In Conversation with Karl Ohiri and Riikka Kassinen by Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi
Karl Ohiri and Riikka Kassinen are a collaborative duo whose photographic works take on an uncanny quality that tugs at the familiar and the fictional. Owing to this dialectic, performance, with its plural possibilities, is at the heart of their practice. At issue here is how photography figures itself within Ohiri and Kassinen’s prevailing narrative of performing and documenting what is real and what is reverie within Medicine Man: I’ll Take Care of You, their recent showing at LagosPhoto 2014. The work dabbles in memento mori ideas, inviting the audience to wrestle and reflect on the transience of life and performative rituals, and how documenting the two offers up preternatural as well as benevolent mediations on mourning and identity (re)construction
Ike: Since the point of departure for Art Base Africa 03 revisits LagosPhoto 2014, I would like to dwell on this notion of "staging reality, documenting fiction" for a moment. Your body of work is part performative, part conceptual, with photography acting as a coagulant for these somewhat fragile artistic spaces. What were your initial thoughts about the theme? And how does the theme tie into your collaborative art practice from conception to production?
Karl+Riikka: We were delighted when LagosPhoto announced the festival theme “Staging reality, Documenting fiction” as the theme represents a contemporary shift within documentary photography where reality and fiction intertwine and the photographer’s frame sets a stage where events can be re-imagined and explored through performance. Such spaces give the photographer more freedom to express ideas and control over the decisive moment, which has been bound to the roots of documentary photography.
These notions are explored within our work ‘Medicine Man: I’ll take care of you’ created in the aftermath of a family tragedy of a son losing his mother to cancer as Karl explains: “When my mother became terminally ill we were told by doctors that she didn’t have much time left. The need to document the last moments was ever present but didn’t feel appropriate under the circumstances. All I could focus on was finding a solution that would save her life - my mind was in constant battle between science, religion and the supernatural. The manifestation of these thoughts gave rise to the Medicine Man.”
Photography as a tool allowed us to come to terms with the reality of the situation. The work served as a mourning ritual and an act of closure for both of us exploring the boundaries between collaboration and shared experience.
I: Further reflection on LagosPhoto 2014 hearkens me back to RosaLee Goldberg's thoughts on the eve of PERFORMA 05, namely “I decided it was really time to put a big frame around performance”. This statement couldn't be more relevant, as there are greater efforts to document or "put a frame around" the performative realm of art be it through photography and/or video. This brings to light the longstanding discrepancy between critical perspectives and documenting of performance art vis-à-vis its copious presence dating back to the 1970s. What is your take on Goldberg's thoughts? Are we at a different moment in terms of documenting this somewhat fictitious reality?
Karl+Riikka :Photography has always been part of performance art and for photographers themselves staging performance specifically for the camera has become an increasingly popular way to use their medium: One can see this especially in the increase of performative self-portraiture where photographers are turning themselves into both ‘performance artists’ often without a live audience and photographers. Photography’s ability to freeze time and stage the action has given the medium a perfect platform to use performance as part of the creative practice – it will be interesting to see in what direction this will develop in the future.
I: Let’s touch on your LagosPhoto showing, Medicine Man: I’ll Take Care of You (2013). What has been your experience with juju and witch doctors? Further, what is the reception of this practice within your family and evenMedicine Man?
Karl: I do not have any personal experience with Juju nor do I know of anyone who dabbles in such things, however, from an early age the notion of Juju has been something that I have been told is real, it is an idea that has been enforced by my Nigerian upbringing via dialogue with family who would speak of tales of witchcraft and through the watching of Nollywood Movies as a child. In Nollywood Cinema we can observe a collective paranoia and obsession with the power of Juju often used in films as a negative way to inflict wrongs on to your enemies or to acquire wealth usually obtained through a sacrifice and the spilling of blood. However, the Juju if we can call it that, which the Medicine Man possesses, is that of a positive healer who expects nothing in return.
I: In relation to Medicine Man, could you two walk me through the aspects of transformation that were essential in becoming an(other) individual? Did this process take on a ritualistic quality at any time?
K+R: The whole process of making and becoming the Medicine Man acted as a ritualistic performance; The making of the adornments, putting on a mask which transforms the person into another being, setting up the space, camera and lighting all have ritualistic characteristics.
I:What comes next in this transformative experience? Is there a metamorphosis of sorts where you individuate from the death of your mother?
