Frida Orupabo, Last Night’s Party, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Frida Orupabo, an artist and former social worker, was born in 1986 in Sarpsborg, Norway. Like most millennials, she can remember a life without the internet—she bought her first computer when she began attending the University of Oslo, but still didn’t have access to Wi-Fi. She started scanning old family photographs, making them into collages and eventually sending them to a printer, who bound them into books. The altered photos allowed Orupabo to imagine a new version of her relationship with her parents—she was, in other words, devising an alternate history of the present, and that same flair for fantasy characterizes the larger collages she is now known for. Since those early days, Orupabo has moved away from using personal ephemera as source material. Instead, drawing images from eBay, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and online colonial archives, she stitches seemingly disparate worlds together like a rogue seamstress. In the resulting works, things are usually a little bit off: a winged head may be without a body, or a body in repose may be interrupted by a disembodied head. Most of her subjects are Black women, and nowadays they quite literally take up space. After the artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa noticed her work in 2013 on Instagram, where she was curating series of images, film, and audio loops under the handle @Nemiepeba, he asked her to participate in “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions,” his 2017 show at the Serpentine Galleries in London—and so she began printing out her images, fashioning life-size works whose various parts she held together with clothing pins. Now, Orupabo lives among these paper women. Her Oslo studio, from which she spoke to me on Zoom this spring, is also her apartment, and so when she eats, she watches them, and when she sleeps, they watch her, too.
You initially made collages using family photos. Do you locate the genesis of your artmaking in how you grew up?
I grew up in the late eighties and early nineties, in an old industrial city an hour’s drive from Oslo. At that time, there were not many people there who were not white. My sister is like me, but my mom is white, and my father went back to Nigeria very early in my life, so I grew up in a family that was predominantly white. As a child, I used to paint and draw, but I started to work in the way that people would now recognize when I was nineteen, twenty. I bought a scanner that could digitize film photos and used it to save family slides on my computer. I started to manipulate them using Microsoft Paint, of all things, and through that process I began to create my own narrative of my family history. I was using photos of my mom, my father, my sister, and me, trying to work through feelings that were attached to that family unit. Collaging was a way of reworking emotions and also reworking things that had happened, that continue to happen. So it was really linked to my identity, a crisis in my identity, and, finally, a healing process.
When I got access to the internet around two years later, I started to use found material. Since then, I’ve never gone back and worked with my own face or with my mother’s face. The collages I make are very attached to who I am, what I want to say, and how I feel, but I speak through other faces now.
What were you studying when you began making the collages?
My bachelor’s degree was in development studies, which was terrible. It was really Eurocentric. I was introduced to Black feminism very late. The courses I took on the side were linked to critical gender and race studies, and a professor on one of those courses suggested I read bell hooks, which was eye-opening. The way she writes is theoretical but also really personal, and I suddenly felt I had a language that I could use to understand my experiences as a Black woman living in a white society.
I switched to sociology for my master’s degree, and when I graduated, I didn’t want to continue with research at the university—I wanted to work with people. I got a job providing social services at a center for sex workers, doing low-threshold work: going out, speaking with people, and directing them to our clinic if they had any health related issues or issues with the police, or wanted information concerning housing, work, immigration policies, and so on. It was interesting, coming to terms with what I thought I already knew about who was selling sex and why. I was in constant dialogue with different people who shared their experiences and thoughts with me, many of whom were Black women, while simultaneously working in a field where there weren’t so many people who looked like me, where I also encountered racism.
I made art at the same time—collaging was a way of relaxing when I got home—but when I had my daughter, I realized I couldn’t do both, it was impossible. So I decided to quit.
What was it about collage as a form that appealed to you?
I remember I read an interview with David Hammons in which he was speaking about these body prints he makes, and how they express “exactly who I am and who we are.” By collaging, I’m trying to get to who we are. I don’t trust my hand to draw or to paint—I’ve never been so good at it—so collage is a way to get the representation right. It’s like going into a store: you want to be in a particular dress, and you can’t afford it, but you can put it into your collage. That’s how my collages started: I collected images that I liked, and then I sampled them in my work.
