Zohra Opoku

The acclaimed artist on turning textile waste into quietly provocative interventions

For over a decade, Zohra Opoku has been asking, ‘Who Is Wearing My T-shirt?’. The Ghanaian-German artist’s ongoing body of work addresses the impact that second-hand clothes have as they flood into Sub-Saharan Africa from the West. “If we connect our identity to clothes and textiles, what happens with our identity when those dress practices changes?” she posits. “In West Africa clothes speak to your civil status, family background and personal style. So as Ghana embraces second-hand foreign clothing as the norm, I confront the cultural ramifications on self-perception, self-worth and collective meaning.”

Through multiple manifestations including installation, intervention and performance, Opoku has writ large the long-term damage this commodity (commonly referred to as obroni w’awu or obruni dead) does to local communities. ‘The Billboard Project’ (2014–2015), her first public iteration of ‘Who Is Wearing My T-shirt?’, comprised five patchworks of garments billowing across billboards throughout Accra. Then in 2017 during the city’s Chale Wote festival, she choreographed a procession of men, women and children who were all weighed down by a large, carpet-like garment made out of hundreds of T-shirts from Kantamanto Market. In traditional processions, unity is symbolised by the fashioning of looks made with one fabric, but here style and flair was replaced by an incoherent mass of textile waste. 


“As Ghana embraces second-hand foreign clothing as the norm, I confront the cultural ramifications on self-worth and collective meaning”


The procession translated into the photographic tapestry ‘Kings and Queens’ (2017) that has subsequently been acquired by the Tate Modern. “This work is my nostalgic depiction of the Asante royal family court – the king, the queen mother, the guards, the medicine man, the adviser and so on,” she explains. “The carpet expresses the idea of belonging and representing one ethnic group. But at the same time, they are all stuck together. This shows how inescapable the second-hand markets have become. The figures convey pride and strength but they are not fully visible.”

Opoku has always been drawn to the power of fashion. “Textiles are part of my DNA through the handcrafts in my family and because I grew up in the former GDR with no way to reflect my African side other than making my own vibrant clothing designs,” she recalls. She earned her MA in Fashion from Hamburg University of Applied Sciences and worked with Danish designer Henrick Vibskov before pivoting toward photography and alternative photo processing on natural fabrics. Now based in Accra, she has exhibited in major institutions internationally. In 2020 she was the artist in residence at Black Rock in Dakar, Senegal and 2023 saw the publication of her monograph to coincide with her first Paris solo at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Last year also gave her a chance to evolve ‘Who Is Wearing My T-shirt?’ as part of Ibrahim Mahama’s ‘Transfer(s)’, which began with one of his monumental installation in Osnabrück, Germany, and then moved onto a programme of collaborative events across Mahama’s three spaces in Tamale, Ghana. Opoku worked with Kwamena Boison and Yayra Agbofah of The Revival to present a new procession, this time featuring a group of kayayei (the women who act as head porters around Kantamanto Market) deftly transporting a patchwork of table cloths and bed sheets on wooden boards and aluminium bowls, to a point where their burden transformed into an elegant suspended hut.

Opoku’s current study is ‘Doll Dialogues’, which explores how Western beauty standards influence Ghanaian school children by playing with Caucasian dolls. She’s conducting workshops in rural parts of the country and is incorporating doll-making, bronze casting and community research into building an installation and video works that comment on colourism and cultural diversity. “The project is an ode to the multifaceted nature of Ghanaian identity, and an invitation to reassess the global narratives that shape the minds of the nation’s youth.”

Looking ahead, Opoku’s desire to continue to use her art and energies for the better remains unquenchable and heartfelt. “I want to support female artists through an artist residency, and to work with children from different communities in Accra to inspire and mentor our future creative and thinkers. But most of all, I want to grow my roots in Ghana as the strength of my foundations here is responsible for all my adventures in the arts.”

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