Frida Orupabo, Frida Orupabo

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim (here). Hardcover (20.2 × 28.9 cm), 152 pages, with 80 color illustrations. Includes texts by Stefanie Hessler, Lola Olufemi, and Legacy Russell. Design by NODE Berlin Oslo. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The first monograph by the Norwegian-Nigerian visual artist Frida Orupabo, simply titled Frida Orupabo, was just released on the occasion of her exhibition “How did you feel when you come out of the wilderness” at Kunsthall Trondheim in Norway. Orupabo’s main medium is collage, both physical and digital, and she creatively uses it to expose how people are shaped by power structures. “I am interested in how we see things – such as race, sexuality, gender, family, and motherhood.” She describes her practice as an unearthing of the archive, “the interaction and clash between past and present, self-representation and imposed representation.”

Orupabo was raised in a small town in southern Norway, where she and her sister were the only mixed-race children (her father is Nigerian and her mother is Norwegian), and their identity was constantly questioned. “I felt for a very long time that I was unable to speak. The only thing I had was my eyes and my anger. Anger is a form of resistance.” Orupabo got her master’s degree in sociology, and wrote her thesis on racism and gender. It opened up a completely new world to her – she learned about medical experiments performed on female slaves without any anesthetic in the 19th century, and a racist human zoo that Norway hosted at the World Fair in 1914 that brought 80 Africans to the Norwegian capital. It also gave her a unique way to perceive visual arts. In 2005, she got her first computer and started working with digital collages. 

Her photobook has a striking cover; it is a collage figure made of several fragments – stretched legs, torso, arms, a hand pointing a gun, and the head of a man with a tumor around neck. Placed against a white background, it immediately stands out and signals the uneasy content of the book. The monograph opens with a collection of archival images placed against black backgrounds, giving us a sense of the visual raw material the artist is reworking, with most of the images coming from searching various online platforms (like eBay, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc). These pages are then followed by a collection of essays which provide context for Orupabo’s practice and place her work within Black visual culture, the archive, and digital space.

Orupabo creates individual collage figures from various fragments (legs, hair, arms, a shoe, a pregnant belly) and uses paper pins to connect them, exposing different layers of the composition. These pins also act as scars, reminding us that colonialism can’t simply be repaired. The figures look like dolls; they are also intentionally disturbing. Most of her figures represent Black female bodies, yet they often have a combination of both male and female body parts, deliberately questioning gender categories. Orupado’s collages are placed against expansive white backgrounds, making them stand out. Most spreads have just one collage, inviting us to look closer, and occasionally there is a combination of figures.

Orupabo’s figures are seen smiling, kneeling, lying down, giving birth, and almost always gazing back at the viewer with unimpressed self-assurance. A figure of a woman in a dress holds a baby with the head of a grown up man, and both of them look directly at us. The collage is paired with a pixelated photo of a boy with deformed mouth, overlaid with an image of a hand holding a gun. Another composition features a reclining woman with a baby in her belly, both looking at us, with her shoes placed next to her. There is also a figure of a woman’s head resting on her hands held together in prayer, her blank eyes are slightly red, and a hair comb, often seen as a important political emblem, touches her face. Other awkward figures are seen resting in bed, a striking metaphor for recovering after going through traumatic events, as inspired by the words of the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah.

The archive of images Orupabo uses were mostly created from a position of power, and they are full of misrepresentations, omissions, and absences. As Deborah Willis and Carla Williams observe in “The Black Female Body: A Photographic History”, depictions of the Black female body in the 19th-century often had colonialism, scientific evolution, or sexuality as their subtext.

There is little to no information about the people documented in these archives. As Orupabo removes the images from their original contexts, she cuts, reassembles, and repositions them, and through this act, she gives them a new life, maybe even repairs them, and asks the viewer to look at them again. She asks us to consider what we see and how we see. What are the social and political structures that influence that vision? Most of the figures stare directly back at us, provoking discomfort and engaging in a dialogue. They challenge our gaze, and the white gaze in particular, and its perception of Black bodies.

Orupabo’s work brings to mind other artists who have used collage to reassemble bodies, often examining themes of race, identity, and gender politics. Romare Bearden used collage to depict African American life, its struggles, but also its joys and humanity. More recently, Deborah Roberts also employs mixed media collage, and is particularly concerned with challenges faced by Black women and girls.

As a photobook, Frida Orupabo is an unpretentious and subtly elegant publication, directing our attention to its striking content. Through her collages, Orupabo reclaims the gaze of Black subjects, and challenges the stereotypes of what it means to be a Black woman. She makes the archive current, and uses it to address ongoing struggles. 

Collector’s POV: Frida Orupabo is represented by Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Amsterdam (here). Her 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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