Artist Zohra Opoku seamlessly blends the mediums of textiles and photography to explore the complexities of identity. Opoku, an artist of Ghanaian and German descent, grew up in East Germany and currently lives and works in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. She studied both fashion and photography, and her work explores composites — of mediums, of continents and cultures, of humans and the natural world, and of women’s interior lives and exterior presentations.
In much of her practice, Opoku prints images directly onto textiles using screenprinting and other print techniques. In an interview with Hyperallergic, she described how her process reflects her works’ symbolism: “The material literally absorbs the photographic image, demonstrating how in society material can become imbued with meaning, memories, and histories over time.”
In three series from 2018, Harmattan Tales UAE, Harmattan Tales Self-Veil, and Harmattan Tales Ghana, Opoku explores a particular textile — the veil. “Harmattan” refers to the dry season in West Africa, when dusty winds from the Sahara Desert create distinct weather. The series titles suggest that the veil might serve a practical purpose. “Poetically, I love to understand the veil as a protection shield as it covers almost everything and provides small loopholes to look to the outside but also to the inside,” she said.
In Harmattan Tales Self-Veil, she plays with the idea of visual access by consistently covering at least part of her face and sometimes revealing a nude torso. When her body is completely concealed, lush fabrics and patterns evoke a mood or personality. Opoku also treats the veil with the political complexity it demands. For Harmattan Tales UAE, she spent time with three women, “following them with gentle curiosity to capture moments and situations, focusing on the politics and aesthetics of the hijab, a detail which is to me both stunning and disruptive.” The resulting works, printed on large textiles, show the women’s faces alongside or layered with architecture, landscapes, or abstract visuals. In Harmattan Tales Ghana she applies thread, lace, and beads to the textiles, enhancing their materiality, adding figurative dimension, and grounding the images in culture and place. The resulting collaged portraits are visually heterogenous, expanding the women’s depictions much beyond basic portraiture.
Opoku’s self-portraits are printed in color on photo rag and in black-and-white on paper and textiles. Her face is often obscured by the natural world. “I am interested in using greenery and the interplay with hidden or partly covered faces… to keep a level of curiosity about what we cannot see,” she explained. “It stands for an identity constantly changing, adapting, and searching to fit in. Also, to stand out to become one with the backdrop, blending in, moving, and transcending. That is the embodiment of a global identity.” In these lush images nature is a type of veil, a compelling and unusual metaphor to explore contemporary identity and humans’ relationship to the natural world.
Opoku is one of the 16 artists chosen for the inaugural year of Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal residency. The first season began in June 2019 and continues through February 2020; each resident stays for one to three months. Opoku’s thematic concerns dovetail with the residency’s mission “to support new artistic creation by promoting conversations and collaborations that are multigenerational, cross-cultural, international, and cross-disciplinary” and to take its “physical location as a point of departure to incite change in the global discourse around Africa in the context of creative evolution.”
Opoku’s sensitive and nuanced consideration of female, cultural, and cross-cultural identities are highly personal and profoundly politically relevant. Her work engages with the viewer without becoming didactic. Grounded in process, its complex materiality and visuals compel.