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What it Means to be Human: In Conversation with Karl Ohiri

POSTED: 03 June 2021

How do we reflect on the importance of care and community within a globalised world? Artist Karl Ohiri speaks with Bindi Vora about the process of producing his new commission for our Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other project.

At the core of Karl Ohiri’s enquiry for his new commission Equation For Humanity (2020), he considers what it means to be human. During his daily lockdown walks, Ohiri collected stones which later were inscribed with his “optimistic message during this time of global crisis”: I + U = US.

Autograph’s curatorial project manager Bindi Vora spoke with Ohiri to unpack some of the symbolic meanings of his new work, reflecting on collective modes of being while in isolation, and nurturing an optimism that can sustain future generations.

Bindi Vora (BV): Your practice is multifaceted. You are interested in aspects of visual culture and sociological ideas, but often the ideas with which you engage also connect on a very personal, autobiographical level and explore elements of human existence, its conditions and our behaviours. Why are you interested in these ideas and narratives?

Karl Ohiri (KO):
I have always been interested in the human condition; it is a topic that has fascinated me and helped me make sense of the world. This interest has naturally found its way into my art practice over the years and has led me to analyse my own personal experiences relating to family, love, death, memory and otherness. By exploring such themes within my work, I look for overlapping areas of commonality and difference and try to present them to the public in imaginative ways. The dialogues that come out of my work are as important as the work itself, as these conversations they allow for a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.



"the world shut down and stopped, providing the much-needed space in which to reflect on the importance of solidarity and collective modes of being"


BV: There seems to be a desire, in particular, to reflect on the importance of care and community within a globalised world, considering the multiple challenges we face – from ongoing conflicts and climate change to the current global pandemic. At the core of your proposal for this commission is your keenness to pursue an Equation for Humanity. What drew you to solving or following this line of enquiry in relation to this new normal in which we find ourselves?

KO:
I wanted to create a new work that has an optimistic message during this time of global crisis. One positive impact of Covid-19 is that it has forced the world to consider how we can care for one another as a society. As the pandemic was breaking out and causing us to isolate in our homes, the world shut down and stopped, providing the much-needed space in which to reflect on the importance of solidarity and collective modes of being.

I wanted to take this sentiment and use it to find a formula that could make a statement that would go beyond the pandemic and look at the wider problems we face today: from plastic-filled oceans, global warming and ongoing conflicts, to the racially motivated violence that led to the death of George Floyd and the protests that were taking place around the world while the work was being developed.




BV: I would like to refer back to a previous work of yours, A Year in Protest (2018), a work that responded to the anthropolitical landscape in which protest became the inspiration for you to share a dialogue and create a silent resistance in some way. Do you think the equation is the counter to that and could be seen as a provocation for action?

KO:
Most definitely. A Year in Protest was very much about the idea of silent protesting, a form of protesting that deliberately had no physical or virtual audience so as to allow a freedom of expression that was protected from immediate scrutiny and online trolling (if only for a year). Equation for Humanity (2020) is the opposite; it is not about taking an inactive stand but rather asks for a call to action, provoking an urgency that asks the viewer to be more conscious of our interconnected lives.

BV: Moments of interaction with nature and of having a sense of freedom within the restrictions imposed on us are a key element in this work. What was the process like for you to make a work responding to something happening around us all?

KO:
Making the work during lockdown was a very liberating experience for me. The government’s restrictions forced me to reflect on all the good things that were present in my life and to appreciate the small everyday aspects. I spent more time playing with my daughter and speaking to family and friends. I would go on local walks and enjoy the nature that was flourishing around me. If I encountered other people on my walks we would smile and acknowledge each other in an unassuming gesture that spoke a thousand words. Simply communicating: ‘I am with you’. Thinking more philosophically about the world in such apocalyptic times made me consider what lies at the core of humanity. What could humanity hold on to and cherish? What message would we want to pass on to the civilisation of tomorrow?

On my walks I would pass trees and stones, some of them hundreds of years old, a reminder to the passage of time and one’s own mortality. I started to collect the stones as little mementoes of my journeys. It was these stones I would later use in my final piece.



"It was important for me that the work not only existed as an image, but also as a three-dimensional object that one could hold, touch and feel a trace of humanity on the surface"


BV: Circling back to the equation, on one level it has a distinct simplicity: 'I + U = US'. On another level, however, I think it serves as a stark reminder of our collective responsibility that perhaps extends beyond the global pandemic. You have often spoken about the notion of people being interconnected and having obligations as we navigate this situation. What are you hoping to achieve with this work?

KO:
I + U = US was a quest to find an equation that could solve many of humanity’s problems. Due to the sociological complexities of our existence, the work was always meant to be a tongue-in-cheek piece due to the scale of the task presented. However, the formula I arrived at in the end arguably has a degree of legitimacy as it highlights our shared existence and positions the ‘I’ and the ‘U’ as a single entity: one that forms the basis for a society that loves more, cares more and is more compassionate towards one another. The equation may not be something that solves what humanity is in its absolute form, but instead offers an equation ‘for’ humanity to contemplate what it means to be human, providing a renewed sense of collective hope for today and for tomorrow’s generation.

BV: As we look at this work in progress it becomes apparent that the physical inscription is imperative to the reading of the work. I read it in a very palpable sense, perhaps a kind of touch memory and a craft that predates our existence. Why was it important to you to carve the individual symbols of the equation into the rocks you collected?

KO:
The carving became an important symbolic act as it encapsulated a primitive practice that has long been part of humanity. Inscribing into natural stone goes back thousands of years and is common to our collective history, one that can be found in all regions of the world connecting us together. Carving the equation in stone was very much about using my own hands to make a permanent statement on a surface that would outlive my existence. It was important for me that the work not only existed as an image, but also as a three-dimensional object that one could hold, touch and feel a trace of humanity on the surface, reminding us of our humble beginnings and our essential need to communicate.

MORE

See the full artist commission by Karl Ohiri

Read writer Loren Hansi Gordon's response to Equation for Humanity

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


Banner image: Works from Karl Ohiri's commission Equation for Humanity, 2020. Digital Black & White Fibre-Based Gloss Prints, each 12 x 16 inches. © and courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other: 1) I, 2020. 2) +, 2020. 3) U, 2020. 4) =, 2020. 5) US, 2020.

Images on page: 6 and 7) Archival clamshell box for housing the stones and photographic prints. Archival Box made by Riikka Kassinen / Designed by Riikka Kassinen & Karl Ohiri. Dimensions: L 53.8cm W 32.3 cm D 4.5 cm.