It’s the places in-between that most fascinate visual and performance artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji: the paradoxical place between memory and history and, particularly, Ogunji finds much creative inspiration in the space between Africa and the Americas.
Earlier this month, on a walk through her current solo exhibit at Mass Gallery, "Your Heart is Clean," Ogunji herself was very much in an in-between place.
Though the exhibit had opened just days before, Ogunji was set to leave for Lagos, Nigeria, the rapidly changing African mega-city she now considers a second home. The drawings and video work on exhibit revealed her developing connections to her late father’s homeland.
Ogunji spent a year in Lagos in 2011, thanks to a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. It was her first journey to Nigeria, her first chance to connect with family and with a country she had never known.
Primarily, Ogunji used that time to develop performances specifically for public places. For one, staged in a busy mass transit hub, four African women from varied backgrounds and with different skin shades had their hair braided together in one enormous braid.
Here in Austin, Ogunji gained critical attention for her performance pieces such as "One Hundred Black Women, One Hundred Actions," staged as part of the 2010 Fusebox Festival. A 2011 solo exhibit at Women & Their Work — "The Epic Crossings of an Ife Head" — revealed a clever metaphoric history of a Nigerian artifact trying to reconnect with its ancestors who had departed Africa. (Her current exhibit has just been nominated for an Austin Critics’ Table award.)
Now after eight artistically productive years in Austin, and with a temporary stint teaching performance and art history at the University of Texas wrapped up, Ogunji is relocating to Lagos, at least for the short term.
Her journey is just beginning.
"I’ve always been fascinated by that journey between Africa and the Americas," Ogunji says while taking a break from packing to show a visitor through the gallery. "Typically, and especially historically, it’s a journey that involves loss and disconnection — it’s a journey that’s permanent, not retraceable."
And yet however one-directional that journey has been historically, Ogunji suggests that there is the possibility of return or, rather, reconnection.
Certainly for Ogunji there is. Directly or subtly, everything in her new work suggests so.
Massive drawings on featherweight drafting paper — some as large as 14-by-21 feet — feature delicately rendered images made from ink and hand stitching while video of Lagos street scenes flits across like ghostly cinematic vestiges.
Ogunji captured the video with her smartphone, grabbing moments that for her characterized the chaos, surprise and inventiveness of the burgeoning city.
In one video, a young man on rollerblades grabs onto the fender of a public minibus, hitching a fast ride before fearlessly spinning off on his own into traffic. For another, Ogunji filmed several minutes of a bus ride across Lagos’ Third Mainland Bridge, at more than seven miles the longest bridge in Africa.
"Millions cross the bridge every day, a cross section of people, of vehicles," Ogunji says.
Crossing the bridge is an equalizer among the multitudes in a city with widespread disparity between those who have and those who have not, she points out. Again, it’s the in-between — a bridge — that fascinates Ogunji.
In a third video drawing, "Oyibo vs Herself (That’s Not the Atlantic. There’s a Disco Ball Between Us.)," Ogunji imagines that oceanic distance between Africa and the Americas to be as reflective and full as a mirrored ball.
Contrasting the monumental drawings, smaller stitched and inked drawings dangle on red thread from the gallery’s high ceiling, gently wavering with just the slightest movement of air. Each drawing’s reverse side reveals the dangling ends of Ogunji’s embroidery — a kind of blurred and shaggy mirror image of the original.
If the large-scale video-laced drawings are Ogunji’s valentine to Lagos, she mines her own biography for the smaller stitched drawings, using family photographs as source material for portraits of her parents and of herself. In some, the faces of Ogunji and her parents merge and then separate, individual identities blurring together then emerging refocused again.
"Our futures aren’t necessarily predetermined by our pasts," says Ogunji.