Wura-Natasha Ogunji, visual/performance artist
Wura-Natasha Ogunji , born on
I’m interviewing Wura-Natasha Alexandra Ogunji on
So Wura if you could state your name and date and place of birth.
Wura-Natasha Alexandra Ogunji. I was born in St Louis Missouri 1970: a very cold place. I was born in the winter.
When is your birthday?
So this is more like a conversation so you can ask me questions at any time. I wanna start off by asking you to talk about some of the defining moments in your life before the age of 20 that you think have had a major impact on who you are today.
Wow. Before the age of 20. The first thing I thought of – this is so weird, I never thought of it as defining but – when I was in college, so I think I was 19 - I got arrested. I was in a protest and we were fighting to change the curriculum and to have more [professors and] students of color and I think it was defining for me because I saw there were other people who were anti-establishment, anti- the current learning structure and that had a different way of thinking that was indeed valid and that was a perspective that was very powerful. [It was] mostly students of color and I think that affected me a lot be to be part of that. More than I realized at the time.
How did it affect you?
It made me see my reality as valid and my history as valid. And it was important for what I was learning to have a personal relevance to my life. And that made all the difference. And related to being an artist, and for me particularly, I’m figuring out a way of living that’s not really standard and I draw my sources from places that aren’t standard. It validated that way of looking at the world. How many defining moments did you ask for?
As many as you want.
There were some other ones that were – did you just say before the age of 20? - that were defining in a negative sense. One was moving from St Louis [at the age of six], where I was surrounded by a community of African Americans - and I felt really supported and validated - and then leaving that to live in a place where there were mostly white people. That’s when my world completely changed. It became really important to validate my existence myself, in many ways. That first experience made me an outsider and then the other experience in college made me...I was still an outsider but I was connected. One thing disconnected me and the other connected me. And I think those things relate to a way of being in the world that I carry with me now. Which is really about seeing my perspective as valid and following that to its fullest potential…
Could you give more details about that particular moment moving from St Louis. What ways was it so life changing.
Let’s see. Well, I felt really free in
And then I had this world: like climbing trees and I think I was talking to spirits at the time but I didn’t define it as that. I had these messages or stories come to me, I just had these conversations with the air or the trees or the worms or I’d be digging in the earth and making things out of sticks and mud and drawing...making things out of old cardboard boxes and I had a lot of power, too, with my friends. They were all boys of all ages but I had a lot of voice, so it wasn’t that I could tell them what to do, but they listened to me. And the way I approached things was fine. I was accepted. I was free. So leaving all that – we moved to the East Coast, to
Because you moved into a white neighborhood?
Yes. I mean there were a few other black kids. But it was mostly white kids and there was a hierarchy that I had to fit into and I felt my blackness in many ways and I was made very aware of how I physically moved around. The safety I felt-which I don’t think I would have defined as such before--I just didn’t have that same safety at all. One of my strongest memories [after moving] was of me getting into a fight with a friend of mine – a yelling fight – and this whole group of kids gathering around and this little white boy came up and kicked me in the back. And nobody intervened at all.
Wow. Was your friend white?
Yeah, she was white. It was a totally different atmosphere. And I went to a totally great school. It wasn’t very mixed, it was mostly white but I had a lot of creative freedom at school which balanced my actual home [neighborhood] environment. Whereas when I was younger in
Sure. I think the reason I start there is because...well, you’ll see. Is there anything else you wanted to share about defining moments before age 20 that had a major impact on who you are today?
Well, I think I should also say that when we lived in Maryland I went to this really amazing school, which was a school of mostly white kids, but I learned so many things that I use right now in my own work. I learned creative writing and I felt like a really good writer at a young age and really free with my creative stories. And I learned to make anything and to explore anything. I learned how to make pottery and I was gathering clay from creeks and I learned how to do batik and I learned how to sew. Which was really scary for me - sewing on the sewing machine. I learned how to make dioramas. And I made books. And just all these great things that I use in my own work now and really form the way I look at the world. “Oh you can use aluminum foil to make a canoe.” – I mean that was very much from my mom, as well [laughter].
