History in Time: An Interview with Artist Zohra Opoku

vor 3 Monaten

Our understanding of the world lately has been turned upside down, twisted, crumpled, drenched in gasoline, set on fire, and thrown out the window. Many of us are left with the question: „What now?“

Some have attempted to search for answers in historical records, trying to find precedents that could possibly correlate to our current situation. The artist Zohra Opoku looks back to her family roots to find those answers.

Interview by Johanne Björklund Larsen, taken from our Fräulein F / W 2020 print issue

The pandemic has put a halt on most of our lives, and as we are suddenly forced to slow down for the first time in decades, we begin to contemplate what decisions and actions led us here. Both through science and politics, we are reminded that history isn’t a thing of the past, but is very much present today and it continues to shape our future. This is something the Ghanian-German artist Zohra Opoku is well aware of. Mixing the mediums of photography and fabric, Opoku’s work examines the complexities of identity and shows us the inextricable relationship between past and present.

Her practice is heavily influenced by her own story, which itself is rather unique. Her East German mother and Ghanian father met in 1975, while they were both studying in Halle in what was then East Germany (GDR). A year later, Opoku was born, but shortly after her birth, her father was forced to return to Ghana. Her mother, unable to follow due to the laws of the GDR, was left as a young mother. The separation created a void within her, denying her a chance to grow up with the history and culture she inherited from her father: “The governmental decision that separated my parents became a defining moment in my life. It is what led me to become an artist and it is why I explore belonging and identity in my practice.

Opoku studied fashion and photography, embarking on a career in the fashion world before she chose to dedicate herself to art full time. She is acutely aware of the power of garments and she applies it to her work, looking at how we use it in our creation of the self. „Fashion and dress codes are strong identifiers for the individual. It is a way to express cultural belonging, yet it also gives us an insight into the hidden mechanisms of society and lets us peek into the private sphere of people. The history behind a piece of cloth or a piece of garment is often powerful, especially in a place like Ghana, that has such a rich culture and where you can track it back through history. I admire costs that serve as camouflage, disguise, and mimicry.As I mentioned before, identity is the starting point for my artistic practice and for me,

Her search for understanding her identity has also made her attentive to the importance of history, not only for society at large, but also for the individual. As she explains, “History tells us who we are and where we come from. Growing up, I only knew my German side, and this meant I couldn’t fully understand who I was. It, therefore, became very important for me to discover my Ghanian culture.

„I think it is important we reflect and deal with our past, no matter how uncomfortable or painful it might be. Coming to terms with our past allows us to get a clean slate on which we can map out our vision and emotions for the future . ”

There is also solace to be found in history and statistics, she argues, especially in times like these where a pandemic makes the future seem uncertain: “I think it can help calm us, knowing that this will be over at some point. Statistics is a great tool to help us understand what happened and how things can be solved. Even though we have more technology today and things are being handled differently, history can still teach us a lot. For example, if we look at how they handled similar situations in the past and what precautions they took, it can help us a lot to learn from their successes and failures. Sometimes, when you think of it, it’s almost hard to fathom that people actually managed to survive the things they did.In all of these instances, I believe there is a comfort to be found in statistics because numbers do not lie.

Her work also looks at collective experiences, surveying their impact on the larger identity of a society, especially in Ghana, where she has been based for the last 10 years. Paralleling her investigation into her own personal history and identity with that of the larger collective allows her to create a broader social commentary that still feels intimate and incredibly personal. We the viewers are allowed to interpret our own version of her work, with Opoku’s own experience becoming a sort of companion in the analysis. Thus, she manages to illustrate how the individual experience is interwoven with that of society.

“Since the social and the self are interconnected, I believe both are equally important in the process of self-development, self-reflection, and in the creation of identity. On an intimate level, my self-portraits interrogate my concept of self and identity from my perspective as a person of color. I navigate through East German and Ghanaian history, time, space, distance, and traditions to draw out my own understanding of self.

In a world which can at times seem like it is increasingly resembling a futuristic sci-fi, the word “tradition” is often almost frowned upon. I asked Opoku what her take was on tradition’s role in our modern society and what role it will hold in the future:

“The whole idea of ​​a tradition is important because it’s about identity. There are the elements of technology, capitalism, and globalization which today makes everyone consume the same. This pushes traditions as well as traditional symbols and products towards extinction because it makes us believe that they aren’t important. We forget to look at the past because all the new is sort of covering it up. I don’t think we want to forget traditions, but I think technology and globalized habits are aggressively changing them. I feel like I can see the presence of tradition more prevalent in Ghana than in Germany. Of course, there are some places in Germany where it is more visible, like in Spreewald, where I was born, and in Bavaria.But in many other parts of Germany, I don’t really see it as much.

In Ghana, on the other hand, you can really feel that despite the heavy influence of colonization, you also have these memories of what was there before. And you can still see it in ceremonies such as funerals, weddings, baptisms… You can also see a combination of traditional religion and Christianity. For example, if you have a traditional wedding, it means you will have a religious day, the engagement day, and then you have the church day. In these rites, you can see how everything is being mixed with each other, how traditional beads and food play a central role in the celebration, side by side with Christian prayers. And I think that it’s a beautiful mixture.There are also other examples like in Brazil and South America, where Christianity is mixed with Afro religions, like Candomblé in Brazil. Here you will find that for every figure of a religious deity, you also have a Christian figure. These are examples that show how we are mixing tradition with elements of modern identity, creating a kind of compromise of what was there before and what we have today. „

This year, Opoku has also been reminded of the traumatic grip history still holds on our daily lives. The death of George Floyd shook Opoku and the Black Life Matter protests that followed awoke painful memories of her own experience of growing up as a woman of color in Germany. So, how do we enable actual change? Despite a growing conversation about the trauma of colonialism and slavery, this is not a new conversation, Opoku remarks, and we need governments to take actions to create actual change:

“The history of slavery still haunts black people to this day and it continues to deprive black people of a peaceful and secure life. Technology has enabled us to have a much wider conversation about this and it helps us spread information, opinions, and arguments. But this is a conversation that was already there before. I know a lot of the communities and groups who have longed to work for us to remember, rethink, and change the remnants left from the past. For example, through taking down monuments that honor people who did horrible things to people of color or changing street names; we have these protests already.What we need is for this conversation to also be held with governments, institutions, and other official offices in order to create actual change. We can experience loss and this loss might gain respect and understanding from people, but it all depends on how things are handled after that. What happens next and what actions are taken is really what will determine how these instances will shape the future. I do believe that words can manifest a lot for the future and can create hope, positivity, and openness. In the end, though, it’s really about what we do in practice, because if we want to make an actual difference for the future, changes need to be made in terms of law and in how institutions are acting on these issues.

Zohra Opoku nonetheless holds a strong belief in the power of art. Rejecting the notion of it as non-essential, she instead heightens its crucial functions for the shaping of the future: “I believe artists are like people of science and that they contribute to thought processes and can help to solve emotional issues for people. Art can be very therapeutic for both for the person creating it as well as for those looking at it. I look at the way museums are visited a bit like having a walk in the park for people. It creates processes in your mind, and for a society that wants to grow and develop, the mind is the most beautiful thing. Art is extremely useful when communicating complex problems, especially things that in text or spoken form will come off as very aggressive.Artists have a bigger freedom to express an opinion on their own terms, which allows them to be more direct with the messages they want to convey.

INTERVIEW BY JOHANNE BJÖRKLUND LARSEN
IMAGES COURTESY OF ZOHRA OPOKU & MARIANE IBRAHIM GALLERY
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