Trained in fashion and photography, Zohra Opoku weaves together personal, historical, and cultural subject matter throughout her practice. The Accra-based artist was born in the former GDR, or East Germany, to a German mother and Ghanian father. The weight of social constructions and the pressures of conformity are softly untangled in her work. Opoku moved to Accra in 2011, a decision motivated by a desire to further connect with her African identity. The move prompted her to consider traditional Ghanian textiles and dress codes, including the Kente cloth, which has been an inherent part of the country’s identity and industry throughout West Africa’s complex history. In doing so, Opoku began to firmly root her own artistic explorations within the tangible evidence of a larger socio-political framework.
In Opoku’s portraits and self-portraits, the face is often obscured, sometimes by leaves or other elements from the natural world. Opoku experiments with the process of printing, and has printed her photography directly onto textiles, using screen printing, cyanotype, and the silver printing process Van Dyke brown. Opoku describes the symbolism of this process: “The material absorbs the photographic image, demonstrating how in society material can literally become imbued with meaning, memories, and histories over time.”
In a 2018 solo exhibition at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Chicago titled Harmattan Tales, Opoku displayed works that emerged from photographing Accra’s minority population of Muslim women. "Harmattan” refers to the dry season in West Africa, when weather patterns from the Sahara desert manifest as dusty winds. Researching and creating this work, Opoku attended Friday prayers at the Mosque and was invited to visit the homes of the women she met. Opoku’s large screen-printed portraits reveal the complexity and self-determination of her sitters.
While in residency at Callie’s, Opoku began work on her series The Doll Test (2020), revisiting the toys and tales that informed her childhood. In this series, Opoku draws parallels between the popular German book of short stories Der Struwwelpeter (1845) —a morality tale in which white boys are punished for their racism by being dipped into black ink— and the common practice today of giving white dolls as charitable donations to children in Ghana. Taking her own experience as a point of departure, Opoku explores the historical image of Blackness, as well as its futurity. Opoku reflects on this book and its residual effects, noting: "Through a personal journey of empowerment, I have learned to embrace myself, my skin tone and my hair. It has taken years and work to gain full consciousness and confidence.”