The multidisciplinary artist explores femininity, tradition and heritage through an earthy, textile-rich oeuvre. Rebecca Anne Proctor speaks with the artist who recently embarked upon her Dubai artist residency
They have gentle yet probing eyes, heightened by a frame of richly embroidered fabric. With their heads and mouths wrapped up in elaborate lace and ornately patterned textiles, these women exude a sense of mystery and intrigue. While they encompass an earthy sensibility through their evocative veils, it is their eyes that say it all. Something else is there—there’s another story, another reality.
These women belong to Zohra Opoku’s most recent solo exhibition at Mariane Ibrahim Galleryin Seattle entitled Harmattan Tales, offering a utopian exploration of her hometown of Accrathrough the everyday lens of the city’s minority population of Muslim females. “Accra is known for its contrasting kiosk culture and business district, and I wanted to document this in a more soulful way,” says Zohra. “I looked at the street culture and realised that Muslim women are invisible unless you buy something from them or you are part of the community, and I wanted to dive into this world a bit more.”
Entering into “their” world involved attending Friday prayers, visiting private homes and just simply observing the lives of these women from the outside. In so doing, the artist entered into an intimate set of social dynamics, shrouded in secrecy. As Zohra begins to decipher the hidden reality of these women, she too begins to unravel a better understanding of her own.
Zohra recently journeyed to Dubai for the first time and took up an artist residency at Tashkeel as part of Art Dubai’s Residents 2018, a new gallery programme dedicated to solo presentations from invited galleries.
While Zohra worked on a smaller scale for her exhibition at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, for her Dubai work she plans to go large scale and continue to explore themes related to Harmattan Tales and other concepts related to Muslim women. “I want to go out into the desert and discover the surroundings, the Bedouin tribes and traditional society,” she says from Accra. Indeed, behind Dubai’s futuristic needle-like skyscrapers there is a heritage that goes back to another time and which continues to weave its influence through Emirati society. Just like Zohra’s Harmattan Tales, it has only to be discovered.
Part of Zohra’s ability to relate so closely to her environment is her capacity to empathise with another people or situation. “I feel that Ghana is quite easy with religion,” she says. “There’s not much religious divide and it wasn’t a problem at all for me to enter into the Muslim community. I wore the hijab and entered the mosque and they showed me the facilities. I became the weekly guest there.” In fact, she became such a regular that when she visited other mosques she received calls asking why she wasn’t at the previous one. “They missed me when I was not there! It was a really nice side effect of this research; I became part of the facility.”
Zohra documented a reality that many Ghanaians aren’t familiar with: the hidden lives of Muslim women. “During this period I was treated like one of them and this was a nice feeling,” she says. “Very often I just wanted to stand in the back and observe so that was the starting point for me and during this procedure I met several very strong women.” One was Raddiya from the Greater Accra region. “It is unusual to be a Muslim when you are Ga. She was very much an outsider in an inside space and got questioned many times.”
Through her work in Muslim communities Zohra also met one of her main protagonists: Zullaiha. Completely veiled and wearing the nikab, a decision she made herself—not her husband, she stresses. “I realised that while these women were of the same religion they lived it entirely different and I tried to emphasise how I perceived them and their life in the images that I made.” For each, the veil symbolised a different story.
Zohra’s personal history is in stark contrast to the lives of the women in Harmattan Tales. At the 2017 Armory Show, the artist presented Unraveled Thread with Seattle’s Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, a work that garnered her the inaugural Presents Prize. In the piece, Zohra rendered her own personal narrative through photography and fabric-based works and stitched together cloth that belonged to members of her family, now living in separate countries. Growing up as a teenager in the militant German Democratic Republic of East Germany, Zohra saw fashion as a means of self-expression.
She also remembers her first encounter with art: drawing her mother lying on the beach. “My mother was like my muse,” she says. “Growing up I played piano, did ballet and was interested in everything that had to do with movement—all things creative.” She began sewing her own designs at the age of 13 and later went on to receive an MA in Fashion from Hamburg University of Applied Sciences and subsequently worked with Danish designer Henrick Vibskov before focusing on her art—one that blended the patchworks of West African textiles, photography, screen printing, sculpture and performance to explore fashion’s role in African heritage and contemporary culture.
Such a mixed media approach also allowed Zohra to examine the politics surrounding her own hybrid identity. “Ghana’s colourful nature stems from the African fabric itself,” she says. “I am interested in how various types of dress culture are inspired by different social influences.” Textile has long held an important place in African culture; the kente cloth, used abundantly by the renowned artist El Anatsui, is Ghana’s national fabric. Zohra’s father is Ashanti, one of the three main ethnic groups in Akans in Ghana. She loves the Ashanti kente design and tries to keep a connection with the culture by working with it.
There is also a socio-political aspect to Zohra’s oeuvre. In her performance work she engages in street actions and interventions such as The BILLBOARD PROJECT (2014-15) where made a series of installations from secondhand garments, wove them together and draped them on empty billboards across central Accra.
The action explored the notion of materialistic waste as well as the symbolism of secondhand clothing in Ghana and how both are related to identity and social status. In her installation We Were Queens and Kings (2017), a continuation of the artist’s Who is wearing my T-Shirt project that she started in 2010 in Lagos, she once again blends textiles, wood and fabric in an effort to comment on past and present Ghanaian culture and history. One easily marvels at the installation’s intricate textures, symbolism and movement, which easily incites contemplattion of the role of textiles and the personification of the regal in Ghanaian history.
The cloth that Zohra uses is also indicative of the women’s issues that she continually references. “I have an undeniable love for textiles and it led me to look at Ghanaian culture because I believe that there are meanings behind the fabric, such as how identity relates to it by the choice of colours, fabric and patterns,” she says. “The veil covers so much so it gives you invisibility. However, when you enter into this world it is so endless and open and understandable for me.
When I was in the circle [of these women] I could understand so many things in the context of Ghana.” For example, Muslim women need regular contact with water for ablution and Ghana is known for its water problems. That brings religion into the context of societal issues. Hence the fabric, the veil, is as much linked to fashion and history as it is to contemporary Ghanaian culture. We only need to venture behind it to understand it. And as Zohra might have it, that mystical wrestling from one culture to another is what binds us and brings us closer together, not just as women but as human beings.