricia Bovey, where she spoke about the important role that arts and artists play in all our lives, even if we don’t recognise it. So, if you were not an artist, and maybe you were involved in a different field, do you think you would have received this award?
Yisa: I think it is due to the environment in which I found myself, that is the Canadian environment. With the kind of community service I engage myself in, I strongly believe I would have been recognised as well. I am certain that this award was not given to me for being an artist alone, but also a community member who has contributed to the lives of others.
Emmanuel: Is this the most important award you have ever received in your entire career? You mentioned some previous ones you have gotten. Is this award the most important one of them all?
Yisa: Well, I think I will give all the awards equal appreciation. No recognition is small in my view, because they are all based on the grace that I feel is upon my life. If I was not given the grace to make a contribution to society, I would not have received previous awards. It is very likely that the first awards presented to the people who nominated me for this, gave them the idea that ‘let’s look at the record of the person who received an award and has never stopped doing more’. What I am trying to say is that foundation is very important. Someone who has a PhD should recognize the importance of their high school certificate, because without the high school certificate, there wouldn’t have been the possibility of getting a PhD. So, all the awards I have received, as well as all the letters of congratulations, are very important to me.
Emmanuel: When you had to go up on that stage to receive your medal from the Lieutenant-Governor, did she or the Premier speak to you about anything in particular?
Yisa: I think I heard them say clearly (though in a whisper) that the award is well-deserved. The Governor-General told me “Congratulations, we are very proud of your work”.
Emmanuel: Thank you very much. Have you thought about dedicating this award to anyone or anything, maybe to the CBAU?
Yisa: I don’t know if I need to do that to anyone or anything in particular, but since I was informed about it several months ago, I felt at that point that it should be dedicated to the youth of the future, because I strongly believe in them. What we are benefiting from today is based on the work of generations that passed before us. I believe that there is going to be a future, so I hope that in 200-500 years when someone comes here from any part of the world as an immigrant, they should realise that those of us who are here now, thought of them and dedicated something to them, even before they were born.
Emmanuel: Does this award come with any monetary value attached to it?
Yisa: No, to the best of my knowledge there is no monetary value or reward attached to it.
Emmanuel: Lastly, how did your colleagues in CBAU and Creative Foundation Inc react to this award?
Yisa: All of them, including Bola and Xavier, have since sent me congratulatory words and I am very sure that they expect that this is going to be helpful to the organisation. I am sure they know that this is going to be a challenge as well, because to whom much is given, much is expected. To the larger immigrant community, I hope that this award I have received is not going to be misinterpreted. What I mean is that I don’t want people to serve because they want to receive an award. I want people to offer their services without expecting an award. That was how I started; I never had any recognition while I was in Nigeria, but when I got here to Manitoba in Canada I kept offering myself for volunteering. In business as well, people such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates also encourage one not to pursue wealth but rather try to solve a problem and, in the process, one would be rewarded.
Emmanuel: Thank you so much for your time.
Yisa: You are very welcome.
Emmanuel Nwaneri is a journalist with about 27 years of writing, travel and journalism experience in Nigeria, South Africa and Australia. He moved to Johannesburg in South Africa where he spent 10 years as a writer, journalism tutor and commentator. His time in South Africa afforded him the chance to observe the fast-changing dynamics of a country popularly-known as the “Rainbow Nation.”
He moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba with his family in 2018, where he has since found interest in the Administrative and Customer Service industries. He actively writes news stories for the New Canadian Media, as well as the highly-respected Winnipeg Free Press.
He is the author of Once Upon A Woman and is working on a second work of fiction.