Zohra Opoku : an art of healing and transcendence

Interview Rebecca Anne Proctor

“I wanted to transform from this terrifying moment into a moment of peace. I was so worried during the first few weeks of being diagnosed. It was traumatic. I had no emotions. But then I decided I needed to do something about it. But it took me many months to get there.”

– Zohra Opoku 

Zohra Opoku in her studio, Black Rock Residency. Courtesy Black Rock & Mariane Ibrahim.

There was an explosion. Bits and pieces of human body parts were scattered. Dismembered and caught in mid-air, dangling and seemingly suspended from an unknown source. A torso appears from the righthand corner greeted by several hands—some with their fists clenched and others that seem to offer something. On the opposite side there is a face that seems to watch from the wings. Caught between life and death, the parts survived. Their spirit kept them beaming with life, even while in this transitory state of purgatory. They transcend their in-between state and transform into a new essence with new meaning and purpose. 

     The bits and pieces of body parts in Ghanaian-German artist Zohra Opoku’s latest series title ‘The Myths of Eternal Life’ are metaphors for the human spirit. The work, a screen print on velvet fabric, was unveiled at the 2020 edition of The Armory Show and captures the artist’s exploration into the afterlife, particularly her work into the mysticism of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. The series is also highly personal for Zohra. It symbolizes not only a stylistic transformation from her earlier, more textile-based photographic installations, but one that relays the experience she went through after undergoing treatment for breast cancer until February this year.

      Zohra presently resides in Dakar, Senegal where she has been completing Nigerian-American Kehinde Wiley’s inaugural Black Rock Residency. The coronavirus pandemic arrived while she and fellow artists on the residency were in the midst of creating their work. For weeks they have had to abide by strict measures to control the spread of the virus, including an 8pm curfew, social distancing measures and stringent hygiene protocols. Still, Zohra is grateful to have her studio there and to continue on with the body of work—a healing experience in its own right—that she had begun prior to arriving in Dakar. “I always remind myself that even though we are in lockdown I have this wonderful studio,” she says. 

   Last year, while she was undergoing treatment, Zohra underwent another form of confinement. Away from her beloved Ghana for months, she felt empty and homesick. “We always need to find a way to cope with certain situations,” she explains via Zoom from Dakar. “On the other hand, I had the privilege of being treated by the best doctor’s in Germany. How many people get the chance to travel to another country to get the treatment they need? We always look at what we don’t have at a certain moment and that leads us to feel miserable. We have a lot in the end.” 

    Her sickness and months of treatment opened Zohra up to a new body of work—an art that sought to be both healing and transformative. “I had wanted to put the experience I gained over the last several months of my time undergoing treatment in Germany into my art,” she says. “It’s been a journey of physical and spiritual healing—one that I began last August when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew then that something was about to change in my life forever.”

      Dreaming consciously and unconsciously proved to be more vital than ever. “From the day I was diagnosed I started dreaming and I have never stopped. “It was like the imagery for my new art already existed—I just needed to bring it into my work.” The months that passed saw Zohra gradually transcend from a place where she feared death and missed Ghana to place of acceptance where she fostered a new relationship with death. “I wanted to transform from this terrifying moment into a moment of peace,” recalls Zohra. “I was so worried during the first few weeks of being diagnosed. It was traumatic. I had no emotions. But then I decided I needed to do something about it. But it took me many months to get there.” She decided to leave Ghana, give up her home and studio there and go to Germany for treatment.

    In Germany, feeling the absence of Ghana, Zohra began making collage-based works incorporating her signature mix of photographs and fabric. “It helped me picture the emptiness I felt,” she says. Then nature called her. The hospital she was going to each day for her radiation therapy was close to the Tiergarten, the biggest park in Berlin. “I began craving color through the absence of color in the winterly environment of the Tiergarten where there were dead branches and so many shades of grey like the monochrome palette of my previous work,” she remembers. “I spent a lot of time there with those trees,” she remembers. “Being with nature helped me to feel calm and grounded. I slowly recollected myself and began to think about how I could get back to a place where I could use the experience of recovery that I was going through to create new work and be more efficient with my life.”  

Zora Opoku / Chapter One
Zora Opoku « Chapter One » / Courtesy the artist, Mariane Ibrahim-Chicago, Gallery 1957, Accra

      During her time of treatment, Zohra was also led to explore Berlin’s many museums, particularly the Neues Museum, where she became enraptured with the art of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Egyptian’s belief in the afterlife. “I became taken with The Book of the Dead, the ancient Egyptian funerary text. “The Egyptians learned to reconcile with death as they did life. Life became an act of transformation until the body and the spirit was meant to move on to something else,” says Zohra. “I then decided when I was meant to leave this life. I embraced the concept of having a script guide me through different spells and curses to protect my soul on the journey to the after life and so I dedicated myself to learning how the ancient Egyptians began their preparation for the ritual of death.” 

     The first chapter of Zohra’s new body of work is hence called Healing Hands and Hieroglyphics. “I decided to think about my new work in chapters and how this first work would be dedicated to healing hands, which for me evokes all of the hands that were constantly helping me at the hospital,” said Zohra. “The hands that were helping me looked like the hands in the hieroglyphics.” The second chapter of her new body of work is dedicated to burials. “I looked at how different cultures approach burials and funeral celebrations,” she says. “I fell in love with the idea of The Book of The Dead, how it was written and its approach to death.” Death then took on new meaning for Zohra. It became just another aspect of life. “I then decided when I was meant to leave this life,” she adds. « I then embraced the concept of having a script guide me through different spells and curses that would protect my soul on its journey to the afterlife.” Learning about the preparation for the ritual of death pulled Zohra in another direction. “It was also probably a distraction, a place to escape in a world full of the unknown and magic,” she recalls. “I became simply fascinated, inspired and really motivated to get back to a new artistic process.”

      Senegal is Zohra’s present stop on her artistic journey of healing and transformation. “This process has given me new direction in my work—it has helped me to deal with the emptiness and made it go away,” she says. “Coming back to Africa, in particularly, has helped. Africa is in my veins and Ghana is in my blood. Senegal fills the gap. When I am back on the continent, I feel so much more alive again.” (…) Read the full text in something we Africans got issue #11

Rebecca Anne Proctor