Ghanaian artist, Zohra Opoku‘s multi-media work explores the role of textiles in disparate cultures and spaces. Her introspective work contemplates the socio-political and psychological dynamics of fashion in relation to African history and the impact that contemporary capitalism has had on traditional African cultural practices around dress. Zohra’s reflective work also probes her own family history. Her current exhibition, Sassa, takes its name from the Ashanti word for ancestral spirits and explores her family lineage. Always returning to fabric, the pieces in this body of work are screen printed onto bedsheets and exposed under the Ghanaian sun. These shadowy portraits flitter about the interplay between the unseen and the imminent.
In what ways does your personal history influence your work?
In many ways. It is the driving force in my artist practices. A constant research for identity, belonging and home.
In West Africa, as in many places in the world, fashion plays an important political and psychological role in societies. Your background is in fashion and fabric continues to be a key motif and metaphor in your work. Can you tell us about this?
I understand how the traditions of African culture can be read through clothing. The designs of the fabric have meaning containing wisdom, philosophies, and a myriad of histories. At any point in time, clothes can tell us who a person is, where they are from, their social status, and even what their spiritual beliefs are.
Through my love of fashion I am able to articulate my innate familiar connection to Ghanaian symbolism, and traditionally produced cloth, such as Kente, which continuously inspire me. I began to employ the wardrobes of fellow artists to create silhouettes by draping and rebuilding form via their own bodies and via clotheslines. I used the formation of traditional male dress and incorporate femininity as an action of empowerment and recreate sculptural wooden familial mask.
How do you understand the relationship between personal histories, identity construction and photography in your work?
Everything connected; it is an organic and logical process of experiments, research and visual challenges to frame the need of expression within. I love to be driven by my natural environment in Ghana and feel impulses of home, culture and the fluidity of identity. This manifests in my work through images with backgrounds of rich vegetation, colourful dresses, billboards and paintings on wood.
Please tell us a little about your interest in the 3D forms that draped textile creates and how you incorporate this into different areas of your practice.
I am always quite intrigued by clotheslines blowing in the wind, and how shapes and forms appear to me, giving me the opportunity to experience a private mythology of backyards and suburban communities. Experiencing through their habits of handling laundry and providing me with the perfect motifs of reading messages of social threshold-rituals.
These clothes represent an individual person, but also give an insight about how society works behind the fences and walls of private homes. I started to film and photograph clotheslines, but also could just stare at the movements in the wind for a long duration of time. Reminiscent of reflections and dream sequences, I romanticise the idea of the manifestation of sculpture, exquisite forms and colours. Continuing on the discovered aesthetics of hang variations, I investigated with clothes and textiles on laundry lines.
Later I developed THE BILLBOARDPROJECT, following up on my experimental exploration of the effects of the import of secondhand garments to Africa. The project is trying by means of experimental based activity to study on the ground experiences in Africa as they interface with secondhand clothing imported and exported. This turned up in multiple large-scale installations on billboards in various places in Accra, which featured a distinct composition of this phenomenon where I used unwanted garments from the Accra market.
Your Billboards project comments on the way in which imported clothing is erasing traditional Ghanaian practices and traditions around dressing. Is there a link between this idea and the recurring theme of disguise and masks in your work?
No I wouldn’t say so, but I should think about it.
Your work appears to self-referentially grapple with notions of identity and what it means to be an artist. Can you tell us more about this?
I had the chance to work in exciting places in the fashion industry. Although I have never been fulfilled in the way of expression and the role fashion plays, which is more seen as a business then deep reflection of a cultural development. I wanted to find a way to reflect on personal history connected to contemporary movements in our time. I was not aware that I had the need to express deeply what I experienced in my childhood growing up as a “black” in a “white” society.
In your portrait photographs and garment installations there’s a strong sense of absence. How does this relate to conceptions of identity in your work?
This simply reflects on my absence of spirit in a place which I have never fully accepted, because something within me knew that this is not my completed identity.
Your recent exhibition, Sassa, is the product of your residency in the Ashanti region of Ghana. Can you please explain the concept of “sassa” briefly and how you’ve incorporated this into the pieces in this body of work?
Briefly will be difficult. I am not there yet hahaha. It is basically a sprit, which can be one with good intentions. The term SASSA refers also to evil spirits which growing out of an unnatural dead in an unfinished mission. My siblings and me believe that our father died a spiritual death. I cannot go into details. We have to deal with many things, which seem to be guided and even feel protected through my father’s presence in many situations. His wisdom helps us to find solutions, which are mostly connected to his former life, like his house, property, land and belongings. My father was a chief in his town and he had a role which can normally only be elected by a Queenmother. The mother role has always played a major part in my life through my mother, my grandmother and my godmother. The role of my father and father figures were always quite blurry. This is how I started to find out about Queenmothers and how their position is determined in a community. I made a research trip to the Asante region and visited four Queenmothers in different areas and spoke about their responsibilities and how they came into this position. It turns out, in a series of portraits for which I am printing in an alternative photo processes on bed sheets under the Ghanaian sun. The blowing of a bed sheet again reminds me of how my family hung laundry in the garden. As you already know, this is one of my favourite things to do – watching it blowing in the wind.
Throughout the duration of the narrative I am showing a self-portait screenprint series. As well as five sculptures, or “body masks”, which represents figures in my family titled My Mother (My Mother), My Father (My Grandfather), X-Ray Mask (My Stepfather), Agbagba Mask (me), Batakari Chair (My Home).
What appeals to you about working with many different materials and mediums?
For me it is not the abundance of material and mediums, but the desire to experience and discover that which comes natural.
While people are the main focus in your photo series, the background settings and landscapes are evidently very carefully and deliberately considered. How do you conceptualise this and to what intended effect?
This is correct, my backdrop is carefully chosen together with the artist I want to capture. We collaborate effectively for a definitive end result. Through various artist residencies I find myself in strange and mysterious environments. This provides me with the quintessential framework that together with research and adventure, results in the perfect final image.
What are you currently working on, and anything else you would like to add?
Currently I am preparing my solo show for Gallery 1957 in Accra. I aim to discover more about artists from the continent and experience their practice. Beyond my own works I am taking curatorial leadership with an upcoming festival in Vienna. I will have the great pleasure of exhibiting emerging artists from Ghana and beyond.
Zohra Opoku’s show Sassa runs at Gallery 1957, Accra from 10 June – 1 August 2016.
All image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.