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Inside the Studio with Ekow Nimako (Ep. 319)

In this episode of Art Ed Radio, Tim is in the Toronto studio of artist Ekow Nimako. Ekow is best known for his elaborate, monochromatic sculptures created with LEGO® elements. During this discussion, Ekow talks about how he found and developed his artistic style, the importance of storytelling and myth in his work, and what inspires his creative process. Full episode transcript below.

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Transcript

Tim: Have you ever been surrounded by half a million LEGO pieces? That’s actually the situation I’m in right now, and it’s both fascinating and overwhelming.

I am in Canada—Toronto, Ontario, to be specific—in the studio of Ekow Nimako, a sculptor who builds some incredible works using Lego elements. I am here because Ekow will be one of our featured presenters at the NOW Conference in July. So we brought our video team up here to Toronto to see him in action, talk to him about his work and put together that presentation. As they’re getting everything set up, I’m hanging out in the studio and recording this. And I have to say, I have loved every minute of looking around his studio, seeing finished work in person, and seeing some sculptures in progress. I want to let Ekow explain his work in his own words, and I don’t want to give away any secrets, so I’ll just leave it there and not say too much more about the pieces.

But I think we are ready. I think it’s about time for us to get to the interview. Ekow is here and ready to go and we’re going to chat about his art, his working process, his influences, and inspiration, and whatever else comes up along the way. And how one acquires SO MANY LEGO PIECES. Let’s go ahead and get this conversation started.

All right. I am here in the studio with Ekow Nimako. Ekow, how are you?

Ekow: I’m good. Happy to be here.

Tim: All right. Well, I am happy to talk to you. A lot that we want to get to a lot that we want to talk about, I guess, to start with–in case people are unfamiliar, if they don’t know your work– can you just share a little bit about your sculptures, maybe the look, the aesthetic of what you do, materials, size? Just give us the rundown of everything you create.

Ekow: Certainly. Again, my name is Ekow Nimako. I am a visual artist, multidisciplinary artist. I currently have a practice that revolves around building sculptures, using Lego elements. My featured series called Building Black, explores various elements of mythology and African civilizations, mask-making traditions, and even graffiti, all using various black Lego elements.

Tim: All right. Everybody can see your stuff on Instagram, on ekownimako.com.

Ekow: Yes.

Tim: If you want to pause and look through all of that stuff before you listen to the rest of this episode, feel free to do that. Before we dive in a little bit more with your work and things like that, I would love to hear just a little bit more about you, personally. Can you talk about where you grew up, where you went to school, maybe things you used to do before you became an artist?

Ekow: That’s a good question. Before I became an artist, well, I guess you could say I’ve always been an artist. I was born an artist and an artist I shall die. I grew up in a few places before I ended up in Toronto when I was about 10 years old. I was born in Montreal and then we moved around a bit, smaller communities, St. Catherine’s, which is just outside in Niagara Falls. Then we moved to London, England actually, for a year, which was a fun experience. Then from London, England, we moved to London, Ontario, which is a small town, a couple hours outside of Toronto.

From London, Ontario, we moved to Toronto. I’ve lived around a bit and had some unique experiences. Like in London, Ontario, it’s the first time I encountered subtle and quite explicit racism. Those kind of experiences definitely help inform your worldview whether you wanted to or not. Then moving from a community like London, which was predominantly white to Toronto, which is far more cosmopolitan and diverse community, it was great to be able to have my identity more validated. Growing up in Toronto definitely helped to foster my interest in identity and the politics around identity, but also my love of my own West African culture.

Tim: Now, as you’re moving around so much, was it tough to fit into those schools? Was it tough for you to develop that identity, or how was it for you moving around, attending a lot of different schools, I guess, meeting new people in all these different places?

Ekow: It was interesting. I’ve always liked school. I like the experience of being there. I like learning new things and the social aspects of course, are always fun and they can provide a really keen outlet for creativity as well. I found that I thrived in art classes and really enjoyed the process of meeting new art teachers and figuring out how they could bring exciting new ideas. Honestly, just assignments, to draw things. Because just like any other artist, you draw what you like. When you’re given an assignment, sometimes what you’re given, the task that you’re given isn’t what you necessarily want to do.

