ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

Frida Orupabo

Words by
Hanna Girma
From Issue 35 – FW 2019/20

In the work of Norwegian-Nigerian sociologist and artist Frida Orupabo, race family relations, gender, sexuality, violence and identity are woven together in an investigation around the liquidity and multiplicity of the Black experience. As described by Hanna Girma, images of subjugation and hypersexualization, fractured from the original source, are repurposed to live anew in the digital realm.

Amid the mostly black-and-white images of barking dogs, mushroom clouds, teeth, children, and women in various positions of power, repose, ecstasy and melancholy that populate Frida Orupabo’s Instagram page, there is a quote from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970):

“And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.”

The passage was posted in remembrance of the late author on the occasion of her death earlier this year. Amongst Orupabo’s over 2,000 appropriated and self-sourced images, Morrison’s subtle comparative language is not only an example of the author’s linguistic cunning and genius, but also serves as a blueprint for the dualities and nuances Orupabo attempts to highlight in her own work. The Norwegian-Nigerian sociologist and artist uses multimedia collages to explore questions around race, family relations, gender, sexuality, violence and identity.

The constructs of beauty, class, superiority and gender Morrison highlights serve as underlying themes which Orupabo addresses through her image pairings. Her Instagram, which the artist Arthur Jafa has referred to as “nothing short of a mobile repository, a litany of residua, a voluptuous trail of Black continuity, pyramid schemata as densely inscribed as any book of the dead, not so much an archive as an ark, a borne witness to the singularity that is Blackness,” transports Morrison’s words from the context of her novel, making the text a snapshot within Orupabo’s broader tapestry of Blackness. In doing so, the artist offers testimony on the omnipresence, liquidity and multiplicity of Blackness just as much as its “singularity.”

While Orupabo uses her Instagram as an archive to organize ideas and inform her collages, it is indeed also an “ark.” While many archivists writhe at the recent trend of artists who assume the language and position of this role to describe their practice of collecting and reordering, this uneasiness is precisely the hierarchy that Orupabo looks to dismantle with her methodology of display. The uptick in digital personal archives, unvalidated by academic degree and unconcerned with the formal mechanisms of trained archival work, is the democratizing and subversive power present in the reformed bodies in Orupabo’s work. The stripped-down valuation and standardization of a photograph or object, devoid of its purpose and meaning, to a series of searchable terms is characteristically synonymous with the strategic Western cataloging of objects. The same methods and images used to catalog bodies in slave trade are subverted by the artist’s transparently personal reconstitution of archival materials. Her hand is ever-present in her collages, her mining and selection of material explicitly confirming an open source-style approach to media.

Just as a traditional archive is strategically well-maintained and enduring, so is a global economy based on white supremacy and the commodification and subjugation of Black bodies. The perceived neutrality and beauty of taking something that is precious and preserving it (or taking that which is mundane and elevating it to the point where it is deemed worthy of preservation) is an inherently subjective and violent act.

In sourcing and sharing her found images, Orupabo relies on platforms of the digital age, including Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Tumblr. The colonial objects and images which she draws from were previously codified, frozen, and now are reflected infinitely in the digital sphere, along with false notions of the Black form. The original is lost, so Orupabo pays homage the online remnants that live on. In her untitled works, anonymous figures move from an anthropological archive to an untitled work in a stark white gallery in an attempt to serve a collective and personal memory. The names are lost, and she does not attempt to rename them, instead repurposing these images of subjugation and hypersexualization, fractured from the original source, to live in the digital realm, further disrupting their original intended use. In Orupabo’s work, they now live anew, woven between the found and personal media the artist incorporates. While her collection process is deeply rooted in the fluid exchange of the Inter- net, her method of composition is analog, the deeply individual and affectionate handling of images indicative of the artist’s cutting and collage process.

Within their construction, as paper scenes and limbs are layered and attached at the joints with metal fasteners, shadowy paper puppet figures emerge within a new context. Although the work’s dramatic set-like backdrop has a “puppet theatre” quality, the figures reject their performative nature. Her patchwork of bodies, handled with care and skillfully constructed, challenge the viewer with their unrelenting gaze and unwillingness to perform; they are not to be played with or ignored like a forgotten child’s toy, but rather demand reparations for their previous condition. The fine line between whimsy and brutality synonymous with the indentured nature of puppets and collage is also synonymous with the imagery Orupabo draws from. These bodies and objects, once stripped of their power and relegated to museums and archives, are thusly decontextualized, now emancipated and reclaiming space within the white walls of the gallery.

The fractured forms of Western Cubist artworks resolved their authors’ qualms of reimagining bodies through white supremacist notions of modernity built on the forms of African pre-colonial media, while the collages of Dada and Surrealism aimed to subvert the imposed canon by embracing and consuming the figures of the “other”. While Dadaists were attempting to imbue everyday objects with wonder, the Black body was inherently imbued with Blackness, readymade. Orupabo reclaims these techniques while asking questions that poke holes in their former functionality: “How is (or has) the Black body been perceived, and to what effect? How do we challenge negative ways of seeing and thinking?” In doing so, the artist challenges preconceptions, organizing a chaotic jumble of false meanings into fantastical vignettes of chaos.

In Western traditions, Black art has long been overly and tenuously connected to the African diaspora through the Congolese power figure Nkisi, with most modern and anthropological museums eager to display their token figure in contrast to 20th-century heavy hitters. But these power figures now trapped within museum collections, devoid of the activation necessary to maintain their utility, magic and authority, display the natural readymade nature of African objects, as well as the mainstream consumption and mistreatment of these objects within the Western archive. Orupabo challenges the sensationalism and Western obsession with trapping and owning African power figures, forming a collective body adorned not with the beads, nails and mirrors of the Nkisi, but rather with the strength of a shared memory.

Orupabo’s background in sociology no doubt informs this artistic practice rooted in the study of society, patterns of human relationships, and social interaction. The artist utilizes repetition and decisive com- parisons, repeating faces and figures that move between realms of time and place— bedrooms, stages, fields—to investigate how we shape and are shaped by social structures. Her work celebrates Black melodrama and blurred gender lines. Scenes of intimacy, anguish, sensuality and pleasure unfurl within her complicated figures, as the artist distorts, morphs and remixes male and female bodies, with muscular, flat-chested torsos spreading their supple legs to give birth to scream- ing infants, traversing the false lines and constructed borders of masculinity and femininity. The twisted narratives unfold like the loud and convoluted plots of a Nollywood film. Frida Orupabo’s works are just that: loud, unapologetically calling for viewers to meet their eyes.

It could be argued that Orupabo’s collages may not work as an archive: although the process does involve the collection of images, the artist’s work ultimately mines and reforms the image; her approach is one of storytelling, creating novel narratives that negate previous viciousness. Images previously used to organize, undermine and make a monolith of the Black female form are given new life. Her collages, populated by fragmented body parts and animals typically symbolic of odious times, are sutured together with metal and paper pins in defiant strength. She is a part of a long tradition of Black women artists who have recast the images formed against them, reshaping and re-appropriating colonial imagery to challenge questions of how we perceive and perpetuate images. Negotiating the duality Morrision navigated so beautifully, Orupabo moves between the personal and political self to produce work that straddles individual and collective history.

Frida Orupabo (Nowegian, b. 1986) is a Norwegian-Nigerian artist living and working in Oslo.
Hanna Girma is a content producer and curatorial fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
All images courtesy of the artist.

Back to Top