On ViewNicola Vassell Gallery
March 17 – April 30, 2022
Frida Orupabo’s solo show at Nicola Vassell Gallery, Closed Up Like a Fist, is a visual encounter with the hauntings of the Black Atlantic archive. Drawing from a rich tradition of literary and visual archives that have aimed to salvage Black femmes from fossilized narratives, Orupabo’s exhibition reads as a cartography of Black femme precarity, delicately pinned up by the resolve to survive. Based in Oslo, Frida Orupabo carefully constructs collages of femme figures at scale, neatly layering paper cutouts to create delicate multidimensional compositions. The images that form Orupabo’s collages have their origin in colonial archives, each composition representing a multitude of decades, each figure embodying multiple generations of yearning and survival. Suspended by subtle silver pins that place the composition in a delicate balance between glass and paper, Orupabo’s figures extend outwards like flower petals. The angularly positioned feet form a representation of the ambulatory possibilities of Black femme fugitivity, while the gazes evince the uncertainty of escape, a gendered condition of immobility within the Black Atlantic archive.
Drawing from Gayl Jones’s 1975 novel Corregidora, Frida Orupabo sits in conversation with the literary archive, particularly the Black feminist tradition which has aimed to salvage Black women’s narratives of dispossession and sexual trauma. “They took my milk,” says Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), recounting how she was forced to nurse grown men for pleasure.1 Gayl Jones’s character Ursa, the protagonist of Corregidora, similarly laments the horror of “when they squeezed my womb out,” after her jealous lover’s act of gendered violence.2 “Silence in my womb. My breasts quiver like old apples,” Ursa says in the novel.3 Evoking this history of dispossession, Frida Orupabo mines the archive for disembodied bellies, severed chests, and grieved gazes, communicating the perpetuity of dispossession, or how the body retains memory within its genetic makeup.
The title of the exhibition draws from Gayl Jones’s Corregidora. Recalling how her mother and grandmother simultaneously revealed and withheld stories of their sexual abuses, Ursa says of her mother:
I could see her strong eyes full of fury, what she’d kept so long. And I kept waiting for her to tell me, but she wouldn’t tell me. Sometimes I’d try to feel it out of her with my eyes, but I couldn’t get it. She was closed up like a fist. It was her own memory, not theirs, her very own real and terrible and lonely and dark memory.4
From this opaque and vacuous pit of memory, contradictions emerge within the body, contradictions that confuse pain with pleasure, refusal with fetish. This uncomfortable encounter with the archive of sexual violence positions Orupabo’s subject within a somatic refusal to become one’s trauma. But, just as one might reflect about Toni Morrison’s character Pecola in The Bluest Eye (1970), how does the dispossessed body emerge from its own trauma? Does it emerge disheveled and “ruined,” or does it emerge as a contestation of the social death that abuse might prelude?5
Rather than creating redemptive narratives, Frida Orupabo depicts subjects who are both brazen and vulnerable; animated and subdued. Her piece Waiting (all works 2022) is a powerful depiction of the desire to preserve the vulnerable self. The subject in Waiting lays cradled, large bat wings spread open across her back. While the bat wings are wide enough to conceal the subject’s torso, arms, and breasts, her bottom is eerily left exposed, evincing the unspeakable horrors of the archive—the vulnerability of the winged subject. The paper bat wings, which resemble garbage bags tied onto sticks for kites, are crumbled at the center, producing an enigmatic object with two hanging limbs and protruding veins. The object’s animus is left vague by their obscure shape, evoking the representation of a child unborn or a child lost. The composition of Waiting evokes the story of Ursa herself, who at the end of Corregidora lays with her back positioned against her abuser, the vulnerable protagonist forcibly broken in by her lover’s unregulated and perverse desires.
In her pieces September, Comfort, and White Shoes , Orupabo seems to draw themes from “the Melrose woman” in Corregidora, who commits suicide on account of unrequited love. “Had to be some man,” Ursa’s grandmother comments. “I ain’t never known a woman take her life less it was some man.”6 In particular, Orupabo’s September depicts the duality of fetish and sabotage by layering an erotic image of a dancer’s legs with an illustrated torso of a sword piercing through the subject’s bosom, an allegory of Black femme suicide within the Atlantic archive. Orupabo’s juxtaposition of nineteenth-century portraiture with body parts salvaged from medieval paintings and twentieth-century photography evokes the perennial layering of the historical archive.
Like the archive itself, Frida Orupabo’s subjects hold several generations within a singular body. Her paper subjects are reservoirs of somatic memory, facing the yearning body towards testimony, unraveling the self who is “closed up like a fist.” Drawing from literary works and the hauntings of the historical archive, Frida Orupabo’s Closed Up Like a Fist at Nicola Vassell Gallery is an act of testimony, an endeavor towards historical preservation, an unclenching of the Black femme historical subject.
- Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 17.
- Gayle Jones, Corregidora (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019), Part I, Kindle.
- Ibid, Part II, Kindle.
- Italics in original. Ibid.
- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Vintage Books), 101.
- Corregidora, Part III, Kindle.