Wura-Natasha Ogunji is an artist based in Austin, Texas, and Lagos, Nigeria, who does work on paper, video and performances. Her performances are very site-specific—they would mean something different if performed in different spaces. For example, in one, Beauty (2013), Ogunji and four other women had their hair braided together in a public space in Lagos. “It’s an interesting proposition to imagine and create works that allow women in particular to move through the space freely,” she says. “It’s kind of like an experience of power, but it’s not ‘power over’—it’s ‘oh, I can do this without any hassle.’ And Lagos is a funny city for that to be able to happen in. I guess sometimes I do get hassled.” With Beauty, city workers wanted her to pay them to use the square. “Public space [in Lagos] is always contested for everybody,” Ogunji explains. “There’s commerce happening in every area. Most people don’t own the space, but they’ll take it over and try to sell something or try to help you park or whatever.” If she took Beauty and performed it in a museum or some other institutional art-space, if would be a very different performance. It would still perhaps be beautiful, but would lose the social tension that made the original performance so powerful.
Much of her performances in Nigeria involve women’s freedom to act and move through spaces and their labor. Witnessing her mostly female cousins carrying water to their house, for example, inspired 2013’s Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? for the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos. The piece involved costumed women hauling water kegs (tied to their feet or hands) through the streets of Lagos.
Ogunji got a BA in anthropology form Stanford in 1992 and an MFA in photography from San Jose State in 1998. She moved to Austin after she visited for an exhibition she was in at the University of Texas. “I ended up really liking the town,” she says. “At first I used to think that working in two locations meant that I had to translate from one to the other. But the work I create in each place is different because Nigeria and the United States are so very different… Moving between both gives me a nice perspective on the work I make. Every time I cross the Atlantic I feel like something in me changes, or I let go of something, or open in some way—which I believe affects the work, makes it more honest, makes the language more clear.”
Lens-based work remains a major part of her practice. Her videos often deal with the movement of bodies through the air, on water, or over land. In 2011’s single-channel video, My father and I dance in outer space, a figure is filmed jumping in such a way that he seems to be jerkily flying a couple of feet above the ground. The sound was recorded as it happened, and we can hear the gasps of the actor as he is caught in the act of jumping over and over. Ogunji describes it as “an exhausting process, but it’s also really fun to try to do this impossible task.”
Ife head walks on water (2009) is a video of an actor performing a similar movement, except instead of jerkily floating about, she is walking on water in a shallow Austin pond. Because each short piece of video was taken right at the moment of contact between the actor’s feet and the water, it appears that she is motoring around on a pond, as water splashes up under her feet.
In April, Ogunji will be performing House of Wahala at Women & Their Work in Austin and DiverseWorks in Houston. House of Wahala is a performed art auction. “The piece grew out of a performance I did at Antioch College called Paint Like a Man. It was me and a couple of students—we did live paintings. And in the evening we auctioned them. I was the auctioneer, and I just loved it so much. It was so thrilling and so much fun.”
For House of Wahala, she chose a group of artists she likes from Austin, Houston, Lagos, Chicago, New York and San Francisco and will be auctioning off paintings by the artists. “In a way I am curating an exhibition of these artists, but also making the auction itself this fun and engaging night,” she explains. “Not only can you see the work and buy work, but there will be moments you can ask questions, there will be a few performances within the larger performance, there’ll be exchanges between me and the audience, so that I can talk about the work and the artist’s creative process as part of the auction itself.”
As she describes it, the piece calls to mind Robert Gober’s small exhibit-within-an-exhibit of work by Forrest Bess that was included in 2012 Whitney Biennial. However, Ogunji is taking this a step further by auctioning off the work she is curating. The auction is the performance.
She points out that auctions are a huge part of the art market, and that she wants “to play into that—not only to access the economics of it, but make the auction an interesting event.” The artists will get either 90% or 100% or the auction proceeds, which is another big difference between an auction at Bonhams or Phillips and the House of Wahala. “Wahala” is a Nigerian slang word for “trouble,” and with these auctions, Ogunji wants to “trouble” the art market.
“House of Wahala” will be performed at Women & Their Work, in Austin, TX. April 15, 2017. http://www.womenandtheirwork.org/
“House of Wahala” will also be performed at DiverseWorks in Houston, TX. April 28, 2017. http://diverseworks.org/
Home page image: Portrait of the artist, courtesy the artist