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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.