That can be a really good thing because sometimes we don’t actually know what it is that we want or what it is that we’d like until you do it. Having met and gone to so many different schools and therefore, met so many different art teachers that could provide me with very different perspectives on art. It was really, really helpful in developing my own sense of identity and as a visual artist.

Tim: I’m just thinking about schooling, creativity, and we talked earlier about how much you were building with Lego pieces, with Lego elements as a kid. Is that something that has just continued your whole life, or did do that a bunch as a kid, leave it alone for a while and then revisit it now as an artist, once you’re doing more sculptural things?

Ekow: It did happen that way, actually. I was about three or four when I fell in love with Lego Play and I kept doing it right until sometime just after puberty, I guess. Girls became more important to me at that age and just hanging out with friends. I think honestly, if I had friends that were more into like Lego and geek culture kind of things, I probably would’ve stuck with it a lot more and kept doing it right through high school and on and on and on. That wasn’t the case. We were living in areas that like, we lived in the hood, straight up.

It wasn’t that unusual to have encounters of violence where I was growing up and limited resources and sometimes limited inspiration. Friends that I grew up with ended up becoming unfortunately embroiled in different things. Either becoming incarcerated or getting into fights and stuff like that. It wasn’t my particular angle. That’s not what I ended up doing myself, but my friends were definitely into a whole lot of, let’s say, complex activities. Playing with Lego just was my own thing. It was just like a personal thing that I did at home from time to time during adolescence.

Eventually, it just became secondary and non-existent to making music, which became my number one artistic outlet for a number of years. Then I rediscovered my love of Lego later on in life when I had daughters. It gave me a reason to buy more Lego and then end up playing with Lego with them again. Things just started to shift and pull me back towards using it as a creative outlet, creative material. Then once I attended York University to study art, it also gave me more opportunities to use Lego elements as part of my artistic process. It didn’t really become a practice for me until about 2012.

Tim: Then once it became a practice, as I said, how long did it take you to really develop your aesthetic, develop your ideas and get to the point where you are now?

Ekow: It took some time. I didn’t immediately realize that Building Black was so important to me. The color itself, using black monochromatically, that didn’t really take hold until a bit later. In the beginning, I was still caught in the, I don’t know, the iconic presence of Lego and our Lego material and just building things with different colors. I always knew that I wanted to build. I wanted to create life. I wanted to build things that would be indicative of life.

I wanted to create sculptures that were not the things that I grew up wanting to make robots and vehicles and things like that. Even though I still love robots and vehicles and things like that, I just felt there was a greater calling for me to construct sculptures of let’s say, black children riding fantastical creatures and things like that. Because I would grow up watching movies, like the NeverEnding Story, and all of these fantastical movies that had children engaging in adventures and being heroic and doing all these amazing things.

More often than not, they weren’t children that looked like me and didn’t speak to my particular identity and experiences. If the material gave me a chance, an opportunity really to create the things that I didn’t see growing up and also, just even take it a step further and endow them with supernatural gifts or hybridized forms and things like that, that Those things really motivate and inspire me. As such, I know that they must motivate and inspire so many other people in the world too.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. Can we dive into that inspiration a little bit more?

Ekow: Certainly.

Tim: You talk about the Neverending Story, and I know that, that sort of storytelling resonates with you. I know history is a huge part of what inspires you to create your work. Can you talk about just everywhere that inspiration comes from? I would love to hear more about just the ideas of Afrofuturism and just all the things that go into the work that you create.

Ekow: Certainly. I find inspiration in so many places. I’m a huge film buff. I love cinema. I love movies. I love comic books, graphic novels, fiction, and literature. Again, it’s like the things that I read and the things that I consumed growing up, they weren’t speaking to me about me necessarily. It was just generally, of course, just a story about any particular character doing this thing. It wasn’t until later when I reflect on it, and I’m like, “You know, I didn’t really.” There was that one character that showed someone that looked like me, Star Wars, for example, was really, really influential from the 80s, 90s, 2000s. Any time there was any kind of Star Wars content that was really about it.

