Catching up with Wura-Natasha Ogunji
Wura-Natasha Ogunji is an Austin-based artist who has participated in international residencies from Spain to the Dominican Republic. Her work has been shown in New York, Austin, Palestine and Australia. In April 2012 she was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Alec De León, program specialist for the Visual Artists Network/National Performance Network, spoke with Wura about her process and recent artwork.
Alec De León (AD): Hi Wura. It’s nice to catch up with you again. You first came into contact with the Visual Artists Network in the summer of 2009 when you had a VAN Exhibition Residency at Diaspora Vibe in Miami, and then I had the opportunity to meet you at the NPN Annual Meeting in Knoxville, right?
Wura-Natasha Ogunji (WO): Yes.
AD: I see that you just performed at Women & Their Work (Austin, TX), and that you just received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Congratulations!
WO: Thank you.
AD: It sounds like you’ve been quite busy. What else has been going since we last spoke?
WO: Well, about a year and half ago I went to Nigeria for the first time with a travel grant from the Dallas Museum of Art. When I was there I started building the work that I did at Rosie’s (Gordon-Wallace) space, Diaspora Vibe. While in Miami, I made paintings as well as a performance piece called Soundings. which was about the presence of black women and personal gestures and movements related to power.
In Nigeria I started making performances that arose from questions I had about the presence of women, especially in public space. People would ask me if I was married and if I had kids. These questions were how they started to understand who I was as a person. Being an artist was out of the realm of possibility for a lot of people, especially being a performance artist.
I created a piece called, Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? I had two water kegs – square containers for carrying water – and I filled them up and tied them around my ankles. Then I crawled along a dirt road in Lagos, for about 10 minutes, among the townspeople. I was trying to pose this question: When do women have time to think and talk about politics? What does it look like for women to change society when so much of their time is consumed with daily work – work that extends from early in the morning to late in the evening? The work that I’m going to do with the Guggenheim grant was inspired by this experience. I will explore what it means to have lots of women performing and moving through public space, interrupting space to talk about relevant issues.
AD: Most of your videos feature a solitary figure in a natural setting, such as a field or desert landscape or in a lagoon, as in the case of Ife head walks on water. But Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? takes place on a busy street in Lagos, Nigeria, with people all around. At one point in the video a motorcycle drives by. All the while, the people of Lagos are watching very intently, curious about what you are doing. How did this change in setting develop? Did they know what you were working on? Did they know you were an artist?
WO: Performance art, as we know in it in the U.S., is a very new genre in Nigeria. There is a deep history of performance, of course: theater, festivals and traveling theater, not to mention daily life being very performative. But performance art is not something that people are very familiar with. Still there are a couple artists who are doing it in Nigeria. One of them is Jelili Atiku and a lot of his work is very political. I met him in Lagos and he asked me if I wanted to make a performance in a town on the outskirts of Lagos: it’s a place where he has performed before (as well as a few other artists). The people there have seen performance art and they know that it’s kind of different, so there’s a generosity from the audience. They are starting to become familiar with the vocabulary, as much as any person can be familiar with the vocabulary of performance art. Anyway, he helped me choose that site and the street I performed on. I can’t remember the name right now, but it means something like “the place where an idea manifests.” He picked this particular place because of that deeper meaning as well as its physical location. He thought it would be a good place for me to crawl on the road. It’s actually a little side street because there is so much traffic on the main roads.
AD: So, your new work is going to continue to incorporate these kinds of public settings?
WO: Yes, it’s definitely going to include more public settings because of the questions I’m asking, and because I’m interested in working with other women performers. And also because I’ll be working in Lagos. I’m really interested in this kind of interaction.
But I think, the reason the videos changed in Nigeria, from those I made previously in the U.S., was because my questions changed. When I was here in the U.S. and I started making the Ife head series, I was thinking about the concept of “homeland” and wondering “does homeland long for us?” And how would it look if our ancestors came from West Africa to look for us in the Americas? How would they get here? They would have to fly. Fly across water, fly across land. So when I went to Nigeria, those questions were answered for me in many ways.
The people in Nigeria were interested in what I had to say as a person and as an artist. So there wasn’t only the longing I had for them. They also had, in a sense, this longing for me. Being there, in the real physical space, the relationship changes…being connected to the ground and crawling on the ground, it makes more sense in that context. There is no need for me to fly because I’ve already arrived in this place.
