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Notions of Becoming: In Conversation with Ope Lori

POSTED: 13 May 2021

Artist and filmmaker Campbell X speaks with Ope Lori about the politics of sexual and cultural difference in Lori's wider practice and new commission The Lines Between Us / I, Becoming You.

At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Lori returned to her family home in Essex, south-east England. As one of ten artists creating new work for our commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, she staged two new moving image works which explore her relationship with her father: The Lines Between Us (2020) and I, Becoming You (2020). Revisiting their shared lineage of philosophy books, Lori’s performative re-enactments address themes such as family, culture, and diaspora alongside politics of identity, gender, class, privilege and education.

Filmmaker Campbell X has followed Ope Lori’s work over many years. Here, in this in-depth conversation the two artists discuss key themes in these new film works, focusing on politics of identity, sexual and cultural difference, as well as questions of intimacy in Lori’s art practice and the challenges of the education system.

I first met Dr Ope Lori in 2011 when she was about a year into her practice-based PhD at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London. Knowing she was ‘one to watch’, I wrote a piece entitled The Eye of the Beholder for Diva magazine, a publication for LGTBQIA women. A conceptual artist working with moving image and photography, I was moved and impressed by her bravery in addressing taboo issues and anxieties around interracial desire compounded by the differential power between Black and white women in a world that values Eurocentric beauty standards: powerfully realised and subverted in Lori’s artworks such as the triptych Jen and Lucy (2011) and The Four Women and I (2011). In I Want Me Some Brown Sugar, her solo show at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, London, in 2013, she tackled the world of online pornography and racial stereotypes. Since that article, Lori has shown nationally and internationally alongside contemporary artists such as Kara E. Walker and Ayana V. Jackson, her work has been reviewed in leading art journals and publications, and she is the author of the forthcoming book Beyond The Feminine: The Politics of Skin Colour and Gender in Visual Representations (2022, Bloomsbury).

We met virtually in December 2020 to discuss her recent works commissioned for Autograph’s project Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other for which she produced The Lines Between Us and I, Becoming You, described on Autograph’s website as ‘new moving image works that explore a shared lineage of philosophy books the artist and her father had read at different points in their lives’.

Campbell X (CX): I, Becoming You  and The Lines Between Us look like a major departure from your previous work in the sense that they do not deal directly with sex and sexuality as such, but instead focus on you and your relationship with your father.

Ope Lori (OL):
You are right in the sense that with past series of work, there was a concern, not just with sex and sexuality, but with constructions of race and gender, specifically in relation to how black women and white women appear within the same visual frames of reference. I was interested in how masculinity and femininity were assigned to both bodies, whereby blackness was equated to masculinity, as whiteness was to femininity. My work aimed to debunk those historical tropes around skin colour and beauty ideals, in a quite provocative way, utilising homo-erotic imagery, between women. Whilst these new works are less homo-erotic, they do operate on a level of intimacy, which is more personal as they highlight my relationship with my father. I would say that some common threads between past and present works, are still around the performative nature of identity politics and in particular these notions of ‘becoming’; playing as the other, being the other and understanding that these subject positions are always in flux and never fixed. This then enables us to understand the fluid nature of difference, whether that cuts across race, gender, sex or sexuality, familial lineage or even across time.




"Coming ‘home’ brought me closer to understanding my father and his legacies, as well as those legacies relating to our family spirit in a wider sense"


CX: Here we are virtually chatting to each other. How was this new work influenced – if at all – by the pandemic?

OL:
Even though the work, in particular The Lines Between Us, was made during the pandemic, it was actually a piece that I had been thinking of making for some time. I knew I wanted to create a work about my relationship with my father, exploring our connection through books that we both have read and are reading. You could say that being invited to be part of this commission was fortuitous and, in fact, even prophetic. During the first national lockdown in March 2020, I returned to live in my family home, which I had left 14 years previously. Moving back after so many years has been an unexpectedly important thing to have done, both spiritually and in terms of personal growth. Coming ‘home’ brought me closer to understanding my father and his legacies, as well as those legacies relating to our family spirit in a wider sense. In particular, I found myself spending my waking hours in my father’s library, which, interestingly, used to be my childhood bedroom.

CX: Can you say something about why you chose to focus on one book in particular?

OL:
My father’s library has a range of fiction and non-fiction books that cover various themes. The book that stuck out for me was Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) by Paulo Freire. There were three reasons why the book caught my eye. First, the striking aesthetic of its cover – red and yellow – with an image of men in a revolutionary stance. Second, Freire proposes how we might understand and challenge various systems of oppression. Given everything that was happening in the world – the global pandemic; the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests about race inequality and police brutality; the political unrest around Brexit; and the impact of Covid-19 on education, with students in the UK having their A-Level and GCSE exams scrapped in favour of a biased grading system – reflecting on this book felt timely. Finally, the annotations made throughout the book by my father and myself were very clear. In order not to make the piece too long, I decided to read only Chapter 2, which fortuitously speaks about the educational system, encouraging readers to question what we think we know, our ideology and our knowledge. These are matters that my father also raises in the video work I, Becoming You. So these readings, as with Freire’s teachings, are all about raising consciousness, making us more self-aware of the inner and outer workings of oppression.