That aspirational, acquisitive impulse seems like part of the larger element of fantasy at play in your work. You want these things to exist together—a particular face, an arm, a dress—and they can’t exist together, except insofar as you’re able to place them together in a collage.
Sometimes you have to force it. And that’s what I like, to be able to make something that doesn’t otherwise exist. You have to do it yourself, to write it yourself, and you have to write yourself in. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time: writing myself in, and creating things that I find beautiful at the same time. This kind of work gives me energy.
There’s an affectless quality in a lot of the faces that appear in your collages, despite the fact that they’re so often surrounded by oddities. That’s not to say that the collages themselves are affectless: some are angry, others haunting, melancholic. But it’s difficult to read into the facial expressions themselves anything like anger, or love, or happiness, or dissatisfaction.
When I was creating work for my 2020 exhibition “Hours After,” at Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg, I was dealing with themes of pregnancy and labor. I showed labor scenes and people with their babies, and I included mothers who wore ambiguous expressions. Were they feeling joy? Were they present with the child? I’ll put a face on a body, and although the body can be active, it doesn’t go with the face, which can be at rest or asleep. I am interested in creating works that show the ambivalence and complexities that often get left out in representations of Black people. Is it possible to show a naked body without it being objectified and sexualized? Can you portray Black anger without it being generalized? Sometimes, as a Black woman, I feel very locked in. I don’t like to speak so much, and I don’t like to write. So I’m left with the visual, which, for me, feels much more open than language. It can grab things that language can’t.
Originally, your collages were purely digital—you were finding images online, piecing them together, and the completed work lived on the computer. Now, though, you produce these sculptures that exist in space. There’s something uncanny, I think, about encountering images intended for the internet as physical objects. What did that migration signify for you?
Until Arthur Jafa asked me to show work at his exhibition, while I was still a social worker, everything I had made was digital. I considered the collages to be done when I saw them on my computer, so I never thought of doing something physical. Plus, I’m a lazy person, so I never would have done it if someone hadn’t said, “We need something right now.” My first idea was just to enlarge the collages and print them on a big sheet of paper. But then I thought, This is too flat. I tried printing out more layers, and then I had to find a way to keep the layers together. I had the idea to use pins. I couldn’t trust glue—it had to be something that went through the paper.
Once they were printed out, the presence of the collages was very strong. They were three human-sized women, and I hung them up on the wall. At that time, I lived in a very small apartment, so we really lived together. It was intense and wonderful, because I felt that I was onto something.
Your description of sharing a room with the collages makes me wonder whether you think of them as characters.
I think of them as subjects. Often, I choose people that stare back at you. I’m usually working on the floor, so when I start the process of pinning them together, it sometimes feels a bit strange. Some have said that it seems as though I’m working on an operating table. Most of the faces I use are from online archives that I find by Googling things like, “colonial, vintage images.” Sometimes I’ll come across an entire archive—that is the best. I’ll often enlarge an image by hovering my mouse over it, and then I’ll take a screenshot of that. In other words, I’ll steal it back.
Do you consider theft integral to your artmaking? I sometimes wonder if being a thief is the only ethical position one can claim in relation to institutional life.
Most archives are not forbidden to enter, but you’re only allowed to look, not grab. There’s pleasure in breaking in and snatching, and there’s anger behind it, too—especially when I encounter images that have watermarks, images that are owned by institutions and probably white people. Often there’s no name attached to the person depicted, because it’s not like the person who owns the image has done any research. At best, it’ll say “slave girl.”
How do you think about those informational gaps you encounter in the archives? Is there a desire to research the images you use, or is it important to not research them, and let them take on another life through your work?
I’m ambivalent: sometimes you come across archives that are more beautiful than ugly, and you want to know more, and other times you come across archives that make you puke—you don’t want to look for a long time, and, in fact, you don’t want to have anything to do with them. So it depends, but no matter what, you are constantly reminded of how the world is operating.
Maya Binyam is a contributing editor at The Paris Review.
Frida Orupabo’s portfolio is featured in the Review’s Spring issue.
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