Woman with book / Woman with snake
Exploring questions of race, gender, culture, class, and their complex intersections, Frida Orupabo fuses together varied sources of archival materials to question colonial and modern representations of Black womanhood. Positioned on the façade of a Victorian-era building, monumental images by the Oslo-based, Nigerian Norwegian artist portray Black women’s bodies as sites of knowledge and empowerment.
Combining fragments of photographs sourced from digital and analogue media, Orupabo’s recent body of work, After Hours (2020), attempts to reconcile subjective experiences by examining the politics of care, childbirth, and mothering. Through an intricate process of collecting images and in-depth research, the artist explores power dynamics, especially the systems that undermine agency and propagate misogynoir—hatred and prejudice directed toward Black women. The first work in Orupabo’s two-part project is Woman with book (2020), which derives from this broader series and signalled a new direction in her practice exploring the (mis)treatment of Black female bodies.
Positioned on the north façade of 460 King Street West, Woman with book subverts the suppression of power and opens a dialogue with its surroundings. While holding a large, red book, the woman rests her foot on a stone plate overlaid with a painting by Francis Bacon. The pressure and restraint evoked in this juxtaposition suggests the dismantling of class; it also functions as a compositional strategy that more broadly references bodily form and physicality. Both propositions are open to interpretation.
The second collage, Woman with snake (2021), was created specifically for this project. With a tightly clenched fist, a woman wearing pirate attire stands beside a slithering snake. Her composure is calm and her stance is confident as she challenges the viewer, as though poised to negotiate, debate, or attack. Full of symbolism, the scene encompasses notions of transformation, healing, death, and destruction.
The women in these two images upend the use of knowledge as a tool of authority within both historical and contemporary paradigms. They assert a commanding sense of control as their agency is symbolically and literally heightened on the building. Referencing personal and political narratives to resist structures of disempowerment, Orupabo attends to the writing of herstory—recognizing and empowering women.
As large-format murals on the façade of a heritage building that has performed many different roles over the years, the layered elements of Orupabo’s compositions echo the site’s layers of history. Originally called the Garment District, the area formerly known for its “rag trade” now comprises entertainment and creative industries. Over the years, the building has functioned as a private home, sundry hotel, and global youth hostel; in the 1950s and 1960s, its “Cabana Room” was a notorious meeting place. Disrupting common conceptions of whose bodies belong where and why, Orupabo’s collages are likewise a fusion of histories, but they are built on her own terms. Offering new readings that both acknowledge and destabilize historically destructive forces against women, her works aim to shift perceptions and understandings of intersecting identities. Occupying the framework of a billboard in public space, Orupabo powerfully asserts Black womanhood, self-determination, and the construction of knowledge within the fabric of the city.
The first part of Orupabo’s work, Woman with book, will be on view until October 31, 2021; the second part, Woman with snake, will be on view for the 2022 Festival (dates TBC).
Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein