When performance and video artist Yvonne Osei arrived in St. Louis from Ghana in 2009, she noticed that everyone seemed concerned with physical appearance.
What seemed to matter was a person’s size, race and clothing, she observed, a focus unlike anything she’d experienced growing up in the Ashanti tribe. Osei, who was born in Germany, began thinking about how to use clothing to explore such issues in her work. Recently, an organization called Critical Mass for the Visual Arts gave her a Creative Stimulus award, and the Visionary Awards named her as its 2018 Emerging Artist.
“For me it, the focus is really about the things that we put on our bodies being identifiers of who we are,” Osei said.
‘Who has the right?’
An encounter Osei had while studying abroad as a Webster University art student planted the seed for an ongoing body of work called “Africa, Clothe Me Bare.” While in Geneva, Switzerland, she spotted a sculpture of a young, nude female called “Jeannette,” and felt the urge to cover her up, using West African-style clothing she had with her. Osei recorded a video of the process.
A few hours later, Osei unwrapped “Jeannette.” The process immediately gave her the idea to further explore wrapping and unwrapping nude figures created by other artists, a process she’s repeated and recorded in other cities including St. Louis and Houston. She said the work explores exploitation of the female body.
“Some of the comments I've heard from passersby is when I wrap the sculpture and I unwrap it, it looks more naked than it was before,” Osei said. “I'm interested in that kind of push and pull of what we legitimize as a society and what we don't — and who has the right to have authorship of a body and who doesn't.”
Most of the nude public sculptures Osei works with are Caucasian figures. But the work also addresses issues specific to Africa. Osei said the fact that she, a woman from Ghana, is covering female bodies seeks to dispel North American notions about Africans “running around naked.”
Her use of knock-off West African garments takes aim at the practice of making and selling inauthentic West African clothing in Europe and North America as the real thing.
Sometimes, bystanders aren’t the only ones who notice her draping depictions of female bodies.
“There was one time where a museum attendant actually told me that I couldn't put clothing on the sculptures,” Osei said. “But it was at a point where I was unwrapping, so he actually helped me in finishing the performance.”
‘Something that can be taken on and off’
Osei’s interests have also made their way into another series in which she takes photographs of skin, features and hair and then designs fabric for clothing.
“So it really turns skin — and what we think of as permanent features — into something that can be taken on and off,” Osei said. “It was informed by this idea of the commodification of skin that we already see in society today, where there are people's skins that are not valued.”
At the same time, the work rejoices in diversity, Osei said.
“It's really about the celebration of the beauty that lies in age and the beauty that lies in, say, hazel eyes or freckled skin or blond hair — or even moles,” Osei said.
Osei often engages others in her work, sometimes asking them to collaborate in performances. Recently, the tables were turned when she participated in the work of another, highly acclaimed artist.
Osei is one of 11 local residents depicted in the series, “Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis,” now hanging at the St. Louis Art Museum. She’s honored that the artist who painted President Barack Obama’s official portrait chose her as a subject.
“There was a level of trust there; it was comfortable and collaborative,” Osei said. “I have a lot of respect for his work.”
Wiley is known for placing black people into settings and poses historically reserved for white figures.
“It’s really about edifying and honoring the black body,” Osei said. “And how he's using clothing, how he's using texture and textiles, even in the background of his subjects, are all very fascinating for me.”
Watch this video excerpt from Yvonne’ Osei’s 2018 work, “Extensions.”
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