My Granddad’s Car and other works by Karl Ohiri

First published in 'The Mega city and the Noncity' Artbase Africa Issue #1, 2013 this essay is drawn from a studio visit with Karl Ohiri

Karl Ohiri, My Granddad's Car, 2012. Courtesy the artist.

“My Granddad passed away, but he left his car on the surface” 

Family belongings left behind, distant locations and moments in time feature throughout the photographic and video works of artist Karl Ohiri. Born in Greenwich, London in 1983, Ohiri has travelled between England and his family home in Owerri, Nigeria throughout his life. After graduating with an MA in Photography and Urban cultures from Goldsmiths University, London in 2008 these journeys have become subject and inspiration for his work and he continues to create images that excavate personal histories and highlight his encounters with shifting ideas of ‘home’.

In 2011, Karl Ohiri and photographer Sayed Hasan embarked on the project My Granddad’s Car to trace their parallel experiences of finding and acquiring the cars that had belonged to their grandfathers in Nigeria and Pakistan, respectively, in order to ship them to London. The initial proposal, funded by the Arts Council England, was to exhibit the resulting documentary video and prints in Terminal 5, Heathrow airport; a poignant venue for the display of a work dealing with migration and travel, and a reminder of what gets left behind. When the exhibition took place in 2012 neither car had been released from port: the cars had become embroiled in lengthy bureaucratic procedures. For Hasan, the issue was one of legal ownership and inheritance law; in Ohiri’s case the transportation of the car came to challenge preconceived ideas of value and exchange. When the port official began to issue ‘fees’ hugely disproportionate to the intended purpose, the process soon entered into a value system beyond that of the sentimental or the material, into the realm of the speculative. It also became an exercise of power, and this refusal at the border echoes the experiences of those who have attempted to travel from Nigeria to England, and failed. Through the resulting prints and video documenting the process Ohiri and Hasan make visible the multiple ties and routes that connect so many of us to an elsewhere. By repeating a personal journey they have each made many times in the past and endowing it with this symbolic act Ohiri and Hasan narrate a shared history, linked by colonialism, migration and their present location.

As a child Ohiri would encounter the remains of his grandfather’s car during visits to his family home. Drawn in by its apparent lack of use but obvious importance, he would touch the car and play in it. When asked, relatives would simply respond with the fact of the matter: ‘it’s your Granddad’s car’. The Volkswagen Beetle and many prints of the same photograph of a man in a smart black tailored suit are the only objects which remember his grandfather’s life;

Ohiri explains: ‘My Granddad passed away, but he left his car on the surface’. Neither photograph or car are actively preserved by the family but both are treasured, the car has over time, become a carcass. The sense of passing time is captured most strikingly in Ohiri’s print Family Portrait 2011.Eight members of Ohiri’s family take up position across the foreground, each facing the camera straight on. Raised behind them is a broad yellow bungalow; proud pillars and ornate balustrades are in contrast to the rusted metal roof. Ohiri stands in front of the group with his Granddad’s car. Each of the characters, including Ohiri hold a deceptively casual stance, some with arms held by their sides, while other hands rest on hips or chins. These gestures that imply an informal moment or discrete pose, when studied for a moment longer, begins to convey a sense of impatience and flux. The careful spatial arrangements between people and the large inanimate object in the centre appears, from another perspective, an accident of a moment in time, a freeze-frame in the endless procession of daily life. It is possible to imagine the seconds immediately after the image is captured as family members walk out to the left or right of the frame to continue with the demands of the day.

The image presents two very different tempos rubbing against each other and creating a tension: the steady pace of people on the move, and the slow march of time affecting the remnants of the car. Prolonged exposure to the elements and changing fashions prevent the car from being easily recognisable, no longer part of daily life it has become witness to it. A third temporal element is of course that of the camera itself. Shooting medium format film creates a lapse of time between taking the picture and seeing the results; this contributes significance to an image which deals, self-consciously, with the past and the present [as well as a sense of the future]. Ohiri himself appears in many of the prints, which further breaks down divisions between author, participant and witness of the art-work. In this deliberate choice to participate in the relatively time consuming act of image making with film, he negates that possibility to immediately refer to and edit the scene and therefore forces himself to be in the moment, and participate.

