Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle is giving German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku her first solo show on the West Coast.
The contemporary African art scene is largely an unknown quantity on our shores — which is why we’re lucky to have Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle bringing notable African artists our way.
Past highlights have included the extraordinary photography of gay Kenyan artist Jimmy Chuchu and Senegal-based Fabrice Monteiro. Now, with “Harmattan Tales,” Ibrahim is giving German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku her first solo show on the West Coast.
Opoku’s work has been exhibited in Dubai, Cape Town and various U.S. venues, as well as in Accra, Ghana, where she has been based since 2011. Born in 1976, she was raised on the communist side of the Iron Curtain by her East German mother. In an interview with the online publication OkayAfrica, Opoku revealed that she had no contact with her Ghanaian father until she was an adult.
Zohra Opoku: “Harmattan Tales”
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays, through March 17. Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, 608 Second Ave., Seattle (206-467-4927 or www.marianeibrahim.com)
“Until I was 13 I hadn’t seen black people at all,” she said. “So I was very much an outsider.”
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Her work is an unusual hybrid of fabric art and photography. Her recent show, “Unraveled Threads,” won the inaugural Presents Booth Prize last year at New York’s Armory Show, the city’s leading art fair. In “Threads,” Opoku’s screen prints on cotton incorporated family photographs and archival material, enhanced with thread, Kente cloth, wool and acrylic paints as she explored her African heritage.
“Harmattan Tales” — the title refers to the dry northeasterly winds that blow from the Sahara across West Africa in winter — takes a more focused look at what it means to be a woman in the African Muslim world. In her artist’s statement, she says the show is “a continuation, for me, of this experience of being limited by my identity.”
It falls into three distinct parts.
In eight self-portraits, Opoku traces the concealments and exposures afforded by the veil. In a large color photograph, “Momentum at Westlegon” (the name of a neighborhood in Accra), Opoku strides powerfully down a dark dirt lane, her head turned in seeming challenge toward the viewer. It takes a moment to realize she’s nude beneath the body-length, black-lace finery she’s wearing. The piercing quality of her eyes contradicts the scrim-like effect of her clothing.
Half a dozen monochrome screen prints on cotton offer further concealment/exposure variations. In “Sheltered” and “Secretive,” her body is hidden, while in “Bridal” and “Undercovered” it’s startlingly visible. Regardless of how much or how little her garments reveal, her eyes speak to you with raw, protectionless candor. The connection she makes, no matter how ambivalent, is electric.
The second part of the show consists of portraits of other women, in monochrome screen prints on cotton ornamented with colorful thread. In “Raddiya,” a partially visible woman stands at the far left of the image, highlighted in orange threads that hang from the bottom of the fabric. Opoku catches her in a quiet moment in a courtyard, on some cusp between approaching and withdrawing.
The final component in the show is a three-screen video installation, “Before the Prayer/After the Prayer.” The largest screen follows a veiled woman through the alleys of a city neighborhood, presumably in Accra. The woman looks back at the camera occasionally — whether mistrustfully or curiously is hard to say. While it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of these alleyways and the people who wander them, “Prayer” doesn’t match the discipline or invention of Opoku’s screen-print pieces.
Still, the show leaves you eager to see what other venturesome work Ibrahim will bring from Africa.