There’s something disarmingly honest and sharply intelligent to James Ostrer’s work and both qualities are perfectly epitomized in his latest exhibition Johnny Just Came currently on display at the Gazelli Art House.
Curated by the director and founder of the African Arts Foundation Azu Nwagbogu, the exhibition is a tour de force into the unconfessed fear of “the other” that lingers in even the most liberal Western subconscious. Ostrer faces it and ultimately overcomes it: Johnny Just Came is like entering his mind, replaying this process over and over again – a process that in a way develops as a dialogue with curator Nwagbogu.
In such politically charged period, a powerful consideration of one’s own society-influenced prejudices and fears is more important than ever. That is why we reached out to James Oster and asked him a few questions about his compelling work. Here’s the interview.
How did the exhibition Johnny Just Came came about?
Azu Nwagbogu came up to me while I was standing in front of a huge display of my work in London at Art15. With his sunglasses on (indoors) and an amazingly welcoming vibe he said straight away that he really wanted to show my work in Lagos. In that moment I was so blown away with excitement for achieving an ambition I never knew I had. Azu then asked if I would come with my work as well to Nigeria and my feelings instantly turned to fear and suspicion. It was in that moment that I started to feel, with the realness that only individual experience can deliver, just how pervasive the impact of our racial, cultural conditioning really is. In my head, I was like why have I always been so scared of Sub Saharan Africa? Why is the dominant branding of this area of the world a combination of danger, corruption, poverty and warmongering and videos of small children with either flies around their heads or holding Ak47s. It was from this position I decided to break my own taboos.
The idea for the flip flops installation came from this experience in Lagos, your first trip to the African continent – can you talk to me about it?
The backbone of this show is many thousands of flip flops that I found washed up on the beaches of Lagos. The first one I found was a battered Child’s Prada flip flop, an item in this context implying so many contradictions. From here I realised there were so many more, flip flops everywhere. This was at a time when the worlds media was full of footage of migrants repeatedly washing up on the beaches of Europe. I felt such a huge sense of human loss the more I found. I knew instantly I wanted to use these footwear as a visual metaphor. I started the collection process of these not long after I first arrived in Lagos three years ago. On the first day, I collected with two guys that I paid 10 dollars an hour. It was kind of fair trade style and we all worked really hard together and equally, but within 24 hours I had a number of people working for me in an entirely different context. By this point I was using bribes where money didn’t get to those that deserved it, let people work for me in conditions that previously wouldn’t be acceptable to me. I became the very thing I have made art about and challenged within my activism, I basically epitomised greed. These flip flops have become in the end a backdrop to the pseudo colonialist chieftain and all he represents centring the show.
Usually when we talk about issue of representation the common example is how the West represents the African continent – how we reduce it to a place of wars, famines and beautiful landscapes. In this scenario do you think the role for an “outsider” storyteller is still important?
This is a great question and one I discussed with Azu a lot. In the end Everyone’s voice is relevant as it is a perspective from a reality that is ultimately individual. The issue for sure has been that the global representation of Africa has been skewed by mostly a non-African perspective. I completely advocate a stronger more direct message from within Africa and for institutions like Azu runs being on the global platform will increasingly help redress the balance. What excited me to do this show however was that it is from the perspective of self-reflection rather than me mindlessly creating more reportage of Africa without awareness of what I project within that. My intent is to create a wider dialogue around the subject of fear of other and how that is manipulated by those profiting from conflict. Through being honest by saying I was in fear of sub Saharan Africa and Africans, which yes rubs up against political correctness to a degree but in my honesty I have found wider honesty in others to discuss their fears that have included every type of person colour or creed in every direction. From here you can actually start to work out bridges of connection positively both literally and also through creativity.
You said in an interview “The control is being synthesised into an even more perfect subordination of the masses than ever before with digital technology. […] The reality is it’s not just white men retaining the power but it’s actually the even more emotionally disconnected white men of Silicon Valley who are absorbing all the global top-line power.” – how much is your work a response to this?