Every time that something happened, there was a new Star Wars flick or something like that. There was usually the one character that I could say, “Oh, that looks like me. That looks like my uncle.” Or something. Billy Dee Williams in the 80s, and Mace Windu, of course, in the 90s, played by Samuel L. Jackson and stuff like that. Which was really cool that they were there, but it was an entire galaxy with aliens and humanoids and so many sentient beings, but there was like one black guy.

Tim: There’s only one black person.

Ekow: In this massive, imagined universe. There’s disparities there. Even examples, like since we’re still focusing on Star Wars, the house that or the little rounded dome desert home that Luke Skywalker lived in and grew up in, it’s across the spectrum of Star Wars fans. Everyone knows that, that’s Luke’s home and that’s where he grew up. That domicile is actually located in, I think, Eastern Africa, if I’m not mistaken. I know Padmé or Princess Amidala, her whole getup, her outfit, her ceremonial robes, they were all almost identical to a Southeast Asian royalty aesthetic.

You have all of these cultural items being taken from various ethnic groups around the world to put into this fantastic, futuristic, even though it’s not the future. I guess like the historic, imagined universe, but the people that created those things, and I’m not talking about the movie magic people. I mean the actual people that created these ethnic emblems and garments, they weren’t included in the story. Again, you have this idea of taking and borrowing from other cultures while ensuring that the people are not a part of that whole storytelling and that’s problematic on so many levels.

You don’t really start to think about it until you think critically about what it is that you’re consuming, which a lot of people actually don’t do. I can understand that, because if the world is just constantly reinforcing the idea that you are important, this particular group is important and you are at the center of all these stories, but everybody else is just reduced to being just non-key players that are just floating around, helping to support the main story or the main characters along their trajectory. Then you start to feel a little less significant that your story, that your representation doesn’t matter as much, when, of course, it does.

As much as I love so many things from the world of fantasy and the world of science fiction, it’s important for me to then look at that and say, “Okay, well, how about I start telling a different kind of story?” As this theory that I developed called Speculative Reclamation, in which you have the case of like, some kind of cultural narrative or story or character person, and it’s observed from someone that is foreign to that culture. Then that story is, let’s say, taken. You can use the example of Robinhood, let’s say. Speculative Reclamation is when you suppose that, that story was actually taken from a different ethnic group.

Members of that ethnic group can then speculatively reclaim that story as their own, which I did, using that Robinhood example with a piece called the Bandit Queen of Walatah. It’s when I first did my exhibit, Building Black Civilization. It’s focused on medieval Africa and the things that were happening in and around the Sahara Desert and countries and kingdoms around that period and that geographical location. I said, “You know what? What if, since the story of Robinhood, as my research indicates, they don’t have a fixed person that actually wrote the story of Robinhood?” It’s more like some kind of folkloric story that fell off.

Tim: Which is something that gets passed down.

Ekow: Passed down. I use Speculative Reclamation to say, “What if there was someone from England in the Sahara around that same time, and there was a woman, an African woman, a Muslim, African woman that escaped enslavement only to become a fierce warrior of the desert that then descended upon these slave caravans to free those that have been enslaved and also, provide justice and disperse those ill-gotten goods amongst the poor and oppressed?” I thought of this story and I thought, it’d be great. I built this sculpture of this powerful desert queen. Through that, that’s how Speculative Reclamation was born. Because who’s to say that didn’t actually happen? It happens all the time.

Our stories, our history, our culture has been appropriated and co-opted so often that sometimes it becomes a little murky as to where the origins of a story actually came from. Sometimes our actual historical people that were black that become whitewashed over history and accepted as non-black people, when in fact, they actually were. The theory of Speculative Reclamation becomes that much more important, despite the fact that it is speculative, it still offers that opportunity to reclaim some element of your own culture and history, while presenting it in a way that is like fascinating and cloaked in mythology and folklore.

Tim: That’s fascinating to me. I love hearing about that theory. It gives me a lot to think about. Can you talk a little bit more about the civilizations? I think what you’re creating, what you’re building there is fascinating. I got a chance to see some works in progress, which I think are going to be spectacular. Can you just talk a little bit more about that project and what you’re creating, what you’re building there?

Ekow: Yeah, certainly. Building Black Civilizations is this body of work that started when the Aga Khan Museum here in Toronto reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in being a part of an exhibit that they had brought to the museum eight years in the making. This exhibit contained works from around the world, but works that were originated on the continent in Sub-Saharan Africa and represented all the various ethnic and cultural artifacts that spoke to that time in history. The show was called Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time.

