Wura-Natasha Ogunji: The epic crossings of an Ife head

Women & Their Work

Kimberli Gant

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, My father and I dance in outer space (still), 2010; digital video; courtesy the artist, Darcie Book and Women & Their Work, Austin

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, City of Ife, 2010; thread, acrylic, colored pencil on paper; 14 x 12 1/2 inches; courtesy the artist and Women & Their Work, Austin; photo by Wura-Natasha Ogunji

Equal parts history lesson, autobiography and spiritual journey, multimedia artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s The epic crossings of an Ife head poetically explores African and African Diasporic pasts. The title references the portrait busts of the Ife, a kingdom that ruled in southwestern Nigeria from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries as well as their Yoruba descendants. Ogunji connects to Africa through multiple narratives, including the historic dispersal of African objects and peoples across the globe.

Ogunji’s use of evocative titles continues in two small paper works and one video, all named My father and I dance in outer space. The reference to her Nigerian father forms a bridge to her ancestral culture. Despite the partnership that the title implies, the video shows Ogunji dancing alone in a desert landscape. Even stranger, the video, a tightly edited compilation of still photographs put to sound, never shows Ogunji touching her feet to the ground. Along with other supernatural aspects—like Ogunji’s face, which is painted with the striations common to Ife portrait busts—the artist’s depicted weightlessness is perhaps a reference to the spiritual nature of many Yoruba objects. Accordingly, though Ogunji leaves her father unpictured, he may be present as an ancestral spirit; this idea also appears in the painting Ballast where, according to the exhibition brochure, the goddess-like central figure refers to Ogunji’s paternal grandmother.

Ogunji’s recent forays into painting and drawing, which take up the gallery’s main room, further reference Ife aesthetic forms. Three life-size works on paper portray figures communicating with spirits. Painted mostly in white, the spirits appear as masks or partial bodies (again marked with the Ife striations) floating in space over the solid human silhouettes painted in broad, almost gestural strokes. In front of these works, viewers are drawn into Ogunji’s themes of communication, memory, history, transformation and connection. Closer inspection reveals elegant details rendered with colored pencil, charcoal and woven thread. Such shifts in detailing force viewers to step back or move in close, and no vantage point allows one to apprehend any painting in its entirety. It seems that just as Ogunji’s metaphorical journey to Africa is partial, tentative and constantly shifting, so is her audience’s experience of her paintings.

Ogunji’s figures floating through space may also indicate the influence of Afrofuturism, an ethos and aesthetic that posits a confluence of science, space, time and mysticism—with an additional component of Afrocentrism—to confront the contemporary and historical plights of Africans and the diaspora (think Sun Ra, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Octavia Butler). Ogunji’s self-reflection on her African heritage is a tactic that Afrofuturists and other artists have used since the early part of the twentieth century. Many artists, like Aaron Douglas during the Harlem Renaissance, Howardena Pindell in the 1980s and younger artists like Chris Ofili, adopted a methodology of ancestral remembrance in their work. Ogunji’s series thus also serves as a metaphor for a collective longing to know one’s heritage.

Though Ogunji’s interweaving of ancestry and spiritualism is understated and effective, her art-historical appropriation could use some strengthening. Despite the prominent role of Ife sculpture indicated by the show’s title, Ogunji’s use of their aesthetics remains limited to her striation motif and an abstract spiritual and ritualistic quality.1 Consequently, her reference to this sophisticated ancient culture comes across as superficial. In spite of this weakness, Ogunji’s work is beautiful, and her attempt to subtly evoke several themes at once and show how they each feed into each other is novel and compelling.

Kimberli Gant is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin and an independent curator specializing in the art of the African diaspora.

This exhibition will be on view through February 17, 2011.

1. For further information, please consult Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, Henry John Drewal and Enid Schildkrout (University of Washington Press, 2010).

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