Home Architect Portia Malatjie on Frida Orupabo

Portia Malatjie on Frida Orupabo

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Frida Orupabo, Untitled, 2019, collage and paper thumbtacks mounted on aluminum, 52 × 48 3⁄8".

Frida Orupabo, Untitled2019, collage and paper thumbtacks mounted on aluminum, 52 × 48 3⁄8″.

WAITING IS AN ACTIVITY familiar to most, but in South Africa it carries a special load. In 1995, the country officially celebrated its first day of reconciliation, marking the supposed unification of its black and white populations following the fall of the apartheid regime and in the wake of the first democratic elections in April 1994. It has been twenty- eight long years of transition years, and yet a truly egalitarian South Africa remains only a dream, as black South Africans still face systemic subjugation in a white-dominated economy. This imbalance affects living conditions, quality of life and access to resources. Example: A walk or stroll through predominantly black neighborhoods will almost always reveal long lines at underfunded clinics, hospitals, supermarkets, and financial institutions. Waiting, whether in the queue or in the (dis)comfort of one’s home, is certainly not the exclusive domain of the structurally marginalized. But what I call “the extreme expectation”, whether for basic state services and infrastructure or for fundamental rights like freedom, equality or simply the recognition of one’s humanity – in fact, waiting to matter— is a pain reserved for those who are obliged to operate from the periphery.

Norwegian-Nigerian artist Frida Orupabo sees the act of waiting as an unrecognized by-product of systematic exclusion, inequality and displacement. She highlights the correlation between expectation and the legacy of subjugation-based structures such as colonialism and apartheid as it relates to black lives. While the artist may have titled a recent solo exhibition in Stevenson: Cape Town “I’ve been here for days”, Orupabo chooses not to wait days (let alone decades) for historical wrongs to be corrected. , and instead offers fantastic alternatives to the limited and exclusive mainstream accounts of our community past. Through experiments that open up different modes of seeing and not seeing, she offers a way to free the imagery of black women and their bodies from age-old violence.

Frida Orupabo, A lil help, 2021, collage and paper thumbtacks mounted on aluminum, 55 7⁄8 × 50".

Frida Orupabo, A little help2021, collage and paper thumbtacks mounted on aluminum, 55 7⁄8 × 50″.

Orupabo connects, weaves, braids, cuts, glues and pins components in a way that aspires not to fluid consistency but to intentional shifting.

Orupabo’s interest in black ontology stems from his experience growing up in Norway as the child of a white Norwegian mother and a black Nigerian father. She first turned to family photographs to make sense of her upbringing and surroundings before turning to the exclusive use of found footage to reflect on the tensions in a country that proclaims inclusiveness. despite alarming evidence of deep-rooted racial discrimination. Trained as a sociologist and formerly employed at a resource center on human trafficking and sex workers, Orupabo began amassing her own visual archive via Instagram in the early 2010s. Her work caught the attention of the Los Angeles-based filmmaker Arthur Jafa who included the artist in his 2017 exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery. The exhibition launched a series of collaborative projects at institutions such as Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo; the Moderna Museet in Stockholm; the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal; and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, for which Jafa wrote the text for Orupabo’s solo exhibition “Cables to Rage” in 2018. A year later, curator Ralph Rugoff selected seven collages and a video for “May You Live in Interesting Times”, the main project of the 58th Venice Biennale. Since then, Orupabo has had solo exhibitions at Portikus in Frankfurt (2019); Kunsthall Trondheim in Norway (2021); and the Museo Afro Brasil de São Paulo, as part of the thirty-fourth São Paulo Biennial. This year, she was named one of four finalists (coincidentally, alongside Jafa) for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize. As part of this award, his work is currently exhibited at the Photographer’s Gallery in London.

    Frida Orupabo, Hair roller, 2022, collage, paper pins, 74 3⁄4 × 40 1⁄8".

Frida Orupabo, hair roller2022, collage, paper pins, 74 3⁄4 × 40 1⁄8″.

Orupabo centers black archival practices, speculation, motherhood, and the perpetual construction and deconstruction of the archival object. Held with clothespins, the artist’s collages address tropes in the traditional portrayal of black women. hair roller, 2022, portrait of a young woman with a disappointed smirk, confronts the social pressures that often discourage black women from feeling their feelings, triggering self-control for fear of being read through the stereotypes that have marked them. Dressed in red pants and an oversized shirt, the woman is out of position, combing her hair with hands that look like they don’t belong on her body. Orupabo stitched together all these different parts – pants, blouse, head and limbs – from different sources, using paper pins to pierce the elbows, hips, fingers and feet of the seemingly annoyed subject. The pinning does not make it possible to know if the young woman comes together or separates, integrates or disintegrates, her body yielding or resisting her destiny. The very being of this figure is called into question; the intriguing materiality of the composition, emboldened by its physicality, contrasts with a suggested precariousness of the flimsy pins that hold it together and tease how easily it could come undone. Through this layered and nuanced device, Orupabo seems to be insisting that we accept black women as complex emotional beings whose response to daily abuse and systemic assault on their right to exist can sometimes, rightly, be present as anger, pain, disappointment or discomfort.

