19 September 2013 to 5 November 2013
198 Contemporary Arts & Learning
Curated by Maria Kheirkhah
Maria Kheirkhah in conversation with Ope Lori July 2013
Maria: I am really interested in the intimate space and your use of the colour red in your video Red Shift. Could you talk a little more about this work and your choices of colour, space and people in it?
Ope: It’s interesting that you picked up on this intimate space and that was my intention with using a red tinted light to shoot the image. There are two reasons behind its’ function. Firstly, red symbolizes, love, passion, heated situations and aggression and amplified the situation where these two women were engaged in a play fight. This intimate space, or what the black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde would call ‘the power of the erotic’, with her assertion in the erotic as a life force for women and using that as a creative energy for empowerment and reclaiming our own language, in the fight against systems of oppression. I would like to think I am suggesting a romantic notion of women’s liberation, by bringing black and whith women together. Secondly the red acted as a smoke screen for hiding the differences of skin colour of the women. I wanted to give this work a kind of ‘colour-blind aesthetic’, to play devil’s advocate in asking the question, “what if skin colour was irrelevant, how then would we engage with ideals of beauty and gender between women of different skin colours, without being able to tap into colonialized and thereby racialized ‘ways of looking’?
M: Yes, I picked up on the red as I have used it in a number of my own works as a way of enclosing the space and making reference to emotionally claustrophobic spaces. However, what struck me and I found very interesting about your work was this ‘colour-blind aesthetic’, as you say, and the questions which it poses to an audience. Speaking here of the audience, who do you think your audience might be and are they who you are hoping to reach or is that not important to you?
O: The very fact that I call it a ‘colour-blind aesthetic’ is to make it accessible to everyone, regardless of our own racial baggage that we bring to reading the image. In one respect, through combating the dominant gaze in media representations, film and popular culture, which I see as being white and lodged in a phallocentric order, I have created an oppositional gaze, where as a bi-product, a black and queer aesthetic has formed. From this viewpoint, my audience then is for black women, in celebration of black beauty and re-empowering our bodies in the spheres where we have been left out of. On the other hand, through the association with white and black women, due to my own past experiences of being in an interracial relationship with a white woman, this enabled me to see that there are always many sides to the story, and that in as much as black women are under represented, white women are overly objectified. My audience in this respect is for women in general, and is about empowering us, raising awareness in our joint struggle for liberation. Of course I can not limit these discussions to just women, black people, lesbians, or white men and women, as we all are part of society and all conditioned into seeing in particular ways. This is why I intentionally aim to challenge the viewer and confront them with their misconceptions, playing with the use of stereotypes as a strategic device, in understanding the value we place over skin colour in a visual economy of beauty and women.
M: It is very interesting that you talk about the dominant gaze as white and phallocentric in relation to the female black body. I think what is interesting about thisargument is that Laura Mulvey, in her paper Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), poses the audience largely as male and the female, on screen, as an object of the gaze –which equally I am arguing for within the context of my research as a term which I have come to develop and use as "Islmo-Orientalised" female representations. However, your work Red Shift also reminds me of Steve McQueen’s Black and white film/video Bear,1993 currently showing at Tate Britain, showing two naked black men wrestling and the work shown within a dominant white space. So here I’d like to ask: are we really here talking about some kind of power hierarchy and whomever owns it also has the power of the gaze?
O: I can understand seeing a resemblance to Steve McQueen’s Bear, as both use the wrestle as a erotic, yet violent device. When I was actually making the piece, I had in mind the classic homoerotic wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, in Women in Love. For me, this image of the two men, naked, fighting, cast under a fire lit ambience really did the trick for me, I knew I wanted to do something similar but, rather, through women. You are definitely right about this being a power hierarchy and it operates across both racial and sexual difference, and due to that, in the sexual politics of looking that Mulvey puts forward, black women are relegated or in fact non-existent in the hierarchy, being twice removed on ground of our skin colour and sex, within a white phallocentric order. Therefore I don’t actually agree that whoever holds the power has the power of the gaze. The gaze which I am critiquing is systematic and institutionalized - however, there are other gazes and what I am showing you with my work are a series of oppositional gazes, which aim to empower. I think the more and more you get alternative images out there, these representations eventually begin to stick and once they become embroiled within society, then that’s when one has power of the gaze.
M: Yes, I agree with you about dissemination of alternative images of the other which aims to empower rather than categorise. This point is also something which you extend to your body of work Beauty and Privilege, Can you tell me a little bit about your intentions with these works?
O: Beauty and Privilege (2012-2013) is a series of photographic poster styled black and white images that play with power hierarchies, representational visibility and makes a correlation between beauty and it’s privileges. Without wanting to say too much, because I would love to hear how you read the images, essentially it is a game of power played around expensive cars, black women who pose in front of the cars, who are a fixed requirement of the work and the owners of the cars, within a discourse that talks about the link between beauty as an ideal and it’s privileges, within media representations.
M: Okay, perhaps it's time to end this conversation and to give your audience the chance to experience and add their own reading as and when they come to see your work. Thank you & I look forward to seeing the work in the space and continuing our conversation.
© maria kheirkhah 2013