17.10 - 14.11.2020
There is a haunting quality to the subjects represented in Frida Orupabo’s ‘Hours After’. It is akin to meeting someone for the first time and experiencing a feeling of déjà vu. The faces appear troublingly familiar. This tension compels me to look, and want to keep looking, but there is another potent element that makes me feel I should look away.
As someone new to her work, I presumed this discomfort was because of the personal nature of the exhibition where Orupabo seeks to reconcile her experience of childbirth and motherhood with the political dimension of the representation of Black womanhood. But I soon realized it was the direct return of my gaze that caused the unease. The visceral confrontation in the expressions of the subjects recalled colonial photographic archives.
Orupabo’s work uses images from colonial archives in relation to a larger historical moment we are living in. Amid calls for the repatriation of African art works and cultural artefacts, there is another question of what to do with the colonial archives in museums and institutions in the global north and on the continent. For instance, the International Library of African Music (ILAM) has a twofold approach. Some of the soundtracks have been returned to the musicians or surviving relatives where the original recordings took place. The archive has also invited musicians and DJs to sample some of the music and remix it in current songs.
With photographic archives, some have been digitized and are available on request, but as is evident in Orupabo’s work a great number of these images are already floating free on Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. Orupabo’s practice involves extensive online research and collecting images which are then cut and collaged. The use of paper pins further emphasizes the suturing of the different elements. She chooses specific images that resonate with her and in particular seeks out subjects that meet the viewer’s gaze. Orupabo’s work is both a form of sampling and a repatriation. Her images pay homage to the subjects’ ability to resist the colonial gaze at the time, and now, in the contemporary moment emphasizes their agency and subjecthood. The power of these images lies in the skill with which Orupabo has employed them in the present. It is a form of redress but by personalising the narrative she makes the archive current and speaks to ongoing struggles.
For instance, in Baby in Belly (2020), we see a reclining woman with a swollen middle revealing an infant. Both the woman and the baby meet our eyes. The dislocation and apparent amputation and reconfiguration of limbs and heads is deeply disturbing. The baby’s face is that of an adult. The directness of the returned gaze of mother and unborn child rejects the viewer’s inquiry. There are many layers to this rejection. There is the sense that we are invading a private space that a pregnant woman alone can experience when carrying her child. But there is also an accusatory element to the look. Perhaps it addresses Orupabo’s need to reconcile her experience of birth and feeling disempowered within a medical system that did not support her. A third layer is the link to colonial violence and the abuse of women of colour. By interweaving historical and personal narratives together, Orupabo underscores the shadow of the past in the present and the way in which contemporary lives are never quite cut free.
In conversation with curator Elvira Dyangani Ose, Frida Orupabo speaks directly about wanting her images to force the viewer to position themselves in relation to the work. In Resting Head (2020), we see a head resting on a pair of hands in prayer. Given the predominantly monochromatic palette of her work, the pink hands are startling. The complexities of this pairing are rich. The praying hands may reference the Christian church and its role within colonial conquest. There is uncertainty whether or not the hands are cradling the head, or are they holding a macabre beheading. And lastly, there is the question if the racialized reading of the head and hands reveals a particular world view held by the viewer, and was not intended by the maker of the image. It is this ambiguity and discomfort that makes the work personal. Each viewer has to confront the work from their vantage point.
Writing about the body in the archive, Alan Sekula argues that when viewing a photographic portrait, ‘We are confronting… a double system: a system of representation capable of functioning both honorifically and repressively.’ Orupabo’s work addresses this duality and also reveals how at times, images are both honorific and repressive simultaneously. In her words, Orupabo is interested in how when people are oppressed, when they cannot speak, they are able to speak with the eye. And by making contemporary viewers of her work confront that gaze, we have to confront the complexities of our position and our potential complicity or resistance.