Now + Then: A conversation with Harold Offeh
by Tyler Matthew Oyer
This conversation took place on April 21, 2016, shortly after becoming aware of Prince's death.
So where do you come from?
HAROLD: Where do I come from?
TYLER: Mars?! Well, tell me some autobiographical information, and how that’s led to you make the work you will present at The Museum of the African Diaspora this month.
HAROLD: It’s interesting moving out of London because I think my identity is really tied in and tied up with London. I was born in Ghana, in Accra. I moved to the UK when I was about two or three. Basically all my formative life has been in London. I moved to Cambridge a couple of years ago and I realized how much London has shaped me, having grown up and gone to school there. I’ve lived in north, south, east, west… the whole dynamic of the city is in my being. I went to an ordinary state school in north London. There were lots of second-generation immigrant students. There were refugee kids from Somalia; kids would just be dumped, never having spoken English. I had amazingly dedicated teachers, particularly on the art side. The teachers were invested in the young people’s welfare so there were amazing transformations. I think that’s why I’ve always been committed to teaching. I had really great drama, art, and music teachers. It gave me an unquestioning embrace for the arts. Thinking about it now, especially after speaking with others who have this ethnic minority background, it’s difficult to negotiate going into the arts as a profession. I think my mum was pleased that I was alright academically, so she never said I should be a doctor or a lawyer. She was surprised I did so well. One dilemma I had was between going to drama school or to art school. I remember my art teacher saying that in art school I could do almost anything, that it was an open space, an open platform. So naïvely, I went to art school.
TYLER: Where was that?
HAROLD: I went to university in Brighton. It’s a seaside town on the English coast, like 50 miles outside of London. I went there because Brighton is like a smaller, English version of San Francisco. It’s known for being a queer city. It was a safe space so I was like, I can go there and come out.
TYLER: And explore what that means…
HAROLD: Exactly. Brighton has a rich history of alternative lifestyles… hippies, dirty sex weekends, things like that.
TYLER: And poets!
HAROLD: Yes, all the clichés! It was an opportunity for me to experience this lifestyle, this openness. I was in a program that was very 1970’s. It was critical theory and art practice… the osmosis of the two. It was difficult at the time to negotiate as a nineteen-year old- having a four-hour seminar on Foucault and then have to go build something with wood. It had pros and cons. Looking back now, it was a great experience, but at the time it was difficult and challenging. The program had a bad 70’s hangover in terms of having an all white male faculty, apart from a few interesting visiting artists.
TYLER: What were you making?
HAROLD: It was the mid 1990’s. I was making installation, working with tape slides. I was into 90’s trip hop like Portishead and Tricky… but noir-ish, torch songs…
TYLER: So theatrical?
HAROLD: Really theatrical. The installations were different layers of slides- slides of diseases and diseased bodies projected onto figures, naked bodies, myself. There were monologue voiceovers. They were naïve. Then I discovered video art. It was freeing. People like Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Adrian Piper… So I started roaming around with a video camera. I made one work in the local public library where they had this scanning camera that was for blowing up text for partially sighted readers. You put something under the camera and it would project it on a monitor. I put parts of my body under the camera. I recorded the monitor. I’m not sure how I got away with that. Then I set up video salons for galvanized communities, where we could screen our works together. I got involved with the LGBTQ society. There was a lot of activist energy, militant even.
I went straight from art school into an MFA program at the Royal College of Art. I was admitted in the photo program, which was a bit weird. Now they have a performance program but back then they didn’t. You had to choose sculpture, painting, photography, or printmaking and I didn’t know in which domain I belonged, coming in with a video and performance practice. I felt like an imposter. The majority of the students were hardcore photographers.
TYLER: Invested in the history, language, materiality of photography…
HAROLD: I felt like I was just messing around! But what was great is that the Royal College is really a design school. All my friends were in fashion and ceramics. I liked it so much that I got an extra year by working in the student union doing advocacy, running events, planning trips, and inviting speakers.
TYLER: Where in London is the RCA?
HAROLD: It’s in Kensington, in West London. Where the embassies are. It’s posh. It’s in a privileged setting… ladies who lunch.
