Frida Orupabo: Closed Up Like a Fist @Nicola Vassell

JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 photographic works, generally framed in white, and hung against light grey walls in the main gallery space, the connecting hallway, and the three smaller back rooms. 15 of the works are collages with paper and pins, made in 2022. Physical sizes range from roughly 43×35 to 87×62 inches (or the reverse), and all of these works are unique. The remaining work is a diptych of inkjet prints on cotton rag archival paper, made in 2022. Each print is sized roughly 33×47 inches, and the work is also unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past few years, we’ve started to see long overdue changes in how the art world views and understands Black artists and photographers. And as the interest in a wider range of Black stories has grown (regardless of artistic medium), we’ve seen many Black artists pushing harder against the embedded stereotypes, prejudices, and outright racism that remain present in their lives. Some have tried to actively reclaim Black joy, infusing their works with the positivity and acceptance that has often been left out of the Black narrative. Others have felt more empowered to dig further into the dark traumas of Black life, unearthing horrors that have been deliberately overlooked, those both rooted in the historical days of colonialism and slavery and alive in our contemporary moment right now.

The photocollage form is a particularly appropriate and effective vehicle for some of these more troubling emotional excavations, as it inherently allows and encourages the creative juxtaposition and reuse of potent archival imagery, while simultaneously introducing a sense of abstracted artistic distance. And in just a few short years, Frida Orupabo has quickly established herself as a leading voice in this area of Black art making. Building on her excellent 2021 photobook (reviewed here) and the Norwegian museum show it accompanied, this show brings us up to speed on her most recent works.

I’ll acknowledge up front that as a white male viewer, I may not feel all the same nuances that a Black woman might when confronted by these works, but that in no way diminishes the power of what’s on the walls – these collages are raw and commanding, in ways that most will (and should) find unsettling. Essentially all these works depict a Black woman in conflict with herself – some are quite literal, with constructed depictions of self stabbings and suicides, while others more carefully skirt the edges of various psychologies and allegories, recreating tales and wounds of the past. Seen as a group, the collages are elegant in their deliberate awkwardness, profoundly unnerving, and in many cases quietly (or desperately) empowered, offering stylized scenes of tragedy and injury that bite with consistent astringency.

All of Orupabo’s collages have heads of anonymous Black women (in black-and-white, from unnamed archival sources) as their central feature. The facial expressions of these women are most often grimly Stoic, as though resigned, haunted, blank, or simply readying themselves for the next trauma that is sure to come. Orupabo then surrounds these faces with a selection of mismatched body parts, creating marionette-like figures that seem to thrum with uneasy tension. Set against blank white backdrops that offer no comfort or context, Orupabo’s women act out their small internal vignettes, wrestling with their own demons. “Closed Up Like a Fist”, the title of the show, feels like an altogether appropriate characterization of the prevailing mood.

Several of Orupabo’s works revolve around childhood motifs, in some cases, in rebellion against their resonances. In one image, a woman’s head is seen behind the rails of a white chair, with her orange hair flowing out in front of her; a small stuffed bear sits nearby, but her gaze through the bars is what grabs our attention – she’s ready to move on from what binds her. The same might be said for a more overtly angry young woman, who steps on a two-headed (one white/one black) doll like she’s grinding out a cigarette with her foot; her blocky body and arm holds what seems like a handbag, but the look in her eye says she’s neither prim nor playing around. And in a third work, a woman contemplates a hobby horse toy, but her exaggerated cartoon breasts and adult legs have clearly long ago left childhood behind, making the encounter almost wistful.

Many of the other collages on view find Orupabo’s composite women performing in one way or another. One woman with inexplicable green shoes seems to pose in a forced attempt at being proper, while another sits in judgement, with a straight back and closed hands. Two collages feature women with doubled faces, one depicting two-faced friendship (and the complexity or split personality that might imply), the other featuring a bride in a white wedding dress with two faces, the many roles of marriage collapsed into one uneasy figure. Still others seem to have reached their limit with this playacting – one blank-faced woman sitting “Without Guilt”, and another staring us down with a distended “Bellyfull” of either pregnancy or swallowed injustice.

Orupabo’s pinned figures regularly push beyond realism, and a few edge even further toward allegory. One woman flies away from us, carried by the dark imposing wings of a bat, while a second offers us an apple, while dressed in the breeches and hat of a man. Both hint at age old stories or magical mysteries, reinterpreted by Orupabo with Black faces and unknown possibilities.

Two other works strip away this narrative artifice, and instead offer the bluntness of female self-harm and suicide. One woman, again with cartoon curves and black shoes, drives a knife into her belly with emphatic action, her face largely turned away from us, perhaps in despair or agony. But another confronts us directly as she stabs herself, making the tragedy of her action much more knowing and deliberate; she’s been dressed in ill-fitting harlequin clothes, but has refused to be demeaned by the costume. In both case, the works feel like a dramatic but purposeful ending, where the woman has reached her breaking point and actively chosen to go no further.

In the end, this is a jangly, intense show, filled with anxious contrasts and overt conflicts. Beauty and ugliness continually jostle for dominance in Orupabo’s collages, and importantly, that tension never quite resolves. We’re left with a set of disembodied and reconstructed Black women who fight and struggle, and whose various traumas persistently rise to the surface. Rich in psychological nuance, the best of these collages echo with ferocity, probing the troubled intersection of strength and violence.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $20000 and $38000, based on size. Orupabo’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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