In Your Absence, I Rehearsed You

Text accompanying a solo exhibition by Karl Ohiri, May 2016

Karl Ohiri, The Dance You Never Saw Me Dance, 2016

In Your Absence, I Rehersed You

with poetry excerpts from Maya Angelou Mother, A Cradle to Hold Me

It is true

I was created in you.

It is also true

That you were created for me.

I owned your voice.

It was shaped and tuned to soothe me.

Your arms were molded

Into a cradle to hold me, to rock me.

The scent of your body was the air

Perfumed for me to breathe.

Did you know it at the time? As you wrapped your waist in folds of green fabric tucked at the hip, and draped coral beads around your neck to lay upon your metallic green top; held your head high with Gele tied. Did you know that with your lips sealed and eyes with sideways look, you would say so much? Your figure formed against the geometric wallpaper, beside cabinet dressed with ornaments; a colour television; and a photograph of your wedding day. Despite some trace of reservation, a pride at your arrival shines.

Mother in Native circa 1976-78 is a found colour photograph of Ohiri’s mother, taken during her first years in London, England. The luxurious fabrics of her native dress and eye catching accessories seem at odds with the domestic space of the front room, they sing of elsewhere. Clothing, like food take on the power to transport and reconnect with the places left behind and In Mother in Native we see cultures converge as traditional Nigerian dress greets the mod-cons of the metropolis. It is the cornerstone of Ohiri's photographic series In My Mother’s Clothes, 2010 and in six new works displayed alongside the vintage print, Ohiri’s Finnish partner wears his mother’s native  dress and re-enacts her pose, situated in desolate semi-urban landscapes. The series invites reflection on the image of the foreigner and the role of clothing and adornment in forming and reinforcing gendered and cultured identities. In My Mother’s Clothes began the artists ongoing ode to his mother, who in 2012 died of cancer. 

After his mother's passing Ohiri travelled back to Owerri, South Eastern Nigeria to escort his mothers body to its final resting place in his grandfather’s compound. On this journey home Ohiri created The Night I Will Never Forget 2012, a work that deals directly with mortality and the rituals that surround a persons death. Shot on film without a filter the image is soaked with the luminous red colour that filled the room in which the casket lay in resting. It captures a moment of realisation as the magnitude of loss is felt a fresh. Horror haunts the scene, through the eery red darkness forever etched into Ohiri’s memory, to the debilitating horror of grief.

Sweet Mother brings together a body of work that reflects a deeply personal journey, and yet speaks to the fragility of the human condition. Love, hope, loss and desire are evoked, cradled and confronted through found photographs and objects, staged images and performed actions. For Ohiri, ‘Sweet Mother’ is a person affected by war, a young woman in love, a woman finding herself in the world, a mother, a mortal.

Creating Medicine Man: I’ll Take Care of You 2013 became a mourning ritual for Ohiri and his partner Kassinen; confronting the unfulfilled fantasies of power to heal and cure with the reality of their loss. Utilising medicine left over from his mother’s cancer treatment Ohiri and Kassinen construct an eloquent portrait of a medicine man. The subject is depicted from chest up against a black background, his head turned slightly over his left shoulder, recalling the posture of 19th century studio portraiture. Rows of multi-coloured pills surround his neck, and their intricate beadwork cascade down his naked chest, encircle his left arm and cross his brow from temple to temple. At the centre of his headband three circular pills form a triangle of equal parts in close proximity, referencing Ohiri’s family unit – Ohiri, his mother and his sister. The subject’s face is decorated with geometric, coloured paint, his eyes rest purposefully ahead. In this evocation of a spiritual healer, bejewelled in the pearls of Western medicine Ohiri and Kassinen reflect the complex constellation of belief systems mediating our relationships with the corporeal and the spiritual worlds. The character in Medicine Man: I’ll Take Care of You is located in a space of possibility and hope, somewhere between fantasy and reality.


During those early, dearest days

I did not dream that you had

A large life which included me,

For I had a life

Which was only you.

‘In the circumstances I would ask this Declaration be treated as evidence of my date and place of birth.’ Original Statutory Declaration Letter, 1988. The declaration is accompanied by a black and white passport photograph. In the event of bomb damage destroying previous material evidence of the place and date of birth a declaration has been fixed to paper and certified by official signatures and a photographic image. Instilled with power to testify, it places you there at the time of the Biafran War, and plots the dates of your becoming a British Citizen. Without such material corroboration bodies can be at risk of becoming stateless. Paperwork, photographs, items of your clothing, a life time of speculation. An accumulation, each item a memento through which to seek your proximity. 