Ope Lori, The Lines Between Us [still], 2020. Commissioned by Autograph.

CX: Your father is present in both these works, either explicitly in vision, or implicitly by his annotations. You portray a beautiful and loving relationship with your father. In my experience, this is something that is not often seen in media portrayals of Black fathers and Black daughters.

OL:
My father was the sole parent raising four kids, and so stereotypes around Black men being absent in their children’s upbringing were completely debunked for me. Not only was it seen as strange at the time for a man to be bringing up four children by himself but being a Black man seemed to add an extra element of shock for most people. My father flipped the script and always encouraged his children to be strong, independent people regardless of their gender. He was aware of inequalities, but at the same time always pushed us to go beyond them.

Through my father and brother, I always had examples of Black men who were positive role models. I also understood that, as with notions of femininity, masculinity was a social construct, given that my father did not fit into the stereotypical assumptions of Black masculinity. While I was growing up, he did not show his strength through physicality; he was more of a soft talker, but charismatic with his words. I have only later come to realise that my dad’s softer approach was not a sign of weakness, but rather one of strength and confidence in his inner self. Also, my dad is someone who likes to dance: I remember learning how to dance to Itsekiri music – from the Niger Delta – through him. So, you could say that I took on aspects of his persona even then and, funnily enough, I have memories from when I was much, much younger, of me mirroring how my father sat, with his legs open, etc.

CX: Please tell us a bit about that and your own relationship with gender expression? 

OL: I was a tomboy growing up, loved playing football, and generally preferred cars over the dolls that my sisters played with. I think being a lesbian who has predominantly dated femme Black women might also be a result of being brought up solely by my father, and perhaps the fact that my mother was the physical embodiment of this Black femme type that I now seek in my romantic relationships. I am more comfortable being described as masculine-presenting in terms of my gender expression, not because I want to be a man, but because I feel more comfortable being so, in relation to femininity. I have always seen myself as something in-between, hence my use of the term I made up to articulate this, ‘gentlewoman’.

Ope Lori, I, Becoming You [stills], 2020. Commissioned by Autograph.

CX: Thank you for clarifying what ‘masculine-presenting’ means to you. I notice in both works the mise-en-scène is very stylish and formal. How intentional was this as a comment on colonialism? Or did you simply use the existing furniture in your family home?

OL:
Both videos were shot in the living room of the family house. For The Lines Between Us, I wanted to play with specific historical tropes around ‘the male gaze’, such as using the chaise longue, an object often associated in art history with the reclining female nude – seen in works ranging from Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) to Renée Cox’s Baby Back (2001), and also the reclining male nude in Barkley L. Hendricks’s Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs), from 1974. For me, playing with that trope, as a woman who presents in a masculine manner, while ‘becoming’ my father, added to the process of dismantling the trope.

From an aesthetic perspective, I was keen on making a work that was visually striking and very clearly a traditional moving image work. All of my artworks are normally shot inside the studio and always staged; I hardly ever venture out into exterior settings to create work in existing or outdoor spaces. The chandeliers and wall panels have long been a feature of how my father liked to decorate our family homes, so it was important to have these elements visible. They do not necessarily represent an intentional comment on colonialism – or postcolonialism – however I am aware that our house could be read as European, rather than African, especially given the Roman-Greco inspired dados and Greek sculptures present in the living and dining rooms. I would suggest that these are more about class and status; I remember our house looking very different to the homes of friends and relatives when I was growing up and being much admired by others.

CX: You just mentioned class and status: in many circles, upper-class identity or aristocracy is still seen as something fictional when speaking about Black/African people. Can you explore that with me?

OL: My dad has always reminded us about our heritage, especially with regard to our royal lineage in Nigeria. We were astutely aware of this and, as a result, understood the responsibility of being children, and later adults, who have to give back to the larger community. Rather than speak about the real and lived inequalities related to being Black and growing up in Essex, my father routinely spoke to us about being empowered by knowing and taking pride in our heritage and, again, focusing on education.

It is also worth pointing out that my father is a retired gynaecologist, and in terms of the old British system of class, we were seen as having a middle-class upbringing, attending private schools and later studying at postgraduate/doctoral level at prestigious universities in the UK including Cambridge University, Imperial College, Kings College, University College London, Central Saint Martins and Chelsea College of Arts. We were aware of our privilege with regard to education but having access to good schools and colleges was not the defining feature of achieving: we all experienced instances of being held back due to the colour of our skin. However, through my father’s values and his insistence on the importance of knowing about our heritage, he spurred us to not think about these limitations. In doing so, he demonstrated what I now understand as a key element often misunderstood as ‘white privilege’, which actually translates as ‘accumulative advantage’: less about race, and more about wealth and upbringing. Coming to the UK from Nigeria in the late 1970s as a Black African medical doctor, my father faced constant acts of racism – from being rejected for jobs for which he was perfectly qualified to having patients categorically refuse treatment by a Black doctor. Race was a real and lived factor, but he always preached that social mobility, class and education could transcend it; for instance, he would tell me that my PhD will ‘help create and open your own doors, where ones are closed’.