Through learning about that show and what that exhibit had to offer and seeing these, they are artworks, but I do think there is a distinction between contemporary artworks and art historical objects. Nonetheless, to see these pieces and then also have the opportunity to interpret them and then come up with my own narrative around that period in time. It was really fascinating and inspiring. What I did was create this work called Civilization, Building Black Civilizations, where I just created narratives from that period in time that spoke to me. Like I mentioned, the Bandit Queen of Walatah, that was one of the pieces and a few others.

One I called the Scorpion’s Pass, which really was just a real fantastical effort just saying, what are the perils of the desert and crossing the desert and knowing that there were these epic, like camel caravans that tread through the desert to bring various minerals, art objects, gold? Many things that helped create these powerful kingdoms in West Africa, and by establishing this trade throughout the world. Like the Scorpion’s Pass, I thought about the desert. I was like, “Okay, well, what are the perils of the desert?” Well, I mean, scorpions, of course, you get away from a scorpion, it could be fatal if you’re out there in the desert.

I thought, “Okay, I’ll build this sculpture that exemplified this perilous path that travelers could take, but it’s also, you may not come out if you go that way.” it was just something really imaginative that I thought would be interesting to highlight the dangers of these epic journeys that took place. I’d say that the pinnacle of that show was an artwork called Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE, which was, or is a 30 square foot metropolis that I built that is actually a representation of the original city, Kumbi Saleh, which existed in the kingdom of Ghana in the Middle Ages. I interpreted it as a futuristic kind of city.

When you look at it, there’s this blending of medieval kind of architecture, Islamic architecture. At the same time, this kind of futurist geometric kind of geography that I brought to the artwork as well. I was really thankful the artwork was acquired by the Aga Khan Museum and is now a part of their permanent collection. They’ve managed to start getting it subtraction and moving it around to different institutions, which is great. Because it becomes this focal point for a discourse around just that period in time, and how so often Africa as a continent and all the individual countries on the continent are left out of these conversations about global economy.

They call it a developing country and things like that, but in fact, it was these kinds of civilizations that brought gold and helped to monetize the rest of the world. In fact, it’s not a developing country, it developed countries around the world. Because of colonialism and transatlantic slave trade, and before that, the Arab slave trade, Africa was just, it just became this place where so much was happening, but so much was taken away. At this point now, it’s like more and more, there’s a reclaiming and this redefining of identity across the continent. I’m happy to be a part of that.

Tim: I think it’s important to have that conversation. I think it’s good to have your work stimulate or be part of that conversation, that’s really worthwhile. I guess, beyond that conversation, beyond the meaning, the inspiration, the influence, I would love to just talk logistics. Because I know our teachers are very curious about, how do you put these together? How do these things work? I guess the first question along those lines is, how long does it take you to build some of these sculptures? Like a Queen Bandit sculpture or the Anansi, like the figurative sculptures? How long do those take, or how long does a 30 square foot city, how many hours do you spend on these things?

Ekow: It varies. Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE took about 360 hours. Over a month and a half, or just under two months. Some of the other sculptures I make like Kwaku Anansi, took about 250 hours. The figurative artworks tend to take a little bit longer just because, despite the fact that I have the ability to really create these works in any way I want, I still adhere to certain anatomical rules and representational rules. I want them to be identified as children. I don’t necessarily want to augment the forms and change them so much that they’re not identifiable as to what they truly are. Because of that, I have to pay an extraordinary amount of detail to how they’re going to be put together. I could spend several days just building a hand. Trying different techniques to build a hand.

The same thing that affords me so much flexibility and versatility using a material like Lego elements is the same thing that creates this plethora of problems, because I could use so many different parts to achieve one thing. There’s not any one way to do it. When you’re sculpting with a material that is so individually itemized and brought together, it’s not like carving from a block of wood or carving from stone or using found objects. In fact, actually it is very much like found objects. That’s exactly what it’s like, because there’s so many different parts and I’m plucking things up and just saying, “Okay, let’s try this. Will this work as an eye?” Then I’ll just keep working at it.