Or alien antennas.
Yeah, or alien antennas as well [laughter]. Or you can mix - I mean we got in trouble for this [at school] - you can mix a whole cup of glue with red paint and let it dry and it’ll be really cool to play with. There were just so many really amazing things that I learned there [at school] that really nourished the way I looked at the world and are just the way I learn naturally. And so now, as an adult, I think I’ve really had to work to consciously name those learning processes and materials and ways of doing things. Because they’re not obvious. But they’re really natural for me and they’re really nourishing. I think that school was really powerful, coupled with the fact that my mom was very supportive creatively. Yeah. I don’t think I can think of another very, very significant experience.
We can go back to that question at a later point if you think that there’s something you else you want to say.
But my next question is looking at something related. I would love to hear your coming out story.
Wow. My coming out story...
Whatever it is. Whatever that means to you.
This is interesting to think of the public answer. I’ll just give an answer. I think I should start with saying that I never thought there was anything wrong with gayness, from when I was very young. Even when adults around me made comments about “So and so’s a lezzie.” I just never believed that there was anything wrong with being gay. And I didn’t see myself as a gay kid at all, but I did fool around with girls and boys from a very young age. But that’s just to say...
Then in terms of a coming out story, I think after I was 10 years old I didn’t really think about girls. I had good friends who were girls, and I supported people who were gay, but I didn’t think of myself as gay. So it was near the end of college, or maybe even after college - well, during college I fooled around with women, but then after college I guess you would say I came out. In a way I don’t even really feel I came out because I wasn’t in the closet. So officially, I was like, okay I like girls and it’s not a big deal. It’s a non-issue and I always felt that way. If I wanna be with a woman I’ll be with a woman. There’s not a closet for me to come out of about that. So, I fooled around with women and I dated my first girlfriend in my 20s…At the end of college, I was like “This could be cool to be with a woman.” I really dig women and I always have. Women have always been really important in my life and I think they’re gorgeous and I’m attracted to women and so, I guess that’s sort of a coming out story. It’s sort of an un-coming out coming out story in a way. I don’t know if people will always have coming out stories.
Yes, I don’t think they necessarily do, but I ask the question that way because it’s a culturally significant reference point for that discussion. In the sense that we live in a culture that has defined what coming out is. Whether or not that relates to us personally is another question, so to me, I am interested in that process for you, and what that looked like over time and where you are today with that.
Well, I should say that although I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being gay in theory, or liking women, I didn’t want to be “Gay”, because it was another point of difference and that was my perspective when I first got to college, and I think that I had this idea in my head of what it meant to be gay.
Which was a butch white dyke and I was like, this is not me. This is not who I’m attracted to. Nothing against butch white dykes, of course [laughter], but then one of the first women I fooled around with in college was this femmie girl who was a good friend of mine. And I was like, oh wow, this is hot, and I realized that gayness could be anything. And I realized that it wasn’t somebody else’s idea. It was my idea. Some people say, it’s supposed to be this way and you’re like, well, actually no. It’s my world and this is what I say. So yeah. That’s that, I guess.
In terms of building a life with a woman, that’s something that I always felt I could do. It just felt right. It just made sense. My connections to women have always been super deep or profound in a way that my connections to men are not, though that changes ‘cause I have a few really amazing gay male friends. There is nothing that says I have to have a home or have intimacy with a man to be a valid soul in a body, or a valid human being or a valid contributor to society or to be beautiful or to be fabulous or to be happy or to be... It’s kind of simple and obvious, but you have to be able to imagine something different from what’s been given to you. And I was like it’s incredibly sexy to be with a woman and I really love that and that’s really the apex, two women, it’s like yeah [laughter].
Now we’re going to move more into some questions around what it means for you to be an artist. I guess we can start there. What does it mean for you to be an artist or a writer or..?