Also, there is a very different sense of community. I did a couple of solo performances while I was in Nigeria and people begin to interact and interrupt. So performance art doesn’t happen in Nigeria in the way it happens here in the U.S.
AD: Also, it is interesting to note that your work is based on Ife heads, which are archeological artifacts. I noticed that you have a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in photography. I thought to myself, “Wow, that makes perfect sense,” because you are mining this really rich territory and it seems to me that you are merging these two disciplines in your artistic practice. Can you tell me a little about that development?
WO: I studied anthropology because it allowed me to connect these seemingly disparate histories. I studied African history, African American history, Mexican and Mexican American history and art history. I felt like all of these worlds I occupied in California could come together in this way – in anthropology. I was also very interested and obsessed with artifacts, and these ritual objects as they are presented in the West. When you find them in a museum in London, for instance, these precious, ceremonial objects are completely taken out of context. I would look at masks and objects and think, “wow, they are just so beautiful.” I would also think about the history of these materials and the life that preceded them.
During that time as an undergraduate, I was also studying photography, taking a lot of portraits. When I went to graduate school, I started to think about the power of photographs and the absence of people of color in the history of photography, and what that meant to my own conception of the world, and my own understanding of history, as well as my personal history. During that time I took a history of photography class and there were very few pictures of people of color at all. When I asked my professor about this, his response was, “Well, they just don’t exist. I can’t show them because I don’t know where to find them.” But, I knew we existed. And I also knew that people have been seeing the world photographically, for thousands of years. You know, you could observe a camera obscura effect from the light coming through a small opening under the trees or into a cave…without technology as we know it today. Then I started to think about photography as way to access lost images and how I could use my own body to invoke these pictures and this history. I wondered if I could take a photograph of someone who existed before the invention of photography and what that would look like? And could I create a mask that would invoke that person and that spirit?
AD: So you are almost making up an alternate history… filling in the gaps?
WO: Yes, it’s an alternate history but it’s really just another layer, in a sense. Another way of understanding what the narrative is when you are told that there is no narrative. How do you conceptualize that history in your head? What does it look like in your imagination? How does it affect how you move through the world? And then how do you create those physical documents that can use visual power to convey these ideas? The body is a powerful archive not only for information, history, but also for the visual.
I really started to access something when I was living in Spain in 2007. I was reading about people crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa to get to Europe. I started to think about what those people carried with them when they crossed over. In many cases, all they had were their bodies, no possessions. In the body there is everything, the history of the world, it is not only the archive of our individual, lived experience. We carry our ancestors in our bodies, their gestures, memories and knowledge. Performance allows us to access this information.
AD: It’s a fascinating set of ideas that you are working with. What’s next for you? You’ve been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which is going to give you some time and space and energy to make work. As a result you are going to Nigeria again. How long are you going to be there and what’s the plan?
WO: I’m going to be there for nine months. I’ll be making performance videos that focus on the presence of women in public space. There’s a Yoruba phrase mogbo mo branch which means “I heard and I branched myself into the party.” It describes a party-crasher but also the party itself. And as a party crasher you arrive looking fabulous. I found this phrase really amazing, ingenious. It captures the boldness of Nigerians, particularly Lagosians, people who live in Lagos. The series of performance videos is going to be entitled Mogbo mo branch because I’m thinking about what it means to boldly insert oneself into a place, what it means for women to be take up space – both physically and via how we think about the world. The performances, the videos will then be screened/projected back into/onto the city at various sites, so that people have the experience of seeing the images in the spaces they occupy on a daily basis.
AD: That sounds really great. I’ve noticed that your blog (http://goldeniron.blogspot.com/) is comprehensive. Are you going to blog about your work in Nigeria as it progresses?
WO: Yes, I’m definitely going to blog and post images and video about the experience and the work itself. It’s going to be a very rich experience because Lagos is such a mythic mega-city of over 12 million inhabitants. So yes, I will be blogging.
AD: Wonderful. I’ll be sure to check it out. Thank you, Wura, for taking the time to talk with me. And good luck in Lagos!
WO: Thank you, Alec.
photo credits: Jelili Atiku
The Visual Artists Network is made possible by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.