Zohra Opoku | There Are Rules For a New Existence
Zohra Opoku is under pressure. The ambidextrous artist races against a studio clock in Accra that’s ticking toward the debut of her series, Harmattan Tales, on January 18, 2018 in Seattle, and the simultaneous departure of her friend and gallerist Mariane Ibrahim, whose gallery will house the exhibition. Acknowledging the constraints imposed by the dwindling hours, she does not mind using one of them to try to articulate her place between the varied worlds—Germany, Ghana, Brazil, the white walls of the gallery circuit—that she inhabits. In the language(s) of Opoku (she maintains fluency in four of them, though she admits her Portuguese is “not as good”), countries like her native Germany, reconnected Ghana, and spiritual Brazil are worlds. Women rule these worlds. And textiles do the talking.
The essential tools of her trade—fabric, cameras, installation, and impassioned political commentary—reveal her multiple identities now. She’s more than happy to dispel blanket ignorance of “Africa as a country” as she traces the roots of the past up to their conflicted fruit, borne in the present. As a black woman, I too am deeply interested in what the hell happened “back there” and what the hell is happening “right now.” Opoku holds down the present reality of a place practically rendered fantastical for many. A part of me is envious that Opoku is not descended from African- American slaves, that I too can’t trace my roots as directly as she can to a square of the vibrant patchwork that is Africa. But imagining that any specific African country’s culture is somehow more “pure” than my own is a dangerous line of thinking and a prime jumping-off point into an Ancestry.com rabbit hole.
Opoku is all too familiar with such identity crises. The pressure to explore beyond (but not deny) her mother’s German identity and to lean into her father’s Ghanaian-Ashanti royal lineage offered her the difficult muse of adjacent identities in perpetual political conflict. She was neither here nor there. Displaced from the inside out, she comments on where others place her on the complexion spectrum, staring from the outside in.
“When I was coming to Ghana, I wanted to just be seen as ‘African.’ I felt like, ‘I’ve done Germany, I can’t do this anymore.’ So I thought Ghana must be the solution, because being here was working with my voice,” she says. “And then I came here and I think things started out in the opposite because I’m a fair lady. So I’m picked out here in Ghana because I’m white and then in Germany I was also picked out because I’m black. I can be one person here and another person there, reflecting the identity crisis of our world.”
Making the best use of a masters in fashion from the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Opoku reacted to the “culture shock” of stepping into a volatile political climate, still unsettled by the response to the communist regime in Ghana, by working fabric that simultaneously holds together and tears apart a society—women’s fabric. The women, specifically, are Muslim, a group which Opoku did not feel specifically connected to before she completed her recent self-portrait series, which shows herself shrouded in the traditional textiles of Hausa women. “I see women as the future and as the energy moving the political system, because we are all born of women,” she tells me. “This is Mother Earth, not Father Earth, so we have to focus on what is actually helping us.” I imagine her looking at a mirrored clock and seeing Nina Simone, whom she quotes now, staring back at her. “An artist is someone who reflects the happenings of our time, being, but also embracing, what happens around us.”
As social media war cries like #MeToo and #TimesUp evolve into change movements IRL, Opoku gifts us a truly accurate reflection of our present in her future exhibition. It’s a present riddled with xenophobic policies targeting Muslims around the world and in these Untied States. I’m still left slack- jawed from the night of November 8, 2016 when I think of our unfair policy- maker in Chief; a barely-elected, mutant oompa-loompah, psycho dick-tating, travel ban-enforcing...
“In the States you are confronting Trump’s handling of immigration in the country, and now the Muslim community and most of us are not welcome anymore,” Opoku says. “That’s interesting, because now I’m working in the Muslim community in Ghana, and it has become more personal.”
In the self-portraits series that weave together Harmattan Tales, the effect of seeing the veiled woman up-close and highly personal, as Opoku observed Muslim women in public mosques and in their private homesteads, is euphoric. She describes the aesthetic as utopian, but the chemical rust (due to the aftermath of an imagined dustocalypse) could encapsulate a nearing dystopian future. Vivid colors worn by Hausa women are dyed the slate gray of concrete cityscapes the world over. On screen-printed cotton—what she calls “the fabric of our lives”—Opoku presents Muslim women standing in the front. They’ve always been there. We just haven’t been looking.
There’s a small miscommunication. We request recent pieces from the series of “self-portraits,” not knowing that we were already in possession of them, that Opoku is the obscured figure depicted in the images we have on hand. I suspect I’ve picked up on a rule: her self-portrait is never singular. For Opoku, picture day comes with entire jungles full of props. It has to be wisteria dangling in her eyes, branches cutting into shadows thrown by her features, almond eyes peering through an intricately cut veil. The longer I look, the more I want to know the individual representing the feminine manifold in these photos. I have to ask, but of course it’s still her. Without encroaching upon the “unknowable identities,” she’s every woman. And every woman is she.
Written by Kara Powell