Orupabo chooses not to wait days (let alone decades) for historical ills to be rectified, and instead offers fantastic alternatives to the limited and exclusive traditional narratives of our community past.

Orupabo challenges us to spend time worrying. The content of his work requires an intentional and active gaze, as we seek not only meaning in the symbolisms presented, but meaning and coherence in discombobulated assemblages. She has a cheeky tendency to force viewers to physically reorient themselves, for example by placing two-dimensional works on plinth-like platforms once described as akin to operating tables. In the constellation the mouth and the truth, 2019, audiences have to crouch down to see the images, sometimes shooting them from an angle that distorts them or prevents them from seeing them as a whole. The work was designed for his eponymous solo exhibition at Portikus, which offered an additional view from a balcony.

Frida Orupabo, the mouth and the truth, 2019, collage, paper pins, mounting tape.  Installation view, Portikus, Frankfurt, 2019. Photo: Diana Pfammatter.

Frida Orupabo, the mouth and the truth, 2019, collage, paper pins, mounting tape. Installation view, Portikus, Frankfurt, 2019. Photo: Diana Pfammatter.

Orupabo’s mobilization of restlessness seeps into his treatment of the form of collage. She splices, weaves, braids, cuts, glues and pins components in a way that aspires not to fluid coherence but to intentional shifting. The distortion is as uncomfortable as it is joyful. Through this daring disruption of imagery, Orupabo embraces anomaly and reuses it for transformative personal gain. She makes unruly use of archives, pulling her images from publicly available sources including eBay, Pinterest, Instagram and online image libraries like Getty and Alamy, whose holdings have been shaped by a lingering grammar of colonialism that continues to hinder the visual identity of Black and marginalized people. These archives often allow others to view their images but not to use or possess them, turning unauthorized consumption of Orupabo into a form of self-proclaimed theft. In recent works, including Fragments II, 2022, which was commissioned for ‘The Machine Is Us’, the first Munch Triennale in Oslo, the artist chose to leave corporate watermarks on the photographs, boldly displaying their revival of capitalist visual monopolies. While she has sometimes asked permission, Orupabo sees this theft as a necessary reconquest of the freedom of the many figures who continue to be subjugated by the repositories that shelter them.

Frida Orupabo, Fragments II, 2022, rendering.

Frida Orupabo, Fragments II2022, rendering.

Similarly, the artist’s borrowing and appropriation of Western images from art history becomes an act of archival disobedience. Collage Mother and child i, 2020, continues its interest in themes of black motherhood, with Orupabo pairing the black and white bejeweled head of a black woman with a bare torso with long bare legs topped with red boots. Against the figure’s belly rests the head of a Renaissance-style painting of a young child, hinting that the subject may be pregnant. The amalgam is tense and resists the romantic, immaculate and serene imagery of Renaissance mother-child representations. During this time at Reclining Woman II, 2022, Orupabo nods to modernism, placing another – more stoic – head of a black woman on an elongated body a la Henry Moore. Contrary to mother and child, where the juxtaposition is deliberately worked, there is a symmetry in this marriage, giving the illusion of something that sticks. And yet, despite the visual consistency, there will always be something wrong. In Moore’s sculptures, the negative space in the middle of the figure’s torso suggests depth and enhances perspective, but in Orupabo’s nearly two-dimensional works the gaping hole is more pronounced, eliciting feelings of discomfort and pain, the ghostly pangs of phantom limbs.

As part of the exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery, Orupabo presents the wallpaper Turning, 2021, which reads differently from his previous motifs. This collage simply superimposes a single cutout of a black woman’s head over an uncut photograph of what appears to be a burlesque dancer. If the previous cutouts left endless voids of negative space as empty as they were full, we are presented here with a unified figure without referential multiplicity, its environment intact. This integrity offers no illusion of relief or complacency; the placement and angle of the turned head is still visually awkward. However, Orupabo offers respite from the divisive and violently disturbing compositions for which she is known, as if to tempt us to wait for moments of rest amid the turmoil.

Portia Malatjie is Curator and Lecturer in Visual Cultures at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town and Associate Curator of Africa and the African Diaspora at Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational at Tate Modern.

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