Personal Ties: Wura-Natasha Ogunji at MASS Gallery

Connectivity is a recurring theme in Wura-Natasha Ogunji's work, within personal space and interpersonal relationships — to family, to a homeland, to both hemispheres of one earth. In her solo exhibition Your heart is clean at MASS Gallery, Ogunji unveils a body of works on paper and video installation developed during return trips to her father's homeland of Nigeria and time shared between industrial metropolis Lagos and Austin, TX. — Brian Fee, Austin contributor


Your heart is clean
installation view, MASS Gallery, April 25 – May 31, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.

Ogunji's oeuvre is catalyzed by mark-making, here specifically thread stitched into translucent paper or graphite and ink drawings — but she 'made her mark' on Austin's art scene through performance, physical actions, like her 2010 breakout choreographic collective one hundred black women, one hundred actions, which she debuted during citywide performing arts festival Fusebox. Her first trip to Nigeria in 2011 preceded a renowned John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant and involved a series of actuating performances within Lagos' postcolonial urban landscape. Repeat trips back to her now second home instills a multilayered regard for a changing city.


Wura-Natasha Ogunji |
Generators, 2014, thread, ink, graphite on paper, 25 x 24 inches. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.


Your heart is clean
installation view, MASS Gallery, April 25 – May 31, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.

Generators proliferate here, like the silver and lime-green power boxes in Generators and backdrop to projection piece Third Star, which incorporates video of Lagos' Third Mainland bridge shot from Ogunji's phone. These generators represent over 60 million Nigerians' main source of electricity for their homes and businesses, which reminded me of an exchange in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Amerikanah, between main character Ifemulu (who recently returned to Lagos after a decade in the States) and her childhood friend Rayinudo, while scouting for a new flat:

“Ugly kwa? What are you talking about? The house is beautiful...Her generator is as big as my flat and it is completely noiseless!” Rayinudo said. “Did you notice the generator house on the side of the gate?”

Ifemulu had not noticed. And it piqued her. This was what a true Lagosian should have noticed: the generator house, the generator size.

What is Ogunji's impression, as a part-time Lagos resident, of these generators? The way she transmogrifies them organically into scraggly palm trees reflects her understanding of their ubiquity in present-day Lagos — not that she accepts them, necessarily, but they're there, indelible and undeniable, and, like the soaring construction cranes dotting the sky of her other home, Austin, they're a sign of human presence and, depending on our inclinations, human progress.


Wura-Natasha Ogunji |
You are looking into the sun, 2014, graphite, ink on paper with digital video projection, 7 panels, 14 x 3 feet each. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.


Wura-Natasha Ogunji |
Oyibo vs. herself (That's not the Atlantic. There's a disco ball between us.), 2013, mixed media on paper with digital video projection, 25 x 48 inches. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.

Two other works feature video, You are looking into the sun, whose seven double-layered paper panels occupy an entire gallery wall, and the smaller, concentrated composition Oyibo vs herself (That's not the Atlantic. There's a disco ball between us.) across the room. Both require some visual unpacking. Beyond a few metallic strokes of graphite and ink, the former is practically devoid of the artist's hand. Instead, the tan and translucent paper emulates a projection screen, reflecting light-leaks from Ogunji's video filmed out a danfo (shared public minibus) window of a young rollerblader on the Third Mainland Bridge. An aerial map of mostly Lagos Island fills Oyibo vs herself, its silvery surface punctuated by the cloverleaf road patterns leading around Ring Road to Third Mainland Bridge, fragments of Murtala Muhammed International Airport and even St. Louis (the artist's birthplace) tucked away within the graphite corridors if you know where to look. Most of the time, the entire composition is blanketed in the iridescent blue glow of projector light, which segues every several minutes to a clip from a Lagos club (accompanied by an addictive Chic disco soundbite) with a nearly life-sized dancing figure. As the dancing dissolves back into bluish glow, the work's parentheses title comes into play: disco lights as sapphiric Atlantic Ocean. In Ogunji's own words, “that space between Africa and the Americas is often imagined as an abyss, a space of loss or disconnection. With this work I am imagining the sea as a collection of mirrors which are constantly reflecting and refracting, much like a disco ball. In the space of the nightclub anything can happen. Our futures are not (pre)determined by the past — be that history, or even memory.”


Wura-Natasha Ogunji |
Oyibo vs. herself (That's not the Atlantic. There's a disco ball between us.), 2013, mixed media on paper with digital video projection, 25 x 48 inches. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.


Wura-Natasha Ogunji |
1970, 2014, thread, ink, graphite on paper, 25 x 24 inches. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.


Left:
Wura-Natasha Ogunji | 1970 (verso)
Right: Wura-Natasha Ogunji | Magenta, 2014, thread, ink, graphite on paper, 25 x 24 inches. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.

Sometimes the Chic groove coalesces, or rather crashes, into the street noises of You are looking into the sun, a cacophony of car horns and city noises. The overlapping sonics are enveloping and reassert the multilayered nature of Ogunji's works. There are literally two sides to a quartet of suspended works on paper in the back gallery, like 1970, a repeating portrait in black and orange thread that morphs from the intense gazer (up top, all black) to a fragmented, pensive copy (down below, all orange), whose central version is flanked by two intensely stitched figures — view the verso and the embroidered constellation of tied-off ends, concealing faces in tiny knots while preserving a history of the artist's progress. Chill out Uncle, the largest non-projection work on view and five panels wide (two of which are blank), imagines a dialogue between a wise elder (the Uncle, occupying the central panel) and a naïve (but, we sense this, well-meaning) youth. Drips of paint freeze where they once slid down the panels like unencumbered thread, and around the elder's iridescent mirror image, Ogunji stitched the exchange: 'E fara bale, Uncle. I can see from here your heart is clean.' For me, she grounds the entire installation with this work, for ultimately it is what we are seeking innately as humans: a sense of home, and the people we can depend and rely on (whether family or friends) who come with it.


Your heart is clean
installation view, MASS Gallery, April 25 – May 31, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.


Wura-Natasha Ogunji |
Chill out, Uncle (detail), 2014, mixed media on paper, 5 panels, 9 x 2 feet each. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.


Wura-Natasha Ogunji |
Oyibo vs. herself (That's not the Atlantic. There's a disco ball between us.) (detail), 2013, mixed media on paper with digital video projection, 25 x 48 inches. Image courtesy the artist and MASS Gallery, Austin. Photos taken by Sandy Carson.

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Wura-Natasha Ogunji received a BA in Anthropology from Stanford University and an MFA in Photography from San Jose State University. She received the 2012 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, plus distinguished grants from The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Dallas Museum of Art,and the Idea Fund. She has participated recently in the group exhibitions no one belongs here more than you at Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, and in Six Draughtsmen at MoCADA, Brooklyn. Ogunji lives and works in Austin and Lagos. Your heart is clean at MASS Gallery continues through May 31.

Brian Fee is an art punk based currently in Austin, TX, but he can usually be found in New York, Tokyo, or Berlin, depending on the art season.

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