Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review of Folasayo Dele-Ogundrinde’s film/poetry evening at the VAC

The Houston-based artist, Folasayo Dele-Ogunrinde, recently presented two short films and two poems at UT Austin's Visual Arts Center to a crowd consisting primarily of undergraduate women (with a few professors and graduate students sprinkled throughout the audience). Her work for the evening explored issues of domestic abuse, rape, and dominance-submission tensions in heterosexual relationships. Her primary agent of confrontation was showing women who upset established power relations in traditional, male-dominated relationships. Her films were aggressive and disarmed the audience (I saw some women consistently shift uncomfortably in their seats while a few actually pulled scarves up to partially cover their eyes) with realistic, disturbing images of violence first against women, and then by women as a means of empowerment. It was this second theme that I found particularly problematic: for example, Dele-Ogunrinde's second film portrayed a woman imprisoning and raping a man while her second poem discussed ownership of her husband's penis (possession and objectification). Although I admire her work and found her to be an engaging and provocative artist, the short films and second poem do nothing to discuss an end to domestic violence or issues of human ownership in interpersonal relationships. The works merely show women who are now guilty of the very violence, possession, and objectification they fight to overcome. The result: the perpetuation of violence and human objectification, not its abolishment.

Dele-Ogunrinde's first film, The Woman with a Past, opens with a woman living in abject conditions, mirroring what the film tells us visually about her character. She is unkempt, dirty, drinking cheap alcohol from a bottle, and a cigarette quivers at her mouth and threatens to fall, unraveling the tenuous balance she has between life and death, misery and hope. She drags a child's toys from the lighted inside space of family and domesticity, now completely chaotic and strewn with litter and mess, to an outside space of darkness, both literally and figuratively. The inside and outside spaces feel suffocating as you watch the film while the camera focuses close on the woman, isolating her and preventing us from open space and air or an understanding of her environment. We feel captive. The woman then saturates the toys with her own vodka and discards of a final item: the picture of a smiling, baby girl.

The following scenes, which constitute the heart of the film, show the same woman, living with her husband who abuses her and blames her for not carrying on his lineage through the birth of a male child. He beats her repeatedly and rapes her as she falls into a tormented despair on her own bathroom floor, alone and isolated. The images are disturbing, painful, and difficult to watch.

Finally, the woman is back in her apartment we saw at the beginning, holding her female child. Her narrative voice envelops the audience, and we begin to understand a greater dimensionality to the woman's emotional response to her entire ordeal. She at once loves her child but also blames her for not being born a male. The child becomes a symbol of the innocent but guilty. At the opening of the film Dele-Ogundrinde discussed a problem in Nigerian society still prevalent today in which male children are favored over female children to the point where female children are emotionally discarded by their parents. The husband tortures his wife in his own pain but the film also alludes to the woman's own later abuse of her female child in a complex web of interplay between the dominant and the submissive. The film excellently calls acute attention to multiple issues: emotionally abusive favoritism of male children by Nigerian parents; domestic abuse toward women; and abuse toward children. The mother in the film is supposed to be a sympathetic character, but at the same time she carries on the chain of abuse toward her daughter, who does not survive the story. The abused becomes the abuser, another aspect of this situation that I find films and literature investigate with less frequency and fervor.

In the second film, a woman of Asian descent appears to be stalked by a white male on a NY subway in The Hunt. However, within minutes the woman has bludgeoned and imprisoned the male in her concrete, basement lair. Her dogs wrestle and play happily on the floor and a mannequin sits comfortably on an ottoman and provides companionship to the woman who enjoys riding her bicycle through the open space of the huge concrete area (reminiscent of the ground floor of a parking garage in terms of how the space is laid out). The man is gagged and restrained in a white-sheeted bed; photographs of his own face and body dangle above him similar to a mobile hanging from a newborn's crib. He struggles, but the woman continues to enjoy her casual bicycle ride and ignores him.

The climax of the film arrives when the woman slowly and carefully spreads lubrication onto a bat, gently lays the bat on the bed near the man, and begins to unbuckle his jeans. We hear him scream, and the woman is then back on the NY subway, another stalker-victim male sitting across from her, presumably preparing/being prepared for a similar fate.

This film feels less realistic than the first and reads closer to the horror genre than a fictional account of actual events; nonetheless it is extremely interesting, engaging, and superbly edited. It is also disappointingly problematic. Women continue to be stalked, raped, and abused regularly. My own undergraduate university campus installed safety telephones about ten years ago because campus-based rapes were so prevalent the university was forced to either lose students too afraid to go to the library or provide some means of protection. Dele-Ogundrinde's film underscores a disturbing, violent danger women face; however, the protagonist of this film is a deeply unwell individual who exploits rape and violence in a sadistic, revenge-motivated game. She does not overcome violence, she embodies it and becomes the dangerous. Although the film calls attention to issues of rape and stalking, it also inadvertently supports them. Violence is again perpetuated.

