A conversation with Frida Orupabo
Social media has become a new artistic playground. Content sharing platforms are continuously on the rise. Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Snapchat are truly fostering new opportunities of curation and experimentation for artists and creatives. Instagram is a prime example of the connection that was made between those who create and those who value and consume creative contents. Our series of interviews Instagram Curators focus on the individuals behind the most striking feeds. Those who managed to turn simple tools into feelings.
I stumbled across Nemiepeba on Instagram. Her refined curation of written works, images and sounds were fascinating to me. On Nemi's feed, Africanity is omnipresent, women are both mothers and black, and pastel colours often ease daily struggles. I got in touch with her a few weeks ago for further information and she has gladly accepted to exchange words with me.
I've always wondered who was behind Nemiepeba, could you tell me more about you, your background and what motivated you to create this space?
My name is Nemi. I am a sociologist working and living in Oslo.
I was born in Norway, which has been my base since then. I grew up with my mum and sister. My mum is Norwegian, white. My father is Nigerian, black. I believe my experiences of having a black and a white parent, growing up with only one of them (my mum), plays a huge part in the need to create a space where I can work with all of the things that are circulating my mind and heart – be it inside a physical, mental or digital space.
I have memories from early childhood of how my identity constantly was being questioned. I was asked about my heritage, where I was really from, if my mum was my real mum and so on. This had a huge impact on my notion of identity and belonging. Since I was not allowed to be “Norwegian” I started to look for identity elsewhere. It brought me (back) to my father, to Nigeria, to blackness.
Back then I had no Internet – so my room became the first space for collecting, storing and working with images. I collected images from magazines and books. Combining them with drawing and paint. I created a space where I could be without being devalued; a place where I could challenge and deconstruct the “white gaze” on blackness, and on self. Creating became a means to explore, deal with and process all the negative impact racism had on me, my surroundings and society. I lacked language – but through art I found a way to speak.
Tumblr and Instagram represent the same space. They are places where I can explore, challenge and deconstruct. For me, they are spaces essential for survival. I don’t lack confident in those spaces. When I work with images I don’t think. I just do. I let myself “speak” freely, without fear. Moving away from the private/physical space, where I couldn’t be seen, into the “public space” has led me to think more critically in relation to communication.
It is no longer just a private conversation you have with your self- you now also communicate with others. I believe in the power of text and images. And that we all have a responsibility in all that we do to think critically about our self and our placement in the world. How to communicate through images? Who is looking and what do they see? How does my own gaze operate? How do I represent blackness? Is it pale, weak, exclusionary, challenging, repressive, open? The focus is always on creating a space that confronts and works against racist and sexist discourses, also within my own self.
Moreover, the way Instagram is organized allows me to work with images, text, and sound in a way that I personally find very satisfying. From each image you put out you create a new constellation; a new narrative. I like for example the way Instagram limits you by the length of the video sequences. Giving you these loops or gifs that create new narratives and intensify the message, expression or emotion. The repetition created is for me quiet powerful.
What drew you to art? What was the defining moment in your life that made it essential?
My experiences! The need to "let it all out" someplace, together with my dissatisfaction with language (the written word) as a way of expressing myself, drew me to art. I needed it, and I still need it to stay sane. When I am creative, life makes sense. I believe a defining moment when art became essential for me, was from age 16 to 17. It’s hard to be a teen in the first place, even more so to be a non-white teen in a white environment. Art became the place where I sought refuge. As with my Instagram, my earlier drawings can be eyed as some type of diary or fragments from personal life.
There are some recurring themes in your work and feed; race, gender, motherhood, black cinema, Nina Simone… Could you describe your process of picking and posting artworks?
I sometimes work out from a theme. I will then choose images that will create a certain narrative or emotion. Other times I will just pick and curate images that speak to me (individually). The theme or narratives will then evolve as each image or layer is put together. I collect images from books, but mostly from Internet. I also love to catch still images from movies and other types of moving pictures, mixing it with images and small video clips from my personal archives. The aesthetic is as important as the content. All the parts need aesthetically to work together.
I am drawn to anything that I feel challenge and stands in contrast to a hegemonic gaze or discourse – be it in relation to race, sexuality and gender.