My work is always a response to what I am experiencing in my life there isn’t really any separation. I have had a personal relationship with the advent of social media with close friends within the first 25 users of Instagram, invites to intimate lunches with Ceo’s and the highest level programmers of the absolute major platforms before anyone was even on them. Every single one of the most powerful people I have met is white and male and in some ways on the spectrum of autism otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to be the genius programmers they are. The algorithms of these networks and the policies that direct them have in my opinion unquestionably been negatively affected by this incredibly specific set of people. What worries me is that the decisions and accrued information of what will ultimately define the most advanced forms of IE will be skewed by a misogynist and socially unrounded micro group. Pieces like my sculpture “The End of Everything” with the head made from an oil drum and the mouth made out of computer keys spelling out, Apple, Control, Me Today acts as a totem to the power shift and the issues I worry about.
The show blends photography, sculpture and film – what changes in your creative process in each different media?
Everything starts from a place of creative energy and thinking that leads to some form of physical object. It is practicalities and emotional arcs that separate the process’ and outcomes. With stand-alone sculpture I can do it entirely alone and have a lot more time to revisit as there isn’t perishable materials or a human subject acting as the skeleton of the work. The “live” sculpture on people that is ultimately presented as photography requires massive planning and is produced at a very high level octane of decision making on the day – this is perfect condition wise for happy accidents. It always takes a day or so of space until I can review these as get exhausted from the adrenaline of making them. Films so far are also very much in the planning but like all the other mediums I use there is a visceral experience with the subject and performance within the work that can’t be planned for so is very exciting when I see the outcome.
Can you talk to me about Snuffling for love Truffles?
This is a 5-minute film where I have stitched myself into the skin of three pigs and am wearing the actual face of a deboned pig face on my head. The opening scene is me filling this head I am wearing with pizza slices directly through the mouth of the pig face. U need to watch the film to know more. Like Edward Munch’s “The Scream” which I see as a brilliant depiction of anxiety and depression I wanted to try and make the perfect portrait of emotional detachment and self-annihilation through consumption which are key symptoms of the technological endemic of isolation and its overall effect on human disconnection.
What is the most challenging work you produced?
Every piece is a challenge in one way or another otherwise it wasn’t worth doing. I guess being in the pig suit was pretty tough as you can’t imagine how heavy that hide is. Also this may sound crazy but when I tried to sleep that night after the shoot I kept feeling like I was experiencing the last moments of the pig’s life. Each time I shut my eyes I kept feeling like I was writhing in the air while being slashed and had massive spikes of adrenaline and fear running through my veins. It is very hard to explain without sounding nuts but I honestly think I absorbed the final energy of these dying animals. What I take from that is a greater awareness of how I relate to nature and the animal kingdom at large specifically within my own food chain. Negative energy perpetuates and it needs to be dissipated.
When working on your art, where are your boundaries?
I have never thought of myself having boundaries in this context. What I do know is that the healthier I become in terms of daily behaviour the more I am able to see outside of myself and empathise with those around me. Not just in terms of my intimate and family/friend’s relationships but to the human species and animal kingdom at large. Where I have found the greatest progress in my work is when I relate to those who I disagree with the most politically and react in an empathetic stance to try to understand why they respond to life the way they do. People only respond to aggression and conflict with the same behaviour. So from this perspective of learning there is greater growth intellectually and a greater chance for creating work that affects positive change.
What kind of impact do you hope to have with your art?
As an artist I take a responsibility to try and document and reflect on our time with an increasing awareness of my place contextually within it. In this context it is as a white male. This show is everything to me. On a personal level, it is my ultimate self-portrait of positive change. From someone that was scared to go to Nigeria to someone that became something they didn’t recognise and then back to a person that is growing from it. The show at large is about fear of other. It is about the character traits of domination, greed, control and the addiction to these.
Johnny Just Came
Curated by Azu Nwagbogu
8TH JUNE — 22ND JULY
GAZELLI ART HOUSE
39 DOVER STREET, LONDON W1S 4NN
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