On Saturday October 3rd, an exhibition of drawings by Wura Natasha Ogunji and ruby onyinyechi amanze titled Magic opened in Lagos at Omenka gallery. It was accompanied by a spectacular drawing performance which the small crowd found more interesting than they had expected. This was not the first collaborative performance by the two artists who enjoys working together to explore similar but independent themes.
In light of this ongoing exhibition, Bukola Oye of The Sole Adventurer (TSA) interviews ruby and Wura on their drawings, multicultural backgrounds, and other areas of their work.
TSA: When was the first time you had an exhibition together and what led to this collaboration?
Wura: Our first joint exhibition was no one belongs here more than you, at the Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos. ruby exhibited drawings she had created as part of her Fulbright Fellowship, and I displayed images of several performances created with a Guggenheim Grant. At that time we also started performing together.
TSA: How often do you have a drawing performance together, like you did at Omenka gallery? And how are you able to move simultaneously when drawing together?
Wura: Our first drawing performance was at the MoCADA, Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Art in New York. This was part of the exhibition Six Draughtsmen which included six Nigerian women artists using drawing in their work. We created a performance entitled Twin. We were connected at the wrist and were making mirrored drawings onto a large sheet of plexiglas that separated us from the audience. In terms of moving simultaneously while drawing together, there’s a kind of kinesthetic response that happens so even if you’re not looking at the person you have a sense of where they are in the space and can move in tandem or riff off of what they are doing.
TSA: Do you practice before the performance or is this spontaneous?
Wura: We talk and look and move around the space. We set up the conditions for the actions, but the performance is always a fresh and new occurrence.
ruby: Yeah, our movements are never choreographed. At this point, we’ve done quite a few performances together- though not all drawing related. And we correspond about drawing/life almost daily. So there’s a trust there- of each other and also of our own movements. We’re also interested in similar things when it comes to performance drawing- like endurance, mark making and tension. It’s very much about being in that moment.
TSA: When you work together, do you agree on same themes and subjects or work individually?
Wura: We work independently. There are, of course, intersections and resonances between the work which is why we thought it important to exhibit together, but the creative spaces that we each create in our studios are completely separate and independent. At the same time there are moments when similar ideas or questions appear in both of our drawings or one person might create a piece from something the other person talked about.
TSA: You mentioned in other narratives you consider the works you create an escape from identity issues arising from a multicultural background, How has this opened up discourse for people in similar situations?
ruby: It’s not so much an escape. When you feel free, there’s nothing to escape from. People can always find some topic to relate to identity- particularly when you’re a person of color. The work for me just isn’t about that anymore. Yes, it began as a way to explore my multicultural background, but it’s become it’s own thing now. And personally, I no longer have angst about being from many places. It feels perfectly normal actually.
I think the work is definitely participating in opening up a conversation about hybridity…which is exciting to me. There have been many times, when I’ve met someone at an opening who feels a sincere and personal connection to the story I’m telling. There are many versions of the story, but I think in an overarching way, that people like to just know that it’s being told. Even at the Omenka opening, someone approached Wura and I and said that they understood it and that we understood them. We’d never met them before, but those types of connections happen frequently and are always touching and invaluable.
TSA: Do you address these subjects with a sense of responsibility to represent a larger group?
ruby: I’m not sure I’m trying to represent a larger group. There’s so much nuance. I acknowledge that one exists and I feel a kinship there…almost a validation. But when I sit down to draw, it’s not coming from that place. It’s not even really coming from my own story anymore. The “group” is intrinsically connected. We find ourselves. I don’t feel a need to take that mission as it were, to the drawing board. It’s there already, but it’s subtle.
TSA: What are the connections between humans and the particular animals used in creating your hybrids, including the plants infused in the landscapes?
ruby: The humans and animals are one visual way for me to convey hybridity. I like that I didn’t invent it. I appreciate its historical references from the sphinx to mermaids to many other mythological appearances. To me they always feel other worldly, but also relatable because we know both halves of the hybrid and recognize them as living creatures. The choice of the animals varies, but they all have stories behind them. For example, the pigeon was to personify Pidgin English and also to represent the kind of freedom birds have. The plants are a symbol of domestic stability or permanence. They’re the opposite of nomadism.
TSA: I realized some other elements you play on as metaphor in your works are only different on the surface but represent similar things when examined closely and in relation to the other. An example is Wura’s infusion of music as a global element of connection and flying birds connoting no boundaries. Ruby uses webs and connecting lines For same purpose. Which other symbols can you share with us and what do they imply?
