The importance and complexity of Zohra Opoku’s work, both in her approach to the photographic medium and in the themes she explores, calls for a more intimate engagement…
Growing up in Germany with her mother, Zohra Opoku knew little about her Ghanaian heritage. It wasn’t until she was an adult, and able to travel beyond East Germany, that she had the opportunity to connect with her father, who lived in Ghana. Armed with a bundle of his letters, and insights gathered from meetings with siblings and other relatives living in Ghana, she began to unravel her family history and learn more about the man who brought her into the world. Working with photography and textiles to explore this history both visually and haptically, Opoku is a strong example of an artist reclaiming her family’s narrative.
This year at Unseen Amsterdam, we collaborated with LagosPhoto on a series of talks to be held in the Living Room – the home of our annual speakers programme. The result was a number of panel discussions, including Family Backgrounds – Archives, Documentation, and Continuity, which focused on artistic practices that use personal family archives and stories as a driving narrative force. Zohra Opoku’s multimedia work immediately came to mind. Created by screenprinting and using alternative photographic processes on textiles and garments, these pieces examine belonging, heritage, and finding a place between cultures.
One of Opoku’s early projects, Unraveled Threads, is constructed from layers of archival images collected from her father, along with images the artist created together with her siblings, that have been screen-printed onto a traditional Ghanaian fabric: Kente cloth. The histories and textures of the chosen fabrics inform Opoku’s work, whilst the Kente cloth has a particularly strong connection to the artist. Opoku’s father, who was a traditional leader (king or chief), handed down his Ashanti beliefs to his daughter. Based on the Akan or Ashanti religion, these beliefs acknowledge spiritual and supernatural powers and the souls of plants, animals, and trees. Within the religion, a child is understood to inherit the father's Sunsum (soul or spirit) and the mother’s flesh and blood. When Opoku’s father passed away, he left his personal belongings to his children, including his stool, his beads and, perhaps most importantly, his Kente cloth. The cloth became sacred to the artist, offering – along with his other possessions – access to her father after his death. By stitching together images and cloth, Opoku untangles her family history, reconnecting with her departed parent.
The importance and complexity of Opoku’s work, both in her approach to the photographic medium and in the themes she explores, called for a more intimate engagement than would be possible through a panel discussion alone. There was a need for visitors to experience the presence and tactility of her site-specific installations. These concerns fed into the development of a parallel group exhibition, Woven Matters, which put Opoku’s work in conversation with a number of pieces by Joana Choumali – an important artist also using photography and textiles to connect with her personal history. The works harnessed fabric, embroidery and photography to weave together themes of family and belonging, creating, and building upon, narratives of cultural identity and heritage.
The exhibition included two of Opoku’s large-scale textile image works, from her four-part project Hybridity. These pieces are a continuation of the artist’s examination of her hybrid Ghanian-German identity. In the first part of Hybridity, Opoku uses ravenala, or “the traveller’s tree”, as an icon. The traveller’s tree is said to grow in an east-west orientation, allowing it to serve as a crude compass for weary travellers. Printed in both negative and positive to explore experiences of acceptance and being othered, the tree becomes a symbol of belonging, of the human ability to exist and even thrive in different environments. This ability is curtailed by nations and borders that hamper human movement; a theme that is explored further in Hybridity. Continuing to work with the traveller’s tree motif, Hybridity also includes the artist’s German passport. The project was inspired by the difficulties Opoku experienced whilst attempting to travel with a family member whose Ghanaian passport didn’t afford the same freedom of movement enjoyed by German citizens. Here, the traditional eagle hologram – an element used to prove the authenticity of the document – is replaced with a tie-dyed swatch of fabric, nodding to an idea of home that is more fundamental than concepts of nationality.
Having studied both Fashion and Photography, Opoku is particularly well positioned to comment on the relationship between these different media. For her, fashion is one of the most accessible forms of self-identification, making textile the perfect vehicle through which to perform identity. At the same time, the process of printing images onto fabric has its own metaphorical role:
“The fabric absorbs the photographic image, demonstrating how material can become imbued with meaning, memories, and histories over time. For instance, the movement of fabric always reminds me of bed sheets blowing in the wind, as my family hung our laundry in the garden.”
Opoku’s work is a visual and tactile manifestation of her quest to learn more about her heritage and identity. Her artistic process makes this quest tangible, connecting to a collective consciousness and examining questions of belonging between different cultures. Through her careful stitches and experiments with printing and dyeing techniques, Opoku makes clear that identity and belonging are both processes, and that we are all involved in their construction.
Amelie Schüle, Curator, Unseen