Well, I think first of all it means being. It means deciding to face fears and move through fears whatever those are. To be an artist as a profession and to accept that that’s my calling and that’s my path, it means that I don’t... there aren’t any...how do I say this...it’s like a commitment to myself at a very deep level and looking at and accepting the way I see the world as powerful and magical and important. Not just for me but for other people. That I have this huge responsibility to do this thing that I’m called to do because it’s important for other people. Not just me. And I think that because of that, it’s a revolutionary act for me – Wura-Natasha Ogunji born in 1970 in the U.S. in this hemisphere, this time of the universe - to be an artist is a revolutionary act. It means committing to a kind of truth and beauty and expression and way of looking at the world and connection that doesn’t exist in many other ways of being in the world. It’s a deep, deep commitment and a deep, deep responsibility. And I think it takes also a lot of personal work to accept that, that I think other things don’t necessarily require at all. If you’re doing another kind of job, it’s a job and there’s not a personal decision about “Are you a good person? Is this the right way to do it? Are you stupid because you are not doing x? Did you make a mistake?” It just doesn’t have the weight that I think being an artist does and it’s just the most freeing thing for that reason. What was the question again?
What does it mean for you to be an artist?
Also, for me, personally, it means making beauty, because I believe in beauty and I think that beauty is revolutionary. And the way I define that --it’s a visual aesthetic, it’s a feeling I get from something, it’s an energy, it’s a deepness. How deep is the thing? Did it come from a place? Where? Does it have an experience in the world? So, when I make something, when I first finish it and make it, it doesn’t have the same power that it has six months later, or even a year later. It has a different energy because it’s older. And I think it’s really powerful to birth something in that way, to be a vessel for something, to create something that has that power and beauty and history to it. That has a history of its own. It’s like wow. It’s just really the most amazing thing in the world. To be an artist. I wish that for people. When people tell me they’re artists, younger people, I’m just like uh – it’s amazing.
Yeah. Younger people in particular?
I think that for young people it’s often a difficult decision to be an artist. It’s not an age thing necessarily, but I think it’s really special to be able to see the world in a way that is in a parallel universe to other people and because of that it’s like a gift and a curse. You’re an outsider but you have this incredible vision, this super power vision. And people won’t necessarily see it as that but you have to believe that and know that. And really work to refine and define that vision so that what you create is your vision, solely. Like my drawing teacher said, you don’t want to draw like anybody else. You want to draw like yourself, and it’s like “Good God what does that mean? If I don’t know how to draw, what does drawing like myself mean?” And so it’s accessing that power to manifest and change and move things and bend spoons and etc. It’s incredible.
How did you get to the point where you started to see that was your path?
Well, I think it took awhile. I always knew I was creative because my mom always told us that and I always did some kind of creative work, my entire life. But it took awhile for me to say “I am an artist.”
So it took awhile for you to say, “I am an artist.”
Yeah, and I think there were my own limitations...it was many things. I was really committed to teaching and I thought that was socially important to do. Like I had a responsibility to give back to community and so I saw myself as an artist and as a teacher--split in that way. And I also saw my sister and brother as the real artists and I kind of did art, but I wasn’t an artist as my primary role. And then eventually I decided “I’m an artist. I want to study art.” I went to graduate school. Pretty recently I was like, “I’m an artist primarily and that’s my primary path and I can teach from there and I can do these other things, but as much as I gave teaching, I give as an artist.” To sew something or to write something and to put that out can move people in the same way that teaching in the classroom does. And it doesn’t have to be a separate thing at all. It took awhile. I don’t know why it took so long. Maybe because I didn’t have the kinds of models that I needed to be able to see the possibilities. I think that at a deep level that was it. There weren’t people like me doing what I was doing.
And I think I spent a lot of time, even through graduate school [I studied photography], really fighting with the curriculum, just to defend my right to be there….to say yes, there are women, mixed people, people of color photographers and photographs in the world. I spent a lot of time creating an environment where I could learn so there was a lot of wasted energy, a lot of defensiveness. And it wasn’t until the end of graduate school that I had a mentor who was a woman of color who really could ask me critical questions - and who just got it all...the spiritual, the skill, the everything...she could ask all those questions, and I could really excel as an artist. And really work on my vision instead of defending my right to have a vision or defending my right to speak. And that is a hard lesson and important lesson to learn.
