SPIRIT MATTERS

an interview with Nkiruka Oparah

by Danielle Wright

ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018

Nkiruka Oparah is a first generation Nigerian artist, curator, and writer currently living and working in Oakland, CA. She earned her B.S. in Psychology from the University of Georgia and her MFA from California College of the Arts. Through hand sewing, drawing, collage, video and assemblage, Oparah builds multimedia portraits from found objects, familial and personal images, and repurposed materials to investigate black identity, Nigerian cultural memory, and as an ongoing attempt to materialize her experience of displacement. As part of the Museum of the African Diaspora's Emerging Artists program, 5/5ths Collective (of which Oparah is a member) presents "black (no)where," on view from Nov., 11th through Dec. 15th, 2018.

Onyinyo (with wall drawing), 2017. House paint, spray paint, cotton stuffing, found objects. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Danielle Wright: I think I read that you were born here in Oakland, right?

 

Nkiruka Oparah: No, actually I was born in Los Angeles, California but I don’t remember much of it. My parents moved quickly, like after a couple months. [laughter]

 

DW: I can’t imagine you’d remember much of that! [laughter]

 

NO: No, no, [laughter] I really have no clue! I’ve seen some pictures, but I don’t have any memories of that time at all. I was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, so that was where most of my childhood memories are.

 

DW: So how long have you been in Oakland, then?

 

NO: I’ve been in Oakland for a little over 2 years.

DW: So you spent most of your life in Atlanta and came here for school?

 

NO: Mhm!

 

DW: Tell me more about what it’s been like being here and being in school. I guess you’ve graduated now!

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"ALL OF THE MEDIUMS I WORK WITH KIND OF END UP BEING THAT SAME THING, WHERE I'M FINDING THINGS IN MY ENVIRONMENT THAT SOMEONE DISCARDED, OR THINGS THAT SOMEONE FINDS LITTLE VALUE IN."

NO: Yes! [laughter] That’s a good question. I moved here partly because of school (California College of the Arts), but I was living in New York before here, in Brooklyn. I was having a hard time because I wanted some things in my life to change and they were just kind of stuck. I was having the same kind of problems, like not feeling as connected to everything. I was living out there by myself, like I didn’t really have any family out there—I had friends, but I didn’t have family.

Light Lines, 2018. cotton linen, photo transfer on silk, graphite. Photo courtesy of the artist.

My sister had been living in Oakland for a while and I have a younger brother who had moved out here to do work in San Mateo so they’re the reason that I came. I was considering where to go from New York. I love New York but I was not as happy as I thought I could be so I thought, I’ll just go where my family is. I wasn’t ready to move back to Atlanta so I decided to come to California. It’s been interesting! [laughter] When I first got here I was not a huge fan. I was commuting to San Francisco a lot so that had something to do with it. Actually, my memory of Oakland was from when I’d visited my sister a few years before, when I was pretty depressed. The time I spent here, whenever I would think of it, it was just—it was so beautiful, and I felt so loved, and I felt so happy. The memory brought up a lot of good things from my time here in Oakland, so I felt like that’s where I should go. But being in school—that was hard. Also, I had this image in my mind of what San Francisco was like and it was just way different than I expected. [laughter]

DW: Tell me more about what you mean by that?

 

NO: I'm pretty sensitive to subtle energetic things, and so that was hard for me. Everything that’s changing about the city—the gentrification, the homelessness—that was hard. And when we were at CCA (which is in the middle of Potrero Hill), literally right across our street there was like a whole camp of people experiencing homelessness. Those were my first experiences of San Francisco. It’s just complicated to be in art school on the one hand, and then at the same time be in the middle of that. Not to mention the whole transfer of the campuses from Oakland to San Francisco. A lot of things about the experience of being in that MFA program were difficult. I was one of only three Black people in my cohort. There were two other people that were there the year ahead of me, so it was just like, “What is happening?” [laughter]

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wata for Mamma (front), 2017. Monotype print, screenprint, oil pastel, image transfer on cotton, silk.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

7_wata for Mamma_back.JPG

wata for Mamma (back), 2017. Monotype print, screenprint, oil pastel, image transfer on cotton, silk. Photo courtesy of the artist.

DW: How many people were in your cohort altogether?

 

NO: We started with like 43.

 

DW: Oh, wow.

 

NO: Yeah, we had a pretty big class. Or I don’t know, it seems relatively big . . . .

DW: I read that you have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and then that you did Fashion Design at Parsons. So, why art? How did you know that this was what you needed to do?

 

NO: I’ve always felt like art was something that I wanted to do. That’s always what was driving me when I was younger. I was good at school, and math and science were also really interesting to me. I'm first-generation Nigerian, and my parents can be very conservative and traditional. They really pushed me and my siblings to take a more traditional route; they wanted us to be doctors or lawyers. That was kind of why I had this meandering path to art.

 

Growing up I was always making things, always drawing and painting. In high school, it was the same. When I got to college I was on this biology and chemistry path to be a doctor, but it was mostly trying to satisfy what my parents wanted me to do. They just didn’t support my art-making in that way, though they did have us read a lot. My parents were not well-off and we were definitely lower-middle class. We didn’t grow up with a lot, so they would take us to the library all the time. That and parks. There were moments when I was interested in dance and ballet as well. [laughter

 

Eventually, I found my way to art through fashion—I had access to a lot of fashion magazines. My parents are not artists and I don’t have any artists in my family. I really had no concept of how one became an artist or what that meant. They encouraged reading, but not necessarily fashion, and that curiosity is what led me to the New School and Parsons. There is a fascination with textiles; that’s a part of my family and my history. I was interested in fashion design specifically, but when I went to the New School, I graduated with a psychology degree. I was also pre-pharmacy because I went from being a hardcore med student to being really interested in neuroscience and psychology. That turned into wanting to be a psychologist and practice therapy, but my parents were still skeptical. So that turned into being pre-pharmacy, because I could do less science and more psychology. I worked in a pharmacy for two years immediately after graduating and realized it wasn’t going to work, so I had to figure out how to make another career move.

 

The design degree at the New School was very expensive, but I took some design courses while pursuing the less expensive fashion marketing program that I actually went into. Within that program, my whole world opened up. Being in New York, having access to the museums, taking art classes again, and having people around me that were artists opened up the world for me a lot more. I didn’t know that I could be an artist until then. That’s how I got here. I guess the why involves a lot of the work I was doing within fashion, and my experiences growing up. I was on the production side within the fashion world, but I wanted to do more creative work. I would get internships and things like that, but when I would ask the people I hoped to mentor with for help, they kept boxing me into certain places. Especially because the fashion world is very white. I was often the only Black person in the room, or one of the only people of color in the room, so that was very frustrating.

 

Those experiences brought up a lot of anger. When I was at Parsons, I’d started doing collage work for a color theory class and I really got into it. In that space of making collage I suddenly felt liberated. I had experience in Photoshop, and so those two things kind of melded together. I was able to make things quickly on my computer—well, not quickly, but I could just make digital images without having a lot of material costs. I was interested in those psychological states that I was going through, and just wondering, “How do I express these experiences that I'm having in this world?” There was a lot of racism and a lot of aggression that I didn’t know how to articulate or talk about at the time, so that’s kind of what sparked the more serious practice that I was doing. There was a lot of self-portraiture at the beginning of those explorations.

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DW: Why collage? What other types of media are you interested in working with and why?


NO: Hm . . . I’ve heard someone say that images kind of always want to be together. People are always thinking about images like they’re falling apart, or that you have to break them apart to make a collage. But it’s like—I don’t know how to describe it—being able to put a lot of things that feel like they should be disparate into one image feels good to me. Those moments where something makes sense when it’s next to something else, even though in any other form it might not make sense—[or] maybe they don’t seem to belong together—I feel like those little moments energize me; when the objects just come together, they create this new whole! That’s fascinating for me.

egwu for 10000 deaths (still from video portrait), 2018. Endless Loop one- channel video portrait. 

Photo courtesy of artist.

I guess it’s related to being Nigerian [laughter], being African-American, these identities. It’s being resourceful and working a lot with found objects. That’s where the sculptures come in. All of the mediums I work with kind of end up being that same thing, where I'm finding things in my environment that someone discarded, or things that someone finds little value in. I find new meaning when I take things that feel like trash to someone else and then I put them together and make a whole new thing.

 

The sculptures involve a different kind of labor than the drawing and the painting and the collage, which I'm just at the beginning of navigating. In my first year in the MFA program, I was making space for myself, making space for these conversations. That was a real “A-ha” moment. I was like, “Oh, I'm creating something entirely new that’s taking up space!” I’ve also been doing these ephemeral wall drawing/painting situations . . .

 

DW: Installations?

 

NO: Installations, yes. I’ve been interested in those as well. Installations are very much like a performance for me, where I am able to engage with the space in a certain way and to connect with the energies that have been there before and will come after. It’s sort of outside of time in a lot of ways that I feel like the object-making is not. That’s a big part of why I'm drawn to those.

 

I'm thinking about memory a lot. My own memory, memory that I'm inheriting, you know, memory that I might have access to. Body memory is a big part of what I'm thinking about. Especially with the ephemeral drawings, because things will start to develop that I don’t plan. These drawings give me information in a way that coming back to an object every day doesn’t. I can see things differently in the ephemeral things that I can’t necessarily see in the object-making.

 

DW: Hm, were you playing with that a little bit in the fundraiser? Was your process about exploring that moment and being of a particular time and space? Or was the work you created something that you had thought out or designed ahead of time?

 

NO: Oh, no, I didn’t think those out. I’ve been playing with that recently. I'm working from home right now (in between studios) and the drawings that I’ve been making have been very much about body memory, and not planning things—that sense of freedom that I have within that kind of mark-making. It feels like it connects to some childlike part of me. I'm trying to get to a place where I'm not wanting anything out of the thing that I'm making; that’s been nice, too. Or at least trying to get to that place. [laughter] I'm interested in those discrete moments of time.

" I'M TRYING TO GET TO A PLACE WHERE I'M NOT WANTING ANYTHING OUT OF THE THING THAT I'M MAKING . . . "

DW: That takes a lot of courage. It also sounds very generative.

 

NO: Yes. [laughter] Now that I'm saying it out loud here, it’s kind of where I'm at in my spiritual journey as well. That place of not needing to be validated, not needing to be like someone else or look a certain way. How do you do something with integrity and authenticity? Especially with the Internet and the proliferation of everything, all of the images . . . I mean, it’s hard to have those kind of boundaries so that you’re not constantly influenced.

DW: Yes, having a boundary that feels like it’s healthy and intact but not a wall. I’ve seen it visualized as a sort of a dotted line around you, as opposed to a hard line or nothing at all. So it’s like a filter or a porous membrane where things can move in and out, but you can sort of manage that. Will you tell me more about spirituality in your work and your life?

NO: Oh, goodness! [laughter] I'm really interested (and always have been interested) in psychology, but it’s really an interest in inner life. Right now I'm especially interested in the queerness that I'm starting to navigate, because I'm feeling more embodied than I have in the past. I'm feeling more comfortable with feelings of discomfort.

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study n011017, Digital Collage GIF animation, 2017.

My work feels like it’s always a sort of a reflection of where I'm at on my spiritual journey [laughter]. It comes up a lot. I constantly think about where it is that we come from, and I'm constantly playing around with genesis as an idea, whether it’s looking into creation myths from different cultures or creating my own. That’s informed the sculptures that I’ve made recently.

 

It’s important to me to explore where it is that I come from or who I am. Who I am outside of this body or this identity is a big part of my work. What does that mean for me in the context of everything that is around me? I’m fascinated by quantum physics and poetics, as well as energetics—where we’ve come to and what we know about how our environment works and how we work. This idea of everything being vibrational is really interesting to me! Something I'm generally trying to articulate in my work is the concept that the material world is just a reflection or expression of what’s going on with you internally. What does that mean about reality, then? I think that goes hand in hand with my interest in spirituality.

 

A question I ask a lot through my work is “What is it that we’re capable of?” It’s almost always on my mind. I wonder what are our minds actually for? How do we use tools and technology? How do we redefine those words? What are our tools?” So the idea of a mask comes up a lot in my work. I'm trying to find other forms of talking about it, or trying to make new forms to explore these ideas.

 

The importance of the spiritual nature of things is a driving force behind everything I do. I think so much of the time we’re focused on the material nature of things. If there is any idea that I can lift up, I would like for it to be that everything is spirit. We should be in better connection with that! Whatever that is and whatever that means, even if it’s in our own individual ways, I still think there is a way for us to be more connected.

 

DW: I read about the show that you had at Nook Gallery and that it was about dreams. I'm curious about the role of dreams in your work as well, and how that relates to what you were just talking about; like nonlinear types of time, and experiences that aren’t so much about the physical material world that we move through.

 

NO: Yes, I have had a dream practice that began with more seriousness about five years ago. That practice came out of a few dreams that I had that were life-changing. They were experiences that I had no other context for; I think some psychologists describe it as a priori. It was like nothing I have ever experienced in waking reality. That sparked a whole set of phenomena that I was experiencing in my waking life, and so it—it was almost like I was going back and forth between the two worlds with a different consciousness than I had before. That exploration was kind of scary because reality was shifting for me.

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"IT WAS ALMOST LIKE I WAS GOING BACK AND FORTH BETWEEN THE TWO WORLDS WITH A DIFFERENT CONSCIOUSNESS THAN I HAD BEFORE."

That started the dream practice where every day (or multiple times a day, depending on how I was dreaming) I began to write everything down. This led to a heightening of other sensory information that I had access to. I don’t know how to describe it, [laughter] but it was a whole bunch of very weird experiences that I just didn’t have any context for. I wasn’t sure who to I talk to about it or where to go. I’ve always been interested in my Ibo-specific Nigerian heritage and culture, but there are traditions that I don’t know because my family is Christian. My parents couldn’t answer some of the questions that I had about these experiences, so I had to keep the dream practice up in order to get the answers that I was looking for. It’s not like they’re all answered, though! [laughter] It’s still so mysterious! [laughter continues]

It was a process that I had to trust in order to ask the right questions to continue along the path. During that time, I became really interested in the work of Carl Jung, who had a dreaming practice and did a lot of dream interpretation work throughout his life. Now that it’s been a few years since those experiences, I can see that I was dealing with a lot of depression, with feelings of distortion and separation and a lot of longing for home, for whatever home meant, you know? And the dreaming practice really helped me navigate that and feel more whole.

levitation activities iv (witness), 2018. Risograph print. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Some of the work I was making during my MFA was around that. I was looking for answers, and I was hoping to communicate how life-shifting the dreaming practice had been for me. Part of why I did an installation was to give space to that inner life, and to those things that happen to us in our inner worlds that we can give weight to in the waking reality. So the installations have become a place for me to honor that practice, too, and also to be like, “Look, everyone! [laughter] There’s something to this!” I’ve experienced significant change and significant healing from paying attention to dreams.

 

DW: How do you feel talking about the weird phenomena that occurred?

 

NO: I haven’t really talked about it. I mean, I'm O.K. with talking about it, but I don’t normally. I haven’t shared it with that many people. During that time, a lot of extra-sensory gifts emerged. I experienced them in a heightened way in my waking life. Like telepathy; I could tell when someone was calling me, or I could tell when someone was more in distress. I was led to a lot of books, like specific books . . . .

 

DW: Tell me more! I want know what books you were led to.

 

NO: Well, in waking life, depending on the place I was in, I would get like a sensation that would lead me in a particular direction. I could ask the sensation questions, and it would lead me in certain direction. I would be like, “Yes? No? So you mean left? You mean right?” It was a dialogue—it wasn’t a voice, but it was a dialogue. At that time, I had questions about who is speaking to me. Is it me? Is it some other part of myself? Is it something outside of myself? Is it God? 

 

I felt the dialogue led me in certain directions, or guided me. You know how you have an intuitive voice that you can sometimes deny? It wasn’t my voice; it was another sensation. Looking back, I know that it was probably another version of myself that had landed in that specific place and time that I was in. Or that part of me was in. It kind of overlaps with what I'm thinking about around how consciousness works. How can that part of myself reach me in this time? What does that mean? Can everyone access this? Those are the kind of questions that I'm constantly thinking about.

 

The books [I was being led to] were interesting. It would be like, “Go to the library.” And I would be like, “Right now?” And it would be like, “Yeah.” And I would be like, “O.K. I mean, I am like 2 blocks away, I guess I’ll go.” And then I would go. One of the books was Carl Jung’s Red Book which I spent a lot of time with. It gave me a lot of permission to be like, "You’re not crazy—this is weird, but you’re not the first one." [laughter] Like, “Oh good, someone else has experienced something like this. You’re not alone.” It was a very interesting time. There was also this book called Women Who Run With The Wolves. There were other books, too, a lot around myth. The Bible came up during that time (a classic) [laughter]. So did the I-Ching, The Secret of the Golden Flower (which I think is a Buddhist text), and The Heart of Matter, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. There were a bunch of different types of books and writings.

DW: Does this still happen for you? Have you cultivated a relationship with this sort of other way of communicating or was this of a time and is no longer happening?

 

NO: The relationship feels more integrated. At that point, it felt like it was outside of myself but now it feels like another aspect of the self that I’ve made room for. It takes up space the way a lot of the other voices in my internal world take up space. The dreaming practice over time has also developed, like I know when I have a more mundane dream that’s about stress or how to resolve something that’s troubling me on an ego/everyday level. I know when I go somewhere that’s of another time and space because the practice has given me the sort of attention I've given it. I feel deeper in it, too. I can discern when I'm in this physical time and space or when I go somewhere else—to a more expanded part of the self where I'm doing work that I can’t always consciously articulate. It's interesting to see the development over time of that kind of knowing.

DW: I'm curious about the relationship with masks and trying to work with and create other forms that are related to these aspects of spirituality. Circling back to that. I mean I can make my own connections but I'm wondering if you can describe for me the connections you see.

NO: The Ibo traditional mask is a form that taps into spiritual traditions–it helps us explore what are our inheritances of magic or divination are, and what other technologies we have as human beings that we don’t always access. There's a reverence too, a reverence for things that are non-physical, for the parts of ourselves that are non-physical. Masks create a time and a space for honoring those things. People and ancestors are honored in that way, too. For me, masks represent that relationship of self to the body; that which physically grounds us and allows an exploration of movement and dance and other ways of knowing that are often underutilized. Knowing through movement and accessing information through that movement is something the mask represents for me. Also, they've become a meeting place for my identities; a way to tell stories.

 

A great deal of the history of the masquerades is passed down orally, and since I grew up here, I don’t know that much about these ceremonies. I know what I know through the few stories my parents have told me. I’ve been to Nigeria a few times throughout my life, so I’ve seen it firsthand, but I don’t necessarily know the history and all of the details. I learn as I go, through the Internet and through books and other secondhand experiences. So it's a navigation through these kinds of yearnings for something, or a language that I don’t have in English—that English doesn’t give me access to (or that my experience in America doesn’t give me access to). The feeling of disconnection from the land . . . masks are part of my attempts to regain and reclaim those things. I'm putting a lot of those questions into this particular form of the mask that I'm making right now. The Nigerian tradition has been male-centered for some time, and being a woman or someone questioning gender constructs is something else I'm putting into making them myself, as well as making and performing my own rituals. Those are all things I'm thinking about when I'm making masks and costumes.

 

The thing I think I'm looking for now, or the new form I'm trying to get at . . . sometimes when I think about Nigerian identity, it feels rooted in the past. Part of my drive is that I want to push it forward, and have it rooted in the future as well. Or a way to move around that’s nonlinear, so that the forms have that same fluidity of time.

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Onyinyo, 2017. House paint, spray paint, cotton stuffing, found objects. Photo courtesy of the artist.

DW: I want to take some time to talk about 5/5ths. Maybe you can just talk about being a founding member, where it came from, about the name and what it means . . .

 

NO: 5/5ths was founded after our first semester in the MFA program together. We are Tania Balan-Gaubert, Troy Chew, and me, Nkiruka Oparah. We—the same five Black artists—shared the same recurring experience during critiques or in class where no one really had anything to say about the work. We shared a lot of discomfort over people not knowing what to say because all three of us feature Black bodies in our work. It didn't feel like many people knew how to have those conversations with us. We were not getting what we needed, so we were like, “How we gon' do this? How are we going to get through these two years if it's already this difficult?" 

 

So then, [heavy sigh] we all sat down and had a conversation where we said, "This is what I can offer, this is what I'm good at." So we started a blog in as a way of creating a space for sharing resources. Then, we decided to create our own space for showing work together. We were hoping to create an atmosphere that was different than the critique setting; something more relaxed so we could open up this conversation we were trying to have. Another thing we noticed about the program was that there weren’t a lot of places to meet the undergrad artists; specifically undergrad artists of color. We didn't really see them; we didn't know who they were. We wanted to make a space where both undergrad and grad students could interact and help each other, see each other, and exchange ideas. That's how 5/5ths was born.

 

Our first show was a group show called HOLD, which featured work by the three of us. We invited Richard Jonathan Nelson and Dionne Lee (who were in the years above and before us), as well as three undergrad students. We did an open call for people to submit work and created our first mixtape together! We used the biggest critique space we could possibly use in the grad program. We just wanted to share and have open conversation in a relaxed environment where people could sit and chill, but where we could also talk about work and it wasn’t this sterile art environment/gallery kind of situation. It was kind of like a mix of critique space with gallery space . . . and a hangout, like for real. We like turning formal gallery spaces and institutions into more informal spaces, blasting music, and making a lot of space for ourselves. [laughter] That was all part of our original intention.

Then we came up with the name 5/5ths, and it felt so easy. Referencing the time in this country when Black people were counted ⅗ of a person. And we are five fifths. I don’t even remember the conversation, because it felt like it was already there and we just grabbed it out of the air.

DW: I'm curious about who you’re making work for, both as 5/5 and in your own practice.

 

NO: In 5/5, we’re definitely making work for . . . well, I hope I can say this and speak for everyone [laughter] . . . I think we’re making work for ourselves, firstly; for Black people and people of color. I think we’re making work for people who are not necessarily considered “Fine Artists.” We’re questioning what fine art is and using materials that are sort of mundane. I mean, Troy’s a painter but the things that he’s drawing from are not considered “High” anything. I mean, hip hop culture isn’t usually a part of that conversation. We’re making work for everyday Black people. That’s one thing that we're still trying to navigate and figure out. A lot of the time spaces we go into can be mostly white spaces; gallery spaces tend to be that . . .

 

DW: Literally, and figuratively . . .

 

NO: I don’t talk about it that much, but I would like to think that I'm making work for Black women. [sigh] It seems so lofty, but I'm thinking about freedom all of the time. How do we feel freer? How do we feel more liberated? And what can support us with that? I have friends who grew up in Atlanta and are doing really well for themselves, and they have homes and things like that. But I also wonder how much of that is going along with the norms and not questioning certain things. I hope my work can try to ask questions of everything that’s around us and within us.

Vehicle for surrender, 2018. Mixed fabric, wind chime, thread, barrettes, plastic, local soil, cactus, cow bell, binder clip, duct tape, rice, rubber bands, empty ID badge, milky oats, knockers, metal hooks, found objects. Photo courtesy of the artist.

". . . EVEN THE THINGS WE THINK OF AS OBJECTS HAVE SPIRIT TO THEM."

DW: What work are you most proud of and why?

 

NO: I'm proud of the recent work that I’ve done. I'm better at sewing now, so it looks better than the things I’ve done in the past. [laughter] I'm also proud because I'm in the work that’s most recent, and that took me a long time to get to. In the past, I had a hard time having my body be in the work that I'm making, so that’s been a proud moment for me.

 

I hope to continue to make different iterations of a self-portrait installation that I made as part of my thesis, and combine it with some past work that involved two sculptures that honor both of my grandmothers and all of the women in my family. My intention for making those was to give space to all of those women, and to the mother/spirit aspect in general. I also did a performance during the course of that show. I sat one-on-one with people and made them tea from different plant medicines based on our conversations. I opened up myself to be vulnerable with people and allowed them space to do the same in that time. When I look back on it, it’s become this fluid memory where time stretches and/or collapses, which I find interesting and powerful. I  got to hear so many people’s stories and to be open myself by telling people how I came to the work. It was very intimate! That was one of my favorite works that I’ve made so far.

 

DW: With the tea, a couple things: One, did you just have all of the different types of plant medicine available to you, and would just create the tea right there?

NO: Yes.

DW: Did you study herbal medicine? Where did that come from?

NO: I didn’t study it, I’ve just learned it along the way by doing research and things like that. I spent a whole year with the herbs I was using. When I presented the ritual, I wondered if I knew enough; but then I just trusted that I was ready. I had the herbs that I had been working with and knew about, and then I intuitively made each person a tea based on the conversation we were having. Sometimes we would just sit together and drink the tea and sometimes, once you give people space . . . [laughter]

DW: [laughter]

 

NO: It was really beautiful. I'm still working with plants. The plants that I started working with were through dreaming, actually. The first few plants I was working with assist with dreaming practices and helping you remember. So the tea ritual kind of developed from that, and allowed me to explore different plants I had access to.

 

DW: What are those plants?

 

NO: The dreaming plants I primarily work with are mugwort and bay leaf. During the performance, I had skullcap, hibiscus, lemon balm, lavender, and oat straw.

 

DW: Did you prompt people about what you were going to talk about? Or was it just what people wanted to share with you? How did that go?

 

NO: Along the course of it, I tried different methods because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. When I first started, I would share what I had been thinking about and about how I had come to the work—my intention. I had this ritual when they sat down: I would draw a circle around them and I would tell them all of my intentions for the space I was about to create, and then I would invite them into the space, or check in with them and see if they wanted to be a part of the space. The aim was for it to be consensual; both of us wanting to be together in that space. That helped a little bit. I started the conversation, and sometimes they would just end up listening. At some point, I would ask, “How are you feeling?” and then, "Can I make you a cup of tea?"

choreogram #1 - Lady in Purple, 2018. Felt, recycled fabric, thread, sequins, image transfers on silk, rice, soil, latex, silk, dracaena marginata, cowrie shells, fur, rope, metal rings, aluminum foil tape, ceramic, confetti, cactus, plastic, and found objects. Photo by Phillip Maisel

dream constructs, Installation view (detail), 2018. Risograph prints and site- responsive drawing. Photo courtesy of Nook Gallery.

DW: How long did you usually sit with people and how long was the entire ritual?

 

NO: During the opening night, I did that for about three and a half hours. And then I was like, "Never again!" [laughter] Nah, just kidding. I was so tired afterward. I didn’t have a time limit on how long anyone could go. The first night was a really long performance, and then every time after that the conversations ranged between ten and fifteen minutes, then sometimes I had 30-minute conversations.

 

DW: O.K. switching gears a bit. I guess I'm curious about how you afford living here in the Bay as an artist? When you’re not making art what are you up to?

"I'M  THINKING ABOUT FREEDOM ALL OF THE 
TIME. HOW DO WE FEEL FREER? HOW DO
WE FEEL MORE LIBERATED? AND WHAT CAN SUPPORT US WITH THAT?"

NO:  Well, I live with a lot of people. They’re all awesome, and I'm so lucky I live in one of these houses in North Oakland. I think the house has beautiful energy. So my rent is not very high. I work part-time at a cafe right now a few days a week, and I get cash tips (and luckily I work at a cafe where the tips are pretty good for the amount of time I'm there). I also freelance, like graphic design work, so I still get those inquiries every now and then. Sometimes I get contacted for certain magazines or older images that I’ve made. A lot of like digital collage stuff still comes up and I get a little check from that. It’s like whatever I can do, really. That’s the hard part, though, because I want to own a home one day, and it’s like, "How am I going to do that here?" How am I going to live by myself, or live with fewer people? Or get a studio space, which is my newest challenge! 

 

Oh, and I teach workshops, too. I’ve been in talks to do iterations of the dream workshop where I talk about the plants that can support it and how to maintain a dreaming practice with art-making and collage. Workshops are hopefully going to come through for next year and that’s another way to sustain living out here, hopefully.

DW: I wrote down something you said earlier that really resonated with me, and it was something along the lines of everything being "Spirit." I guess I just want to hear more about that.

creation myth (reprise), 2017. Mixed fabric, house paint, monotype on muslin, rabbit fur. Photo courtesy of the artist

NO: Yes, I believe that’s true. I really do! Even the things we think of as objects have spirit to them. I'm still trying to understand the relationship between consciousness and spirit and whether they’re the same thing. They could be, and so I think that the essence of everything is spirit. And then there are different materials and foundational elements that come together to create the things that we see as physical, so, in that way it’s all spirit. It just takes different forms. We can imbue things with our consciousness, or our energy. 

 

So that’s a short way for me to answer the question [laughter] . . . or I think that’s just how I would answer it, anyway.

Nkiruka Oparah is a first-generation Nigerian artist, curator, and writer currently living and working in Oakland, CA. She earned her B.S. in Psychology from the University of Georgia and her MFA from California College of the Arts. Through hand-sewing, drawing, collage, video and assemblage, Oparah builds multimedia portraits from found objects, familial and personal images, and repurposed materials to investigate Black identity, Nigerian cultural memory, and as an ongoing attempt to materialize her experience of displacement.

Danielle Wright is a visual artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned a B.A. in Visual Arts with an emphasis in Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco in 2007. Her work investigates the language of materials and the delineation between artist and viewer/participant. In addition to her studio practice, she teaches at Creativity Explored, a not-for-profit art gallery and studio in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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