In Nigerian artist Tonia Nneji’s Ji dé, two women painted in velvety indigos and midnight blues, and dressed in royal azure and amethyst purple undergarments, sit holding one another. Their upper bodies blend together, blurring the boundaries between arm and torso and shoulder. One woman leans in repose upon the other, but theirs is a mutual embrace of support and comfort as they sit on Ankara fabrics printed with the names of local Catholic organizations and churches. A bright yellow fabric hangs behind them on a parchment-colored wall.
The title means “hold” in Igbo, Nneji’s language, and the scene may seem like little more than a glimpse of an intimate moment, but viewed alongside the 15 other paintings in “You May Enter,” Nneji’s current exhibition at Rele Gallery in Lagos, Nigeria (on view through November 29), a larger narrative emerges. The show tells the story of how women in pain negotiate varying degrees of physical and emotional trauma and healing, all the while yearning for communal support and compassion. Searching for an overall title for her newest body of work, Nneji wanted something invitational, but that also referenced the intimate themes of endocrine disorders, women’s health, suffering, non-traditional treatment, solidarity, and compassion embedded in it.
A blend of oil and acrylic on canvas, Nneji’s blue-hued figures give the paintings a palpable air of melancholy, offset only by vibrantly colored African fabrics that drape and fold around bodies, walls and furniture. The men and women keeping vigil and bearing witness in these bright vignettes shed light on the physical and emotional pain of women living with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), an often traumatic and shame-inducing medical condition. PCOS is an endocrine disorder that, according to a 2010 WHO estimate, affects up to 116 million women of reproductive age worldwide, but for which, surprisingly, many women remain undiagnosed. The symptoms of PCOS are varied, including increased body and facial hair, irregular menstruation, subfertility, and hormonal imbalances. Nneji, a 28 year-old Lagos-based artist, was diagnosed with PCOS in 2014, at the age of 22. Her art reflects the pain and isolation of the condition, and the helplessness and frustration women often feel with the limited treatment options available, including from non-traditional sources. Over the last six years, Nneji herself has sought help from both local and international hospitals, consulted with herbalists, and prayed with members of religious houses of worship.
What she remembers most about the first years after her diagnosis are her mother’s efforts. “It made a lasting impact on me when I saw my mother gather her most valuable wrappers [a traditional Nigerian garment], the expensive ones made from hollandaise fabric, and sell them so she could afford my health bills,” she says. Knowing how significant textiles are for women in her Igbo community, Nneji considered the weight of her mother’s offering, and when she began making work to promote awareness around her condition, she knew African fabrics needed to be a narrative tool in her visual storytelling. They would represent not only her mother, but also the customary practice of visiting religious communities, something she did reluctantly at the urging of a cousin. The fabrics with church names on them are customized uniform wrappers worn by members of the communities Nneji visited for prayers.
“It’s my way of acknowledging this ongoing practice we have of looking for health remedies through religion, and traditional herbalists,” she says. “I understand it’s common practice, but it doesn’t heal us. What we need is wider awareness of our condition and a better healthcare system that can actually assist us so we’re seeking treatment in hospitals, not at churches.” Pieces with titles like Faith and Worry and Prayers in Orange are telling; Nneji’s experience was that as developed a nation as Nigeria is, “most gynecologists were not familiar enough with or well equipped to treat PCOS. Many women end up seeking alternative treatment. Praying for healing is common where I’m from.” There were no long-lasting changes to Nneji’s physical condition, but her cousin’s commitment and support nevertheless aided her emotional healing; and the spirit of support is central to her work.
Artistry runs in Nneji’s family—she comes from a long line of traditional Nigerian carvers and masquerade dancers—but her own art has always centered on women. “You May Enter” continues the thematic focus of her larger oeuvre: the relationship between trauma and the female body, specifically as it manifests through women’s physical and mental health. Nneji says that women reach out to her on social media because of her art, thanking her. “I hear heartbreaking stories of men leaving their partners and divorcing their wives because of PCOS,” she says. “So I have to highlight the need for us to support one another, for women to not be ashamed about whatever health issues we might be struggling with in silence. I painted most of the figures in twos for this reason. They depict my family and friends, my network of support.” Nneji wants other women to know they don’t have to suffer alone. She chooses bold, bright colors for her canvases because, she says, “as painful as this condition is, it doesn’t have to be a dark story. People always think sorrow is complete darkness. I want to stay hopeful. You can acknowledge the sorrow you are experiencing but not let it consume you, and be the end of your life.”