What are we creating? What do we create on our own and of our own unique vision? What do we create that’s not just in opposition to the structure or in opposition to the so-called white man? Or in opposition to this or that, but how do you just focus energy on yourself and on the positivity and on people who really give to your work or expand your work rather than constantly defending yourself. And it’s sad, but it’s such a drain just defending your right to exist. Because you don’t get to make all the expansive work that you need to. So I think I spent a lot of time doing that. Just defending my right to exist and have basic things in a program and then after I did that, I was able to say, “Fuck it. Fuck those people. I have a vision and they are still going to be doing what they’re doing for the next however many years, centuries, generations and I still have to put my vision out there and do the work that I’m here to do. I’m not here to fight their insanity. I’m here to birth my own beauty.” And that was incredibly significant. And that’s how I try to walk through the world.
So how would you say your work is influenced by who you are?
I have a really slow process, which I’m trying to make faster at times. But I think the work I make, I tend to need time for certain things and I think my work is reflective of that. I believe in the spirit world; I believe in my ancestors; I believe in gods and goddesses and the natural world, so when I’m creating... I don’t want to say I believe in the goddesses...I believe in the gods, you know, sort of gender queer – the gods. But when I create I bring all that to my work and I think that I’m a vessel and I’m a physical body and unique in that way and so I influence, I shape the work, but it’s also coming from other places. Sometimes it’s coming from a spirit in the room. Sometimes it’s coming from the river. Sometimes it’s coming from the person I was in another lifetime. And the fact that I believe it allows it to come out the way that it does and it allows things to come out that I can never plan. That’s why it’s important not to plan things and execute them because it’s just not me. I feel like once I go through an idea and I have it all worked out then it doesn’t necessarily need to happen in the world. Maybe that’s Aquarius, too, but I just get into my thoughts and I’m like “Okay, that’s resolved.” So the process is really important for me and the touching, the textures, the natural materials - all that is really reflective of my work and also how I see the world. I have a deep visual experience of the world.
Whereas someone might pick up a book and start reading, I’m like, “Okay, where are the pictures?” I can spend hours looking at the same seven pictures in a book and for years never read a word of the book because there’s so much information in the pictures. And it’s taken me awhile to articulate that and define that but I really am a visual person and I like words for specific things. [Laughter] But I understand things visually and I understand the texture and I understand the smell of clay or what it means to paint the clay on paper. I mean I just really love that. It’s so much a part of my language and my eyes and my understanding of the world. I keep forgetting the questions.
How is your work influenced by who you are?
Because I’m mixed… when people say that there are boundaries and rules and borders, for me, those are always changing and moving and there’s nothing that’s ever black and white. We’re always pulling from many sources and we’re a combination of sources and we speak many languages and we change languages all the time even if we think we only speak English and I think that that’s totally evident in my work and my combination of materials…
It’s also about being Nigerian – that’s a huge influence on my work. We get messages in dreams and through our bodies. We’re connected to our ancestors, we are them, we get messages from them even if we’re not in our so-called homeland, the knowledge of that comes through us. That’s totally in my work. I see the work as sacred in that way, as profound and there are rituals to how I do the work. Now, I give offerings to the paper. I spit rum on the paper or offer tobacco or draw a symbol that represents one of the Orisa, one of the gods, so that the paper becomes a sacred space, a sacred grove or an altar. It’s because I’m Nigerian. That comes through in the work. I grew up in the West, I grew up in the U.S. so I have a particular way of doing things that’s from here, but what else...I think there’s something about gayness...I don’t hesitate to say it. I think that gay people are brilliant, and that we’re special. That’s another thing. When a young person is like, “I’m gay.” it’s like “Ohmigod you’re so lucky.” We’re special. We’re really brilliant and other people may be mediocre compared to us, in general. I don’t know if I can say that publicly but...
Sure you can.