K: The transformation into the Medicine Man was a process, which was more to do with a psychological state of mind rather than the physicality of becoming the Medicine Man. The metamorphosis can therefore be described as a process of becoming a stronger individual and letting go of the past by engaging with the feelings surrounding loss. The construction of the Medicine Man: I’ll Take Care of You allowed me to mourn my mother’s death by revisiting the mental image I held on to in my mind and transforming it into a physical photograph which one can now touch and share within the real world- for me that is a metamorphosis in itself.
I: It is suggested that the individual or character you both mold allows you, Karl, to “revisit a fantasy” that once brought comfort. Medicine Man indicates the comfort lay in a figurative embodying of the witch doctor and his curative devices. In light of your religious background, talk me through when this fantasy and comfort came to be, and when the comfort dissipated / disappear?
K:The comfort that I sought in the construction of the Medicine Man was spawned out of sheer desperation. During the time of my mother’s illness I found my mind in a state of flux, battling with two opposing ideologies - that of the scientific which consisted of medication charts against that of the religious based on the power of God and his ability to perform miracles. Coming from a religious background I first took comfort in the latter praying for a divine intervention that would come to stand as a testimony to the power of God. However, my mother’s health began to deteriorate at a rapid rate, a rate that prayers and medicine could not compete with. It was at this moment that I began to slowly realize that I could lose my mother to cancer. As a coping mechanism I started to develop the fantasy of the Medicine Man, a being who could defy science and my failed religion and save my mother’s life. Embodying the Medicine Man and transforming his presence from a fantasy into a type of reality was a state of mourning for me and my partner Riikka. It was form of closure that marked the end of our ordeal and a way of paying respect to my mother and to the Medicine Man himself.
I:Your treatment of death finds itself nestled around adornment, with My Granddad's Car (2012) and Medicine Man both leaning towards a beautification of rather moribund realities. Even the more recent Memories of You (2014), you perform nostalgia through a queering process that finds you painting your nails and donning your mother's garb to deal with her death. Could you speak to this decorative thread in your work?
K: I think this thread within my work stems from a fascination of death. I often find myself pondering over what’s the point of it all? Through my work I try to find the answer to this question. By exploring the physical objects we leave behind when we are gone I try to form narratives that bridge the past with the present in an attempt to make sense of the world around me- and what it means to exist.
The beautification, romantification of objects and the adornment processes within my work become a way of holding on to the idea that life is precious and meaningful. Without such beliefs, I feel, the notion of being and nostalgia collapse upon itself. I try to challenge such ideas within my work. For example the use of my mother’s personal belongings and the dressing up process in the series Memories of You become a way of remembering the life of a loved one. Knowing that the objects we posses will in most cases have a life expectancy that will surpass our own, I choose to use personal artifacts in the form of decoration to create new mythologies that link the past, present and future.
I:The collaborative nature of your practice is beautiful due to its unforeseen yet premeditated twists it takes. For instance, there is an interesting juxtaposition between In My Mother's Clothes (2010) versus Memories of You (2014). Your mother fills the majority of the temporal lacuna; she is the focus of the two works. But there is the visual frisson of the landscape (i.e., urban isolated spaces versus family home), the figure (i.e., daughter-in-law versus son), and the fragment/whole (i.e., Riikka’s full profile is on view versus Karl’s nail polished hands clutching a cigarette occupy much of the frame). In a word, you both (re)construct the identity of this maternal figure, but in different spaces and framed quite distinctly. The totalizing visuals across the two works prompt questions about the collaborative creative process, how you two orchestrate the mise en scène, and how that dialogue evolves vis-à-vis who is framed or situated before the lens?
K+R: We feel our collaborating process can be seen as a natural dialogue, which explores the personal relationship we share together. The narrative often resembles that of an on-going stage play where the characters play different roles at different times throughout the performance. As the stage is dictated by real life events the narrative often takes unexpected twists which forces the individual roles to adapt to an ever-changing script.
For example what is explored within In My Mother’s Clothes series is a love for the two women Karl holds dear to his heart, their similar stories of migration and the overall fear that his Mother would eventually die and his partner would have to fit in her shoes.
The bond between mother and son and a daughter-in-law and her partner will always be different which is reflected on the two works in question: The reconstruction of the maternal figure in daughter-in-law versus son differs due to time, space and relationships. Riikka playing the partner trying to fit in Karl’s Mother’s shoes is explored through isolated and almost awkward spaces – her character holds her pose not quite fitting the role, but yet she stands on her own with look of pride in her eyes. In Memories of You Karl plays his Mother exploring the mother-son-bond on a different level – he goes deeper ‘under the skin’ – perhaps trying to reach the ultimate bond by emulatingher in the home space. Due to this imitation process the camera is set to take closer portraits concentrating on the familiar details and memories Karl holds dear. The unforeseen events effect the way this maternal figure is explored through time: In My Mother’s clothes sees Riikka contrasted against the maternal figure whileMedicine Man sees the re-emergence of Riikka’s presence as a motherly caretaker and loving partner and in Memories of Youthe roles are reversed where Riikka looks through the lens and Karl adapts his Mother’s essence in her absence. The main character ‘The Mother’ is absent but ever present.
I:Building on the latter question. Riikka, it seems for the pieces (e.g., Medicine Man, Memories of You) that deal with deeply personal loss for Karl, namely his mother, you become the caretaker of sorts (the title alludes to this). This is not to say that your mother-in-law’s passing isn’t a huge loss for you. It’s interesting, however, that you maintain a presence in Medicine Man through the decorative and documentation process, but remain outside the frame this time around. Could you talk me through this presence/absence regarding collaborations with Karl, and whether subject matter factors in? Also could you both touch on this caretaker theme that you both embrace in Medicine Man?
R:I think photography is often seen as a ‘lonely’ (single author) medium, however, especially in performative photographic practice there is always an element of partnership: at times it is someone just assisting and/or pressing the shutter release where there is no need for the ‘second author’ but sometimes there is a shared creative input which is often based on a shared experience resulting in two authors.
As the title suggests the series Memories of You is based only on Karl’s personal memories of his Mother so my presence is there to assist. Although with both Memories of You and Medicine Man the subject matter relates to mourning with Medicine Man the situation is different as the collaboration is very much based on a shared experience: at the point of time the work was created the pain was fresh at the very surface and sharing the pain together in this what I would call a second mourning ritual (first being the funeral) resulted in artistic collaboration.
Let me explain the collaboration further: Due to the nature of the personal subject matter, Medicine Man: I’ll Take Care of You is very much based on Karl’s personal experience on losing his mother, where my physical presence in the image is not necessary nor needed, it is not in the forefront but in the backstage. As you noticed the title Medicine Man: I’ll Take Care of You suggest two meanings where we both take on the role of ‘a caretaker’: Karl as the Medicine Man/Son wanting to take care of his Mother and me as his partner that supports him through his pain and eventual loss and also share the experience artistically by being part of the making of the costume, taking care of the adornment process and finally recording the intimate portrait. All in all the piece is in many respects an act of closure for both of us but maybe more so for me as Karl comes to explore his feelings further in his second piece on mourning, Memories of You.
I:The turn of language in the title of Medicine Man is ironic yet sincere given the materiality of the “sacred charms”. By reducing western and native medicine into these charms, it parodies as well as levels both curative practices into possible dialogues about a third space—their futility. This may be revisiting the “fantasy you once took comfort in” perhaps? It seems you question the curative powers of both and look to the touch and comfort of your partner as a salvo. Tell me about your experiential view on juju and western medicine, and if they have changed through all this.
K: In regards to the curative power of western medicine it is a practice I whole-heartedly believe in. Although western medicine could not save my Mother during her battle with cancer I feel it would be foolish to disregard the scientific advances we have made in combating the disease. So yes, I believe in contemporary medicine but I am also critical of its limitations. What my mother’s death has taught me is that some things are just meant to be and no amount of prayers or belief in science will save you when it is your time to go. Such personal revelations have made me question many aspects of my faith and belief in science as products of certainty. The uncertainty created a momentary space to explore an imaginative third space which could be seen as an exploration into a type of Juju but was more to do with creating a the third space, that you speak of where the limitations of both practices could be overcome.
Through the construction and deconstruction of the Medicine Man we find what is really lurking behind the image which is a son mourning the loss of his Mother whilst desperately looking for closure, hence the real salvation in its making comes from the comfort of my partner Riikka in a joint ritual and mourning process.
This interview was originally published via Art Base Africa. It is republished with the author's permission.
Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi is a writer, curator, and psychotherapist based in New York City. Onyewuenyi was one of the founding members of Pop'Africana. He is currently a curatorial fellow at the School of Visual Arts, and maintains an ongoing writing practice, with his work appearing in Cool Hunting, Pop'Africana, Art Base Africa, and HYCIDE. He is deeply interested in how visual and literary forms of expression can mine the subjective and physical dimensions of the body and geography, inscribing it with faculties that are of the mind and rendering it as an intersubjective site for critique and intervention on matters apropos to race, gender, psychic well-being.