Wura: I understand what you are seeing, though my own starting point for the two examples of music and the birds is quite different. I’m not interested in the global or symbolic per se. In terms of audio and the presence of the dj and also Soundman in another work, I was really interested in creating a visual language from the sonic…so that on the page, in the drawing itself, there could be a kind of communication between characters that had a similar weight that sound does in the real world. It started with the visual. With Sound Man and the Sea, the dj has his hands on the ocean and sits across the page from an Ife head. To make a sound mix with the ocean…that can mean so many things. I think about our relationship to history, memory, physical landscapes and locations. The sound wave is a vibration, much in the same way that we humans are. Sound transforms, takes us to another place. And what do we mean when we say that? What is that place? Are we experiencing a kind of time travel? The thing about symbols is that they fix meaning; they make it easy for people to understand or know. And the world is not actually easy in that way.
ruby: I agree. I think that we do pull from certain things that have meaning to us, but that meaning varies in its abstraction or clarity. And it’s not necessarily important for it to reach the viewer in the way that it first came to us. It’s not that things are intentionally convoluted to exclude people. It’s just that they evolve in the process. And like Wura said, the world is not easy in this simplistic way. So much happens in between….things morph and lose or gain meaning. They go off on tangents where they meet other “symbols” and become other things. Symbols in a traditional sense feel like a puzzle that one can piece together. Some of the piecing together for me is purely a visual decision. Or because it’s raining or because it’s Wednesday. In that sense, the puzzle becomes less about x + y = z and more about the often simple, yet meandering journey that they all took together.
TSA: What about the upside down images? Do they have same meaning on both sides?
Wura: In my work you may be referring to the piece Even the dj must die. [I thought he was just flying backwards.] The orientation of the dj is very important to the work. If he were the other way around he would probably be falling. Your observation of upside down images is important because we’re both changing the way we look at space as well as experimenting with different kinds of spatial and architectural orientations. The worlds we are creating aren’t fixed.
ruby: Similarly for me, I’m interested in reorienting the space we understand as the world. I think of space as being malleable and fluid, so if something appears upside down or otherwise disoriented, it’s playing with the idea that the planes and dimensions we exist in can all shift.
TSA: To Wura, “River” seems to carry more tension considering how migration happens in recent times. Can you share how it connects with the other works in Magic?
Wura: River definitely feels different than the rest and certainly has a relationship to the current context of global migrations and movements, especially these recent waves of people navigating the sea to cross into Europe. But, when I first drew the figure into the piece I thought he would be falling through the space of the paper [as if someone might fall in love or fall with complete trust, a gentle–though perhaps slightly precarious–kind of falling]. When I stepped back from the work I thought, Oh, no, the dj is dead. Or maybe sleeping. I still don’t know. Then the river emerged. I made Three Birds after that. It’s the same person, holding the birds, clouds moving overhead. Perhaps the dj is just floating down the river. Many of these drawings are about these impossible contradictions that life presents: beauty from trauma; the co-existence of tragedy and possibility; how difficult questions cause us to expand our capacity to love and create. Nothing is ever concretely as it seems. Even our perceptions are in constant flux.
TSA: Going to techniques, you both work with paper, do you draw on other surfaces? And does the use of paper have underlying messages connected with the illustrations? For instance, the fragility of the type of paper Wura uses. There was a discussion on this at the exhibition opening.
Wura: I use tracing paper, the kind that architects use for preliminary drawings. I love the way the thread looks against it and the way the large sheets of paper move against the wall. It can appear fragile but it also has a weight to it. When I’m working on the drawings, especially when I’m sewing into the paper and because of it’s translucency, it feels quite filmic, as if I’m creating one cell of a filmstrip. We can talk about the meanings of the paper, but for me, it’s about a simple love of the material.
ruby: I studied textiles and photography in undergrad and fell in love with the process of both. Dying and overdying fabric or submersing paper from one chemical bath to another. The surfaces hold such memory of the actions- they remember the scratched film or that certain knots weren’t as tight as others so the dye could move through them more easily. My choice of paper stems from that. It’s like a fabric in that sense. It has a fiber and a grain and is a natural, once living material. It feels vulnerable in that way. That it can hold or remember every single mark (even if you can’t see the trace of it) like skin. But it’s also very strong. I draw on 100% cotton. It’s heavy and delicate all at once.
TSA: This particular question is unavoidable at this time in the history of globalization. What are your views on borders, boundaries and the slowly dissolving concept of a singular ‘national’ identity?
ruby: Hmmm….this one is tricky to answer. I think borders are imaginary lines that people arbitrarily, or very precisely draw in the sand. They’re not imaginary to the people who fight over them or who have theirs encroached upon, but in the drawing sense of a line, they’re entirely constructed/made up. So a car, bus or person can be in Pennsylvania one second and in New Jersey the next…or maybe in the case of walking, both at the same time. What does that even really mean? Singular national identities, I think are becoming obsolete.
TSA: Which other narratives do you explore with your art?
ruby: Play. The narrative of invention and freedom.
Wura: In my performance work I’m very interested in the physicality of the body, pushing that physicality, and endurance. These narratives also enter the drawings.
TSA: Aside collaborating on Magic, which other projects are you working on presently? Any exhibition coming up soon?
ruby: I’ll be in a group show called “A Constellation” that opens at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York on November 11th 2015. I’m also preparing for a solo called SALTWATER that will open at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on November 19th, 2015.
Wura: I’m in the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition DISGUISE: Masks and Global African Art which opens at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles on October 17. I was commissioned to create a performance for the show that riffs off of Egungun. I also be doing a performance called The Kissing Mask at the opening.
Interview cover collage: ruby’s image courtesy her web page, Wura’s image courtesy austin360.com