...we look at the world in a different way. And not because we’ve had more struggles, but it’s because we don’t...gender to us is different. It’s fluid, it can change, it can move, it can be one thing when you think it’s another. And it’s like, just when you think you had to deal with lesbians and gay people, now you have youth who are like, “I’m genderqueer. I’m not a man, or a woman, or male or female. I’m something completely different.” Blows my mind. It’s brilliant. And you have the whole trans movement. I think that there’s a queer way of looking at the world. There’s a queer way of writing, there’s a queer way of making art and I really think it has to do with drawing from multiple sources that are seemingly not connected, but are very connected and that make a person whole. That definitely influences the work that I’m making.
We’re onto our final question and it seems like time is flying so fast!
I know it’s so wild.
But this question is, what defines success for you as a writer, artist, artist-writer? What defines success for you?
That’s a good question. I think that ultimately in my heart there’s something about showing people a different way of looking at the world that expands them at a deep level, at a soulful level--that changes the person they were before they had an experience with the work. And that to me, being able to do that, is part of success for me. There are some pieces or stories that when I see them, when I make them I’m like, “Ohmigod, that’s something.” And it’s like - I made it, but I can’t even remember making it because it came through me and I was a vessel and I can’t remember all the single stitches and how did I get that shape? And I know it came through me, but the piece becomes something on its own. And that’s a matter of success.
At the same time I think when you talk about success there’s a kind of public face that that has, and voice. And I think that being successful is about using my voice to affect many people. Which is something I have resisted up until...well, I’m working on that right now [laughter]. So when I think about success in those terms, I’m thinking about connecting with people internationally, showing work as well as having workshops and listening to other artists and seeing other artists’ work and understanding what they’re doing and making those connections at an international level. I think that that’s really important and this is another thing I didn’t realize until really recently.
Documenting everything I do – the materials I use, my process, how I looked in 1995 when I made this particular piece – all that is really important to creating a history of my work and being able to transmit that history to people through books and lectures and writings and films or whatever. All of that is really important, that archive and the sharing of that archive. That happens through small publications to high end publications to publications that are
I should also say that it’s about creating something that speaks to the contemporary. It’s timing. So in that way, it’s like you’re creating a theory, you’re creating a philosophy that deepens over time and at the same time has a relevance in the moment and I think that that is success for me. That is what makes you a master in a way, in terms of being a master artist. Your work really has that kind of depth and breadth and also is something that people are like, “What? What is this language that they’re speaking?” But they want to speak it or they want to hear it, or they want to be around it or they want a translation or... it’s that. It’s like, who is that? In terms of seeing the work. I’d like to be rich and famous too. [Laughter] But for the reasons of using my voice and seeing the work, and knowing that the work has a life beyond me and wanting that to happen. I think that that’s success.
Cool. That’s it for my questions. Is there anything else you wanted to say?
For some reason I’m thinking of the connection between the work I make and performance and choosing a particular genre to work in, because I started as a photographer. I was talking to a friend of mine about how I don’t want to talk about that. You have to put the gap together [for others]. “You’re a sculptor, and you’re a photographer, etc, etc, etc.” And then the whole thing of performance.
But then recently, being here in Austin, I started thinking, well, you know it’s really important and my narrative makes sense. When I was making photographs, I was taking photos of spirits using my body and making costumes for those spirits and telling these stories that came to me that were from another world. And sewing things and sewing on paper. And creating sculptural environments and installations and telling stories. And performance was part of that. I mean a lot of them were private at the time, but then I documented them on film. Or some of them became public and some of them haven’t. And now I’m very interested in that combination of making a private process be performance. Involving people in that and having people be witness to that because other people are the story tellers of that piece. Which is really important, they’re the witnesses, they’re the participants in the masquerade who are just as important as the person in the mask – as the spirit coming down. So, really thinking about the work as a performance in that way, that a festival is a performance and that everyone participates and has to participate otherwise it doesn’t happen.
So I just wanted to add that because it’s a way of thinking about the world and thinking about community and connections with people and of the energy of the work itself. It brings all that together. And it is a manifestation of the spirit world, the physical world, the Wura world, the place I’m in right now: Austin, Texas. But I only got here because I went to New York and then the Dominican Republic and then back and back and back and I was born in St Louis but before that, I was somewhere else. Which I don’t think was in a cold place.
That’s all I guess.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for your questions.