The title of Nigerian-American artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s current New York show at Fridman Gallery, “Cake,” couldn’t be more perfect: It is named after a drawing by artist Youmna Chlala that features a city-like structure partially covered in layers of white; that work, This is a cake, not a city, has now birthed more drawings by Ogunji, an admirer of Chlala.
Ogunji created her new works using thread, graphite, and ink on tracing paper, the majority of them in Paris, where the Lagos-based artist is doing a residency. The program has afforded her the opportunity to learn, explore, and experiment, and to research textiles, couture, lace, and embroidery, all of which have informed her newest body of work dealing with ancestral stories and the nature of memory.
Ogunji’s work has previously been shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Palais de Tokyo, and the Brooklyn Museum. She has participated in the Biennale of Sydney, the Stellenbosch Triennale, the Bienal de São Paulo, and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
ARTnews spoke to Ogunji ahead of the ‘Cake’ opening at the Fridman Gallery on May 12 about her practice and her New York solo debut.
ARTnews: Can you talk about where you created this body of work and how that has affected the drawings?
Wura-Natasha Ogunji: I have been in residency at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris since November of last year. Almost all the work in the exhibition was created there. Being in Paris has shifted my process in many ways. Coming from Lagos, [the most populous city] in Nigeria, a tropical country, and arriving in winter was amazing. In a sense, the cold allowed me to hibernate, to go into the drawing cave. I spent a lot of time drawing, sewing, and marking with ink after several years of thinking I would leave my drawing practice behind.
Going to museums, performances, the theater was, of course, deeply inspiring, but I found myself most moved by the history of textiles and haute couture in France. I took a few classes with Rebecca Devaney, who founded Textile Tours of Paris, which allowed me to dive deeply into the history, materials, and process. And lace, so many incredible examples of lacemaking.
I also learned how to do free machine embroidery, which allows for drawing with a sewing machine. Though my drawings are all hand-stitched, I love the feel of stitches made on the sewing machine, those single lines. Some of those experiments (and mistakes) appear in this exhibition.
How did your background in photography and film help in putting together this body of work?
I draw on tracing paper, the kind architects use for preliminary sketches and renderings. The paper has always felt filmic to me in its translucency. It even moves a bit like film in my hands; it has a specific curve and structure.
And the color—canary or buff—gives it a presence even before I begin drawing, so the space of the paper is important. Its language, a character, place. I often think of it as water—sea or river, perhaps. The images repeat from drawing to drawing, and there is a lot of motion through the frame. It feels quite similar to creating a photograph.
You mentioned in a previous interview that new work starts with an image, a line of text, or a title that comes to you, and then you follow that through and see how it goes. Was it the same with this latest body of work?
Yes, for sure. There are repeating images including runners, and characters from films (Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, for example), as well as composite figures. I’m also fascinated with how a line of text becomes the architecture of a drawing. A phrase may come to me which then determines the shape of the drawing. It’s not necessarily a literal structure, more vibrational or sensorial, but also specific to the language of the phrase. For example, the drawing A Normal Day of Love and Brutality.
What’s the story behind the title of this exhibition, “Cake?”
The title came from a drawing. There’s figure running and another figure emerging from their body. They’re holding something that reminds me of cake.
There’s a drawing by artist Youmna Chlala that I’ve been enamored of for years. It’s titled This is a cake, not a city. I love the interplay between the literal cake and the map of a city, which I believe is Beirut. I think about the limits of knowledge, especially when it comes to a specific place, a country, or a people, for example. There is cake, and there is deep knowledge. Deep knowledge can’t be described in a few sentences or paragraphs, or even in an artist statement. I can pretend to tell you what the drawing is about, but what’s even more important is your own experience and connection.
In what ways would you say your practice has evolved over the years?
It’s definitely a spiral—exploration and expansion of new images and materials, and a constant return to earlier forms of making. Sometimes I feel that I’m making the same drawing over and over again.
What can you share about the site-specific thread installation?
I wanted to make a drawing you could enter or lines that suggest a space, something encompassing. I’m more and more interested in the thread itself, in how much I can say or evoke with these simple lines in space.
Do you find it liberating to be able to create the work you want, not necessarily what the market supposedly wants?
Always. But isn’t this the nature of being an artist? Art is infinite; the market comes and goes.
Can you talk about the early video works to be presented in the gallery and the decision to include them in this exhibition?
The videos are an elemental part of my creative practice. They speak about my ongoing interests in land and the body, what we carry, the marks we leave, presence and liminality, crossings, and arrival. I like how they speak with this body of drawings.