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Ruth Ossai

Work / Art

Artists including Ruth Ossai and Ibrahim Kamara explore the power of the self

As the world as we know it politically, geographically, morally slithers further from our understanding every dawn, we turn for comfort to the only thing we truly know, ourselves. Forget hand-stitched hassocks, Lourdes water and rosary beads: our fingers are too busy selfieing our way to followers of messianic proportions.

“Identity is layered and constantly in development in that we (hopefully) have the freedom to add to and subtract from it dependent on what we need from the world around us as we move through time,” says Ashleigh Kane, art and culture editor at Dazed. Her new group exhibition, Am I Making Sense?, which opens on Friday in Hoxton in collaboration with Brazilian shoe brand Melissa explores spirituality as a coping mechanism. Ashleigh has brought together artists Shon Faye, Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee, and Ruth Ossai and Ibrahim Kamara to identity personal affirmations and in the process unravel individual potential.

We caught up with Ashleigh to find out more.

At it’s core, Am I Making Sense? is about identity. Can you tell us a bit more about that theme? Why do you consider it important to speak about identity at this moment in time?

Identity is such a personal notion but I think it’s important that it’s not kept strictly personal. As in, I think it’s detrimental if we don’t share who we are with one another. We should reveal ourselves not just when we are celebrating our identity but also when we are questioning it. What helped me at times of crisis or moments of self-doubt was opening up to people, and in turn having them open up to me. Maybe “normalise” isn’t the right word, but by opening up to people, I began to feel better about a lot of things that I was questioning about myself, self-doubt and so on. Even if you can’t see your own self reflected in the person you’re listening to or talking to, it creates empathy. I think in this scary world, that’s more important than ever before.

While the core of the exhibition is identity, its external theme is positive thinking; affirmation, to be specific. I am fascinated by the power of the brain and its ability to be conditioned and re-conditioned. It’s an ever-evolving tool. Frightening and exciting in equal parts. I wanted to use affirmation because I like the idea of bringing the manifestation of positive thought into a space. With affirmation, the idea is that you repeat it enough times in your head that it will begin to present itself in your three-dimensional world. So we have these affirmations and experiences reaching out of the frames and into the physical space itself, through set design and some other sensory elements that we will include.

Overall, I wanted to offer these concerns-turned-celebrations related to identity into a space for other people to feel, process and let settle into them. For example, Ruth Ossai’s I Am Enough is a response to never feeling neither British nor Nigerian enough. Here she faces that head on and shuts down anyone who says otherwise. I think a lot of people can take something away from this message, not just those with West African heritage, but anyone who has felt conflicted about their identity. It’s the same with both Shon and Elizabeth’s, whose affirmations can transcend various types of people. I want people to also see that we are not so different, especially in the way we think and feel and experience the world – mostly within our fears and insecurities, etc – and I want people to know that self-doubt and insecurities can be challenged, and it can start with something as simple as repeating something to yourself once a day.

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Ruth Ossai

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Ruth Ossai

Why did you select each of the artists?

All the artists were already on my radar as people I admired. What I was looking for when selecting artists specifically to collaborate with on this show was that they had a seemingly different identity from mine. In that, “on paper” we came from different backgrounds and experiences. I wanted it to visually be as wide-stretching as possible, even though when you look and feel each work, you’ll find more in common than you thought, and, again, realise we aren’t always so different. I really want people to look at the work we are producing and see themselves in it in someway, and then take power, or learn something, from someone else’s identity and strength.

How do they each perform identity through their work?

Each perform identity in a way that is very natural to them. Ruth celebrates West African culture through her work and she uses these incredible backdrops made by artists in Nigeria. Elizabeth recently released a book called XING – which is a collection of non-white photographers who dismantle stereotypes of women. Shon is our LGBTQ editor-at-large at Dazed, she is constantly penning incredibly dark but funny pieces on her experiences as a trans woman. She is also an activist and works for Stonewall, amongst many other things. I could go on. But everything they push out in terms of creativity comes from a place of identity, so I think it was unavoidable when it came to exploring each of theirs in a more inward, reflective way. Each have such strength, passion and power. I’m very grateful to have been able to work with them on this.

All the work in the exhibition is new. How did you go about briefing each of the artists involved?

When I approached each of the artists I told them I wanted to work with affirmations and then I asked them to pick something that resonated closely with them. They came back with one they wanted to use and we worked on the idea from there, taking into account their visual style and the subject matter that is so intrinsic to their work. Each could have almost done anything and I would have loved it because I was already so invested in each of them as an artist. I didn’t want to direct them too much because it was important to give them as much free-reign as possible given that it was about identity. We needed to ensure we were meeting their needs, my needs and Melissa’s needs but I wanted to allow as little interference to that as possible.

Tell us how set design plays into the experience of the exhibition.

Set design and props are crucial to the show in that it brings the affirmations to life – from a thought in your head to something tangible that can move in the “real world”. It was important that people could dip a toe into each artist’s world, whether that’s standing in front of one of Ruth’s incredible backdrops or walking into a specially designed set that Clarissa Livock is creating for Elizabeth, or into the screening room for Shon’s incredible film, which is directed by Bec Evans. I wanted to give people the chance to enter worlds that they might not yet have had the chance to. It’s important to feel surrounded by the work, to touch it and feel connected, and I hope we will have achieved that.

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