When Frida Nemi Orupabo (b. 1986) opened her first exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2017, she was quite unknown in Norway. She had just over 3,000 followers on Instagram, and one of them was the artist and director Arthur Jafa, who got in touch with Orupabo in 2016, inviting her to join his exhibition, A Series of Improbably, Yet Extraordinary Renditions at the Serpentine. This would mark the beginning of a meteoric career. She has already exhibited at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, and prior to the current exhibition with Jafa at Kunstnernes Hus, her work has toured Berlin, Warsaw, Stockholm, and Prague. Soon, yet another exhibition will open in Stockholm, this time at Moderna Museet, again with Jafa, and she was recently selected for the main exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennial. The National Museum of Norway, which usually thinks long and hard about acquisitions, has already purchased Orupabo’s video work Untitled from 2018.
So how did this happen? The brief answer is that she turned Instagram into an artistic medium, and that her practice has a political and aesthetic depth that deserves the contemplative light of a gallery space. But there is also a certain tension between her idiom on Instagram and in the gallery. While the Instagram profile appears to have a strong autobiographical bent, looking at the world from her position of growing up in Norway, her exhibitions address global postcolonial history. I believe that these contrasts in her field of work – autobiography/world history, Norway/Nigeria, past/present, online/offline, Instagram/gallery space – contribute notably to the impact of her art.
Among Orupabo’s Instagram posts – currently numbering 2,384 in all – we find a photomontage in which baby Frida is cradled in the arms of a woman with luxuriant breasts. A fair-skinned, motherly face with tears running down its cheeks has been mounted atop the torso. The composition has clear references to Frida Kahlo’s My Nurse and I or Me Suckling (1937) and to the Christian Pieta motif. In Orupabo’s photomontage, the child is dark-skinned, while the mother is fair-skinned – a reversal of Kahlo’s image. Underneath the picture, Orupabo’s Instagram avatar nemiepeba writes: “Abidemi […] mum & I.” Abidemi is a Yoruba word meaning “born with absent father,” a name that, in Nigerian tradition, is given to children born without a father present. Orupabo lost her father at a young age. When she was three years old, he left Norway to return to Nigeria. They have no contact today. Only a couple of Orupabo’s Instagram photos show her father with the family.
One picture shows Frida and her sister playing while a dark-skinned man’s hand extends towards them from the outer edge of the frame. Another post depicts an African woman with several children; the artist calls her “grandma.” The Instagram profile reflects not just family history, but the overall cultural and political history of Nigeria and Africa. For example, Nigerian film culture, affectionately known as Nollywood, puts in an appearance through a number of video clips. It seems as if Orupabo leaves Norway behind and embeds in Nigerian culture through images, imaginings, fantasies, and stories. “I work with pictures I can see myself reflected in. I didn’t see many of those growing up,” she stated in an interview with the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv last year.
Orupabo conducts a critical revision of her own identity as she inserts her body and biography into a wider global history of slavery, captivity, alienation, and exile. She uses a number of ‘archives’ for this revision work: the Internet (Instagram), art history (from Francis Bacon and Kahlo to Kara Walker and Kenyatta Hinkle) and global history (strategic finds from a variety of documents and books). She moves and rifles through the archives in nomadic fashion, processing them like a photo monteur – a term coined by artist Hannah Höch (1889–1978) to describe a technique used by the Dadaists. In Orupabo’s work, one often sees women’s bodies cut into phantasmagorical collages riffing on postcolonial history. The most eye-catching ‘archive’ used by Orupabo is that of Instagram. Here, she collects photos and movie clips gleaned from platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and YouTube. The Instagram layout is neat, almost like a photo album or catalogue that, as opposed to Facebook, highlights images rather than text. Perhaps this is why Instagram quickly became the art world’s preferred social medium.
The activity on Orupabo’s Instagram account is reminiscent of a punktroman – a novel structured by very brief observations where the reader’s imagination fills in the blanks. She generally posts five or six pictures at a time, but at irregular intervals. These images form thematic unities or mini-exhibitions. Her Instagram account consists of hundreds of such blocks, comprising a triangle stretched out between Norway, Nigeria, and the Americas. Her own upbringing in Norway, the postcolonial age, her family ties to Nigeria, and the transatlantic slave trade all form part of the thematic background.
