Zohra Opoku was 12 years old when she first started sewing her own outfits, bored by the options available to her in East Germany, where she lived.
The budding artist, of Ghanaian and German descent, realized then the transcendent power that fashion possessed. Clothing could communicate cultural allegiances and familial traditions, personal style could serve as a sort of hybridized autobiography, and rebellious ensembles allowed one to break free ― at least, somewhat ― of circumstances and heritage, giving fantasy physical form.
“I actually created my first winter jacket out of scraps of jeans with neon yellow pieces,” she told i-D. “Expressing myself with individual style seemed to me to be the only way to escape from the grey reality of the GDR [German Democratic Republic].”
Now, Opoku lives Accra, Ghana, where she works as a multimedia artist practicing in installation, sculpture and photography. Though she does not identify as a fashion designer, African textiles and the spirit of dress-up play a major role in her work. She’s composed large-scale installations made from second-hand clothes, imported materials from Germany to Ghana, and often transfers her screen-printed photographs onto bedsheets to evoke childhood memories of laundry hanging out to dry.
Opoku’s ongoing fixation with fashion is rooted in its ability to render one’s interior state onto the body and beyond it. “Textiles feel like the perfect vehicle with which identity can be performed,” she told the website Omenka. “It is the outcome of my research on how fashion, trends and clothes traditions are related to a cultural identity that I then perform in my photographs, video, sculptures and installations.”
A series of Opoku’s photographic self-portraits are on view this week at The Armory Fair, exhibited by Somali-French gallerist Mariane Ibrahim. The images feature Opoku in the forest behind her Ghana home. In the early morning light, Opoku captures herself ― adorned with striking ensembles and jewelry ― partially submerged in her natural surroundings. The foliage and its fruits become improvised accessories, natural jewels that both complement and mask their wearer.
This gesture refers to the experience of moving to a new environment and trying to fit in, one Opoku underwent when relocating from Germany to Ghana. She has compared the feeling of blending in with a new habitat to the West African tradition of masquerade ― in which citizens pay homage to guardian spirits, while poking fun at religious and spiritual leaders, by dressing up in elaborate, handmade disguises that turn the world topsy-turvy.
For Opoku, who both relocated across continents and switched fields from fashion to fine art, identity is something textured and hyphenated. Clothing, photography and disguise all offer up a stage on which she can consciously perform certain aspects of herself while hiding others. In this realm, where trees become improvised outfits and photos conceal as much as they reveal, the lines between make-believe, camouflage, hiding and invisibility tend to blur.
In Ghana, Opoku is moved by the abundance of nature, which constantly yields artistic inspiration and potential new getups. Yet there is no opposition between the domains of fashion and nature, which might otherwise appear at odds. Rather, the two bleed into one another, just as a twig becomes a veil in one of Opoku’s photos.
“I love the sound of nature and the smooth movements of leafs in the wind,” the artist said. “These sequences remind me of a dream or a mystic appearance, which refer back to ideas of invisibility and masquerade.”