Don’t Miss: Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s ‘Cake’ at Fridman Gallery

Ogunji’s work taps into themes of freedom and self-determination using flying as a metaphor—and a dream for a brighter future.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s characters fly in the Fridman Gallery exhibition Cake, a site-specific thread installation that includes over 20 new works ‘drawn’ on architectural tracing paper with ink and embroidery floss. The gallery itself becomes part of the artwork, with floor-to-ceiling stitching that “turns the space itself into a drawing that viewers can enter, a container for collective experience,” according to a statement.

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A view of a gallery installation featuring texture and embroidery works.
Ogunji’s pieces are striking in their simplicity. Photo by Adam Reich

Water features prominently in the American-Nigerian visual and performance artist’s pieces, which feature deep navy and dark blue swirls, adding drama to her compositions. White space, shimmers, and iridescent thread in works like The one where we’re all together (2023) work to create an ethereal and immersive experience that draws the eye to minute details in Ogunji’s fantastical scenes, like repeated depictions of music. The figures rarely touch the ground, running, jumping, gliding and floating through water or abundant negative space. Their bodies look weightless, as if they could be carried by the wind or current, but also substantial and determined. Ogunji’s collection invites viewers to consider a recurring myth in Black American culture: that of Black people finally regaining their natural ability to soar.

In I found myself inside myself (2023), clothes flow from the character’s shoulders, becoming more expansive as the ink extends to the paper’s edge. The lines and strokes imply the movement of a river, and the artist juxtaposes these inky swirls with the sparsely outlined incorporeal bodies. The larger drawn body in the foreground, perhaps a woman, wears what looks like a turban with a DJ’s turntable balanced on top. She seems mighty, propping up a floating head like a deity or river god. The recursive title contextualizes the scene. “Self” and “I” could refer to either figure. Here, the physical or the psychological self connects with and emerges from a spiritual body.

A textile work of a woman with embroidery hair.
‘Everything was lost and found,’ 2023. Image courtesy the artist and Fridman Gallery

Many of Ogunji’s works feature some combination of beautiful sea-toned blues, but several showcase brighter colors such as neon orange, rose pink and lavender. Yet the mood of the artist’s pieces can be severe, as in Once again a dj saved my life (2023), where the stormy waves overtake much of the brightly colored streaks and surround the figures at or below sea level. Or, as with Hurry! I brought cake, a playful scene where Ogunji draws one figure with ink and the other with thread. Both run from a multi-colored tiered structure on the right. One head turns back to what could be a home, while that on the right faces whatever it is both bodies are running toward. The artist has a knack for portraying movement, a split self or an attached spirit—the cake referenced in the title balances atop a figure’s head.

Despite the various moods, all the show’s works deliberately explore what it means to be free. The bodies, moving or gliding, are not slouched. Their postures show strength and pride. In The Runners (2023), a woman’s muscular biceps hold water. Ogunji’s runners are strong, leaning forward as they move into the wind efficiently. Spread across three panels, the runner in (2023) puffs out their chest and lifts their chin like a track star finishing first in a dash. More awkwardly,  But, sky (2023) shows a human floating at the bottom of a vertically arranged tableau with their head facing streaks of color arching above, yet regardless of orientation, everyone in Ogunji’s works move effortlessly.

Perhaps deliberately? According to African American folklore, Black people are born with the ability to fly but can’t access that ability because they have been taught or forced to reject their heritage. An early telling of this myth harkens back to the nineteenth century. In 1803, seventy-five Igbo warriors took over a vessel during the Middle Passage, driving their captors overboard before landing the slave ship on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. Knowing their fate, the bound warriors gave themselves up to the water. Most official records call the incident a mass suicide. However, the Gullah people learn that the warriors in Igbo’s Landing sang as they walked and then flew back to Africa.

Four framed textile art pieces hanging on a wall.
An installation view of Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s Fridman Gallery exhibition. Photo by Adam Reich

The Great Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project interviewers collected oral histories recounting rumors or sightings of enslaved men becoming fed up and flying off the plantations at night. More recently, Beyonce’s Love Drought music video, Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, Lucinda Roy’s series Flying the Coop and Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust all interpreted the folklore as a lesson about African Americans accepting their heritage. Acceptance allows Black people to move without oppression’s weight.

A textile work featuring two men running.
‘Faster,’ 2020. Image courtesy the artist and Fridman Gallery

Ogunji’s work taps into these themes again using flying as a metaphor for freedom. A film about freedom (2023) makes this connection explicit. A figure soars across the page, their reflection shimmering below, suggesting they can run or fly across the water. The rising sea I’ll meet you there incorporates music into the imagery of flight with eighth notes dangling from the necks of two heads. Orange rays reach from one face’s mouth through three flying bodies.

Overall, Ogunji’s collected works as displayed here imagine that freedom: a world where all Black people move without fear or restraint across all terrains: land, sky, and air.

Cake is on view at Fridman Gallery through June 17.

Don’t Miss: Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s ‘Cake’ at Fridman Gallery