Autograph's senior curator Renée Mussai reflects on Ope Lori’s transgressive double performance in her new artist commission.
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 reflective essay contextualising the new artworks made.
For her artist commission, Lori produced two film works entitled The Lines Between Us and I, Becoming You that explore the artist’s relationship with her father through the prism of their shared lineage of philosophy books. Taking Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire’s seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) as a point of departure, the two interconnected multi-screen moving image works address complex themes ranging from family, culture, diaspora to politics of identity, gender, class, privilege and education.
Below, curator Renée Mussai, who has been in dialogue with the artist throughout the commissioning process, reviews Ope Lori’s transgressive double performance – as father, and daughter – in these works, considering the films’ multiple discursive dimensions in the context of Freire’s conception of changing human consciousness, dialogical action and performative re-enactments.
A split screen: two copies of Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire’s seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). The camera lingers on the book’s respective opening pages: the right side blank, the left with a lengthy inscription that begins with ‘To Daddy’ – a beautiful letter, from daughter to father, acknowledging the gift ‘to question and dare to do the unthinkable’...
An empty room: darkly lit, an opulent chandelier, a white chaise longue. Both lavish and minimalist, the interior decor is suggestive of material wealth and carnal pleasures, neoclassic boudoirs, affluent Victorian parlours, or the French rococo period, and concomitant painterly – feminine – connotations of artists’ muses, reclining nudes and male gazes in Western art.
Ope Lori appears – twice – dressed in her father’s Agbada, a West African garment traditionally worn by men, her feet bare… the opening mis-en-scène’s stillness now a cacophony of voices, as fragmentary passages from Chapter 2 of Freire’s Pedagogy are recited in each frame, and fingers trace annotated pages. Words, sentences and passages are underlined by the artist’s, and her father’s, hands: progressive ideas of education as liberation, grounded in post-Marxist critical theory.
‘Knowledge’, Freire writes, ‘emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.’ Social concepts of ‘conscientization’ (a neologism coined by Freire) – or critical consciousness – and humanisation, the latter understood as an ongoing, ontological process of ‘becoming’, reside at the core of his philosophy: ‘for apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human’.²
In Lori’s new moving image works, commissioned for Autograph’s Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other series in 2020, the notion of ‘becoming’ is playfully evoked, both in the performative readings of Freire’s foundational text in The Lines Between Us and the archival re-enactments in I, Becoming You.
"What ensues is a polyvocal play between language, expression and mimicry"
Here, the artist’s father becomes the muse: a doctor and lifelong student of philosophy, who emigrated from Nigeria to Britain in the 1970s, practising gynaecology at a time when many still refused to be treated by non-white medical physicians. We first ‘meet’ him in I, Becoming You speaking directly to the camera, as Lori imitates his mannerisms and taped monologues, partly spoken in his native Itsekiri, and partly in English… What ensues is a polyvocal play between language, expression and mimicry – between the here and now, then and there – between him and her, between them, their voices, faces and bodies, between silences and utterances, actions and reflections. In this profoundly personal dialogue between father and daughter, loss of language and cultural displacement become poignant signifiers of migrant life, as they contemplate conditions of existence and identity formations, traditional family units, and the tools required for self-determination. In so doing, they echo, quietly, Freire’s conception of changing human consciousness, and Hallean sentiments on diasporic ruptures and cultural identities in flux, undergoing constant transformation.
Filmed in isolation [during the first national lockdown] at the family home in Essex, in south-east England, to which Lori returned at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic after 14 years away, these new works are a reflection on the performative nature of becoming and belonging: as an artist who is both female and more masculine-presenting, Lori further complicates this narrative on familial lineage through subtle queering gestures, softly blurring the lines between self/other – undoing binary demarcations separating heterosexuality from homosexuality, or those delineating masculinity and femininity. Thus, this visual play is, crucially, also about looking, acting and – in the literal sense – reading differently: the question of difference is expressed by both the similarities and variances in their respective page annotations, further emphasised by the durational difference in the performative twin readings [of Freire’s text] in The Lines Between Us.
In both works the use of multiple screens and split/dual action reflects core principles of Freirean theory, where learning and teaching are intrinsically entwined. Simultaneously, Lori invites us to explore myriad modes of seeing, hearing and reading: her screens become cerebral image planes, animated by coexistent sensory stimulations that incite saccadic eye movements as fragments of information appear and reappear – words such as ‘transformation’ or ‘isolation’ and ‘future’ – along with reoccurring references to the ‘banking model’: a key concept introduced by Freire to critique the traditional education system and its dialectic notion of educators as ‘depositors’ and students as ‘receptacles’. Freire’s theory of dialogical action is put into praxis in Lori’s transgressive double performance – as father and daughter, as student and teacher, parent and child – moving in and out of sync in a series of choreographed movements mirrored across the two screens: reading to each other, for each other, with each other; self and other, in dialogue, acting, reflecting… until her reading becomes a soliloquy; and solitude, as the artist’s father posits in I, Becoming You, constitutes an essential prerequisite for the path to personal liberation.
"this visual play is, crucially, also about looking, acting and – in the literal sense – reading differently"
The Lines Between Us and I, Becoming You not only open up multiple discursive dimensions – class, gender, privilege; race, space, place; family, culture, diaspora – linking postcolonial studies, critical pedagogy, identity politics and queer feminisms, but also situate Lori’s performance firmly in the present. Considering the devastating impact of Covid-19 – educational and otherwise – and the deep societal inequalities and disparities exposed by the pandemic, how might we today draw remedial agency from Freire’s revolutionary ideas to transform this new reality, in pursuit of humanist practices of freedom and social justice? How might we re/activate different forms of socio-political, personal and pedagogical actions to institute social change, both collectively and individually, and develop transformative tools to transcend continually widening societal divisions: the eponymous lines between us...?
Calling on the trans-disciplinarity of her own agential praxis as artist, scholar, and educator committed to the dissemination – transmission, transmutation, transformation – of knowledge, Lori has created a moving tribute ‘To Daddy’: an articulation of love and gratitude from a daughter to her father, poignantly conveyed in the opening sequence of The Lines Between Us: ‘In essence’, the artist writes in her dedication, ‘your teaching, like the message of this book, has led to the liberation of my soul and heart’.
¹ The title ‘In My Father’s House’ references Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), as well as Donald Rodney’s photographic artwork entitled In the House of My Father (1997).
² Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). New York: Continuum Books, 1993.
Renée Mussai is a London-based curator and scholar with a special interest in African and diasporic lens-based visual arts practices. She is Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial & Collection at Autograph, where she has worked for almost two decades, advocating for a diverse constituency of contemporary artists and co-commissioning a range of artistic programmes.
She lectures regularly on photography, visual culture, and curatorial activism and her art writing has been published in several monographs and anthologies including by TATE, Aperture, and NkA. Mussai is also Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg; Associate Lecturer at University of the Arts London, and regular guest curator and former Fellow at the Hutchins Centre for African & African American Research at Harvard University.
See the full artist commission by Ope Lori
Read Notions of Becoming, a conversation between Lori and filmmaker Campbell X
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
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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 [detail] and 2) Film stills from The Lines Between Us, 2020. Film, 16' 11".
3) Renée Mussai, with Zaki by Zanele Muholi, 2021. Courtesy Renée Mussai.
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