Transposed to the gallery space, Orupabo’s work sheds the successive arrangements and autobiographical themes. From a technical point of view, Orupabo makes collages both on Instagram and in the gallery space, but the images presented in the gallery are not enlarged versions of those found on her Instagram profile; they are new collages created from the same global reservoir of postcolonial documents. In the gallery, the individual figure, or group of figures, takes centre stage. Her mode of presentation seems to continuously evolve. For the first exhibitions, Orupabo’s figures were neatly framed behind glass. At Galerie Nordenhake and Kunstnernes Hus, the frames and glass were removed, causing the figures to take on a sculptural quality that contrasts the way images appear on Instagram, i.e. as objects integrated into an interface that invites scrolling, commenting, and clicking. On the one hand, these free-standing figures manifest the commercial art world’s preference for detached and, thus, marketable objects. On the other hand, they showcase a fundamental trait of Orupabo’s technique: collage as both fantasy and political commentary.
While her images are conceived within the rigid format of Instagram, her techniques have a long history in art, from avant-garde photomontages to present-day multimedia. The figures in Orupabo’s exhibitions are made up of body parts taken from found photographs. She creates dynamic figures à la Francis Bacon, but whereas Bacon went from portrait photographs to deconstructed portrait paintings, Orupabo’s collages combine different photographs, cutting out parts and assembling them to form a single, dynamic figure. That joining gives them a unique line of flight that raises them out of the degradation from which they have been ‘cut’. In the gallery space, the thematic blocks from Instagram become momentous figures with a new potentiality.
Orupabo’s only video work re-establishes the link to Instagram. In her exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus, Untitled (2018) is presented as nine small screens arranged into a square grid on the wall., each of which displays looped photographs, texts, and video clips from Orupabo’s Instagram profile. The Instagram format’s blend of clickable images, texts, and videos serves as the model for this presentation, but the click and scroll functions are gone, leaving each image file continuously ‘on’. Here, we see an example of what I term “instagrammatics.”
Simplifying matters somewhat, “instagrammatics” is about how one medium (Instagram) affects another (in this case art and the gallery space). The concept of instagrammatics is particularly interesting in Orupabo’s case, because one can see differences and similarities in terms of theme, selection, and design when comparing her Instagram wall and the gallery space. She is an undisputed master of the Instagram format, but the gallery space has other standards. The density and variety of her Instagram profile – the posts, comments, dialogues, quotes, poems, and references – is endlessly complex. The gallery stands detached from the composite technical mediation that permeates and intensifies the experience of interacting with her content on Instagram. Orupabo’s exhibition figures appeal, rather, to a more contemplative mode of attention – but her video work is different.
Writing about Orupabo in the catalogue for their exhibition at the Serpentine, Jafa states that her Instagram profile appears as a form of “anacinema” or “proto-cinema.” Jafa himself does not define anacinema, but the term has been used to describe various forms of experimental film and video art since the 1970s. It was probably inspired by Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924–98) essay ‘Acinema’ from 1973, in which the philosopher describes a type of film that reworks the remains of a visual culture that commercial cinema edits out or marginalises. Such explorations often nudge film towards the very beginnings of cinema, when filmmaking was subject to a range of technical limitations and conditions that are often forgotten today. Orupabo’s blend of one-minute movie clips – which have to be clicked manually and are often re-photographed in black and white from a screen – and figures that stare out at you, are reminiscent of such proto-cinematic conditions. In previous exhibitions, she has looped photos from Instagram on television screens, but the video work Untitled constitutes her first attempt to create a work that develops the anacinematic qualities of her Instagram profile and bring them to bear on the gallery space.
Interestingly, the poet and critic Fred Moten described Jafa’s latest film, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016), as “anacinema.” Screening Jafa’s film alongside Orupabo’s, Kunstnernes Hus gives viewers the opportunity to compare two instances of anacinema. Jafa highlights racism in the US with a single-channel media collage projected onto a wall in a dark room, accompanied by a loud playback of Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’. Orupabo takes an opposite tack: nine small video screens are displayed in a brightly lit gallery room, accompanied by the buzz from movie segments played simultaneously at low volume. Where Jafa takes the music video format in a new direction, Orupabo is headed for something else: an anacinema post-Instagram.
Orupabo’s art carries with it a number of conflicts and questions that demand articulation today. On the one hand, she works with major issues such as exploitation, alienation, degradation, and hope. What does it mean to grow up bicultural, and how are solidarity and empathy possible in our complex world? On the other hand, she demonstrates the opportunities offered by new media in terms of taking part in important political and aesthetic debates, and how Instagram and the gallery space can be used to tell new stories with new techniques.
Eivind Røssaak writes about Frida Orupabo and other artists as part of the research project Kunst som deling: delingens kunst (Art as sharing, the art of sharing) alongside fellow scholars Merete Jonvik, Hanne Hammer Stien and Arnhild Sunnanå. The project is arranged by Arts Council Norway, and the four authors will publish a book in 2019.