Overflowing joy. That’s the sense one gets when looking at “Rafia” by Zohra Opoku at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. Rafia is a Ghanaian woman with an eye for beauty and style, and she was eager to invite the artist to her home for a personal fashion show. Opoku screenprinted a photo from that day on smooth, heavy cloth, and then added acid green stitching that seems to shower from Rafia’s face, all the way down to where it forms a fringe on the hanging.
Opoku’s intuition with textile and thread yields many delights in her solo show Harmattan Tales. The details add subtly to portraits of women and girls, whose self-possession is evident from the first glance. She does not allow the material to overwhelm her human subject, but rather enriches the narrative of the monochromatic images.
This is the first time Mariane Ibrahim Gallery has shown Opoku’s work solo in Seattle. Opoku was the gallery’s featured artist at the 2017 Armory Show, and their booth won the inaugural Presents award for their unique presentation. Opoku’s work was displayed as both hangings and, in lieu of one wall, dividers through which guests could pass. The presentation at Harmattan Tales in Seattle is more straightforward, but the material and varied media are as layered as ever.
It’s a subtle touch, but it’s worth noting that the artworks at the very front of the gallery are the only ones that reveal the women’s faces in their entirety. “Rafia” is one, and the other is “The Children of Ma Goldsmith.” The five girls in this image are quite the cast of characters. The distinct look each one gives to the camera ranges from defiance to apprehension and even a motherly regard in the eldest, tallest daughter at right. Opoku has haloed them with royal blue thread, and given a sense of elevation to the eldest by adding a layer of fringe at the base.
In the other works, the woman’s face is not fully in the frame, or concealed by veils, hoods and lace, as with Opoku’s self-portraits at back. The photographic medium that is the basis of the works (though they are more sculptural in execution) has long been used to document and objectify women. In Opoku’s work, the women are calling the shots about what is seen and what is not.
Of course, the artist cannot entirely control how a work is seen. The gaze that reduces the whole person to mere flesh may find erotic pleasure in some of Opoku’s self-portraits. In some, she wear nothing but a shower of lace…but in the dim, grey and blue both, it is her eyes that are most evident. An objectifying gaze will not go unreturned.
Opoku’s three videos take different tacks, but, like the rest of the work, emphasize feminine identity, defined and revealed by rich textiles. In one, Opoku follows a woman closely as she winds through a neighborhood in Accra. Nested within the projection of that film, a small screen pans in and out on the front of a woman in a niqab (also in Accra). In neither case is the woman’s face revealed, and yet one gets a strong sense of identity merely by her position within the space she inhabits and the layers with which she is adorned. In essence, it challenges a narcissistic, western obsession with physiognomy as identity.
These videos are more cinema verite. The third video is a beautiful dream filmed at the magic hour, in which the artist wears a stunning hijab as she wades into the sea. The garment’s indigo and cerulean dyes mesh with the turquoise and white breakers. One can almost feel the flowing heaviness of the waterlogged cloth as she wades deeper into the waves.
The archetypically feminine saltwater, where terrestrial life began; the cloth, whose weaving and dyeing is traditionally “women’s work” (and whose looms became the basis for computing, the technology by which one views the video); and the artist’s own otherwise anonymous figure: All of these elements unite exquisitely in a silent paean to the Feminine (with a very intentional majuscule). It’s a moving gem, in every sense.
Zohra Opoku’s Harmattan Tales is a jewel box of gorgeous work, masterfully presented. I’ve seen the show twice, and I’m still finding new layers of beauty in it. I suggest others see it at least once, through March 17 at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.