Speaking with Unyimeabasi Udoh, one soon realizes the misconception of ethnographic museums in conflating visual representation with visibility and social advocacy. Udoh’s practice works with the construction and maintenance of the canons of art history and how Black cultures have been cast within the totalizing ideals of ethnographic study.
While studying architecture as an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York, Udoh was taken by type and graphic design, allowing them to translate their skills into works on paper, cloth, mirrored mylar, photography and web-based interactive media. Since obtaining an MFA in visual communication design from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2019, they have examined the absurdity of language, using text as image to examine how worldly notions are built, named and maintained.
Udoh’s interest in the void, redaction and blackness, as both color and social construct, is expressed throughout their work. In a recent exhibition at Chicago Artists Coalition, “Excavating Memory,” Udoh presented a half-open square plot holding 120 pounds of black sand with a glass bowl partially buried atop the mound. A series of six discreet wall-mounted photographs, “Topographic representation of:,” show partially obscured photographs taken by their brother, whose anonymity is perpetuated by one-way reflective mylar. What remains visible are accessibility captions distilled from a colonial archive at the British Museum that read as descriptors. “Group photo of four young females” or “Picture shows the burning of Arochukwu in 1901. The mud huts are on fire.” The title of each work includes the serial number of the source image, such as “Af.B58,27,” “Af, A156.157,” raising the question of self-representation that lies at the heart of racial politics. The reduction of the experience of a community to numeric abstraction forces one to realize how white supremacy is founded on the belief that people of color do not know how to name nor express their own experience. Udoh’s ability to reconcile their concerns through text as form, content and abstractive meaning generates the possibility of reading, without losing the paradigmatic meaning of words.
Udoh often points to how institutional scholarship limits the experience of people of color, reducing an anthropological understanding of humanity to one limited by aesthetic categorization. In “My Country (Object Removed for Study),” a series of black, emptied pedestals mark a stage for sculptures in absentia. Blackened text on black plaques become an alternative means for the artist to empty colonized spaces, in order to name and reclaim their own alienation. What at first was a cost-effective option for an undergraduate student to print within became a language in itself, as Udoh began to use black pigment more intentionally over the last few years. The event of removing an exhibit becomes an act of failing to provide evidence, to negotiate with the structural power of ethnography.
Udoh’s ability to critique the literal and symbolic impact of colonialism is seen in “altar head for an oba (my brother),” where the artist creates five-channel-screen printed images of “Head (Uhunmwun Elao),” a famous bronze from the Benin kingdom in current-day Nigeria, from the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection. The head, removed from its altar and the context of museum display, anatomizes the futility of the art object extracted from its living context. For Udoh, the journey of the altar head to the museum parallels their family’s path from Nigeria to Britain and the United States. Acknowledging their personal history in relation to transnational ways of seeing, being and self-representation, Udoh often express themselves through the gaze of their nameless, placeless brother, Kufre, who appears in the titles, content and medium-specificity of works. Fictionalizing present-day people who are physically distanced yet emotionally intertwined, Udoh looks to reconstitute and re-root parts of their identity through proxy.
Udoh is a recipient of residencies and fellowships from the Driehaus Museum (2020), Chicago Artists Coalition (2019) and ACRE (2019). They will be exhibiting new work in two survey exhibitions this year—”Survey 2” at Chicago Artists Coalition, and a group show of fellowship recipients at the Driehaus Museum. They also run Plates, an experimental journal that builds critical, collaborative projects with artists, designers and writers, with artist and writer Casey Carsel. (Pia Singh)