Then I realize, “No, it’s not going to work.” Not in the way I want it to work. Then I got to find a new way to do something. There’s just so many different ways to do it. It’s really challenging, but so intriguing and inspiring, because I never know how something is going to get done. I have ideas about how it’s going to get done from experience. I’m like, “Well, I’ve used this for hair before, so I’ll use it again.” then when I try it this time around, something doesn’t sit right. I’ll look for a new part and say, “Ah, you know what? Maybe I can use these now instead.” Then I try that out and I’m, “Nope, can’t. It doesn’t work.” Then try something else. There’s this constant flux of trial and error as to how I’m going to achieve what it is I want to achieve.

I use photo references online. I’m drawing sometimes, but not often. I started out as an artist drawing as a kid. As an adolescent, that’s the main thing that I knew I could do is just draw. Even when that’s what I went to art school for is drawing. Then I remember I had this great prof, Judith Schwartz, who became the chair of the art department there. When you’re studying art, as artists, we tell ourselves, “We are one thing, I’m a painter. That’s what I do.” She’s like, “That’s great, but try other disciplines, because you never know where your true talent may actually lie.” Or it may not be a matter of one versus the other. It could just be adding more to your artistic resume.

You don’t have to be just a painter necessarily. You might find that you really like lithography or print-making. Then you then get to diversify your art practice. That’s essentially what I did is going in for drawing, and then of course, I’m like, “Sculpture’s cool. Let me try sculpture.” Doing sculpture, I found how much I enjoyed it. Then I made those associations between sculpture and my Lego craft, which I enjoyed. Eventually, even used some Lego parts for some art projects that I had in the university. It was from there that I realized, I’m like, “Hey, there’s something here.” Then seeing that other people are out there making art, using Lego bricks and Lego parts, I said, “Oh, well, if they could do it, I can do it.” It’s just a matter of applying myself and knowing that it’s feasible.

Tim: Now you have so many things going on that you’re building, that you’re creating, do you have help in the studio? Do you have other people coming in to do various things for you? What does that look like, when art people coming in to help, and then what are they doing?

Ekow: I’m building more and more staff as I go along. I have artist assistants. My daughter and my niece actually are my most trusted assistants. It’s great. Just getting help has been great in terms of increasing production. I used to always bemoan artists that have a whole studio.

Tim: A whole team making their work for them.

Ekow: People making their stuff for them. I’d be like, “Man, you’re not making the art. You got other people making the art for you.” It’s so funny. Experience is often the best teacher when you experience something, and it also will show you how wrong you are about certain things. If you want to become a professional artist, I remember reading an article that talked about this, like when you’re leveling up, when you want gallery representation or whatever the case. It’s like, it’s a business. Art is a business, and therefore, if the product is art, then production becomes important. In this article, they talked about how many sculptures, if you’re a sculptor, how many sculptors do you make a year? Galleries is not going to be interested in someone that makes one or two sculptures a year.

Because now you’re not just making art for yourself, you’re making art that’s going to provide for not just yourself financially, but the gallery, your staff, and so many others. You have to increase production. If your work is extraordinarily labor-intensive and you can’t possibly meet the demand just yourself, then you have to bring people in to help you. You have to train those people. There’s a whole process to it, and I’m just learning that now. You learn how poor you are at people management when you start managing people. I’d say that’s probably my biggest challenge, is just wearing all those hats. Because I’m a builder, I’m a creator, a visionary. That’s what I want to do. That’s where my strong suit is, is creating the things, but not so much in making studio schedules.

Being the HR person as well. Like, “oh, you got to make sure documents are signed. Oh, did you follow-up with those things?” These are jobs for people. These are full-on positions that people occupy. They study even resource human resource management and all that stuff. I don’t do that. It becomes more and more challenging managing all the various aspects of an art business when you’re the sole creative artist in that enterprise. The challenge is real, and more and more, I just strive to get to that place where everything I don’t want to do, someone else is doing it.

It’s like, okay, I need to create a position for a studio manager and they need to come in and answer all these admin questions and they need to respond to these things that are happening, so I can be doing the one thing that no one else can do, which is making the very specific art. I’ve been fortunate that my assistants are really apt and they’re able to help in so many ways. There’s just certain things that no one else can do, but you, when you’re in an artistic enterprise. That’s where I am. Learn more, get better organized and carry on.

