Exploring the Complexities of Family, Identity, and Collective Histories
Karl Ohiri’s work explores human conditions and such recurring themes as family, memory and identity. He began his visual arts practice in 2007 with the documentation of his ancestral homeland in Nigeria. Since completing his Masters at Goldsmiths in 2008, Ohiri’s output has been a mixture of conceptually driven and often documentary-based projects that consists of original works and the recontextualisation of pre-existing artefacts. His works have been exhibited in various institutions in UK. Recent solos have also been staged at Omenka Gallery (2016) and the New Art Exchange (2016). In this interview, he discusses his past and recent work, as well as his presentation at the 2018 edition of the LagosPhoto Festival.
How has your photography evolved over the years? What were the factors that affected the transformation?
My photography has evolved in many ways over the years. Many of these transitions have been a product of my own artistic self-exploration. As artists, we are constantly trying to find ways of working that will come to define our creative style. These often-necessary shifts form part of an artist’s development and reveal how they have chosen to engage with a particular medium over the years. At the core of this discovery is a process that is very much about finding your own voice and developing a relationship to photography. When I first started taking photos at university, my photographic journey was only just beginning, I had not been exposed to the many different forms of photography and was primarily interested in the black and white documentary photography from photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastiao Salgado.
I loved how these photographic masters used their cameras to capture the beauty of the everyday—using the camera to bear witness to the space and time they were present in. As a student of photography, I loved Bresson’s theory of the “decisive moment.” The idea of capturing something spontaneous and reflective of the moment itself was something I found photographically challenging and pure in essence. When I started taking photos, I immediately tried to incorporate this approach into my early photographic works, which can be seen in projects like A Place Called Home (2008), a project that is about returning home to explore my position as a foreigner and native, local and outsider in a place located somewhere between the strange and the familiar.
After completing the project I took a break from photography for two years. When I came back to photography, I felt I needed a new direction for my work, so I started to work in colour, focusing on personal narratives that were about my life in the UK. I began to explore different approaches to photography, like fine art and performance, as a way of opening up my practice. I found that through the introduction of such forms my photography was given a lot more freedom. Whereas before I was concerned with capturing images that represented “the decisive moment” in real time, I now started to play with new ways of image-making that involved staged photography. The approach allowed me to be more playful with the photographic medium and construct meaning through the careful placement of objects and gestures inserted within the frame. This gave me more control over the desired effect of what I want the audience to take away from the image, expanding the possibilities of space and time and redefining what the “decisive moment” is or potentially could look like.
Your body of work is part performative, part conceptual, with photography acting as a coagulant for these somewhat fragile artistic spaces. Please take us through your creative process.
My creative process to date has largely been based on autobiographical works. I have always seen the camera as a powerful tool for reconciling personal emotions by creating records of an experience that can be shared and explored with others. For me, the creative process has very much to do with exploring the human condition. I look at this from two intertwined positions: the self and that of the other, and try and find a common language through photography where a dialogue can take place. I use elements of performance within my practice, as it grants me a freedom that allows me to become different characters and explore multiple identities from different perspectives. I often take on the main role in front of the camera as my presence gives an authenticity to the personal narratives I choose to explore.
My work is often categorised as conceptual, as I tend to make artwork that has been specifically manufactured to convey an idea to my audience. Although my art may start from a specific idea, the construction of the work is often organic, as it stems from deep-rooted emotions that are very sincere. I try to use these emotions to create works that engages my audience, offering the viewer ample room for their own interpretations, inviting them into a creative process where they complete the artwork. I use the medium of photography for its timeless qualities. It’s a medium that is such a gift to humanity, and I love the way it provides a gateway to the past. It’s a medium we all have grown up with, which speaks an international language, one that we all understand and can relate to.
Your treatment of death finds itself nestled around adornment, with My Granddad’s Car (2012) and Medicine Man both leaning towards a beautification of rather morbid realities. Also in Memories of You (2014), you perform nostalgia through a queering process that finds you painting your nails and donning your mother’s garb to deal with her death. Could you speak to this decorative element in your work?
Within my autobiographical works, I have developed a style that incorporates the process of adornment. Within my work, I like the use of pre-existing objects poignant to a time and place that can be reintroduced as performative rituals that give new meaning to place and memory. I have always been fascinated by what we leave behind when we are gone. These objects have a history, a history that can be altered, remixed, and reinterpreted. As an artist, I think it’s our role to disrupt the narrative. When something seems dead or useless to everyone else, why not take on a different perspective and see its beauty? A lot of my work has been about such processes, where objects are used as time capsules to explore a past. Real in physicality, yet highly fictional in terms of the worlds they often occupy in my practice.
In the project Medicine Man, my partner and myself mourn the loss of my mother through an adornment ritual that consists of the leftover medication that was used to unsuccessfully treat my mother’s cancer before her death. The medicine is used as a way to reconcile loss by reimagining a fictional character that could have saved her life, looking into the beauty of tribalism and that of the ancient medicine man for comfort, strength, and inspiration.
