Wura-Natasha Ogunji is an artist concerned with much more than brushstrokes and proper studio lighting.
Based in Lagos, Nigeria and Austin, Ogunji studies body movement and public performance art as a means to provide social awareness. From video art installations and public performances, Ogunji’s works are a commentary on social order — often bringing into question the idea of justice.
In her ongoing work as an artist-in-residence at UT, Ogunji helped form the Institute for Performing Justice. She works in collaboration with a team of professors, including assistant theater professor Megan Alrutz and women’s and gender studies’ librarian Kristen Hogan.
“We have been collaborating to imagine what it would mean to engage students and community members in how we can perform and enact justice in our daily lives,” Hogan said. “On a grand scale it is performance as a way of interrupting ongoing systems of oppression.”
In “beauty,” a performance piece originally performed in Lagos in April, Ogunji includes African-American women from different backgrounds being brought together by a physical element that connects them all — their hair. Performers will have their hair woven into one braid Wednesday at UT and will remain standing with their hair connected for four hours.
“We thought about the things that would connect women in authentic ways,” Ogunji said. “And those are external things like how we access power through appearance. Then we thought about how much women spend time on their hair.”
Ogunji said she was inspired in part by well-known performance artist Marina Abramovic. In a 1977 performance for film, Abramovic and her partner Ulay tied their hair together and sat back-to-back, connected by only their hair for a 17-hour period. Ogunji wanted to take this idea and place it into the context of Lagos.
“The piece really came to life in Lagos,” Ogunji said. “[The institute] is about envisioning the future and borrowing from the past. We borrow these aesthetics to speak about social change justice and performance art, so it made sense to do this project at UT.”
The first performance in Lagos took place at the Obalende motor park, a busy community transportation center. Alrutz said the park, like the West Mall, is a high-traffic area that generally attracts a diverse population. The idea is to disrupt the everyday flow with a new way of seeing.
“Public performances can disrupt our relationship to place and space,” Alrutz said. “Including our everyday experiences of moving through this campus.”
As a current fellow at the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Ogunji’s performance in Austin is a part of her larger performance series, “Mo gbo mo branch/I heard and I branched myself into the party.”
“Wura has done so much,” Hogan said. “She’s a great advocate within the arts community to build the capacity of the Austin arts scene for women of color.”
“beauty” will premiere on the West Mall on Wednesday at 2 p.m.