Tim: Nice. Last question for you, I’d love to know just where you see your art going in the future. What do you want to create next? What ideas do you want to develop further? What are you working on now and where do you see that going in the future?

Ekow: I have so many ideas for the future. I want to see Building Black Mythos, which is my figurative body of work. I want to see larger scale sculptures. I’ve had a whale on my mind for so long. When I was in South Korea at Incheon Airport, they have this massive blue whale sculpture in the airport. It’s so fascinating. An orca whale would be beautiful, something like that. A Nile crocodile, which I didn’t even know existed until recently, and that there’s crocodiles that can swim, like leagues out in large bodies of water, like oceanic.

Tim: Really? I had no idea.

Ekow: The thought of sharks is scary enough, but the idea that there’s crocodiles out there so far from land is terrifying. Crocodiles and alligators, they’re such fascinating creatures to me because of their prehistoric nature. To me, they’re the last remnants of dinosaurs on Earth. Because they’re the only creature that, one, they’re reptiles, they look essentially like dinosaurs, but they also existed alongside dinosaurs during those periods of Jurassic or Cretaceous period. There were these creatures there and they’re still here. Aquatic animals are always so fascinating to me. There’s some sharks, I think it’s a Norwegian shark, or it has a very particular name. They can live up to 500 years old.

Tim: Oh my God.

Ekow: 500 years. Okay, there’s sharks that live 500 years. It’s amazing. With this interest in aquatic creatures, I know that, that’s something I really want to explore on a larger scale and really just become a part more of contemporary art, like exhibitions. I think I inhabit a very, very unique and particular place because the Lego products and the Lego group themselves, what I use this material, they’re iconographic. It holds this place, the biggest toy company in the world. It’s everywhere because one of the main aspects about Lego is this recreation aspect. The intellectual property stuff. If there’s something that exists in the real world, there’s likely a Lego version of it somewhere.

Someone’s building it or it exists as a product that they’ve actually put out and are selling. Because of that fact, the work that I make can be seen as, it can be fascinating, but not just to people that appreciate art, but to this whole other world of people that are just in, not just, but mainly interested in the materials capabilities, and what’s been done with the material. I live in that, both those worlds where it’s not relegated completely to just the Lego-sphere, but it exists in the fine art world as well. Because I live in that place, on the in between, sometimes I find my work can bend to one more than the other.

Depending on the context, it’s viewed completely as these fine art objects. Then depending on the online presence, it might get more visibility and praise from people that are just completely interested and fanatical about LEGO reconstructions and builds. Because I’m in that in-between world, I would like to see my work exist in the fine art context a little bit more. That just is going to take more of building and creating works and exhibiting them in those gallery settings and contexts, which is happening. Which I’m very, very, very grateful for. I see it completely in the trajectory as to what’s happening with my work.

Tim: All right. That’s awesome. Looking forward to seeing what else comes out, what else you’re going to create.

Ekow: Yeah, me too.

Tim: Thank you so much for the time, conversation. Thanks for letting us in the studio to see everything that’s going on. We Appreciate it.

Ekow: Thanks for coming. I really appreciate it.

Tim: I want to thank Ekow again for allowing us to come into his studio and have this conversation. It was great to hear about his life, his art and what might be coming in the future.

What I really loved more than anything is listening to him talk about the stories and myths that influence him and his work. It makes me want to learn more about Kumbi Saleh and medieval African civilizations and everything else that helps tell the story of his work. And I of course loved talking about star wars and killer crocodiles that are swimming WAY out in the ocean.

I also appreciate hearing his take on the balance between using LEGO elements as a sculptural medium and wanting to be accepted by the fine art world, and how the views of his work shift depending on the context of who is viewing it. I am looking forward to seeing Ekow’s work develops and how it is received in the coming years.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. As I mentioned, Ekow will be the featured presenter at the Art Ed Now conference in July. He will be talking a lot more about his art, and of course we’ll have some incredible visuals to go along with it. he will also be available for a live Q & A the day of the conference, which will be July 28th. You can see more about his presentation and all of the other incredible presentations, and register for the conference, on the AOEU website.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.

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