2020 Portfolio Prize Winner - Gloria Oyarzabal
Gloria Oyarzabal’s entry point for her Lagos–based series WOMAN GO NO’GREE (2017–ongoing) was principally academic: the Spanish artist began by creating for herself a curriculum of Nigerian feminist theory, zeroing in on canonical gender scholarship, like Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí’s The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (1997) and Ifi Amadiume’s Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (1987). These texts, which radically displace the binary, Western framework for understanding gender difference, catalyzed Oyarzabal’s interest in imaging the effects of colonialism and the follies of white feminism in West Africa.
Oyarzabal crafts provocative juxtapositions of Lagosians in motion with archival images and her own contemporary snapshots: a woman with sparkly, purple eyelids, holding a manicured index finger to her puckered lips, for example, converges with an explosion careening above water and a masked figure arched from heel to head. Oyarzabal liberally manipulates the archival extracts throughout the series, flipping figures upside down or applying unreal washes of color that beget a fable-like aesthetic. These enigmatic images enter an open dialogue with Oyarzabal’s own photographs of Nigeria, which feature a range of cosmopolitan subjects that Oyarzabal encountered on the street, at bars, through friends, or in the clamor of art openings for the Lagos Biennial in 2017.
In some portraits, Oyarzabal stages her subjects in a studio setting, dressed in pointedly eclectic ensembles. She uses patterned fabrics and exaggerated silhouettes to explore how the gaze of the colonizer refracts the image of the African woman. In one instance, this performance is paired with a found image from a colonial-era Nigerian magazine, in which a lone white woman at a bustling beach is enclosed in a blue bubble. For Oyarzabal, the bubble, an incidental photo discoloration, serves as an apt metaphor for the white privilege she seeks to reckon with. The blue borders also hint at other limits: the failures of white feminist discourse to properly account for a cultural context outside of its own bubble.
Oyarzabal doesn’t claim to speak for Nigerians or to make a statement about feminism in broad strokes. Instead, she considers the project and the research from which it sprung to be an exercise in decolonizing her own gaze, and for that reason, she welcomes debate that her work might prompt. “The feedback is what nourishes me,” she says. The title WOMAN GO NO’GREE, borrowed from Fela Kuti’s famous and widely debated song “Lady” (1972), encapsulates Oyarzabal’s challenging relationship with the material. “Women don’t have to agree,” she says of the diverging theories about how women might attain empowerment. “And that’s the point.”
—Nicole Acheampong, editorial assistant, Aperture magazine
Gloria Oyarzabal is a Spanish artist who works between photography, cinema, and teaching. She has a BFA from the Complutense University Madrid and a master’s degree from the Blank Paper School of Photography, Madrid. Oyarzabal is cofounder of the Independent Cinema “La Enana Marrón” (The Brown Dwarf) Madrid (1999–2009), which was dedicated to the diffusion of films d’auteur and experimental and alternative cinema. From 2009–12, she lived in Bamako, Mali, developing her interests in the construction of the “idea of Africa,” histories of colonization and decolonization, new tactics of colonialism, and African feminisms. Her work has been shown at festivals and venues including FORMAT, Derby, UK; LagosPhoto, Nigeria; PHotoEspaña, Madrid; and the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, Greece; among others. In 2017, Oyarzabal won the Landskrona Foto Dummy Award, which allowed her to publish her first photobook, Picnos Tshombé. In 2018, she won the Encontros da Imagem Discovery Award. In 2019, her work was selected for the Images Vevey Dummy Award, PHOTO IS:RAEL Meitar Award for Excellence in Photography, and the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal.