For Autograph's project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, we commissioned ten UK-based visual artists to create new bodies of work in response to the wider context of the global pandemic. We then invited ten writers – each paired with one of the artists – to produce a short re-flective essay contextualising these new artworks made.
Reflecting on the materiality of nature and the oneness of things, writer and curator Loren Hansi Gordon unpacks the symbolic meanings of Ohiri's new work Equation for Humanity (2020).
Karl Ohiri’s daily walks have led him to reconnect with one of nature’s most unchanging and long-lasting creations; rocks and stones are collections of matter that take shape over thousands of years and maintain their form for thousands more. In their presence Ohiri reflects on what it means to be human.
‘On my walks I would pass trees and stones embedded in the ground, many of them hundreds of years old, a reminder of the passage of time and one’s own mortality.’ (Ohiri, 2020)
In a year that has forced us to slow down, to stand still, to face death’s daily count, time has taken on new meanings. A 100 years on a human scale is a long expanse of life, while in geological terms it is barely an in-breath. Stones and rocks lie where they fall and bear witness.
Here we are in a year that made us feel time differently, all the while hopeful to see another birthday, hearts wrenched out with the thought of all of the many thousands of humans who died this year, due to Covid-19. Faced with mortality humans are abruptly reminded of the materiality of the body, that to the earth we will return. In search of what it means to be human, Ohiri reflects on our relationship to the materiality of nature, and to our fellow humans.
Equation for Humanity (2020) comprises five stones collected from daily walks, each carved with a symbol: I + U = US. Applying deliberate and directed pressure with tools designed like the earliest human technology, Ohiri dislodges particles of chalk, clay or sand to inscribe the letters.
Each stone is a unique shape. The surfaces are uneven with dark lines and worn patches. Like teeth decommissioned, pieces of bone worn down or fragments of the surface of the moon. They hang in a black expanse like future archaeological museum pieces. They float in black space like meteors, messengers from other worlds.
Ohiri’s choice of symbols is deliberately simplistic. Recalling text speech, his message can be read as a playful retort to the impossibility of the task he has set himself: to formulate ‘an equation for humanity’.
The symbols also call to mind the Rastafarian invocation of ‘I’ words. Perhaps simply for typographical reasons, Ohiri does not opt for the more contemporary phrasing of ME + U = US; he instead chose ‘I’ to represent the self in this equation. In the Rastafarian vocabulary ‘I and I’ is a complex phrase describing two beings connected by Jah or God. It represents the concept of total oneness. The prevalence of ‘I’ in Rastafarian syntax is a means of reclaiming a subjective sense of self. ‘I and I’ rejects the word ‘me’, which refers to the speaker as an object. In this way, Rastafarians employ language to distance and dismantle the objectification imposed by slavery.¹ Ohiri’s insertion of ‘I’ in Equation for Humanity (2020) can also be read as a summoning of the self as an individual, freely entering into a relationship with another.
In many cultures, including the Yorùbá culture of West Africa, an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, and our place as humans within a wider environmental system, is a deeply rooted knowledge. Academic John Ayọtunde Iṣọla Bẹwaji explains that: ‘In Yorùbá culture, the environment—gbogbo ohun tí ó ń bẹ lá́yé àti àjùlé ọ̀run (‘everything that exists in heaven and on earth’)—must be understood as the aggregate of surrounding beings, things, conditions, or influences.’²
"Equation for Humanity calls for an awakening to the essential power of unity, not only between humans, but also between humans and the material elements of nature"
In setting out a Yorùbá ecological philosophy, Bẹwaji notes a differentiation between what he calls the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition of environmental anthropomorphic domination’ in which humans dominate over nature, and the ‘Yorùbá cultural intelligence’ in which ‘the question of agency is a universal one which pervades not just the domain of humans, but also animals, plants, and other entities in nature, including the streams, rivers, seas, oceans, wind, clouds, rainfall, sunlight, etc’.³
With agency attributed to all things – I, U, US and the earth we walk on and rocks beneath Ohiri’s inscription – Equation for Humanity (2020) calls for an awakening to the essential power of unity, not only between humans, but also between humans and the material elements of nature.
Further, the result of Ohiri’s equation is the unified ‘US’, involving no separation at all. This oneness of things is explored in contemporary Western philosophy too. For example, the ‘object-oriented ontology’ movement founded by Graham Harman suggests that there can be no real division, or indeed hierarchy, between subject (human) and object (non-human).⁴ Object-oriented ontologies instead allow for an understanding of the human experience in relation to, and in connection with, the environment, ‘that each individual is not a single entity, isolated in the world, but belongs to networks and systems’.⁵
I suggest we might reflect on Ohiri’s commission for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other as a reminder that what it means to be human can only ever be experienced collectively. We are experiencing our humanness in relation to the material world of other beings and nature too. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to recognise this interconnectedness as crucial to our survival – through giving and receiving acts of care and the nourishment we seek within community. Yet, paradoxically, being-together is currently being positioned as our as our biggest threat, through risk of contagion. The ramifications of Covid-19 have held a magnifying glass and pointed the rays of the sun to communities already scorched by systemic inequalities, deepening many societal divides. Equation for Humanity (2020) reminds us that we must respond by coming together. I propose that the headlines are right, but perhaps missing the wider point; we – humans, nature and ‘everything that exists in heaven and on earth’⁶ – are all in this together.
¹ ‘Rastafari Iyaric Language, Vocabulary’, Important.ca, 2005, http://www.important.ca/rastafari_language.html [Accessed 02 February 2021]
² Bẹwaji, J. undated, https://news.clas.ufl.edu/yoruba-values-and-the-environment/ [Accessed 02 February 2021]
⁴ See Harman, G. (2018). Object-oriented ontology a new theory of everything. London: Pelican, an imprint of Penguin Books.
⁵ Roselló, E. ‘De-centred Humanity II’, 2020, http://lab.cccb.org/en/la-humanitat-descentrada-ii/. [Accessed 02 February 2021]
⁶ Bẹwaji, J. undated, https://news.clas.ufl.edu/yoruba-values-and-the-environment/. [Accessed 02 February 2021]
Loren Hansi Gordon is a writer, art curator and designer fascinated by things that connect us, as humans. She is Storytelling & Strategic Comms Consultant at FutureGov, a change agency, on a mission to build 21st-century public sector organisations that are catalysts for change in the internet and climate era.
Hansi’s upcoming exhibition Laced: an exploration of love, labour and liberty will open at New Art Exchange, Nottingham in Autumn 2021. Between 2016-20 Hansi founded and ran Future Assembly, a platform for artists’ development and experimentation that includes a residency, commissioning and exhibitions. Her other recent projects and collaborations include: (Interim) Programme and Digital Content Manager at the Stuart Hall Foundation (2019); co-curating UNTITLED: art on the conditions of our time, New Art Exchange (2017- touring); curating Concerning Symmetry selected artists’ moving image from the Emile Stipp Collection (2016); producing Promised Land, Culture+Conflict (2016), and publishing her first book 9 Weeks with Stevenson (2016).
You can read her personal blog on happiness, friendship and connection in a digital age over on Medium.
See the full artist commission by Karl Ohiri
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