Harold Offeh is a London based artist.He works with photography, film, performance and media and often uses humour as a means to confront the viewer with an assessment of contemporary popular culture.
My personal art work currently deals with issues of identity,drag, alter egos and popular culture so I was thrilled to get an interview with Offeh.
Tell me why you are attracted to the concept of identity and representation?
I think I’ve always been interested in how our perception of self is mediated through archetypes and stereotypes. There is always a contradiction between our personal sense of identity and the social, cultural constructs and expectations. Further to that I think I’m really interested in how that is played out through pop culture. In contemporary culture so much is invested in our individual sense of self.
You graduated with an MA in fine art photography ... do you feel like photography and video convey your ideas the best compared to other mediums?
I am attracted to photography and video because they are the primary mediums of popular culture. Lens based images are so ubiquitous, we're (western society) surrounded by 24 hour media, CC TV, digital technology and the internet. These mediums are implicitly tied to our sense of self, Marshal McLuhan’s quote "the medium is the message" still rings true.
Growing up were you always attracted to the idea of dressing up and playing characters or is this something that has spawned from your work?
I've always loved dressing up and acting. As a child I would always retreat into this fantasy world and dressing up and role-play were always central to that. Like for many people it was and perhaps still is rooted in a desire for escapism. I think my practice has expanded to create a space for this desire.
You feature yourself in much of your work ... do you enjoy the process of being in the work yourself rather than choosing a model or actor?
Initially, using myself in the work came out of convenience. But I quickly had to come to terms with the implications of using myself within the work and I think I’m now really interested in representations of the black body. I would like to work with actors and models but there is a degree of control that comes with using myself within the work that I like.
You seem to have fun with a lot of your work and humour can be seen in some of your work - do you think humour is important aspect in conveying strong issues?
I hope my work comes from a place of personal pleasure. I really like to try to engage an audience and humour is definitely a strategy I try to use. I think humour, irony and satire implicitly convey dark, absurd and often disturbing concepts.
I'm really interested in alter ego’s, people adopting persona's for their work and playing characters etc - Can I ask you what it is about playing characters that you enjoy?
Again, I think I enjoy that element of fantasy and escapism. It’s amazing to create you own world and populate it! I think ego and control is central to this approach. I'm particularly inspired by the recent success of American artists like Kalup Linzy and Ryan Trecartin, its seems there is a space for this (camp kitsch alter egos) in contemporary art at the moment.
7 - Your work also has a strong popular culture influence in it - Are you inspired by popular culture or is this non intentional?
A love of pop culture is central to my practice. Growing up I was a 'latch key kid’ (I was often home alone) TV was a source of education, entertainment and inspiration. It definitely fuelled my imagination. I don't understand parents who refuse to let their children watch TV. I don't agree that it curbs children creativity; it’s an intrinsic part of contemporary culture, a window (albeit sometimes heavily biased) on the world.
If anything I think it’s a disadvantage to deny kids TV. Don't get me wrong I think reading and playing and other things are just as important, but like fruit and veg TV is an important part of a healthy and balanced diet of contemporary culture. I love that sense of the shared experience that comes with popular culture. And far from being dumb, pop at its best is incredibly sophisticated. However, just contradict myself I love it all, the trashier the better. For example if you want to understand American culture watch American TV!
Yes, being gay and having a love of drag (sadly not all gays do) has had an impact on my work. I really love to both conform and confound stereotypes and assumptions. Because gay culture (some would argue there is no such thing) has traditionally been at odds with mainstream culture I’ve always been fascinated by that inherent sense of transgression and playfulness. What's interesting is the increasingly mainstream and commercial nature of gay culture, I think it still masks a lot of prejudice, but is perhaps reflective of a certain amount of progress.
Can I ask what your thought on drag queens are? Besides being a form of entertainment, do you think that there is art in drag?
Drag is definitely an art! I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone that puts it out there. I'm currently obsessed with RuPaul's Drag Race, apart from the trashy bitching and catfights it reinforces that drag is a profession, with professional standards! On one of the shows the contestants said Shakespeare coined the term 'Drag' (dressed as girl). While I’m not convinced that this is accurate I do love the historical associations that remind us that this is a centuries old tradition.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently I’m developing a series of durational performances based on album covers. My starting point was trying to recreate the Island life album cover by Grace Jones, which almost killed me. I’m currently exploring new images for this ongoing series.
I would just like to say a big thank you to Harold Offeh for the interview.