Paper As Body

A Conversation Between ruby onyinyechi amanze and Wura-Natasha Ogunji

Wura-Natasha Ogunji is a visual artist and performer. Her works include drawings, videos, and public performances. Her hand-stitched drawings, made on architectural trace paper, reference the daily interactions and frequencies that occur in the city of Lagos. ruby onyinyechi amanze is a visual artist whose practice is primarily centered around drawing and works on paper.

This Enumerate grew out of an ongoing conversation between these two artists, who have been exchanging writings about drawing and their drawing process for over two years, and now speak in a more focused way about Ogunji’s new body of work.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji: I’ve been thinking about this question for a few weeks now: Do we shape the world? And in the context of drawing, I wonder if the mark on the page has reverberations in the world? The question is significant for me in this moment, because for a long time I’ve held the belief that artists have a responsibility to do more than just reflect something about the world, that there should be a kind of shaping or making, an expansion, a making of theory.

ruby onyinyechi amanze: Your drawings are reflections just by virtue of you being human. I’m not sure it’s possible for the work we make as artists not to be reflective in some way. But that’s different from work that simply observes or documents. Your work doesn’t do that. To some extent, I agree that there has to be some responsibility. I think that of all professions equally. No one group of people are single-handedly responsible for changing the world. But on the other side of responsibility, I think there’s freedom without attachment. In an ideal world, it should just exist as its own right. Not free to x, or freedom because y or freedom when z — just freedom.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Blue Generators. 2014, Thread, graphite, ink on trace paper, 25 x 24 inches.

In that space, I see that art doesn’t always need qualifiers. At least not in the intention that happens in the studio. Of course, when it enters the world, hopefully it will participate in so many conversations and quite literally shift and expand consciousness…shape the world. But to sit down with that weight is another thing entirely. I remember once you said, that sometimes a water keg (like the ones that repeatedly occur in your drawings) needs to be connected to generators. Absolutely! That’s freedom. And the demonstration of such freedom, in ways that feel genuine to who we are (and to the expression of our hands as artists) I think is part of how the world shifts.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, The end of beautiful. 2015, Thread, ink, graphite on trace paper, 24 x 24 inches.

Wura: I just started reading this book Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century (Kevin Fong, M.D. 2014) and in it he says, “Life at the extremes can be life saving.” For example, he writes about how the extreme of war was so important in advances to heart surgery. That extraordinary condition of war pushed doctors to try things they wouldn’t have imagined or attempted. I think about that in the context of the city of Lagos, how the extremes push people in all kinds of ways. These drawings emerge from that place. And I wonder if in the expression of the tension — between beauty and struggle, for example—we are able to expand as human beings?

ruby: I’m interested in the idea of tension as it relates to your work. Also beauty of course, but I think on the surface that’s easier to digest. But for some, hearing or reading the word tension alongside seeing your images, there might be a question as to how or where it plays a role. How is it evident, if at all? There is a species of tension that doesn’t crash like waves or trumpet itself in a brass ensemble. The tension that is unassuming but just as, if not more, potent. I think, that’s what’s interesting in your work. There are these simple complexities that keep asking for more. Beauty in art has been called by many names. All of which come back to some amount of frivolity or ease. But your drawings aren’t that kind of beautiful. Neither is Lagos. The tension certainly exists, but why isn’t it making any noise?

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, River. 2015, Thread, ink, graphite on trace paper, 60 x 24 inches (4 panels).

Wura: Noise, as in more of a disruption?

ruby: Yes, noise as in a disruption. But the tension in your work feels harmonious. Like Lagos, you have this way of balancing such extremities within the same plane. The dimensional density of the black birds versus the seemingly flat, but also expansive absences. The violent or precarious act of falling somehow being the same thing as flying or soaring above. Surfaces that simultaneously read as deep, swallowing holes and also radiating halos or satellites. Lagos has these extremes, but the subtlety of them — the quiet tensions — aren’t seen on the surface. Like with River, is the person dead or are they levitating? To the outsider’s eye, Lagos appears only as one extreme—chaos, which we understand to be loud or aggressive, saddening or maddening. But in reality there are really open moments where the seeming chaos is actually just a dance. Your drawings straddle that kind of suggestive space.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Even the dj must die. [I thought he was just flying backwards.] 2015, Thread, ink, graphite on trace paper, 60 x 24 inches (4 panels).

Wura: I like this idea of a dance. The way people move through space is collective choreography. We walk so differently in Lagos. Cars have the right of way, of course, and this means that people cross streets in waves; it’s this flowing dance of bodies. In the U.S. there is a stopping and starting to the moving of people in the context of cars. Often cars stop for people to cross streets. I am fascinated by how our physical movements and gestures embody societal rules and expectations.

Since I’m working both in Nigeria and the U.S. I think a lot about how images are read on either side of the Atlantic. You can explain a situation or try to translate but that is never adequate. And the difference in meaning can be quite significant. Is the dj dead or is he flying backwards? These states of being are completely different, even opposite experiences. I find that amazing…that you can have such a different experience of the world, that the making of meaning is so embedded in geography. Like living in a place weighted with racism and blackness and then traveling to a place where race doesn’t exist.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Detail of Or maybe he’s sleeping on that pile of stones. 2015, Thread, ink, graphite on trace paper, 60 x 24 inches (2 panels).

ruby: I know what you mean and it’s such a bizarre phenomenon! I’d like to shift gears a little and talk about process. I’m thinking of the lightness of the trace paper in relationship to ideas of permanence and weight. Trace paper could be described as delicate, but I don’t think that word accurately describes the drawings. How do your materials relate to content and the process of making the drawings?

Wura: The paper never feels delicate to me while I’m working with it. I’ve always liked how the stitch, the thread makes the line three-dimensional. It gives it weight. But there is certainly a sense of lightness and delicacy in the finished drawings. I’m not so fond of this. Perhaps I want them to have more physical weight in the world, to be louder in the material sense. I sometimes wonder if this is because I am spending so much time in Lagos. There’s little space for subtlety or that which is quiet. Living in this city requires that you take space and take up space. Otherwise you wouldn’t survive.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Three Birds. 2015, Thread, ink, graphite on trace paper, 24 x 24 inches.

ruby: Something I love about your drawings, is that they do have a physical presence to them. I remember being taken when I first saw some of your drawings moving in space. I know the discourse around what a drawing can be has evolved greatly, but in the traditional sense drawings didn’t move! They were frozen in time. Does any of that need to occupy space, in regards to Lagos, or the multiple geographies of your practice play a role in the movement? Can you talk a bit about what brought you to that place in the work?

Wura: More recently I have become interested in the drawing as an object. One thing I have always loved about this trace paper is that it moves. You can see it especially in the larger works. The flow of air in a gallery moves them. It’s a slow, measured kind of movement, like breathing.

ruby: Given your dual practices of drawing and performance, ‘paper as body’ seems a lovely way of bridging the two.

Wura: It happens when people walk into the gallery or it could be from the airflow in the room. I’ve begun to experiment with this, making it more obvious and rapid through the use of a fan. The paper becomes like a body, or a performer.

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