Exposed and Together
Frida Orupabo at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
If I saw you scrolling through your Instagram at an art show I would have to fight the impulse to roll my eyes at you. Call it a double standard, but you would have caught me doing just that at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Harlem this past month, as I made an exception for Cables to Rage, a show of Frida Orupabo’s collaged paper doll portraits. In fact, as any presentation of her work is incomplete without considering Orupabo’s online presence, taking out your phone is encouraged, and this installation makes an effort to acknowledge the artist’s digital ego by calling direct attention to her Instagram account, which is presented as a slideshow on a television set within the gallery itself. The press release calls her feed the “most advanced iteration of her practice” and suggests we follow her. (You’ll find her @nemiepeba, in case you were curious.)
Unlike Avery Singer’s overtly techy canvases found upstairs, looking at these works you would not assume that they are derived from a digital component, as they are, aesthetically speaking, what might be born of the meeting of the Dada photomontage and Civil War era portraiture. And yet, they are a pastiche of Internet-found objects, the “physical manifestation of her instagram feed,” which itself features vintage black and white photographs and short videos of black men, women, and children, some famous, some remembered only through image.
The gallery features a number of these collaged portraits, which have been mined from photographs online, enlarged to fit the size of the canvas, cut up and reassembled in layers. Sometimes these works feel more like sculpture, as an image of a foot is laid over an identical image, and another and another, each a centimeter off so that the layer below is visible, or a woman's dress is made of stacked sheets of white paper peeling off the page, all fastened together with the type of flat pin that might attach the limbs of a paper shadow puppet. The overall sense is that these paper personages could dance out of their frames to perform a vaudevillian short feature. Whatever they are, they don’t look as if they’ve stepped out of the screen of a smartphone.
And yet, they have. The beauty that lies in an Instagram account that constructs an ever flowing, endless scroll of stitched identity to illustrate a shifting character of blackness is immediately altered and reduced to the finite when put on paper. It’s up to us to decide if this is for the worse or for the better. One has to wonder (especially in New York), if Orupabo’s effort to bring her work into the physical world is a way to monetize her, transform her from an artist “not owned, but freely accessed” (as cinematographer Arthur Jaffa puts it in the exhibition’s literature) to being possessible, tangible, able to be invested in. Certainly that is part of it, but to say it is the whole story would be grossly unfair to what the artist has created. The potential of the digital space is still newly, shakily traversed territory, rocky ground for many artists, but Orupabo explores it in a wholly uncommon way.
Here it would of course be appropriate to ask what makes any of these collages distinct from Hannah Höch’s or John Heartfield’s, and the answer to this valid counterpoint is found in the subtle marriage of access, technology, and construction. And while the metaphor of the Internet and the novel identities it forges have been fertile ground for many artists, Orupabo is making a different point. Cindy Sherman has recently taken to Instagram to exploit its identity-manipulating apps to distort her face into grotesque selfies, and Amalia Ulman has made headlines for constructing an alter ego out of her feed, duping thousands of her followers, but for Orupabo, the Internet isn’t solely an endless supply of content, nor is technology merely a means to physically enlarge images she has found therein. The Internet is not, she might argue, an unprecedented space for identity construction, but the opposite, running parallel to History itself. The seemingly anachronistic forging of early photography layered with social media is rather a natural coming together of like with like.
It is only increasingly apparent that the Internet never forgets, that what seems like an open space for reinvention is a space that remembers your every move, which is constantly cobbling together your data to create a picture of who you are. Orupabo’s work is just that—the Internet as archeology, Identity as build up, resulting in paper dolls jerkily performing our selves. As much as we crave reinvention, we are all just layers of settled dust, hundreds of years in the making.
The title of the exhibition, Cables to Rage, is taken from a collection of poetry from queer feminist writer Audre Lorde, which is dedicated to her children. Themes of tradition, motherhood, and the yoke of history dominate the poems. Take Bloodbirth, in which she writes:
Shall I split
or be cut down
by a word's complexion or the lack of it
and from what direction
will the opening be made
to show the true face of me
lying exposed and together
my children your children their children
bent on our conjugating business.
The rings "exposed" by a tree "split" or "cut down" bring to mind the many layers of these portraits. Lorde communicates the shock of unexpectedly seeing fresh wooden flesh when we are accustomed to bark. These portraits, like Lorde, are carrying the heavy mantle of being black in the Western world. They are particularly poignant as we as a country see the last decades’ social progress threatened and what we believed we buried deep come to the surface.