The view from Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s second-floor room facing the harbour in Aspinwall House comes at a cost. In the absence of a breeze, it gets oppressively hot. When the sea air does break in on occasion, however, the space and her works seem to breathe.
The four panel threadworks that line the walls nearly touch the floor. Created on architectural trace paper, they billow and ripple in the breeze – lending the illusion of movement to the images. A gold-inked cheetah seems to run even as a hummingbird flies backwards. The movements of the two animals balance each other, justifying the work’s title Ballast.
On the facing wall, two Ife heads – sculptures from the ancient Nigerian city of Yoruba – that are sown out of the paper with fluorescent thread peer across the expanse of water in View from Atlantis. “It is perhaps apt that they have landed in this seaport city. The sea is a space of futures and possibility. Not only Kochi, but also Muziris – a city waiting to become, a place found, not fully excavated, in constant historical motion,” Ogunji said.
Her space, like the sea, is a place of possibilities and connections. It speaks to the ability of art to evoke senses and fire imaginations. Like the drawings, the room is a “place to make worlds”. The works that inhabit it are recent creations, made from 2011-16, but they speak across time.
“I liken the space to an mmense disco ball that shows what art can do, shift, and expand in the world and how that most often happens through what the sensory evokes, and how it transports us. As an artist, I am creating certain parameters and asking certain questions but I don’t determine the answers and I certainly don’t own the experience,” Ogunji said.
“The collective is incredibly important to this process – be they audience members, performers or students trying performance for the first time or a bystander who participates. I expect the audience to do some work, to ask questions to figure some things out on their own,” she added.
Reflecting her practice as a visual artist and performer, Ogunji’s hand-stitched drawings have a rich complexity of visual reminders. Totemic animals and sculptures invoke the power of Yoruba’s folktales and history while the very act of sewing – traditionally considered a woman’s craft skill – references contemporary power structures and investigates sense of place. It can even be read as a comment on the presence of women in public space.
Or taken as a reference to the idea of journeys and homes, “peopling your mind with memory and belonging” – as is the case with the drawing that visitors first see upon entering the room. “The work has on my father on one side of the expanse. In my mind, he is moving through water; an airplane overhead flies in the opposite direction. Further to the left is my grandmother, in a black and white dress, and masked. A figure stands pregnant next to her, catching a second airplane in her hand,” Ogunji said.
The expanse here refers to the Atlantic Ocean, which separates the US-born Ogunji from her home in Nigeria and “defines my aesthetic landscape. It is history, memory, separation and loss”. But as do the rest of her works, it probes possibilities of home by offering visual reminders that tell us we have a place in the world.
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