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Harold Offeh

By Kim Dhillon

1. Introduction

Moving image and video play several roles in artist Harold Offeh's work. Initially interested in performance-to-camera as an art student--in subverting the language and modes of popular culture and television with video as his tool--Offeh's recent work has developed beyond that medium to include collaborative projects and 'curatorial' works where he devises larger projects with multiple artists and groups of participants. While the influence of moving image is always present in Offeh's oeuvre, the effect of film and television culture in his practice is evident in not only the form his work takes, but also the content that informs it.

Offeh's early work, made as he emerged as a graduate of the Fine Art Photography MA at London's Royal College of Art was rooted in deconstructing ideas of identity and stereotypes through the media and languages of popular culture. In recent years his work has developed out of such discourses to extend his interests to collaboration and co-operation with other artists, children, and participants in his artwork. In turn, Offeh has developed his practice as a sensibility and response to stimuli in popular and contemporary culture.

Playing a prominent role in Offeh's work are the frequent use of personae, from little Harold, a samba-dancing, labourer's uniform-wearing cultural tourist (and cultural participant) in Brazil, to the artist as a deconstructed representation of the African American actress Hattie McDaniel. Offeh's influences are most often rooted in American video art that came out of the 1970s--works by artists such as Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, and Martha Rosler. As a child Offeh watched a lot of TV, and at art school he became interested in the pervasiveness and dominance that TV possesses and operates within contemporary society. Both creative and analytical, Offeh's practice is influenced by the history of moving image in popular culture, as well as being a product, and a critique, of it.

2. Persona I: Haroldinho

In 2001 the British Council sent Offeh to Brazil for an artist's residency sponsored by London's Gasworks Gallery and a Brazilian artist's run centre. But the Brazilian centre collapsed (figuratively, not literally), before Offeh and Lisa Cheung (another artist on the programme) arrived. Faced with no structure and no studio practice, Offeh spent much of the residency looking to the city and daily culture for influence and inspiration. Instead of spending time in a studio, he took samba lessons and perused carnival shops, while also watching regular daily events such as the work of labourers. Initially pointing the camera at those he was observing, Offeh decided the footage felt too exotic, too much him watching the other, and turned the camera on himself.

The result was Haroldinho, a performance to video camera (recorded by Cheung), where Offeh adopted emblematic elements of Brazilian culture to translate his own humorous grappling with his identity in Rio de Janeiro. Offeh, a Black British artist who was born in Ghana, was mistaken for Brazilian due to the colour of skin, and spent much of the trip apologising for not speaking Portuguese or being Brazilian. Dressed in a typical labourer's, dark blue uniform, but with carnival spangles of stars and watermelons sewn on, Offeh dances an amateurish samba in iconic locations around Rio. Gold letters spell out Haroldinho on his shirt. Captured on camera, his dancing is a video-postcard that plays on cultural cliches and assumptions.

But while performing Haroldinho, Offeh also became part of the local culture. Performed and shot in iconic locations around Rio, such as the football stadium, the statue of the Christ, and the beach, while some passers-by and unknowing audiences were bemused (which turns out to be a common response to his actions), others assumed him part of the local culture. At the football stadium, a group of Argentinean tourists on a guided tour thought he was part of the entertainment and took photos; on the beach a (presumably) Brazilian woman comes up to the dancing Haroldinho and sambas with him, playfully caressing his legs while she dances in her bikini.

To audiences watching little Harold (the title and persona's name are phrased in a Brazilian term of affection) on video, the work serves as a document of an action with connotations of a holiday home movie. To those who experienced Offeh's actual performance in the moment, rather than via the video, it's a guerilla-style art event where the local and the exotic clash in a mess of spangles to the beat of a little portable CD player.

3. Persona II: Being Mammy

Similarly, a persona also takes shape in Being Mammy, one of Offeh's most recent works. The impetus for Being Mammy was an invitation to work from an archive for moving image, commissioned by Picture This, a Bristol arts agency for moving image work. He selected the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, particularly for its uniqueness as a moving image archive. The Centre holds memorabilia and ephemera from cinema culture, not just film reels. As an object-based archive, Offeh's resulting work, Being Mammy, responded to the wealth of stuff about Hattie McDaniel, a black American Oscar-winning actress (the first African American to be nominated for and the first to win an Academy Award). McDaniel was most famed for her portrayal of Mammy, Scarlet O'Hara's housekeeper, in Gone with the Wind.

As a cultural icon, McDaniel's life and career was full of paradoxes--at the Academy Award ceremony at which she won for Best Supporting Actress, she had to sit alone at the back of the Coconut Grove (where the Awards were being held) because she was black; thousands of mourners gathered to remember her accomplishments when she died in 1952, yet the owner of the Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard wouldn't allow her to be buried there (again, because she was black); and while she had a popular radio show in Los Angeles in her early career, she still had to work as a maid because her salary was so low. It was this paradox in particular that led to her famous, and often quoted line: 'Why should I complain about making seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one.' Her sentiments summed up the paradox black American performers were caught within, whereby the only roles they could obtain, were ones portraying servants, maids, or other such supporting (and cliched) characters. Criticised by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and some sections of the black community, McDaniel also broke down barriers for black performers in the entertainment industry as a vanguard in her field.

