Frida Orupabo & Arthur Jafa: Medicine for a Nightmare
Short video clips of various Black artists anchor this visual cacophony.
On ViewKunstnernes Hus Oslo, Norway
March 1, 2019 – April 21, 2019
The first work a viewer might be drawn to upon entering Medicine for a Nightmare, the small, two-artist exhibition featuring Nigerian-Norwegian artist Frida Orupabo and the critically acclaimed filmmaker Arthur Jafa, at the Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, Norway, is an untitled video installation by Orupabo mounted on a wall in the center of the exhibition space. Jafa’s own, perhaps more widely known short film, “Love is the Message, The Message is Death,” screens in a black box theater towards the back of the gallery. Medicine, though, is indeed Orupabo’s show.
Orupabo’s video installation consists of nine tablets organized in a grid of three rows as each monitor depicts a steady loop of still and moving images. There is, for example, a black-and-white photograph of a lone Sony Walkman, close-ups of women’s breasts, a photograph of what appears to be human blood cells, images of medical procedures involving doctors and patients, and short phrases, words, sentences, and found texts such as “my holy disaster” “from wound to wound,” and “sick object” all in lower case. On one tablet the German word “entkleiden” appears, which means to undress or disrobe. At times it becomes difficult to keep my eyes from darting back and forth between the screens even as what appears and then, reappears, feels more familiar and mundane than alarming.
Short video clips of various Black artists anchor this visual cacophony. In one scene, Denzel Washington laughs before disarming a gun-toting antagonist in the film The Equalizer. In another, an interview of Nina Simone in which the late musician and Civil Rights icon eats near a window while she speaks, assumedly, to an interviewer off screen flashes on different monitors. As she finishes her meal, Simone emphatically declares to the camera that “if I had my way, I’d have been a killer.” Writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins lectures her offscreen audience on the necessity of cultivating a Black interiority, resisting the polarity of the uncomplicated characterizations of the saint or the sinner that can plague Black representation within a larger mainstream media apparatus.
How then do we really see Black people, Orupabo seems to ask? And what institutional legacies (i.e. colonialism) inform this act of seeing? What Orupabo puts forth as a type of answer to this inquiry is the outline of a Black subjectivity that resists the spectacular or exceptional even as it dares to articulate counternarratives. In this way, I am reminded of Martine Syms’s 2013 “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” which argues for the need for a new set of speculative tools with which to imagine futurity. The Mundane Afrofuturist recognizes, among many things, “the opportunity to make sense of the nonsense that regularly—and sometimes violently—accents black life,” a poetic position I am inclined to also see as an important undercurrent of Orupabo’s thesis.
It is within this context that Orupabo’s untitled video work becomes a centerpiece for the photocollages that comprise the remainder of the tightly curated exhibition. Pulling again from found images—historical and contemporaneous—as well as those from her personal archive, she creates new figurative forms and images using this material. Fragmentary and repetitive, her figures greet the viewer in the most deceptive of ways; without close examination, it becomes easy to miss the questions looming above the very thing itself. What to make of a constant, pervading—and thus, dare I say banal? —threat of the nightmare that is surveillance, harm, death as it relates to Black life? What kind of lives have Black people fashioned in spite of this? Or, perhaps asked in another way, how do Black people see themselves?
Orupabo’s images are often of Black women in particular and spending time in the exhibition is akin to peering behind a veil as we encounter their imagined subjectivities. The women in these new images are never truly recognizable, and it is clear that the artist understands the potency of this blurred potentiality to remark upon patterns of black sociality and images that live beyond the all-seeing, all knowing panopticon. She is, after all, trained as a sociologist in the digital era. Her manipulation of the photograph through cutting, pasting, and re-arranging becomes a strategy for “making sense of the nonsense.”
In one black-and-white photocollage (all works are untitled from 2018), a Black woman dressed in a large white skirt is seated, breastfeeding a small child in her left arm. Another scene features a large, rooster figure whose feathers are outspread as if ready for attack. The animal is directing its attention at the figure of a woman whose eyes are closed as if she is resting in temporal bliss.
Towards the back of the gallery hangs a C-print of a woman whose back is turned from the camera. She is draped in all white and the left side of her body is exposed as flames engulf her feet. Whose gaze does she reject? To whom or what do her eyes look toward instead?