The Contextual Textiles of Zohra Opoku
Zohra Opoku is a German/Ghanaian multidisciplinary artist living and working in Accra. With a keen and disciplined eye for textile and design, Opoku employs installation, sculpture, and photography at the helm of her practice. She conceptualizes West African traditions, spirituality, the thread of family lineage as they relate to self authorship and the politics of her hybrid identity. A globalized social consumption and the commodification of all things African are a driving force in what she sees as the nemesis of her thesis, and the relevance of cultural credentials within this state of being.
You are described as a German/Ghanaian artist and were educated in Hamburg, how do you combine the influences in your work?
My ethnic and national makeup – or in other words, my identity – is not a description, it is actual.
My experience enroots my aesthetic practice into sculptural modules, which can be seen as my [in] direct social commentary. An example of this can be seen in big scale installations of second-hand clothes (imported from Germany to Ghana), which were displayed in central Accra. I also employ metaphors of repetition and disguise in my portrait and self-portrait series, as form of exercise, which explores belonging to, or, blending in to a new environment.
You earned a MA in Fashion but are better known for your work in photography. Why the transition from fashion to photography and how does it influence your current practice?
Basically, the art school I attended taught all practices, my classmates were photographers, painters, textile designers etc. When I started studying, designing and drawing came very naturally to me, because I was a little obsessed with it during my teenage years. It was actually during my studies that I discovered photography. I would spend the same amount of time in a darkroom as I would spend draping mannequins in class. During and after graduation, I had the chance to work in exciting places in the fashion industry. Although, I have never been fulfilled in the role fashion plays as a means of artistic expression, which is seen more as a business rather than deep reflection of a cultural development. At the same time, fashion for me has such a transformative power, it is one of the most accessible forms of self-identification and really became the starting point of expression in my art. In the past and in my current practice, where I explore the ability to direct our identity, textiles feel like the perfect vehicle with which identity can be performed. It is the outcome of my research on how fashion, trends and clothes traditions are related to a cultural identity that I then perform in my photographs, video, sculptures and installations.
What is the underlying philosophy behind your work?
The question might be answered in the last paragraph: the question of identity is the starting point in my work, with deep roots to my family lineage on both my German and my Ghanaian side.
Your self-portraits are vaguely reminiscent of the work of René Magritte, especially his painting Son of Man. Is he one of your influences?
European art doesn’t inspire me for my work, no. For the series of self-portraits in question, I was mostly inspired by nature, West-African masquerade and how I would express “blending in” or even “disappearing” in society. Since nature is referencing a safe and protective environment for me, I can relate it to home and a hiding place. The self-portrait series was not meant to be a close up, rather a different viewpoint to set my work in following my TEXTURES series. I faced some technical troubles in creating large scale screen-prints in the provided studio in an artist residency in California, where I was a fellow artist at this time.
I decided, when the prints have to become smaller, I have to change the frame on my images, which became just the close up of my face and doesn’t show the clothes anymore, which I had draped around me.
Do your projects involve work with other artists?
Sometimes yes. For me, one of the nicest collaborative moments I have had was when I was part of a performance installation piece, which was a collaborative project with an architect and a dancer and a composer. We created two versions of the performance over the course of two years. One for a basement club located in Germany and the other one for a street performance in Cape-Town, where we also worked with two South African performers and a team of zine artists, writers and photographers together.
Your work incorporates fabric especially bed sheets, what informs this?
In most instances textiles are fundamental to my work. It just satisfies me a lot to handle a piece of cloth and to discover it from different perspectives, like textures, the history and age and how I can bring out the beauty of meaning within a body of work. Textiles and garments influenced me strongly in my childhood; even at that age I designed my own clothes and unintentionally created an individual dress code in East Germany where exciting fashion was not the case at all.
Later in Ghana I became keen to observe clothes-lines, dress codes and other flexible materials in public spaces, which became the footage for my narratives within my photo series and installations.
Naturally studying fashion brings an understanding of form, and the movement of materials – I enjoy being experimental in the posture of my models, to allow (or restrict) the material to move. The two practices merge in my screen prints, where my photographic work is transferred – in the case of Sassa – onto bedsheets. The blowing of a bed sheet again reminds me of how my family hang laundry in the garden. The material literally absorbs the photographic image, it demonstrates how in society material can become imbued with meaning, memories and histories over time. Those bed sheets that I used to print the Queenmothers were especially given by my grandmother from Germany, meaning there were even stronger memories connecting the material to my family in this instance.
Can you describe your technique and process in producing work like ‘Queenmothers’?
There are many layers of to the creative process of producing work. It starts with things I see, wither through systematic observations or also things that are offered to me by other people. I collect ideas, materials and images. Sometimes an idea has started to grow years ago, but it is only now that I feel it is the right time to use it. Too many ideas of what I want to produce mostly overwhelm me. The research phase begins, which can be an interview, the reading & rereading of text, or simple conversations with people who know more about my interest field. I don’t limit myself to one medium. I love to connect different materials to different ideas, and that is why the outcome can be finished in new wood or pieces of found wood, textile installations or portraits.
For me, the connection between the ‘Queenmothers’ is a resilient example of the living embodiment of Sassa. My intention to meet the Queenmothers was to find a relevant source for a conversation in a very male dominated society. It meant a lot to me to connect with ideas of female-nature, which have bold influences in traditional systems like the Ashanti region. This need grew out of the role of mother figures being a significant support in my life. The Queenmothers proved to be huge influence to me, demonstrating an eye opening amount of personality; we had a conversation about their life and role in the Ashanti culture followed by some time when I shot their portraits.
With the series of Queenmother portraits, as I mentioned previously, I produced them using an alternative photo process, on bed sheets under the Ghanaian sun. For this I had to create a life-size negative before I could expose it on the sheet, which I had to prepare in a light sensitive solution in the darkroom. I still have to import the chemicals to Ghana, but it becomes a special moment for me, when I can do work like I used to do it in a darkroom, exposing the image outside my studio in Accra under the sun.
Your work, ‘Textiles in Motion’ betrays an interest in film production. Have you ever considered expressing yourself in this regard?
I haven’t used film production in my work previously, but I enjoy constructing sequences of still images, like it could be photographs. I love the sound of nature and the smooth movements of leafs in the wind; these sequences remind me of a dream or a mystic appearance, which refer back to ideas of invisibility and masquerade.
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