It's this irony that drew Offeh to question McDaniel's cultural position and make it the subject of Being Mammy: that is, her perpetuation of stereotypes in order to get work or advance her own career. McDaniel's 'Mammy' character developed a cult-like following. Many of the objects in the archive are made by McDaniel's fans as gestures to her role, and subsequently to her role's iconic status. Despite McDaniel not being a good cook, fans assumed McDaniel was 'Mammy' and wrote to her requesting her fried chicken recipes. So, out of a feeling of obligation, she'd make up a recipe and supply it to her fans.

In Offeh's Being Mammy, he adopts the character of McDaniel playing Mammy, thereby unravelling and critiquing the layers of stereotype in Mammy, and all that she embodies. With a silent soundtrack, Offeh performs the facial gestures that personify the caricature of 'Mammy': shaking a head knowingly, with pursed lips and batted eyelashes; staring wide-eyed and in surprise at the camera; pouting with a furrowed brow. Spot-lit and played-back to the audience at high speed, the video calls attention to the automatic actions by which we can recognise the character type. With Offeh dressed in a blue house dress, white apron, and white head wrap, he makes a convincing housekeeper, and his skilful embodiment of the character allows him to drive home his point. Offeh's intention being to highlight the artifice of Mammy in particular and all stereotypical characters in general. While it's a particular slice of cinema history that makes up the context of Being Mammy, Offeh's own engagement with the role highlights his skill as a character actor. Video in Being Mammy isn't a medium to document the work, but inherently links the form with the content.

4: From Camera to Audience

But not all of Offeh's work involves personae. In Smile, the dulcet tones of Nat King Cole play in the background (Cole is singing The Smile Song), while the screen is filled with a close-up of Offeh's face. The single shot work begins with the artist part grimacing, part smiling, his eyes rolled back. As the song continues, he tries harder to smile, the lyrics commanding his actions: "That's the time you must keep on trying / Smile - what's the use in crying?" At moments Offeh seems meditative, while his face clearly shows the pain and discomfort beneath his expression.

For Smile, Offeh was inspired by Vito Acconci's durational private performances recorded on Super 8 between 1969 and 1974, which "involve a level of corporeal manipulation that borders on masochism--Acconci is shown plucking hairs from around his navel, throwing soapy water into his eyes, and cramming his fist in his mouth."

[1] Nancy Spector, Guggenheim.
[2] Offeh made Smile considering questions of endurance, and repositioning Acconci's endurance of the masochistic, with his own endurance of a seemingly painless and pleasant act: smiling.

5: Afrofuturism

Another early work, Alien at Large is a street action recorded on video, made in several cities and towns, both small and large. Using a magnifying glass mounted on his face to highlight features that (stereo-) typically distinguish black characteristics from Caucasian, Offeh calls attention to his full lips. Magnified, they seem larger than life and confront passers-by. He enacted the work in Oxford, Chester, Liverpool, and in Banff, Canada. The reactions of unknowing audiences caught off guard are as important to the work as the action itself: in England audiences tend towards a consensus of polite lack of acknowledgement; in Canada, the response is passive bemusement. In turn Offeh's action to play upon stereotypes allows us to respond or react, the audience thus having a direct implication on the course the artwork takes. The title, Alien at Large, a pun with several layers, anticipates his interest in science fiction and Afrofuturism, a discourse to unpick difference that Offeh develops further in his more recent work.

The Mothership Collective, a project at the South London Gallery in summer 2006, marks the greatest shift from Offeh's early performance and camera-based work. A collaborative series of events and workshops devised by Offeh and conceived by himself and other artists (including David Blandy, Olivia Plender, and Kodwo Eshun), The Mothershop Collective employed various tactics under the rhetoric of Afrofuturism. (That being, artists and thinkers who see science, technology and science fiction as means of exploring the black experience and finding new strategies to overcome oppression.) In form, it seems a point of departure from Offeh's previous work. The motivation however, remains in line with Offeh's constant intention to address communication in terms of cultural positions and identities.

Communication across cultures, and deconstructing the boundaries that imply cultural difference in the first place, is what Offeh's work is all about. At its heart, Offeh's artwork is a practice that is playful and deceptively light of touch. He's a dancer, a smiler, a Mammy, and an Afrofuturist Angela Davis in drag (aptly named Mangela Davis). And these strategies, whether personae or collaborations--allow Offeh to consistently be within the work, having a direct engagement to the camera, and in turn to the audience.

Kim Dhillon is a Canadian curator and writer. She lives and works in London.

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