Lola Ayisha Ogbara
Sensual yet opaque: observe the curves of a small ceramic sculpture. Measuring twenty-two-inches tall, its contours crimp into lush black blobs. The smooth yet stippled surface imparts no retouching. Its volumes are that of a body, or perhaps many bodies, with wrinkles, lumps and bumps laid bare. The object oozes incompleteness: what it is or who it was remains to be seen. You can’t have all of it. It is a privileged viewing situation. Titled, “If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery” (2021), the object embodies the fascinations of its maker, Chicago-based artist and cultural worker, Lola Ayisha Ogbara.
Frequently diverting and obfuscating concentration around the body, Ogbara is nevertheless attentive to her discrete identities as Black, as queer and as a woman. Channeling the body through objects, Ogbara is not just concerned with how bodies are seen, but how they participate and circulate within larger systems. These systems, she says, are ones that we cannot escape; her practice often disrupts or introduces difficulty into spaces where beliefs, practices and access are otherwise accepted.
Born and raised on the South Side and earning her Bachelor of Arts in arts entertainment and media management from Columbia College in 2013, Ogbara also spent seven formative years working in St. Louis. While her early endeavors focused on 2-D illustration and graphic design, her practice expanded to encompass sculpture, performance, and most recently, sound. She first experimented with ceramics in 2015 while working at Craft Alliance, a nonprofit art center in St. Louis, where her colleague and fellow-artist Kahlil Irving encouraged her to try her hand with the tactile medium. Seeking to strengthen her skills and conceptual framework, she entered an MFA program at Washington University in 2018.
Space to focus on her studio practice proved fruitful for Ogbara. Following completion of her MFA, she presented her first solo exhibition at the Kranzberg Art Center in summer 2020. The recipient of numerous awards and grants, Ogbara refined her practice through multiple residencies over the past year at ACRE, Ox-Bow, the Hyde Park Arts Center, Arts + Public Life, and now at Chicago Artists Coalition.
Adjacent to Ogbara’s artmaking is a deep-rooted commitment to her community. Drawing from her background in arts administration, Ogbara has a natural sensibility for bringing people together. In 2017 she co-founded a collective, “Artists in the Room,” which put renowned artists such as Sanford Biggers and Mickalene Thomas in conversation with local emerging Black artists. Bridging barriers posed by the pandemic, she also programmed a trio of virtual programs in 2021 titled “Communion, Care & Comfort,” where creative practitioners held space for networking, care and conversation while cooking shared recipes. Her recent appointment as exhibitions manager for the South Side Community Art Center attests to her dedication to facilitating the work of others.
The expanse of Ogbara’s creative output is notable for the ways in which she has eluded conventional productivity—moving toward what she calls an “objectless practice” she has produced work that is ephemeral, immaterial or made to be destroyed. These impulses were apparent in a body of work, “The Perfect Servant,” displayed in a 2021 exhibition at the Arts Incubator. The coming year will be an opportunity for Ogbara to present new and never-exhibited work with a group exhibition at Mindy Solomon Gallery and a solo exhibition at the Hyde Park Arts Center. In conjunction with a two-person exhibition at The Luminary in St. Louis, Ogbara is particularly excited about the forthcoming release of an EP with Amina Ross, which represents her first foray into sound art. She notes, “There are a lot of things you can say with sound that you can’t really say with an object.” Ogbara continues to invent artful ways of articulating the ineffable. Each work is free to be its own mystery. (Alexandra Drexelius)