In another image Patchwork, 2011, it is only Ohiri and the car in front of the house. This time both man and car are wrapped in multicoloured checked cloth. Ohiri’s mother gave him the cloth in England before he set out on his journey: symbolic of their tribe, she felt it might be put to use. What remains of the car is wrapped tightly, accentuating the frame of the window and curve of the roof, the cloth becomes a protective layer, a second skin in a recognisable pattern; the resulting forms of negative space appear deliberate, even sculptural. By contrast the fabric that wraps the figure is loosely pinned at the shoulder, simplifying the lines of the body to the vertical and horizontal. Ohiri’s face is half masked by an edge of cloth running across the tip of his left ear to the middle of his right cheekbone. His vision is slightly obstructed, his mouth is completely obscured. The insertion of the cloth introduces a kind of short-hand of cultural signifiers, communicating what the artist sees but cannot verbalise. The cloth is yet another object that has made that journey between England and Nigeria, (whichever comes first), its symbolic presence made up of a patchwork of associations. British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE has been most prolific in his insertion of Dutch wax cloth in his works of sculpture, photography and performance, to often surreal effect, but never without the weight of an implied history. In the work of both Shonibare and Ohiri the textile is used as comment and signifier of the relationship between Europe and Africa, though while Shionebare evokes nineteenth century opulence and excess in imaginings of Europe, Orhiri’s use of the cloth implies a return to ‘native’, through a return to the homeland, a contrast that could perhaps be read as a generational shift in expressions and aspirations of belonging.

Whilst it is possible to trace some of the themes that have become dominant in Ohiri’s practice, from very early series such as ‘Lagos to Oforola’, 2007 and ‘A Place Called Home’, 2008, a definite aesthetic shift occurs in Ohiri’s practice from 2010 onwards. Moving away from a more ethnographic approach of mass observation, Ohiri begins to combine documentary with staged narrative, fusing fiction and the real and utilising props and costume to build stories and play with myths. The series that marks this shift in In My Mother’s Clothes 2010, as it questions what it means to be ‘native’ or indeed to wear ‘native’, what it means to settle in a country that is not that of your origin, and how it feels to be surrounded by land that is unfamiliar, perhaps even hostile.

In Portrait Gold 2010, floating on an island in the centre of this image the female figure holds a gaze directly out to the viewer. Her relaxed, confident posture is wrapped from waist to ankle in brightly coloured, geometric print. Nails painted pillar-box red compliment the gold shoes that are equally unfit for purpose, given the surroundings. Crowning her head is a ‘Gele’, Nigerian head tie created with layers of gold fabric fanning and folding. When we read all these signs of ‘native’ African dress what we expect to see underneath these clothes is a ‘native’ African woman, but what Ohiri presents us with is a woman who looks distinctly European. Suddenly the ability to fall back on presumptions of race, belonging and identity is taken away.

In each of the six prints that comprise In My Mother’s Clothes, 2010 this striking, brightly adorned woman is located in various semi urban wastelands. The solitary figure set in sharp contrast to the landscape she inhabits is not even at one with herself, as collaged pieces of common identities butt up against each other. The inspiration for this series of prints was a photograph Ohiri found of his mother wearing traditional Nigerian dress. Photographed for a special occasion, her posture was proud but also pensive. In a subtle and powerful gesture it is Ohiri’s partner Riikka Kassinen who wears these clothes in Portrait Gold, 2010. It is Riikka Kassinen here wearing African clothes, in an English landscape, bearing a name unfamiliar to the English language. It appears this woman is not a ‘native’ either, but has her own story of travel and relocation. Migration has made this image possible, and brings theimpossibilities of this composition into question.

By employing both the over-familiar and the unexpected, Ohiri opens up questions relating to our contemporary existence, as travel across the globe becomes second nature to many of its inhabitants. Is it possible or even desirable to be ‘native’ of a particular land, and what are the possibilities that open up when elements of cultural identity can be swapped and shared at will? Two generations of women, both with individual stories of migration, both perhaps historically would be recognised as symbolic of their nation of origin, but in this series this female figure in the landscape becomes symbolic of so much more.

A parallel approach in Ohiri’s practice looks to found and commissioned photographs taken by family members such as the ongoing series of funeral portraits I'm sorry I couldn't be there, 2012, in which Ohiri asked relatives to document the burial of his grandmother in Obosi Nigeria. In a further exploration of the documentary How To Mend A Broken Heart, 2012, Ohiri presents a selection of found images that belonged to his mother. Ohiri discovered she had been through her own process of intervening and re-reading history as she defaced the images of her first husband, sometimes by simply writing ‘False’ across his face or by scratching into the surface of the image. In his most recent works, Medicine Man: I'll take care of you and His & Hers, both created in 2013, the exploration of a family history features again and Ohiri continues to collaborate with his partner Riikka Kassinen. Bringing the work back into the studio, offering a glimpse of where Ohiri’s practice may be heading, these works push further into the realm of the fictive. Whilst Ohiri has noted that the work of Pieter Hugo deserves great respect for his ability to enter into situations across Africa and negotiate his surroundings to capture rare and striking images, this newer work is more reminiscent of the highly stylised studio practice of a young Samuel Fosso, where it is the great indoors of the studio, the costume and set that allow a sense of freedom to explore character and narrative to its fullest.