For centuries the giant ships that powered the Venetian republic were built in the Arsenale. Now this brick hall over 1,000 feet long, with its high ceilings and huge windows, is the launching point for a very different kind of international venture. Every two years it hosts the Venice Biennale, the world’s most significant gathering of contemporary art and artists.
In 2019 the shipyard featured everything from human figures dipped in black latex, to tartan-walled installations, a crocheted coral reef and a giant, rusting migrant boat by the dock. Amid the morass of form and colour, one installation stood out: nine television monitors, mounted in rows of three to mimic the squares of an Instagram profile. A succession of black-and-white images flashed up in each box for a second, creating a disjointed cinematic narrative.
Some pictures were simple: a girl with a black telephone to her ear; a man with a mouth organ; a newly married couple, smiling; a black woman cradling a white child. Others were unsettling. In one, a woman cradled a Kalashnikov; in another a finger twirled a revolver; yet another showed a psychiatrist’s questionnaire asking, “Have you had or are having difficulties with any of the following? Anger? Anxiety? Assault?”
This torrent of pictures was the first exhibition of art created on Instagram to appear at the Venice Biennale. Visitors stood glued to the screens, shadows flickering across their faces. At the edge of the crowd the artist, Frida Orupabo, stood quietly. A Norwegian-Nigerian social worker from Oslo, the 32-year-old could have been a young tourist in her linen skirt and white Keds, with her hair tied back in a scrunchy. She looked around tentatively, holding one hand to her mouth, chewing a cuticle. With the other she nervously rocked a pushchair back and forth, a movement meant to calm the toddler seated in it. Orupabo later told me she was also trying to calm herself. She had lost her phone. And it’s on her phone that she makes her art.
Facebook was launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006 and Pinterest in January 2010. But of all social-media platforms, it was Instagram – which was born in October 2010 – that really caught the imagination of the art world. A million people had signed up to the photo-sharing app within two months of its launch. Most people used it to post selfies, pictures of their cat or unexpected juxtapositions of bright colours. Artists and art lovers took to it too: at a time when visitor numbers to galleries were falling, Instagram opened up the world of art to a wider audience.
Big auction houses soon recognised the potential of Instagram as a marketing tool. In 2016 a curator at Christie’s in New York boarded a flight to Hong Kong. Just before taking off he posted an image of a yellow, red and black painting of a boxer by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an American artist who died in the 1980s. By the time the curator landed 16 hours later, three collectors had texted him about acquiring the work. Two days after that, one of them bought the painting, reportedly for $24m. It was the first important artwork to sell through Instagram, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Large commercial galleries were slower to understand the possibilities. Interns were more likely to spot rising talent on Instagram than gallery-owners. But artists started using it to market their own items. The platform allowed artists and buyers to meet without always having to go through a middle man. The kind of buzz that artists used to rely on to get their work known – being talked about by a small elite – could now be achieved without the validation or financial backing of a patron. To many the art world seems to define elitism. The democracy of Instagram, by contrast, was appealing: anyone could look and anyone could be seen.
The new medium was important for another reason too. Instagram wasn’t just a shop window but a source of inspiration. Amalia Ulman, a 30-year-old Argentine artist, staged a four-month performance piece on her Instagram feed in 2014, primping and posing in various evolving personas, first as a “cute girl” and finally a “life goddess”. In 2015 Richard Prince, an American artist already famous for re-photographing iconic images, unveiled a series of reworked studio shots presented alongside what looked like Instagram comments. “Nice. Let’s hook up next week. Lunch, Smiles R”, read the caption beneath a voluptuous young woman in a white bathing suit that revealed her nipples.
Ulman, Prince and many others leaned towards irony. Their creativity on Instagram was inspired by satirising devotees of the platform. Orupabo, by contrast, used the new platform to find her own voice.
In mid-2013 Orupabo received a Facebook message from someone in Nigeria: “Are you Julian Orupabo’s daughter?” The message turned out to be from a cousin she hadn’t known existed, and he gave her a phone number. After she dialled it, she heard her father’s voice for the first time in 25 years.
“It was like we had spoken just the day before,” she says. Her Nigerian father and Norwegian mother, both evangelical Christians, had met as students and planned to become missionaries, but instead ended up on Norway’s craggy south-east coast. Her father, an educated man, got jobs on factory floors. When there was no work he stayed home – and then, when Orupabo was three and her sister was five, he left.
Orupabo’s mother became a primary-school teacher. After her daughters came home from school each day she made them go through everything they’d learned. “Even if the teacher said we’d done it perfectly, if she thought we hadn’t, we had to do it all over again,” said Orupabo. The experience was similar to many first-generation immigrants the world over. Though the girls were Norwegian citizens, children of a Norwegian parent, and Norwegian was their first language, “I was not allowed to be really Norwegian,” says Orupabo, her voice rising.
The sisters were the only mixed-race children in town and faced constant questions: “Is that your mum?”, “Are you adopted?”, “Why is she white?”, “Why are you black?”, “You must be from somewhere else.” Orupabo remembers walking through central Oslo with her sister when she first moved there at 19. A car pulled up and the driver wound down the window. Her sister leaned in to hear what he was saying, then almost immediately gave him the finger: “I thought he wanted directions.” It turned out he presumed they were prostitutes, “just because we were black.”
Many Norwegians use the term hårsår (touchy) to brush off anyone who brings up the subject of race, says Orupabo. But the word has a subtext: “Really, it means ‘if you adjust, you can make it. You’re just sensitive’.” She learned early to be quiet about her own pain: “The huge silence almost makes you choke it’s so bad. We speak about discrimination. We don’t speak about racism.”
It was only when she started doing research for a master’s thesis on racism and gender that Orupabo began to discover how other societies dealt with the subject. She read Toni Morrison’s novels and the anthropological works of Pierre Bourdieu. Online she found stories that had never made it into her local library. She read about the surgical experiments that a 19th-century gynaecologist had conducted without anaesthetic on female slaves; about “Kongolandsbyen”, a human zoo where 80 Africans were “displayed” for five months as part of the World Fair in Oslo in 1914.
One of Orupabo’s earliest posts on Instagram showed her father at just a few months old, chubby-cheeked and laughing. Days later she put up a picture of her parents: though both are looking at the camera, the electricity between them is palpable. As she explored the history of race and racism, the pastel shades of the early posts gave way to a deluge of black-and-white photography. She put up images of the many ways in which white people have fixed their gaze on black-skinned bodies over the centuries: semi-naked Africans showing tribal scarring and filed teeth; white hands carrying out post-mortems on black bodies; black nannies holding their white charges and staring at the camera.
The Instagram feed began as an archive. Over time Oru-pabo began to put her fingerprints on the portraits. She sifted, sorted, annotated and curated them. She cropped some and added filters to others or drained them of all colour. Many are black reactions to white transgression, short passages of writing that range from angry to funny.
For Orupabo the river of images tells the story: her whole profile adds up to more than the sum of its parts. She often put up four or five shots at once, sometimes followed by a blank screen, as if the images were to be read like a line of music. In one series, Orupabo followed a picture of her own lips with a shot of curving lava forms, the round, startled eyes of an owl, the undulating arpeggios of a Chopin score, and, last, an elaborate Igbo mask with curved horns.
Over time another strand has emerged in Orupabo’s work, images that exude joy and beauty rather than segregation and random cruelty. A naked black woman smiles gently as she raises her arms to undress a man; bejewelled black fingers hold a photograph of a much-loved teenager; a delicate pointed foot shows off a narrow, gold toe-ring.
Instagram is a gaudy, technicolour world. Some critics reckon that, consciously or unconsciously, the popularity of colourful works online is influencing the output of many rising artists. One article on Artnet, a site about art, offers “tips” to artists who want to promote their work on Instagram, including posting photos of people looking at their work, and wearing outfits that match its mood or palette. Amid all this jazz, Orupabo’s raging monochrome stands out. In person Orupabo is quiet, gentle, unflappable. On Instagram she roars. The strange thing about social media is that you never quite know who is listening.
Arthur Jafa is a nightbird. When everyone else is falling asleep, the California-based artist and cinematographer taps on his phone into the wee hours, watching YouTube clips and scrolling through Instagram. Jafa’s work chronicling the African-American experience has been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOCA Los Angeles, but he is always on the lookout for what he calls “interesting stuff”. In early 2014 his girlfriend told him about a new Instagram account she’d come across. The name @nemiepeba meant nothing to Jafa, but he realised that another artist friend of his had also pointed out the same feed. Jafa had no idea if @nemiepeba was a man or woman. But he was pretty certain he or she was black. He began following.
In July 2014 Jafa posted some thoughts about Instagram. “Think of it as a floor…Folks can stand on it, they can cross it, some may sit or even lie on it. Folks can fight on it, shit on it, fuck on it.” Dancing on this floor, wrote Jafa, is rare: “We name a thing ‘dance’ when the normal, the pedestrian becomes expressive or supernormal.” @nemiepeba, he said, is a “dancer”.
And @nemiepeba was, of course, Orupabo: it was her father’s childhood nickname for her. Jafa contacted Orupabo and they arranged to speak. Their first conversation lasted six hours. “We talked about everything,” says Orupabo. “Life, love, art. Actually, mostly he talked. I listened.” Jafa had recently been invited to make a film about David Bowie and Iman, a Somali model and Bowie’s wife. By the end of the call he’d asked Orupabo to be his “eye”.
Orupabo was not one to be wowed by celebrity and she knew nothing of the world Jafa inhabited, but he soon began opening doors for her. The Bowie project never took off, but not long after their first conversation Jafa asked Orupabo to take part in an exhibition with him at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
This was a big step for Orupabo. We define art as striking work created by the human imagination that appeals primarily to the visual sense. Yet if someone is to be persuaded to part with their money, such beauty must not merely exist in the eye of the beholder but in their hand in physical form. You can’t put an Instagram post on a wall and sell it. And so, to make work that would hang in a gallery, Orupabo turned back to an art form she had loved since childhood: collage.
When Orupabo moved from screen to paper, she found images taken by anthropologists who had thoughtlessly accumulated snaps of black women. She sliced and separated their limbs and then recomposed them. Orupabo’s Serpentine show promoted these women from their subservient position as slaves, helpers and models to the centre of attention. “Her subject is the fragmented black body, the violated body,” says Amira Gad, who curated the show. “She puts it back together.” As a viewer, you feel uncomfortable just looking at the works.
As soon as the show opened, Orupabo attracted a high-profile buyer in the person of David Adjaye, a Ghanaian-British architect. Jafa told his art dealer: “You don’t want to be the man who failed to sign up Aretha Franklin.” He signed her up. Since then the Guggenheim has bought her art, as well as national museums in Sweden, Norway and Finland. The price of her work nearly trebled within a year. Orupabo has had five shows in Europe in the past year.
With an exhibition in a gallery, an agent and fast-rising sale prices, Orupabo appears to have made it in the traditional art world. Now, in a small way, she is starting to change it. In early 2019 Orupabo received an email from the curator of the Venice Biennale, an event she had only vaguely heard of. She consulted her gallerist, “Is this something I need to pay attention to?” He told her that she’d better get to work if she was to exhibit at the international fiesta. “I wrote back and I said: ‘I am honoured. I want to be part of it.’”
Despite the many hours Orupabo spends curating her Instagram feed, she is conscious of her lack of formal training and doesn’t refer to herself as an artist. Some critics concur, dismissing her search for identity as hackneyed, or disdaining collage as a form. One German critic recently called her work “banal”. A right-wing reviewer of an exhibition in Oslo gave her art a casual brush-off: “She needs to discipline her emotions for her works to come across as independent pieces of art.” But few dissenters speak up openly, perhaps because her patrons are so powerful.
Orupabo has not given up her day job, as a social worker who specialises in helping prostitutes. Every Tuesday she does “night duty”, going out onto the streets of Oslo to check on these women. When I join her, her rucksack is stuffed with condoms, lubricant and leaflets with advice on health clinics and immigration law. She is protective of the sex workers she knows, and won’t point any out to me on the street. Without her cues, try as I might, I can’t see anyone I could identify as one. It’s only later that I realise the connection between Orupabo’s art and these seemingly anonymous women on the street. In the parallel universe she has created online she also gives voice and solace to the unspoken, the unheard.
When she’s not doing night duty, Orupabo works by day at the city’s only health clinic for sex workers. At 4pm she heads home to relieve her partner, an artisanal baker whom she has known since she was 16. Once their baby is asleep, she turns to the task that increasingly consumes her attention: curating an Instagram feed that started as a personal endeavour and an escape, but which has given her a global platform.•