Zohra Opoku is an Accra based, multimedia artist of German Ghanaian descent. Her work examines political, historical, cultural, and socio-economic influences in the formation of personal identities, particularly in the context of contemporary Ghana.
Opoku’s practice has been heavily influenced by her own story. After her father was forced to return to Ghana shortly after her birth in 1976, she grew up in the GDR with just her mother. The separation from her father created a void within her, denying her a chance to grow up with the history and culture she had inherited from her father, stating that: “The governmental decision that separated my parents became a defining moment in my life. It is what led me to become an artist and it is why I explore belonging and identity in my practice.”
Obtaining her MA in Fashion from the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Opoku worked with Danish designer Henrik Vibskov before fully focusing on art.
In 2011 she moved to Accra; a decision motivated by a desire to further connect with her African identity. The move prompted her to consider traditional Ghanaian textiles and subsequently rooted her artistic explorations within a larger socio-political framework.
By using a variety of mediums such as installation, performance, sculpture, video, and photography, Opoku’s work examines the complexities of identity and shows us the inextricable relationship between past and present. Her work centres around textiles and traditional Ghanaian dress codes, something which has been an inherent part of the country’s identity and industry throughout West Africa’s complex history.
The centring of these practices serves as a way for her to connect to the abstraction of identity in a palpable way. She reimagines materials and traditions to address the socio-political influence fashion wields on African history and culture, while highlighting the important role clothes play in shaping individual and societal identities.
A prime example of this can be seen in THE BILLBOARDPROJECT (2014-2015), a series of large-scale installations comprising second-hand garments woven together in arrangements. Strung on empty billboard structures in and around central Accra, the project interfaced with the pervasive importing of unwanted, second-hand clothing into Africa as a direct line of enquiry into its effects on identity formation and social status.
Her work serves as a social commentary on broadly relevant themes surrounding the human experience, yet each exploration is intimately rooted in personal identity politics. She repeatedly integrates family heirlooms and her own self-image into her visual observations of Ghana’s cultural memory.
One of her latest projects, Unravelled Threads (2017), serves as a continuation of her work with textiles and photography as expressions of history and culture. In her words: “It’s a continuation, for me, of this experience of being (un)limited by my identity.”
Opoku has exhibited internationally, with the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (Chicago), Gallery 1957 (Accra), Kunsthaus Hamburg (Hamburg), and the Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao) just to name a few.
In a 2018 solo exhibition at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery titled Harmatten Tales, Opoku displayed works that emerged from photographing Accra’s minority population of Muslim women, with large, screen-printed portraits revealing the complexity and self-determination of her subjects.
The subject of race has also become an integral part of Opoku’s work. During her most recent residency at Callie’s Berlin, she began work on her series The Doll Test (2020), revisiting the toys and tales that informed her childhood. In the series, she draws parallels between the popular German book of short stories Der Struwwelpeter (1845) – where three boys are dipped in black ink after teasing a dark-skinned boy – and the common practice today of giving white dolls as charitable donations to children in Ghana.
Taking her own experience as a point of departure, she explores the historical image of Blackness, as well as that of its future. She reflects on this book and its enduring effects, noting that: “Through a personal journey of empowerment, I have learned to embrace myself, my skin tone and my hair. It has taken years and work to gain full consciousness and confidence.”
Opoku holds a strong belief in the power of art. She rejects its notion as non-essential and instead heightens its crucial functions for the shaping of the future, believing: “Art can be very therapeutic for both the person creating it as well as for those looking at it. It creates processes in your mind, and for a society that wants to grow and develop, the mind is the most beautiful thing. Art is extremely useful when communicating complex problems, especially things that in text or spoken form will come off as very aggressive.”