For the 44 year-old Ghanaian-German multimedia artist Zohra Opoku, the end of life is the focus of her latest work. Because of the pandemic, her planned exhibitions in Senegal, the United Kingdom, and Greece were postponed until 2021, but in a sprawling new piece she considers a subject that feels painfully relevant during an ongoing global health crisis. Through the mediums of dyed and screen-printed textiles and garments, photography, and film, The Myths of Eternal Life is a collection that examines, in four chapters, Opoku’s own experience coming to terms with a diseased body, and acknowledging her inevitable mortality.
The politics of identity-formation have always been central to Opoku’s work. As a biracial woman born and raised in her mother’s country, the former German Democratic Republic of East Germany, and now living in her father’s country, Ghana, Opoku has been exploring the cultural, political, historical and socio-economic influences of identity since she began her artistic practice in 2009. She often examines identity in relation to home and belonging, and ethnic and religious influences. But The Myths of Eternal Life, which will be exhibited next year, represents an ideological shift.
On August 22, 2019, a day before her scheduled return to Accra from Berlin, she received a phone call informing her that she had breast cancer. “I can never forget the day I got the call,” she tells me. “For months afterwards, I hid my diagnosis because I was embarrassed. I felt like I’d done something wrong.” Consumed with her new reality (and seeking treatment in Germany, where she decided to stay), Opoku lost all creative drive. It took her six months to begin new work, and that was at the encouragement of her gallerist and friend Mariane Ibrahim. Ibrahim helped Opoku to see her healing journey as a chance for growth, and indeed each chapter in The Myths of Eternal Life meditates on the human spirit, the nature of dying, the transformation from fear to acceptance, and the consideration of the afterlife.
Opoku has a tradition of using old family textiles in her work, and thereby weaving past histories into her current life. In Chapter 1, I Am Made Strong, she represents different parts of her body abstractly dismembered from the whole; screen-printed images of her head, torso, and arms sit in the left-hand corner of the linen cloth. Images of bare winter tree limbs are colored in red and purple and pink, as though caught in various stages of a winter sunset, and superimposed as skin on her body, and where her face should be. An outstretched hand bears an image of her real face, balanced on the tips of her fingers as if for a better view of the approaching, unknown future. A series of closed and open hands, and separate cutout images of her lips, nose, eye, and ear float in the air against more barren tree limbs, their spindly branches colored yellow and set on a dark background like a wallpaper of X-rayed human veins. For Opoku, trees symbolize life, and also the reality that as our human bodies die, they are making a slow return to the earth from which they came. Adding color to these images gratified her hunger for vibrance during treatment in wintry Berlin, and recalled the colorful life in Ghana that she suddenly had to abandon.
Creating I Am Made Strong was a way for Opoku to reflect on what was happening to her body. “I needed something to get away from my worries and to reflect on my journey in a different way. I wanted to transform it from this terrifying moment into a moment of peace,” she explains. An encounter with an exhibition on ancient Egypt at the New Museum in Berlin proved deeply influential. Taken by the ancient Egyptian belief in the afterlife, Opoku began to study the Book of the Dead, a compilation of Egyptian texts to help the deceased navigate the afterlife and reach a paradise symbolic of their lives on earth. “I was so moved by how the Egyptians reconciled with death, that I started thinking about my own possible death differently,” Opoku says. “If I was meant to leave this life soon, I wanted to create my own chapters reflecting on mortality, and preparing for whatever lay beyond.”
Still undergoing treatment, Opoku shared that being touched and examined by so many different sets of hands “felt like my body’s parts were being separated from the whole, like I was being dismembered. And yet it was all part of this journey towards healing. I had to find a way to access and focus on another part of my identity that could feel whole, since my body couldn’t.” Turning the experience into material for her work helped Opoku create a sense of distance from her actual human body, and use it to reflect on the fullness of her human spirit. “In the ancient texts I was researching, hands were always used to pass on something or explain something vital to the journey towards the afterlife. I was trying to find parallels in my own work, to transform the meaning of all these real, physical hands poking and prodding me, fragmenting my body, into something more symbolically healing, and perhaps even preparing me for my own potential afterlife.”