TYLER: CalArts is in Valencia, which is this bourgeois suburb of Los Angeles. There are a lot of Mercedes Benz with rhinestone license plates… like Paris Hilton clones, fantastic plastic style. Then there’s the freaky art school, which was there before most of the town, as it is now, was developed. It’s funny. The town thinks the art students are monsters and the art students think the townies are monsters.
HAROLD: I like that tension - two weird worlds in parallel!
Harold Offeh, Smile, 2001
What were you making at RCA?
HAROLD: Lots of video. I’ve always been interested in drawing references from popular culture. It’s my strategy for using myself as material. I’ve realized I’m a frustrated historian. That makes me interested in archives and archiving- the depositories of history both within canonical institutions like museums and within popular culture spheres. I use myself to negotiate these materials and structures. I did this piece called Smile. I held a smile for 35 minutes while listening to Nat King Cole’s version of the song “Smile”. The lyrics were written by Charlie Chaplin and are very instructional. I was thinking about Allan Kaprow’s instructions…
TYLER: You were queering the delineations between proper art performance and pop music. Like campy Kaprow! The gesture is a serious task on the body.
HAROLD: My practice feels out of kilter, specifically in the UK. There’s this moment in the 1980’s when artists were exploring body politics, identity politics, and cultural representation while looking to implement institutional change and reform. When I was in school it was all YBA like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin… artists with a whole different agenda that was a reformulation of British identity with global pop culture. There was a rejection of identity politics and theory. It was uncritical. Very much about a gestural, punk attitude… but completely white washed. There were artists like Steve McQueen and Chris Ofili who were successful at the time, but most of the work seemed disconnected from what came before it and what interested me… artists like Sonia Boyce and Keith Piper. I felt the work I was making was not located within the dominant conversation at that time. It seems there is a younger generation now, artists in their twenties, who are returning to these issues with an overtly activist agenda. It isn’t about getting trashed and making a lot of money. I’m excited really. I think in the next five years we will see amazing artists come from the UK.
TYLER: You’ve contextualized your work within this UK scene, but so many of your artistic references are American. Can you talk about that?
HAROLD: Certainly. Within my work there are overt references to American popular culture. That’s partly from being a victim of American cultural imperialism and that American culture has become a lingua franca, almost universally shared. My current ongoing series Covers looks specifically at American soul and R&B records from the 1960-1980’s. I treat it like an archival project. I’m interested in how the album covers are illustrative formats that represent an identity and promote a brand. The album covers are a microcosm of the broader political landscape. What you get within this period of American history is a negotiation of identity presentation. For example, I do this Betty Davis album cover They Think I’m Different. Davis is dressed like a Barbarella figure in a space suit with a huge collar and rods. She looks fierce with a big afro. It’s very Afrofuturist. There’s an appropriation of Sci-Fi and outer space, a negotiation of sexual identity, the figuration of her body for the camera, her address to the camera. I’m interested in how these African American women present themselves to the camera, where the gaze falls, how they are framed… their stares. For me it’s always about the image. I’ve been going to record shops and looking online and coming across these artists I don’t know. I then negotiate the music, the album cover, the context of the artist, and their biography. In the case of Betty Davis, her tempestuous marriage to Miles Davis has overshadowed her career, almost to the point of erasure.
The use of my body with the idea of a reenactment is a kind of marker, a human Post-it note. This practice has evolved. Initially I would restage the album covers in my studio, apartment, or other domestic spaces. I would try to recreate things like the Grace Jones’ Island Life pose as a photograph. I then translated them into durational moments, recorded as videos. The videos are what I’m showing at MoAD in San Francisco. Recently I’ve presented them as live works where I’m performing the images for an audience. I was thinking about iTunes cover flow and how a performance can be like a playlist. I assume the pose for the length of the title track while the album cover art is projected. It’s about inviting the audience to look at the image. To look at me. Look at the image.
Covers, live performance, MAC Birmingham, 2015
You ask the audience to experience the transference between the still icons and the body, your body, in space. What draws me to album covers is their highly crafted, beautiful iconographic qualities. In some cases they are our saints. They are fantastical and captivating. They leave impressions. Their lyrics become mantras. They become a utopia that we look toward.
