JTF (only facts): Published jointly in 2021 by Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim (here). Hardcover (20.2 x 28.9 cm), 152 pages, with 80 color illustrations. Includes texts by Stephanie Hessler, Lola Olofemi, and Legacy Russell. Designed by NODE Berlin Oslo. (Cover and post the shots below.)
Comments/Context: The first study of the Norwegian-Nigerian plastic artist Frida Europabo entitled Simply Frida Europa, on the occasion of her exhibition “How I Felt When I Got Out of the Wild” at Kunsthall Trondheim in Norway. Orupabo’s main medium is collage, both physical and digital, and she uses it creatively to expose how people are shaped by power structures. “I’m interested in how we see things — like race, gender, gender, family, motherhood.” She describes her practice as a discovery of the archive, “the interaction and conflict between past and present, self-representation and imposed representation”.
Urubapo grew up in a small town in southern Norway, where she and her sister were the only sons of mixed races (her father is Nigerian and mother is Norwegian), and their identity is constantly in question. “For a long time I felt like I was unable to speak. The only thing I possessed was my eyes and my anger. Anger is a form of resistance.” Urubapo has a master’s degree in sociology, and wrote her thesis on racism and sexuality. It opened up a whole new world for her – she was introduced to medical experiments on female slaves without any anesthetic in the 19th century, and a racist human zoo hosted by Norway at the World’s Fair in 1914 that brought 80 Africans to the Norwegian capital. It also gave her a unique way of perceiving the visual arts. In 2005, she got her first computer and started working with digital labels.
Her picture book has a striking cover; It’s a collage made up of several fragments – outstretched legs, torso, arms, a hand pointing at the gun, and the head of a man with a tumor around the neck. When placed on a white background, it instantly stands out and indicates the unsettled content of the book. The study opens with a set of archival images set against black backgrounds, giving us a sense of the visual raw materials the artist is paraphrasing, with most images coming from searching several online platforms (e.g. eBay, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc.). These pages are then followed by a collection of articles that provide context for Orupabo’s practice and place her work in black visual culture, archive, and digital space.
Orupabo creates individual collages from different fragments (legs, hair, arms, shoes, pregnant belly) and uses paper pins to connect them, revealing different layers of composition. These staples also act as scars reminding us that colonization simply cannot be repaired. The figures look like dolls. They are also intentionally annoying. Most of their characters represent black female bodies, yet they often have a mixture of both male and female body parts, deliberately questioning gender categories. Orupado stickers are placed on wide white backgrounds, making them stand out. Most of the spreads have one collage, which invites us to look closely, sometimes there is a mixture of figures.
The Europabo characters are seen smiling, kneeling, lying down, giving birth, almost always looking back to the viewer with unmoved self-confidence. Portrait of a dressed woman holding a child with the head of an adult man, both looking directly at us. The collage is paired with a polka dot image of a boy with a distorted mouth, covered with an image of a hand holding a pistol. Another composition features a woman lying down and a child in her stomach, both looking at us, her shoes placed next to her. There is also an image of a woman’s head lying on her hands holding each other in prayer, her empty eyes slightly red, her face touching a hair comb, which is often seen as an important political motto. Other embarrassing characters are seen resting in bed, a surprising metaphor for recovery after going through traumatic events, inspired by the words of Ghanaian writer Ai Kwe Armah.
Created mostly from a position of strength, the image archive Orupabo uses are full of misrepresentations, omissions, and absences. As noted by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams in “The Black Female Body: A Photographic History,” the depiction of the black female body in the nineteenth century often had colonialism, scientific development, or sexuality.
There is little or no information about the persons documented in these archives. When Orupabo removes images from their original contexts, she cuts, reassembles, and repositions them, and through this act, gives them new life, perhaps repairs them, and asks the viewer to look at them again. It asks us to think about what we see and how we see. What social and political structures influence that vision? Most of the characters stare directly at us, which provokes discomfort and enters into a dialogue. They challenge our gaze, the white gaze in particular, and its perception of black bodies.
Orupabo’s work brings to mind other artists who used collage to reassemble objects, often examining themes of race, identity, and gender politics. Romare Bearden used collage to depict the lives of African Americans, their struggles, but also their joys and humanity. Recently, Deborah Roberts also employs mixed media aggregators, and is particularly interested in the challenges of black women and girls.
as a picture book, Frida Europa It is an unassuming and subtly elegant publication that draws our attention to its striking content. Through her collages, Orupabo relives the look of black subjects, challenging stereotypes of what it means to be a black woman. It keeps the archive up to date, and uses it to handle persistent conflicts.
POV collector: Frida Europabo represented at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam (here). Her work has little to no secondary market history at this point, so the retail showroom will likely remain a top choice for collectors interested in keeping an eye on.