Orupabo’s work is based on her own catalogue of personal photographs as well as images and texts sourced from a variety of online platforms, which together form a working archive of images arranged around questions of race, gender, identity, sexuality, the gaze, and colonial violence. Employing key aesthetic techniques of 20th-century photomontage such as cropping, framing, arranging, looping, and inverting, Orupabo transforms her collected images into physical art objects for exhibitions as well as virtual collages visible beyond the confines of the art world.
While working as a social worker, Orupabo gained recognition as a visual artist through her Instagram feed (@nemiepeba)—a constantly evolving digital collage of images, texts, audio, and video—which she started in 2013. A personal endeavour with a public scope, it was described by Arthur Jafa as “nothing short of a mobile repository, a litany of residua, a voluptuous trail of black continuity, pyramid schemata as densely inscribed as any book of the dead, not so much an archive as an ark, a borne witness to the singularity that is blackness.” Orupabo eventually started making large-scale figurative collages, built layer by layer from reprinted and meticulously cut-out images, loosely joined with split pins in a form reminiscent of paper dolls. While appropriating mainly colonial photographs that speak of race and gender, pain and violence but also strength and resistance, the resulting montaged and fragmented figures return the gaze and subvert any objectification.
In the exhibition “A House Is A House” Orupabo arranges her collages in a large constellation on the wall, similar to the presentation in her recent exhibition at Portikus, Frankfurt am Main. Through this ensemble configuration, a narrative of home and belonging unfolds that is both evocative and ambivalent. A new video work is also on view as an immersive installation in the second room of the gallery. It presents archival footage of a baptism in one poignant, endless loop, and calls into question our understanding of perhaps one of the most powerful and yet highly ambiguous moments in the process of colonisation.
Disquieting and poetic, the works in the exhibition bring ubiquitous images back into focus again while pointing to their charged status as signifiers. As writer and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman has asked in regard to the archive of slavery: “If it is no longer sufficient to expose the scandal, then how might it be possible to generate a different set of descriptions from this archive?” Orupabo's approach makes personal work with a highly emotive yet critical charge. As she explains it: “Sorting chaos. Staying sane. Finding pleasure. Transforming anger. Sharing eyes. Race and gender (among other things) are felt.” For the artist a mode of exploration, the work questions the power of the archive as well as of media as a whole—in particular, in the representation of the black female body—by bearing witness to lives, traumas, and fleeting moments of beauty and resistance that have been omitted or obscured.