"Wearing his clothes was almost like an unwritten permission, an acceptance of my practice"


CX: You said that wearing your father’s Agbada robe felt risky, more so than your other work that dealt with porn and sexuality? How so?

OL:
Traditionally an Agbada is a long, flowing, wide-sleeved garment worn by men in many West African countries. The ‘female’ version is called a ‘wrapper’, so to wear an Agbada as a woman was already risky for this reason. In Nigeria it would be seen as deviant, although I have lesbian stud friends (women who present more masculine) here in the UK who do so. I knew there was a possibility that the work could be read as a commentary on challenging gender codes through dress or challenging Nigerian culture. From a visual perspective, this may be inevitable, but I do hope that once the work is understood as an homage to my father, these readings will be dispelled to some extent.

Both works are personal and represent a commentary on my relationship with my father: a relationship that has progressed spiritually over time, especially with my father coming to understand both me as a person and my work as an artist. Wearing his clothes was almost like an unwritten permission, an acceptance of my practice, even though he had already given his blessing for this work to be done.

CX: Were you at any point concerned or worried about how he might feel about the work?

OL: I see the work – especially The Lines Between Us – as a collaboration between himself and me, and as with any collaboration, there is always that moment of thinking, ‘will they like it, will they get it?’. Also, I felt a great burden in wanting to ensure this work represented my father accurately and that it should present viewers with the gift of gaining an insight into his knowledge. Therefore, wearing his clothes, and creating a visual homage to him, especially as he is alive and well, was hugely significant to me at this particular moment in time: making the type of work that would normally happen once a parent has passed away. Given our developing bond, it felt more urgent and necessary to do this work now, while he is with us and can get to see the work.

CX: While watching the works I noticed that across the two split screens the readings are timed to perfection.

OL: In a very practical sense, the choreography was staged in that I had allocated specific movements of having to either ‘sit up’, ‘lie down’ or ‘walk up and down’ to specific page numbers in Paulo Freire’s text. The only element over which I had little control was the length of the reading of my copy of the text, and my father’s copy. To keep the reading as natural as possible, I would only read the annotated lines as I ran through the chapter. Each take would start at the beginning of the chapter and finish at the end, regardless of whether I pronounced words incorrectly. I would read the passages as I saw the words.

Reading Chapter 2 of my father’s copy takes only half the amount of time it takes me to read my own copy, highlighting the differences in how we have both come to make sense of what is being read: my father made fewer annotations and underlined only a small number of specific words, whereas I underlined full sentences and even entire paragraphs. As time goes by, the two reading performances – as myself and embodying my dad – become in sync, reflecting that performative nature of becoming over time.

Ope Lori,The Lines Between Us [still], 2020. Commissioned by Autograph.

CX: How do you intend the two works to be experienced by viewers?

OL:
In an exhibition or gallery setting The Lines Between Us is meant to be viewed as two separate video screens in portrait mode; however, for the purpose of online viewing the work appears as a split screen. I often use multiple screens, or two screens/split screens, in my work, which for me relates to the notion of presenting oppositional and multiple ways of seeing any one situation.

Similarly, in I, Becoming You I revisit an earlier video piece that I created in 2007 when I had just moved out of the family home. I am responding to this video 14 years later, and to what my father had said, by rehearsing and repeating the words spoken by him to the best of my own ability. Unfortunately, given that I cannot speak Itsekiri, my father’s native language, there are parts where I can only repeat what my dad says in English. By working with moving image, the editing process became one of the only ways in which I could partake in instigating a dialogue between the two videos and, indirectly, between my father recorded in the past and myself in the present, now intertwined through the bringing together of these multiple lenses.




Campbell X is a writer/director who directed the award-winning queer urban romantic comedy feature film Stud Life, voted by The Guardian as one of the top 10 Black British feature films ever made. It was also in Vogue magazine as one of the best films to watch in 2020, and selected by the British Film Institute as one of the top 8 queer films to view while we were all on lockdown.

Campbell also directed and produced the short film DES!RE, the directed the documentary VISIBLE. Campbell was one of the writers at the Royal Court for My White Best Friend theatre series.

You can follow Campbell on Twitter.

MORE

See the full artist commission by Ope Lori

Read curator Renée Mussai's response to Lori's commissioned works

Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...

Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project

The Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibition is now in development

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Supported using public funding by Arts Council England


Images: from Ope Lori's commission, The Lines Between Us / I, Becoming You, 2020. Film, © and courtesy the artist, commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other: 1, 3-5) Film stills from I, Becoming You, 2020. Film, 5' 4". 2, 6) Film stills from The Lines Between Us, 2020. Film, 16' 11".


Other page images: 7 ) Courtesy Campbell X.