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Artist Ekow Nimako presents his Lego-based installation Kumbei Saleh 3020 CE at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on Nov. 21, 2019.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Part Timbuktu, part Star Wars and 100-per-cent black Lego, the latest art by Ekow Nimako gleams and beckons, puzzles and prods.

Nimako is a Toronto artist who makes original sculptures from the plastic building blocks. His new work is an Afrocentric fantasy city of 100,000 pieces created for the Aga Khan Museum and mounted in the midst of the institution’s permanent collection of Islamic art. The piece, a low, walled city about the size of a pool table, is stuffed with fine architectural detail inspired by ancient African monuments but, from a distance, it also looks like the labyrinthine Death Star spaceship.

“I’m a big fan of Star Wars. It is one of those universes that manages to blend the ancient and the high-tech,” Nimako said during a recent interview. So, his city is simultaneously prehistoric and futuristic; he calls the piece Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE. The ruins of Kumbi Saleh are located in Mauritania; it is believed to have been the capital of the medieval Ghana Empire and dates to the 9th to 14th centuries, but Nimako is casting his mythic fortress forward a whole millennium into the future.

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“You think medieval castles, King Arthur, right?” he said, referring to images of the Middle Ages as an exclusively European period. “I wanted to explore these Afro-diasporic realms, to spin stories, inspire imagination, rooted in the continent of Africa.”

And that is why every piece of Lego he uses is black.

Nimako caught the eye of the Aga Khan museum with his Cavalier Noir work at the 2018 Nuit Blanche.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Nimako captured Toronto’s imagination at Nuit Blanche in 2018 when he exhibited his Cavalier Noir, a two-metre-tall all-black equestrian statue featuring a warrior mounted on a unicorn. Intrigued, staff at the Aga Khan museum invited him to respond to their current exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, which explores trade across the Sahara during the Middle Ages. That show includes numerous gold ornaments and several classic Nigerian statues cast in copper, as well as mysterious terracotta figures from Mali, all dating from the 10th to 15th centuries.

Faced with this lavish display of historic African art, Nimako didn’t want to just copy or pay tribute, but craft something original that would weave new mythologies. His work also includes several smaller pieces that directly construct Afrocentric fantasy narratives. Beware the Bandit Queen of Walatah features three figures of archers, representing the queen and her twin daughters, while a text tells the story of the queen’s narrow escape from a slave caravan and life as a steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor bandit. Meanwhile, World on a Camel’s Back includes three camels, each carrying a turret or dome in Nimako’s most direct reference to the historic exhibition next door.

World on a Camel's back nods to the historic installation next door at the Aga Khan Museum.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Nimako got his start with Lego studying art at York University, returning to the plastic blocks of his childhood after metal and wood failed to please him.

“It’s what I’ve been doing since I was four,” he said. “It makes perfect sense.”

He now spends long hours in his Leslieville studio snapping pieces together – he doesn’t buy them from Lego directly, but relies on a hobbyists’ site – and builds fluid sculptures with smooth surfaces that hide the toy blocks’ characteristic round pegs. It took him more than 350 hours to build Kumbi Saleh.

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In his hands, Lego has become a sophisticated artistic medium, offering a wealth of cultural references and demanding a dedication that far surpasses child’s play. Invited to jump in and get brick-building at a Lego birthday party recently, he politely declined.

Building Black: Civilizations continues at the Aga Khan Museum until Feb. 23.

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