In Conversation with Wura-Natasha Ogunji

Wura-Natasha Ogunji is a performance and visual artist who works in a variety of media, with performance being a large part of her practice. Although she holds a BA in Anthropology from Stanford University, and an MFA in Photography from San Jose State University, both in the United States, she says she has always been an artist. Ogunji uses her own body to explore movement and mark making across water, land and air through videos. In this revealing interview, she tells us more about her drawing techniques and working methods.

How would you describe yourself?

A visual and performance artist.

How was growing up like for you and what influenced you to take up art?

I grew up in the United States with my mother who encouraged us to be creative from a very young age. We were always making—painting, drawing, constructing, cutting and sewing. We were also observing. She had this gift for seeing beauty in anything; beauty and possibility. A silver gum wrapper could easily become a canoe. This sense of inventiveness and joyful observation of the world around me, set the conditions for me to become an artist.

Where have you lived and practiced mostly?

I’ve lived most of my life in the United States, though the experience of living in the Dominican Republic deeply influenced the work I am making now. It’s where I first started sewing on paper. And Spain—I spent a month at an art residency there at the foothills of the Montserrat Mountains.

Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman, 2011

That was where I first started making performance videos. Those pieces are very significant to my current art practice. In fact, the work I made in Spain, Belongings, gets re-worked and repeated in my first performance in Nigeria, Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? The language of crawling across the earth, and the dragging of objects emerged there. Not many people know you trained as an anthropologist and hold a Masters degree in Photography, having won recognition for your video work and drawings.

What was responsible for this career change, and do you still practice as a photographer?

There wasn’t ever a ‘career change’ per se. I’ve always been an artist. The form of that changes and shifts, of course, but I haven’t left any of it behind. In fact, my thesis exhibition was a performance-installation. I will say that the way I see the world is so very photographic. The way I observe and compose is very much influenced by all the looking and seeing—the observations of light that I did as a photographer. My use of space and the way I compose my videos are deeply influenced by a sense of photographic composition. I am very aware of how and where things, people and movement enter the frame in the videos, drawings and even in my live performances. I think a lot about how the public audiences will experience the performance visually, and in relationship to the surrounding architecture and urban environment.

Generally, your work “excavates complexities of the relationship between women, society, space and politics”. Does your mixed – cultural heritage or your practice between Lagos and Austin, Texas, inform your direction, and how?

Being mixed certainly affects the work I create and the questions I’m asking. But this is also coupled with the fact of being an artist. And being queer. The experience of being different, in whatever form that may take, allows us to make important, innovative observations about the world. Sometimes it allows us to translate, but more importantly, it allows us to appreciate the beauty of what cannot be translated.

When did you begin to employ architectural papers in your drawing, and does their delicate and ephemeral nature lend any significance to your work?

In 2006, I was hiking in Austin and found a roll of the architectural tracing paper on the ground. I was about to travel and had been looking for paper that would be relatively easy to carry with me. Finding that paper was a gift. I love the colour and also the way light passes through it as I’m stitching. It feels ‘filmic’. I’m not so interested in its delicacy, but I do like the weight, transparency and how it moves in a space.

With delicate threading, your drawings have a heightened sense of fragility. Why is this technique central to your work, or do the stitches serve mainly aesthetic purposes?

I’ve always loved thread and I love the presence of the thread against the expanse of the paper. They say different things. I know there is a sense of fragility there but I’m not interested in that at all. I don’t like the idea of making a fragile drawing.

What can you also say about the concept of space in your drawings?

I love open spaces. Many of my performances have been inspired and have developed out of particular physical spaces that I find irresistible or compelling. For example, in Austin, the old airport. At one point they were removing the roads and they dug deep into the earth, creating this landscape resembling something lunar or otherworldly. This became the site for the performance My father and I dance in outer space. I also created several drawings with the same title. Open outdoor space invites a narrative and allows me to move around in it, to move through it. I like that expansiveness. The space in the drawings is similar. It’s breathing room. It allows me imagine something else happening. It’s a way of not giving all of the information. My use of space in the drawings is also influenced by my sense of the Atlantic Ocean and the place it occupies, both historically and physically, as this critical juncture (or is it too big for that?)between Africa and the Americas. It’s at once full and empty, both abyss and surface, a place where time collapses and shifts. It’s also an incredibly generative space.

The traditional Ife head is constantly visible in your work. After a recent performance in Benin, you began to incorporate new imagery into your drawings. Can you talk about the importance of this experience to these new works?

The performance in Benin City was part of Peju Layiwola’s project Whose Centenary?, a series of events, performances and exhibitions, which critically revisit Nigeria’s social, political and historical memory with regard to 1914, the year when the northern and southern regions of Nigeria were amalgamated. It is also the year that King Ovonramwen died; he had been exiled from Benin to Calabar. I was invited to perform in a piece called Journeying, a performance about return by Elizabeth Olowu, who is an incredible artist and also of Benin royal lineage. I wore a crown and beads of coral. The experience of walking through the city to the current Oba’s palace and then landing on Igun Street, site of the bronze casters, was quite powerful. The ceremony of being dressed in these crown, beads, and jewelry was incredible on a personal level—another kind of homecoming. But also, the beads themselves are amazing; they’re physically heavy to wear. You have to be strong to wear them. In the drawings they become more expansive, they are almost floating above and between people, as if they are weightless and yet can transport cheetahs, for example. They are like stitches on the page. I became enamoured of their visuality and capacity for suggesting movement.

