By Lisa Andrine Bernhoft-Sjødin
Frida Orupabo is the first generation of black people (she is Nigerian-Norweigan) in Norway presenting work dealing with Black-Norwegian issues, welcomed at a publicly funded institution. Her work was recently included in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design’s collection and in the 2019 Venice Biennale’s main exhibition May You Live In Interesting Times opening today. This text will focus on her recent exhibition Medicine for a Nightmare at Kunstnernes Hus this spring.
The artist creates narratives that are well known within the black and brown communities in Norway, though raw to the general public discourse. She uses the photographic collage; every single piece of imagery wholly based on personal archives and found imagery online, allowing her practice to continuously be shaped and developed fluidly. Like an AI of science fiction, an absorbent and quickly adapting artificial mind, given access to the vast masses of the Internet, and with the same precautions.
Her narratives expose the stories of the fragmented black body, though seen through a very Norwegian lens. It’s a peculiar state, this lens. When it comes to the state of the Other, both black and white voices seem to validate the superiority of Whiteness. And by that I don’t mean white people, I mean the position that White culture holds in the global narrative of history and culture alike on all bodies Other. Thus, when I leave behind the wide and long stairs leading to the main galleries at Kunstnernes Hus, and turn left into the exhibition space, I become acutely aware of this.
The skylit hall is vast and spacious, and the first leg of the show is dominated by her paper cut figure collages hung on three walls, the fourth a block wall where her video work is installed in nine neatly hung small screens flickering, in intervals; images, video clips and text bulks. The second leg is somewhat hidden behind the block wall and consists of two horizontal display cabinets with additional paper cut collages, and several framed photographies; that contrasts the big three dimensional collages of her walled paper cut figures. Her works survey and at times deconstructs the history of the past colonial era, of the struggles fought during this time period and beyond, reaching into modern times of the civil rights struggles and freedom fights of colonised countries.
The paper cut figures are multilayered with imagery of black people, all but one looking you straight in the eye, clad in what looks like delicate white fabric, that conjures up both innocence and burial attire alike. The layers are held together by paper clips, underlining these figures are fragmented bodies, easily manipulated and held together provincially, like paper dolls, with the same function. The collages combine a variety of imagery to provoke new narratives, to examine and remix the past, to take control of their externally applied objecthood and emerge as autonomous subjects. Their gazes are loaded with the pain and suffering of the past, transferring this pain to the viewer. Studying these fragmented bodies, I want them to defy objecthood and transform into subjecthood, but they don’t. Their gazes are not in control, not defiant, not proud, not challenging. The bodies remain objects, and instead of battling stereotypification, they seem to beg to be seen and their suffering affirmed. They’re violated bodies, robbed of selfhood and subjectivity. They reaffirm a readymade narrative of the era from which they are collected. The selfhood Orupabo’s looking for, is not there. Her figures remain surfaces, in which the external adds meaning to them, rather than something internal. Their gazes are highjacked by the normative and neutrality of Whiteness, and it’s on this gaze’s premises the figures either remain objects or may transform into subjects. The horizontal display cabinets exaggerates this notion, a gallery of tortured, violated and dead black bodies. A depiction of a lived nightmare for sure, but it only reaffirms an oversaturated past, robbing the body of any dignity, normalising it as such. It might well confront the viewer with its spectacle, but it doesn’t challenge them. This type of spectacle doesn’t have any consequence on the Norwegian viewer’s positively intact empathy and anti-racism. S/he already harbours these qualities and consequently it secures a knowledge we already have; that Norway never was a part of this history, and thus do not struggle with the same issues as America. Consequently Orupabo’s figures represents, presents and portrays the Norwegian condition we’re all brought up to filter through, it demonstrates a certain mindset on how we negotiate Norwegian Whiteness and the peculiar masochism that comes with it.
The exhibition included a wide range of programming - high schools students from all over Oslo were sent in busses to see the show, a release of the fourth edition of the magazine «10 undersøkelser» (10 Investigations) on belonging and identity in Norway, a text to accompany the show written by Nigerian-Norwegian curator and writer Ruby Paloma and many guided tours.
With its cacaphonic intervals, Orupabo’s video work remixes the story of slavery and colonialism by combining it with civil rights activists of freedom fights from struggles such as the American and the South African one, igniting new ways of seeing the black subject and introduces the viewer to black and brown selfhood. This work brings us close to Orupabo’s practice as @nemiepeba at Instagram, where her practice started and continues to develop. Here her work contextualises a dire need, as Scandi-Blacks, to create a language to, at the very least, start a conversation on what kind of struggles we’re dealing with in Scandinavia without the masochism of trying either to be invisible to the white gaze or render ourselves as white as possible. The framed photo collage in the far left corner inhabits this notion perfectly. It depicts a woman half clad in white, her other half exposed. She is standing, her front turned away from the viewer’s gaze, looking into the distance, her feet burning, the distance too dark to distinguish details. It’s an almost unimaginably melancholy work, exuding a longing for recognition and respect, while robbing ourselves of selfhood.
As Sonia Sanchez asks in her poetry collection Morning Haiku: How to dance in blood and remain sane? That’s the exact same question we should be asking.
Medicine for a Nightmare by Frida Orupabo at Kunstnernes Hus was concluded 21 April 2019.
The platform ArtConstructs was created to examine, through art, a language for a heterogeneous future in Europe, beyond the constructed national state and identity. This year ArtConstructs+Objektiv Journal will question how we consume art: whose narratives are being told? Are we aware of our own prejudice when we look at and deal with art? Which representational spaces are non-white artists restricted to? And how do these artists navigate and negotiate their own voices in this landscape?