Performances That Seek to Interrupt: Nigerian Artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji & The Craft of Spectacle
*Interview by Maryam Kazeem, originally
published on the blog okayafrica
Photo: Ema Edosio
As they walk through the streets of
Yaba in Lagos, Nigeria Wura-Natasha Ogunji and six women
dressed in matching costumes and masks around their faces, carry kegs
full of water that are strapped to their ankles. Catching the
attention of those they pass on the street, Ogunji describes
the thoughts racing through her mind at the time, “in
that beginning moment i doubted so much. i had to remember the words
i had spoken upstairs. trust, rest, trust. i learned so much in the
first five minutes. walking required my entire body (were we actually
even walking? it felt like something else).” However, this isn’t
the first time Ogunji has performed this act- in 2011 she
crawled along the ground “with water kegs tied to [her ankles] inspired by the daily task of carrying water at [her]
cousin’s house.” In collaboration with the Center for
Contemporary Art Lagos (CCA), in Will I still carry water
when I am a dead woman? Ogunji creates a spectacle out of the
mundane by illuminating certain notions of women and space in Lagos.
In their performance, Ogunji and the
other women are dressed in matching costumes (with an “Afrofuturistic
touch”) for more than just aesthetic appeal, rather Ogunji attempts
to conjure images of the Egungun Masquerade, which women are not
typically allowed to perform. In tradition during the Egungun
masquerade the masked dancer is allowed to travel anywhere and they
are protected (People are not even allowed to touch them); as such,
Ogunji builds on the daily task of carrying water, by simultaneously
“allowing women to occupy a sacred, dynamic, and public space”
through their performance as masked water carriers. In her quest to
evoke dynamics between labour and women, Will I still carry
water when I am a dead woman? is one mere example of how
Ogunji’s work excavates the complexities of the relationship
between women, society, space and politics.
Based in Austin and Lagos, Wura-Natasha
Ogunji is “best know for her videos, in which she uses her own body
to explore movement and mark-making across water, land and air.”
She has received a number of awards for her working including a John
Simon Guggeinheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2012). If we
think of performance art as art that “does” in the immediate,
specifically in the space that it occurs, yet also has the capacity
to travel in impact and medium as a consequence- then Ogunji’s
pieces aim to “do” in Lagos. We asked her a few questions about
her recent work- her experiences carrying out these ambitious
performances, the audience engagement and what she has coming up in
the near future.
beauty performance conceived by Nicole Vlado and Wura-Natasha Ogunji. Image: Ema Edosio
OKA: Performance art often involves
creating a spectacle. Do you ever worry that people are more focused
on the spectacle rather than the messages you’re trying to convey?
Wura-Natasha Ogunji: I’m
interested in creating a particular exchange between the performers
and the audience. This requires a kind of respect and
consideration for the public which I don’t at all associate with
spectacles. When I think about a spectacle it brings to mind a
particular image or event that is intended to shock. And things
that shock us don’t necessarily create opportunities for
conversations or transformation. I love this question you are
asking because it really gets at the challenge of creating meaningful
As an artist I am creating certain
parameters and asking certain questions but I don’t determine the
answers and I certainly don’t own the experience. The
collective is incredibly important to this process–be they audience
members or performers or students trying performance for the first
time or a bystander who participates. I expect the audience to
do some work, to ask questions, to figure some things out on their
own. People sometimes ask, what is this about? And my
first answer is always, what do you think it’s about? What
did you see, feel and experience?
I have found people in Lagos to be very
generous. They ask questions. They respect the
performance and the performers. They give a lot. But they
also require a lot because you can see crazy things here on a daily
basis, in any moment. I am very interested in
interruptions and disorientation. The fact that we are women
occupying public space in unexpected ways is an immediate
interruption. I want people to stop to look because they are
seeing something that calls their attention in a particular way–and
not in a violent way. A fight can stop traffic. I want to
interrupt someone’s daily journey with something different. I
want people to stop, to witness, to comment on the work or ask
questions because they feel drawn to it, pulled by it in a way that
expands the imagination.
OKA: You mention that a lot of your
work is done through your body as a way of understanding larger
questions of how bodies engage with space. Are you also
addressing more abstract notions of space (diaspora) particularly as
someone who lives in the U.S. and Nigeria?
WNO: Yes, absolutely. My
previous video and performance work definitely considered larger
spaces of the diaspora. I was particularly interested in the
Atlantic as a site for memory, history, creativity. The
videos I made including ‘The epic crossing of an Ife
head’ provided a way for me to explore this space between
Africa and the Americas. I began that series because I
had a question about this relationship. I asked “Does homeland long
for us?” In answering that question I thought about the
physical efforts that the Ife head would have to go through to find
her descendents in the Americas. In order to cross the Atlantic
she must either fly or walk on water. Taking on that persona of
the Ife head I attempt to fly by jumping into the air. I
saw the physicality of that act as akin to the efforts required to
make that connection across space which is really across that
enormous ocean. The journey is also about moving through one’s
history–both personal and collective.
Now that I am in Lagos my questions
have, of course, changed. I can say that homeland indeed longs
for us which I understand to mean that there’s a place for me here
in this present moment. And now my engagement with the body
(both my own and others) is affected by this particular urban space
in which I find myself.
OKA: What has the response been to your
recent pieces, beauty and Will I still carry water
when I am a dead woman?
WNO: People always have a lot of
questions. With beauty the five of us had our hair
braided together and we stayed that way for four hours. There
were people who said we wouldn’t make it, that we wouldn’t last
the four hours. There was someone in the audience who talked
about how this piece was for Nigerians. I understood that to
mean that the person not only felt a connection to the work but that
they thought it had relevance to this place and people specifically.
My favorite response was a conversation with a young girl, perhaps
she was 9 years old. She asked why we had done the performance
and then I spoke with her about the connections we have as women to
our hair and the even more important connections we have to each
other. She understood that of course, she feels it too.
Will I still carry water when I am a
dead woman? was different. We were masked during the
piece. I heard a lot of comments about our strength. A friend
told me that someone asked why we would be carrying water kegs
through the streets if we were not getting paid. There was also
a woman who thought we were being punished and that the punishment
was too harsh. One of the performers, Wana Udobang wrote
abouthow the piece brought into focus the ways in which we, as women,
place burdens on ourselves and that in the end no one else even
acknowledges our work, they stop even noticing our struggles.
She observed that by the end of the walk through town people began to
almost ignore us as they went back to their daily lives.
Audience after beauty performance. Image: Soibifaa Dokubo
OKA: Did you notice anything that your
audience was doing while watching the performances that you found
particularly interesting or even strange?
WNO: beauty was an incredible
experience because we were in the middle of Obalende Motor Park.
Hundreds of people passed by during the four hours that we were
performing. They were watching us and we were watching them as
intently. As performers we all spoke about that experience.
We talked about even wanting to film the audience watching us.
It’s an incredible feeling, to be witnessed in this particular way
by strangers and to also be in a position to really take in another
person’s presence, someone you don’t even know.
OKA: What projects do you have coming
up in the future?
WNO: I’m in an exhibition with
two other artists (Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze and Nnenna Okore) called
‘No one belongs here more than you‘ which opens at the Centre
for Contemporary Art, Lagos this June. I will show a new
video installation as well as documentation of the performance
works. I’m also creating a performance for the opening that
draws from the tradition of bowing and prostration.