Your recent experiments also include the incorporation of wave signals, the modern day disc jockey, foliage and generators as motifs. Can you expatiate on these developments?

My most recent drawings are inspired by the experience of living in Lagos. I love those moments of unexpected beauty, humour, quiet stillness and connection that occur amidst all of the action. The wave signals, those lines that move between the DJ and the Ife head, are about those moments. They’re about the profound beauty that is present in everyday contradictions. The DJ in the drawings sees those connections.

Is there any correlation between these codes, gemstones such as emeralds, which also appear in your work, and your father who was a geophysicist, considering you weren’t very close to him as a child?

My father made these lists of gemstones, metals, industrial minerals, and so on. I found them after he passed away and decided to make drawings from the lists. I have also used diagrams from his journals in my drawings. I guess it’s a way of connecting to him by creating this language that is his and also my own. It’s a strange collaboration.

This year is quite a busy one for you with three major group exhibitions in the United States including Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, at the Seattle Museum of Art, curated by Pam Mc Clusky and Erika Dalya Massaquoi. In your view, how exactly do your works fit within this theme?

I was commissioned to create a performance for the Disguise exhibition. The performance is called An Ancestor Takes a Photograph and riffs off of the street egungun, who ask for money. But in my piece, the performers are women who go through the streets of Lagos and videotape their experience. I have been interested in the power and presence that this particular ritual allows specifically for women as we are not traditionally allowed to be part of the secret society. The experience of walking through the busiest streets of Lagos and Balogun Market, for example, and having people move away from you—a combination of awe, respect, fear, even irritation—is incredible and otherworldly. The performance allowed us to inhabit this space that we would never have formally been allowed to occupy.

Your project, Mo gbo mo Branch–Yoruba for I heard and I branched myself into the party, creates connections between Africa and the Americas via the black female body. Is this intended to reconcile such a mixed- cultural heritage as yours, or does it serve to inspire a broad appeal?

Mo gbo mo Branch is a series of performances about the presence of women in public space in Lagos. The performances are inspired by my experiences and observations of how gender functions in Nigeria. I’m very interested in how and where female bodies do and don’t take up space—politically, socially and physically. These public performances create space to talk about our presence and power.

Your performance art in which you engage your body in the exploration of movement and mark making across water, land, and air, to say the least is relatively alien to the Nigerian visual art space. How has your work been received in Lagos?

One could argue that a flying Ife head is anything but alien to the Nigerian visual space. I would also add that performance art is ours, meaning we have a long and rich history of performance, which makes my work at once strange and also quite familiar; it’s connected to this history. I find audiences in Nigeria to be very generous. They listen, they watch without rushing past, they ask questions and talk about the work as it’s happening. I think the performances have also been important for the people (artists and non-artists) who have participated in them because of the rigorous engagement with the body. Most of the performances are endurance pieces, which means that people are asked to push beyond some personal physical limit. This, of course, expands our consciousness on many levels.

You have participated in several residencies and are also a recipient of The Dallas Museum of Art’s Otis and Velma Davis Dozier Travel Grant. How crucial do you consider these engagements to your career, and what sort of opportunities for international exposure and collaboration are open to Nigerian artists?

The DMA Travel Grant allowed me to come to Nigeria on my first visit. That award is amazing; the Dozier family believed that travel was important for artists. Period. On that trip to Nigeria, I created my first performance, Will
I still carry water when I am a dead woman? I crawled through Ejigbo with water kegs tied to my ankles. That work opened an important part of my artistic research and practice. While there are opportunities for Nigerian artists to travel outside the country, these are largely funded through European arts and cultural institutions. In Nigeria, we need to develop an ethic for supporting artists so that they may push both their creative practice and careers outside the country, as well as sustain themselves and thrive here.

This year, you are also featuring in a joint show in Nigeria with your friend and artist ruby onyinyechi amanze, with whom you share several similarities including the metaphorical use of wild cats like cheetahs and leopards. Kindly
tell us the thinking behind this, as well as your plans for the future. ruby and I share a love for drawing. And also running. She was making a drawing of the two of us that riffed off Kahlo’s The Two Fridas. The ruby in the drawing is holding a gazelle. I was going to be holding an animal too. I told her I felt like a leopard lately. That’s when Leopard was birthed, 2013; it was also around the time we started our writing exchanges around drawing. The cheetahs appeared in my drawings after the Benin performance in late 2014/2015. Traditionally, the oba is surrounded by cheetahs. In my drawings, the cheetahs hover above the figures. In another drawing, ruby makes an appearance. It’s a drawing of a cheetah running in gold tights. ruby’s a fast runner so I knew it was her, as she emerged on the page.

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