The multimedia artist started using fashion to escape the militant mundanity of Eastern Bloc Germany, but after discovering her African heritage, she turned it into art.
Zohra Opoku never saw anyone who looked like her until her godmother took her to London from East Germany at 16 years old. "In London I realized that I was one of many," the Accra-based Ghanian/German multimedia artist told i-D during her recent Armory Show appearance in New York. "This kind of experience showed me how important it is that I know where I come from." It was around the time that Zohra started exploring her African roots that she really became interested in fashion. Though she had always seen clothes as a means of self-expression as a teenager growing up in the militantly bland Eastern Bloc GDR. She later studied fashion at University of Hamburg, then used her skills to create art: patchworks of West African textiles, photography, sculpture, screen-printing, and performance that examine fashion's role in African history and culture — and reflect the politics of her own hybrid identity. We talked to the artist about self-discovery, Scandinavian designers, and why she likes to hide in plants.
You earned an MA in fashion design in Hamburg, Germany. Were you always interested in fashion? Did you ever consider going in a more traditional fashion design direction?
Fashion was something that my mother passed on to me. Sewing class in my family was kind of the normal thing. At 13 I was sewing my own designs. I never learned knitting from my mother or my grandmother, but I was using embroidery. After university I had some really cool intern and freelance times at a few Scandinavian brands like Acne Studios and Henrik Vibskov. It taught me that you can be an artist while still enjoying fashion or you can merge those media. I changed my mind about becoming a fashion designer because I wanted to express more than just designing something beautiful. By 2009 I was concentrating only on my own art projects, which was tough in the beginning because I didn't have a regular income.
How did you first start sourcing textiles in Ghana and other West African countries?
I was initially more focused on West Africa and then later Ghana, then I started actually working in Senegal and Nigeria, so I was more looking at masquerade and ceremonial disguise. I included a lot of kente, which looks very graphic. Every kente design has a meaning and I started to use this design in different layers in my work. It was important for me to have the historical knowledge first and then see how today this is shown in a contemporary Africa. My work is an individual twist on this. My father is Ashanti, which is one of the three main ethnic groups in Akans in Ghana. He grew up in a different region but is still connected to the Ashantis. I'm a big fan of the Ashanti kente design and I try to keep this connection by working with it.
How did traveling and learning about your father influence you as a photographer?
In the beginning, I was looking at the different identities of people I met while traveling. Especially other artists and their wardrobes. I used to shoot in front of a black backdrop, but later I wanted to shoot out in nature. It felt organic with the layers of fabric and the layers of nature. When I started to make photographs of myself, I started to look at how I blended in in different spaces where I found myself while traveling. My connection to nature is very strong through both of my parents. I make myself a home within plants. The masquerade theme came through in a natural way. I like having the environment knitted into the image and not just making a frame around me.
I really love the Rhododendron work where the plants are in front of your face, both hiding and revealing.
People who come to the show are really attracted to this particular image. It's crazy, people prefer something that isn't so obvious, something where you have something more to discover. It has a mystical feeling about it and it's kind of a magnet. On one hand it was a great exercise for me, because I don't like to be in front of cameras a lot, but also a really great outcome because people really love it.
Has your own hybrid identity and self-discovery process affected how you see the world as a whole?
Right now, especially in the U.S. compared to all the other places I've been, identity is very important to investigate and understand. Putting people in boxes doesn't work today. Nothing is clear any more and we are very diverse. We all have to understand what is behind us and what defines us. It gives us confidence and helps us to be a community. In Africa, there are more than 50 countries. If you look from the outside, it's all the same, but every country and ethnic group is so special. For instance, an funerals, you hear very modern sounds of hip-hop and afrobeat — it's not just the African drum. You have 80-year-olds dancing to contemporary music. I think this is very beautiful. You still keep up your tradition but you understand that you're a modern African and enjoying this diversity. We need to look around and include things that some years ago we maybe wouldn't have. We are in a very different time right now.
Do you still pay attention to the contemporary fashion world? What do you think about the commodification of African culture in this industry?
Sometimes keeping up with every season is a bit overwhelming and sometimes it's a bit annoying, picking up all the beautiful things in the world and putting them in a collection to make it sell well. Especially with details from Africa. But also there has to be acceptance. There are avant-garde designers I still love to follow, like Bernhard Willhelm, who makes really crazy things. I don't care so much for making money off things that should be preserved. It's a business in the end, but let's be tolerant. That's what I loved about Henrik Vibskov. He's very inventive and very special in the way he's creating his designs. You don't feel like he's stealing, you feel like he's creating a new style. You can recognize that a detail is from a particular religion or culture, but within the design it's a different style, and that's what I like.
Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery