Frida Orupabo’s Montages: A Form of Activism
In the midst of the sound system culture of late 1960s Jamaica, Duke Reid, King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry were deconstructing ska, reggae, rocksteady and dub records. They used simple pre-digital hardware and pre-recorded samples from records to create what they called ‘versions’ and ‘dubs’. Their practice of musical appropriation quickly spread to New York and London, where early disco DJs used loops and tape edits to make extended versions of original songs. Larry Levan introduced dub aesthetics to the New York club scene by mixing electronic instrumentation, drum machines and dub techniques, creating the bridge from disco to house music. At block parties in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s, young African- and Latin-Americans adopted the sound system culture introduced by Jamaican immigrants and the aesthetics and social practices of the African and Latino diaspora that lived in the neighbourhood. Under the tag ‘Hip Hop’, DJs blended popular music genres like funk, soul and disco, extending breaks, at first with a set of turntables and later with digital samplers. Breakbeats – digitally sampled breaks from other tracks played as extended drum loops to rap over and dance to – came to define hip hop and electro in the ‘80s. With sampling and remixing, hip-hop artists captured the social atmosphere in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and created a sonic language that expressed what it meant to be Black.
With sampling came copyright issues, a stablemate of hip-hop culture from the very beginning. To the founders of hip hop, sampling was both an aesthetic and a political choice: Appropriation and sound montage to fight for intellectual democracy.
Arthur Jafa has devoted his artistic practice to exploring the potential of a cinema that is aesthetically Black, using the structure of black music as its fundamental principle. His theory and formal practice is termed Black Visual Intonation: “The use of irregular, nontempered (nonmetronomic) camera rates and frame replication to prompt filmic movement to function in a manner that approximates Black vocal intonation.” The term black vocal intonation references the use of blue notes in blues and jazz music: notes played or sung at a slightly different pitch than the standard, for expressive purposes. Blue notes are based on harmonic conventions that differ from European common-practice tonality (major, minor or modal scales). Akin to the relative pitches of traditional African work songs, a blue note bends a clear note to achieve a specific affective effect.
Jafa’s Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death is a symphony of appropriated clips and still images, edited and remixed to disrupt the canonical narrative structure of (white) Hollywood cinema. Most of the footage comes from archives, both historical and personal, music videos and viral YouTube clips. Jafa manipulates the frame rates, bending and stretching real time. As a result, he accentuates the significance of the knowledge that emerges between two images, based on the order in which they are arranged; what fellow filmmaker John Akomfrah calls “affective proximity”: What happens when two things come together.
Juxtaposition of two images creates a third image. A third meaning. To both Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein this third image is a freedom fighter. It reforms the consciousness, forcing it to wake up. It educates.
Museums, and sometimes art in itself, is history as visual thinking. Selective. Deficient. Able to reinforce domination, to re-colonise.
Remix culture emerged in communities that reclaimed the right to be in charge of their own portrayal by developing their own production methods. Likewise, contemporary image-making can add to the telling of the past: Remix selective history.
Frida Orupabo’s photomontages are made from the vast digital archive of imagery she has compiled online, and rearranged to challenge dominant understandings of what belongs where; our ordering of things. Seen through established classifications such as race, sexuality, gender identity and family relations, the work reactivates imagery (memories) once rooted in the past by reassembling it. Orupabo takes charge of how the brown and black body is represented visually: Sampling and montage as a way of remixing selective history.
Orupabo’s subjects stare back at their audience and disrupt their function as the ‘Other’, refusing to be objectified. They resist their role in someone else’s fiction, addressing both Whiteness and Blackness at the same time. They emphasise the gravity of descending from people that have been enslaved and objected, whilst reclaiming the right to be in charge of one’s own representation and create one’s own culture. (Black) bodies expressed in a language, method and process inherently Black: sampling, editing and remixing. Refusing to let Blackness continue to be defined by cultural colonisers. Contextual dissonance as resistance.
Orupabo represents the first generation of people of colour in Norway with the opportunity to present work at publicly funded institutions. The first generation given a public space to take control of the representation of the black experience: to rid the black body of its tainted image as primitive, second rate, sensual, dangerous, enslaved, exotic, political. Always political. Presented for the first time in a Norwegian context, Orupabo’s work tackles head-on the lack of a historical perspective in the handling of the oppression of black and brown people in Norway and the alienation that has made it impossible to publicly communicate that there even is such a thing as a black experience. And that the black experience is everything but the tokens that have been selected to represent people of colour. Orupabo’s work offers the beholder the tools to connect personal narratives to a larger collective and a history. A collective that to some extent exists because of the uncountable tragedies that people of colour have been forced to endure.
Orupabo’s and Jafa’s work is a continuous visual (re-)presentation of Blackness as an aesthetic method and form of knowledge production consistent with the worldview of black people, personally, collectively, historically. The continuity needed for black visual culture to match the collective agency of black music. Appropriation and montage as a form of activism.
Written for the exhibition Frida Orupabo and Arthur Jafa at Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo
01.03.19 – 21.04.19
Image: Frida Orupabo, Untitled, 2018, digital C-print, 89 x 105 cm
Courtesy of Galerie Nordenhake and the artist