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'Sassa' at Gallery 1957 in Ghana: An interview with Zohra Opoku

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Zohra Opoku's exhibition 'Sassa' opens next week (10th June) at the new Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana, following a month-long residency with the cultural research platform ANO. Titled 'Sassa', the exhibition exapnds across installation, performance and lens-based media, exploring the role of textile culture in the materialisation of concepts beyond the individual’s corporeal reality.

 AA Newsletter June02 Opoku1Zohra Opoku, detail of Ivellise, 2012. C-Prints, 110 x 65 cm. All images courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra.

ART AFRICA: Please could you tell us about your upcoming solo-exhibition ‘Sassa’ at Gallery 1957? 

Zohra Opoku: In being identified as German, Afro-German, African, Ghanaian, Obroni and Asante all at once, I´ve learnt to live like a Chameleon, and that has influenced my work a lot. What I want to express is how positively it can be used to search for belonging, and to blend in, or even disappear. My father was a chief in his town and he had a role which can normally only be elected by a Queenmother. Whilst growing up, the roles of the women raising me (my mother and grandmother for instance) have always been very fixed, and strong. On the other hand, the men who were raising me did not seem quite as stable, the ‘father’ roles were blurry. That was the motivation behind why I wanted to dig deeper into understanding the role of Queenmothers, and how their position is determined in a community. I made a research trip to the Asante region and visited and photographed four Queenmothers in different areas. 

In addition to this narrative, I am also presenting a series of self-portrait screenprints, to demonstrate an element of self-reflection. For similar reasons, I explore representations of my family in the sculptural series 'body masks', where I have created figures of my family: My Mother(My Mother), My Father(My Grandfather), X-Ray Mask(My Stepfather), Agbagba Mask(me) and Batakari Chair(My Home).

AA Newsletter June02 Opoku6Zohra Opoku, Rhododendron, 2015. C-Prints, 147 x 110 cm.

Please tell us more about the residency that led up to this exhibition? How did your experiences there inform the work?

The residency was led by ANO – the Ghanaian Cultural Research Centre founded by Nana Oforiatta Ayim, who is also the creative director of Gallery 1957. The research I did on my residency generated some new material for the show. The idea was that they would complement the narrative that I had already created with the works of my family and my self-portraits. 

I found particular inspiration in the conversations with the Queenmothers, who hold so much power in the matriarchal system of the Asante region; and this is also asserted and identified through their dresses – which is another important element of my work. The fabrics used become a carrier of meaning in these systems, and that really appealed to me. I spoke with them about their responsibilities and how they came into this position. The results are seen in a series of portraits which I processed naturally onto bed sheets - given by my grandmother from Germany - under the Ghanaian sun.

AA Newsletter June02 Opoku3Zohra Opoku, detail of Nana Afia Serwaa Bonsu I, Appiadu Hemaah, 2016. Cyanotype on bedsheet, 186 x 124 cm. 

According to the press release, your work examines the role of textile culture in the materialization of concepts beyond the individual’s corporeal reality, between “this notion of the unseen and the immanent.” Please elaborate on this?

The traditions of African culture can be read through clothing; the designs of the fabric have meaning containing wisdom, philosophies, and a myriad of histories. At any point in time, clothes can tell us who a person is, where they are from, their social status, and even what their spiritual beliefs are.

This lead me, for instance, to the portrait series 'Textures', where I illuminate the identity of an artist, by subverting the wardrobe of the subject. The clothes and accessories become the working material, draping and disguising the subject in order to bring to light the energy of that person.  

You completed an MA in Fashion from the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in 2003. From your experience as an artist living and working in both Ghana and Germany, what role do you believe fashion plays in relation to not only African history, but your own individualistic or societal identity?

Through my studies, I have been able to articulate my innate familial connection to Ghanaian symbolism, and traditionally produced cloth - such as the Kente cloth which continuously inspires me. I also love to be driven by my natural environment in Ghana – which feels so much like home to me. Being here raises questions concerning how we define our ‘selves.’ It emphasizes for me the fluidity of identity and the joy of culture. This manifests in my work through images with backgrounds of rich vegetation, colorful dresses, billboards and paintings on wood.

In terms of wider African history, my exploration of fashion and textile has been eye-opening in many ways. A while back, I started to film and photograph clotheslines; I considered how these clothes represented an individual person, whilst also gaining insight into how society works behind the fences and walls of private homes. I also developed THE BILLBOARDPROJECT, which explored the effects of the import of Second-hand garments to Africa. These multiple large-scale installations on billboards around various places in Accra, featured compositions of garments from the Accra market, exposing the phenomenon of foreign fashion imports.

AA Newsletter June02 Opoku5Zohra Opoku, Ndjaga, 2012. C-Prints, 110 x 65 cm.

How do you believe new spaces such as Gallery 1957 will impact the arts in Ghana?

There is nowhere else that is a bigger inspiration for me - and through the growth of places such as Gallery 1957, Ghanaian artists are finding they can establish their careers here. It is enabling Ghanaian artists to position themselves on the art market, which will also help them to connect with international platforms to progress their careers.

'Sassa' will be on show at Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana between 10 June - 01 August 2016.

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