In My Granddad’s Car, I adorn myself with a native fabric that was given to me by my mother to take back home. I used it to fill the void of her absence by taking it on an epic journey with a friend, exploring the hybridity of identity, migration, and culture. Using adornment in this way in my projects is very much about making sense of what death means to me. I use objects to challenge perceptions on death, time, and remembrance by creating new memories and mythologies that keep my loved ones alive, developing alternative narratives that filter through and become part of my family history.
The adornment process that I embark on in the project Memories of You is more about a complete transformation, literally becoming my mother. When my mother passed away, there were so many memories that were never recorded. The mundane little moments that make up every day were the things I missed the most when she was gone. In Memories of You, I create these memories by wearing her clothes and slowly become her in order to recreate the fond memories that were never recorded. The process becomes a way of letting go of the past and looking forward to the future.
At the recently concluded LagosPhoto Festival, you exhibited Lagos Studio Archives, a historical project that consists of thousands of 35mm colour negatives documenting Lagos studio portraiture from the 1970s to the millennium and beyond. What inspired this project?
Lagos Studio Archives is a curatorial project that has been the culmination of many different points of influence. Looking back, I think the most important influence was a book I came into contact with whilst studying photography at Goldsmiths University in London. I remember sitting in a lecture theatre being introduced to a book called Twin Lens Reflex – The Portrait Photographs of Harry Jacobs and Bandele “Tex” Ajetunmobi. The book had a profound impact on me, and I was particularly interested in studio photographs of Harry Jacobs and his portraits of migrant communities, especially those of the Windrush generation. I loved the way his lens captured their personal struggles and aspirations and was in admiration of how these very personal images effortlessly merged the boundaries between the private and the public. Another section of the book describes what they refer to as the “accidental archive” relating to Tex’s work; his entire archive was on the brink of being thrown away until it was rescued by his niece from his old flat after he died. The vulnerability of an archive’s life was the lesson I learnt from that book. I think that it had a massive impact on this project as, years later, whilst in Nigeria, I would encounter a scenario that reflected both Jacobs’ and Tex’s stories, which would mark the beginning of the Lagos Studio Archives project.
In 2015 whilst in Owerri, Nigeria, I had a conversation with a studio photographer that was based there. We had a great conversation about photography and portraiture that led to me asking him to see some of his old studio portraits from his archives. His response was that he had put his entire archive of 35mm studio photography in the dustbin a week before my arrival. When I asked him why he had thrown them away, he said it was a very common thing to do, and that all of his friends in the field had done the same thing once they switched over to digital.
When I went to Lagos the following year, I met up with a photographer friend who runs a studio in Lagos and asked him if he had any film negatives from his archive left. He told me a similar story—he’d burnt his negatives a couple of years ago as they sat in his studio, filling up space. It was after talking with him and other photographers in the local area that I discovered that many of the photographers saw the imagery they were creating as “purely for work” and saw no real value to a wider audience beyond this. This is why once they switched over to digital to meet the demands of the fast-paced mega-city, their negatives were often destroyed or left abandoned in very bad conditions.
I decided to put a call out to photographers who were throwing away their negatives. The intent was simple—to prevent what I saw as an important photographic history being lost forever and to raise awareness about the importance of preserving this important photographic cultural history.
I hope the project can shed new light on a generation of photographers whose works were on the verge of being destroyed, working with them to provide insight and context to their archives that will be presented in a touring exhibition and much-needed publication.
Your recent body of work is a series of self-portraits taken in your studio over the course of 2018 in response to online political currents. What particular event led you to embark on this particular project?
I decided to start the project A Year in Protest, as I felt that currently we are living in very interesting political times. The internet has made politics more accessible to the masses, and the ability to respond to such content via social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and so on has meant that responding to political content has never been so easy, from one-click petition support groups to posting comments online. Many of us are protesting daily from the comfort of our own homes. However, the same technology that is giving us a voice is the same one that can often hold our political views prisoner as we tread carefully in an unforgiving terrain where our comments are stored online and can be used against us with devastating effects, in some cases causing people to lose their jobs, friends, and extended networks. Since the first of January 2018, I have not commented on, or taken a political stance on, any social media news, but instead have been protesting my response to online political content through a series of self-portraits taken in my studio over the course of a year. The photographic act provides me with a way of reconciling a suppressed need by creating a record that is not subjected to scrutiny or backlash in its moment of capture. Hiding my face behind a protest sign with my hands covered by gloves hides aspects of my identity from the public gaze, giving my audience a photographic moment that has an element of truth yet offers enough ambiguity to be argued as fake news or satire in the future. The photography series becomes an interactive experience by the use of a QR code, which, when scanned, allows the public to participate by redirecting them to the online source that prompted my protests. Through this project I have learnt so much about myself and my position in the world, valuable insight that I am sure will manifest itself in future works at some point in time.
Tell us a bit about your next project.
I do not have a specific project I can call my next at the moment. Lagos Studio Archives is such a huge project; therefore it is my primary concern at the moment. The project will take a lot of time, as the acquired archives are vast and will need to be explored and researched properly in order to present the project to its full potential. When I find the time, I will continue exploring my own practice through photography and everyday objects, exploring the complexities of family, identity, and collective histories.
June 25, 2019
June 24, 2019