Another thing that I focus on in the picking and posting is the relationship between the personal and political. I try to visualize and clarify through images the interconnectedness between those two. In exploring my personal narrative, I am also exploring collective memory and history; positioning my family and myself in the world and as part of a history that goes beyond our personal stories.
Something I’ve noticed about your feed is the cohabitation of the beauty and the ugly. It suggests that both are intrinsically connected. The prominence of pastel colours as a way to attenuate also struck me…. How do you find beauty in the ugly?
Yes, I do believe you find the ugly in the beauty and visa versa. Or that it can be two sides of the same thing. I am very happy that you see this duality in what I do. I guess this is what I aim for when it comes to depicting “reality” or life as I see it.
In my Christian upbringing it existed a clear division between good and evil, right and wrong. More often than not the things my mum defined as evil and wrong or ugly, I would find alluring. I was attracted to it and I struggled to place it in any of the categories; right – wrong. They had bits of everything.
I’ve always found this view confusing and in recent years, illusory. There is a saying I love that goes; “there is beauty in the struggle”. For me this line speaks of this duality. Also, the definition of beauty and ugliness will depend on the eye that sees. Some will look at my feed and not see beauty at all.
To expand on the beauty and the ugly, your feed reminds me of Khalik Allah photographs and Beatrice Wanjiku paintings, both artists who aren’t afraid to approach the unconventional, whether it be physical or psychological. In a white supremacist world, blackness is seen as ugly, in your feed blackness is also shown as ugly – sometimes with no undertone. As a black woman, do you think reclaiming the ugly could be political?
Yes, I do. You have Black and/or African political movements like African Youth in Norway, the Black Panther movement, the Black Liberation group MOVE, The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and many more, that did and that continue to reclaim the “ugly”. Or in other words, challenged and challenges the white gaze and conception of beauty.
There is a lot of power in (un-) naming and reclaiming. Again, as I mentioned earlier I believe in the power of text and images, that through them, we can construct new ways of seeing beauty – by reclaiming the “ugly”. For non-white people to reclaim the “ugly” is in many ways about the “decolonisation of the mind”.
I've noticed that you make collages, not sure if they’re digital only, and the expression of your own womanhood seems to be a recurring theme. Would you describe yourself as a feminist? If yes, does it influence your work?
I usually don’t define myself, or my work as feminist, though it may be viewed that way, and I don’t mind if it is. I don’t disagree with black feminist philosophy; I know that I share and operate with many of the same thoughts, principles and ideas that you will find within Black Feminism or Womanism. But these thoughts or principles you will also find elsewhere in different time periods and in different 'places'.
I believe labelling my work and myself will lead to restrains or limitations, in the sense that it may limit the gaze of the viewer.
As I mentioned earlier, my focus is always to create a space or a vision which is open and at the same time confronts and challenges sexism, racism, and homophobia. How you choose to label it is not that important to me.
Do you think the way black women represent themselves (and other black women) through photographs, paintings ect. is any different from when other people do it? How?
I believe black women's experiences manifest themselves through everything black women create (be it directly or indirectly). I don’t believe in “objectivity”, I believe we all speak from somewhere. And that this "somewhere" is linked to different experiences related to skin, age, gender, sexual orientation, class, culture and so on. I know that my work and how I represent myself would have looked quite different if I was a white woman.
More often than not, black women have found themselves at the bottom of the social pyramid. Black feminism as a response to white feminism shows this difference in position and collective experiences between black women and white women, as well as between black women and black/white men.
For me, black women offer an unique perspective, precisely because of their position in society, experiencing sexism as well as racism.
The Internet era created a new generation of digital curators. It permitted free access to Art to people who don’t have the resources, and who are usually invisible to the Art world. What does the Internet mean to you in relation to your spaces?
For me internet has made it possible to create a space where I can curate and create, and for my work to be seen and appreciated. Since I opened my Instagram account I have gotten in touch with people I wouldn't have gotten to know if it weren't for the Internet. To be able to share thoughts and ideas and to seek inspiration with likeminded people has been important for my own development, both personally and artistically.