At the side of your bed in a hinged gold-green frame lay two pictures of your children. For your own records, Sweet Mother; for keep’s sake, you photographed them soon after birth and kept your documents in close sight. The prints hang at odds to the support drawing triangles and accentuating white blocks of colour in the background. The left glaze is cracked through. Yet these haphazard image-formations were your altarpieces. Raised upon a plinth by the glossy Roman columns of your bedside cabinet they served your heart with memories, daily. Bedside Photograph 1978-1983 draws attention to the power we invest in objects. Mementos, magnified by the passing  of time, and life with it. 

Those who are left behind capture your essence on fibres floating in cupboards still filled of your things. 

As Ohiri sorted through the remnants of his mother’s past, found objects opened gateways to new visions of her life. How to Mend a Broken Heart 2013 is a collection of images Ohiri found in a family album that document the break up of a marriage. Carefully kept under laminate, many of the photographs had been defaced with blue biro. In one of the images a young woman sits on a man’s lap as they nestle into an armchair. Her left arm is draped playfully around his neck as both smile contentedly. Blue lines mark a cross through the centre and hastily delivered letters read “False”. The series, which includes a wedding photograph and consistently feature the same young man often with Ohiri’s mother, speaks not only to love lost but also to the potency of hind-sight and the ways in which narratives of the past are constantly being reconstructed by the present.

You thought you know me,

But I did know you,

You thought you were watching me,

But I did hold you securely in my sight,

Recording every moment,

Memorizing your smiles, tracing your frowns.

In your absence

I rehearsed you,

The way you had of singing

On a breeze,

While a sob lay

At the root of your song.

Did you imagine it then, as you gathered the ingredients to make your favourite dish and feed your children? That fragrances from your Motherland would enter deep into the fibres of their being, later to prompt memories of you? Okra, palm oil, beef, scotch bonnet, onions, spinach; food that fuels thoughts and rehearsals of you. The elegant drape of your sheer leopard print shirt as it tucked into your skirt; your slow, deliberate turning of the ladle. Memories of You 2014, a series of eight photographs, sees Ohiri reenact of his mother’s habits, embodying her role as mother and matriarch in the home that they once shared. At that time, the mundane happenings of every day life were beyond camera-work. As it turns out those sacred still moments, between the big events and ‘photo-worthy’ occasions were the ones remembered most. Ohiri replays their movements, recalling lost scenes and recording their images; turning immaterial memories to document. 

The way you posed your head

So that the light could caress your face

When you put your fingers on my hand

And your hand on my arm,

I was blessed with a sense of health,

Of strength and very good fortune.


Woven throughout the works in Sweet Mother is a desire for proximity, sought through the close and careful reflection on a life of a mother by a son. With the passing of his mother Ohiri not only lost the woman who was his source of life, with her went all she represented as his connection with the cultures and histories of Nigeria. Proximity is pursued in the voyage to self-knowing, so deeply informed by parental relations; a desire fuelled by the conditions of diaspora that can perpetuate another kind of longing for closeness and an urge to re-connect. The processes of enactment form a central part of Ohiri’s art making and collaborations with his partner Kassinen. Through role-play, re-enactment and performance Ohiri situates his own body within the frame and creates a knowledge learned only through bodily experience that connects son to mother, artist to subject, the material to the immaterial. Enactment is key to the artist’s exploration of his sense of self, through the prism of his mother’s life, and her death.

You were always

the heart of happiness to me,

Bringing nougats of glee,

Sweets of open laughter.


‘Palms to the sky in a gesture of happiness she would lose herself in the moment.’ 

Dancing – shaking the body, following rhythms; winding looping waists, dropping hips; patting, waving beats. Beyond words, dance speaks a language of the body, expresses internal states, recalls experiences through sensual gesture and movement of limbs. Joy - beyond words, love - beyond words, loss so deeply felt that it resides beyond words and ruptures in expressions of the body. Through The Dance You Never Saw Me Dance 2016 HD video Ohiri responds to the sense of regret at a juvenile self too embarrassed to take his mothers side in her joyful dancing to Igbo songs; and in knowing his mother never saw him dance. Dressed in his funerary costume Ohiri returns to the location of his mothers wake to record an unrehearsed dance. As the red velvet curtains of London community hall are drawn open across the well trodden wood boards of the stage, Ohiri stands at the centre. Oriental Brothers’ Uwa-Atualamujo! plays aloud and Ohiri begins to dance. His movements are modest and considered at first as he eases himself in to the rhythm that is at once so familiar yet foreign, to the man who grew in Greenwich, South East London. Soon he frees himself and is carried in a reflective joy through the rapids of the song. 

The Dance You Never Saw Me Dance may be said to complete Ohiri’s journey. A path to himself, that began with his reflections on his mothers clothes and postures in collaboration with his partner; through his own rehearsal of her figure that allowed him to reach across gendered boundaries to come closer to her; to this - his own dance, un-rehearsed. A dance through which perhaps he came to know, that she always was and always will be within in him.

I thank you, Mother.

I love you.



See images and find out more about Karl Ohiri's practice via his website.