I’ve started collecting vinyl and realizing musicians do not make album art with the same intensity as they did pre-CD. People who weren’t huge stars had incredible badass album covers that still pull me in. They are like paintings. They become a fantasy, which makes me think about your choice to perform them. You take the image and show the effects of it on the body and mind. The then/now and here/there co-presences resound.
HAROLD: There’s a pedagogical imperative- a reconnection with history. My project is influenced by Sonia Boyce’s Devotional, which is a collective history project that invites audiences to name black British female singers from now to the 1920’s. People always come up with someone new because the archive is incomplete. I saw the show a few times and it always brings up forgetting and memory as aspects of history. It shows how art can be a marker or catalyst for collective memory. Another strategy with the work is the notion of self-creation. Kodwo Eshun calls it mythopoesis; self-mythologizing. People like Sun Ra and George Clinton. I’m reading this book by Tim Stüttgen [IN A QU*A*RE TIME AND PLACE Post-Slavery Temporalities, Blaxploitation, and Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism between Intersectionality and Heterogeneity] that radically theorizes Sun Ra’s life from a queer perspective, it’s super exciting. Within queer and ethic minority narratives, this notion of identity formulation or self-mythologizing as a radical political strategy for visibility is important and vital.
TYLER: I have a project that is similar in approach to your Covers called Calling All Divas. In it, I create a seemingly arbitrary chain of queer, feminist, intergenerational inspirations as material or task for performance. They can be actual people or fictional, living or dead, and my relationship to them can be actual or imagined. The first one was me performing as Kembra Pfahler in her Karen Black drag, reciting Karen Black’s interpretation of Portia’s monologue from Julius Caesar. It was originally performance for camera but I’ve performed it live a number of times. What brings our work together is how we use our body as site for archive. As queer bodies and minority bodies, the histories we have been given are often difficult or violent to identify with because they are white supremacist, patriarchal, misogynist… those histories need to be unarchived from our bodies. People like Sun Ra or Grace Jones who were able to invent and obscure their entire persona and history queered the idea of a given history and an established, stable archive. Archives are fucking arbitrary so why can’t Calling All Divas and Covers be archives with alternative agendas? This conversation ties into the black radial imagination and the queer radical imagination. The dominant culture does not allow us to live our fantasies, so we must create small windows where they can be manifest, no matter how fleeting.
TYLER: This is why working in series is key for us. The more the series is realized the more spaces that are opened and references that are networked. My friend Litia Perta calls it coalition building. The series reinforces our actions and intentions.
HAROLD: One thing I often do is to apply narratives and the politics of the other to the straight white male body. It’s one reason I’m endlessly fascinated by Vito Acconci’s work… for me it’s an exploration into the psychology of the American man. Some of the positions he assumes really try to interrogate his role in broader society… I know he’s doing architecture stuff now… but even that is like the apotheosis of white male egotism… bigger bigger!
HAROLD OFFEH was born in Accra, Ghana in 1977 and grew up in London, UK. Harold is interested in the space created by the inhabiting or embodying of history. His work encompasses performance, social practice, video and photography, often using humour as a means to confront the viewer with aspects of contemporary culture and history.
Offeh is an artist and educator working in a range of media including performance, video, photography, learning and social arts practice. Often employing humour as a means to confront the viewer with an assessment of contemporary culture. Harold’s current project ‘Covers’ sees the artist embody images from popular culture in a series of attempts to transform music album covers from the 1970s and '80s by black divas. He lives in Cambridge and works in Leeds and London, UK. He continues to work in a number of diverse and situational contexts.
TYLER MATTHEW OYER founded tir journal in 2015. He is an artist, performer, writer and organizer based in Los Angeles. His work has been presented at MoMA PS1, REDCAT, dOCUMENTA (13), Hammer Museum, Kunstnernes Hus Oslo, Art Basel Miami Beach, Bergen Kunstall, Rogaland Kunstsenter, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, High Desert Test Sites, Highways Performance Space and the Orange County Museum of Art. He received an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 2012.