The third piece I will review is a poem Dele-Ogundrinde wrote and recited. She says that her husband can own her as long as he understands that she owns his penis. The next few minutes she spends speaking slowly and more softly, explaining to her audience how she will treat the penis, for example she'll caress it, love it, treat it with kindness, etc. As she recites her voice quickens pace, gathers momentum, becomes louder and louder, tenses and builds with each line. Her words also build, moving faster and faster toward a climax, and although she began talking about holding the penis, she now exclaims that the seas will part for it and women will write poetry about it. Finally, at the climax, she breaks into a Nigerian song; her voice is booming, clear, full.

The poem is light-hearted after the films we just saw. It provokes giggles, the tension in the room seems to subside a little. Dele-Ogundrinde smiles and her warm charisma spreads over us. I want to appreciate the humor in this poem while simultaneously understand the power-dynamic of her central theme. However, what I hear is a slippery situation in which one form of possession is condoned while another is borne as a "balance" to the first, but this only serves to emphasize the dysfunction of both. Although women often struggle in heterosexual relationships where the man assumes entitlement and ownership of her, establishing the woman's possession of the penis and lauding its objectification is counter-productive. The issue of possession and objectification are reversed, but still forcefully present. One cannot beget the other.

Dele-Ogundrinde was a captivating artist, her films intense, her poetry performance unique and engaging. I appreciate that she uses her artistry to raise awareness in regard to domestic abuse, rape, objectification, and power struggles in heterosexual relationships. However, I think the primary problem is that she overcomes one kind of violence by introducing another, and thus in each scenario the violent act is only perpetuated. Also, the victim becomes the abuser, adding an ensnaring emotional dimension. While it is helpful that Dele-Ogundrinde shows us how the abused can become the abuser, which is a very real and possible outcome, I think the pieces only convey this ambiguously at most.


  1. I think your assessment of the film was spot on! I definitely was one of those women who was uncomfortable with the films because of the way they were introduced. The audience had no idea what they were going to be exposed to at the beginning, which I think would have at least prepared everyone.

    It was also not women who were uncomfortable, but men as well. Especially in the second film, which prompted me to ask about why she was so interested in the domestic violence against women.

    What was striking to me about the first film was how it so easily connected to any person within the room. There was nothing to situate this type of domestic violence from women within Nigeria than from any other part of the world. Perhaps that was the make it as easily accessible as possible.

    I remember Dele-Ogundrinde stating right after the second film asking "You are all afraid of me right?" and I remember thinking...well yeah! I was curious as to how (between herself and Moyo) which pieces to bring. I know these were the only films she has created, but I was surprised we didn't see any similar work to what she has in the exhibition.

    Finally the poem just seemed out of place in relation to the rest of the evening. It seemed as though the artist was trying to end on a more positive note, but I kept thinking about her films rather than the poem.

    The final film wasn't really a film at all, but a promotional piece for her next project.I think while Dele-Ogundrinde can't establish an end to the problem, her solution is to draw attention to it. However, I agree with you that becoming an abuser is not the solution, yet for many women, they need to push that rage and hurt on someone else, someone they can control, which unfortunately, often becomes the children.

    It will be interesting to see what her next projects turn into.

  2. I think you are right to read her approach to domestic violence as reactive. But ignoring the subject seems more detrimental in the long run. All of the work she presented that night dealt in some way with womanhood and sexuality. I found her openness about the subject very refreshing.

  3. Hello, my name is folasayo dele-ogunrinde and the Author of the works reviewed above, I was directed to your blog by a dear friend...first, thanks for reviewing my short films and poetry/ performance above. I would just like to make a few quick clarifications, and I'll be very brief.

    Regarding the two films and the intention behind them, first, I would NEVER advocate violence again anyone, male female or children - that would amount to being guilty of what one preaches against. What was missing is the context. The two (violent) female protagonists in the films were clearly very emotionally disturbed individuals, and my point is that sometimes abusive situations can shred a woman's (or man's) sanity, and push them over the edge - this is reality, it happens every day around us, just read today's news. The 15 minute clip of "The Woman with a Past" was a back-story I shot (experimentally)to explain how the female character ended up in a psych ward in the feature length film I have written but yet to shoot, and I believe I may have mentioned at the screening that this was an excerpt of a bigger project.

    Regarding the poem and song "I own my husband's penis", again I explained the context in which this is played out in Nigeria where the song originates, it has no feminist connotation whatsoever. It is a playful song that men even participate in mocking. Hence, the tone in which the inspired poem was written and performed. The Authors of these reviews may be reading a bit too much into the intentions of the aforementioned works. Perhaps cultural differences may be the best way to explain the gap in what was said and how it was understood. I however, appreciate the analysis. Thank you. Folasayo

  4. As an addendum, I'd like to emphasize that these two films were not in anyway meant to proffer a solution to the complex domestic or otherwise violence in the world...they were merely to illustrate the possible psychological effects of such violence on both the victims and the abusers, and to a broader extent the societies that turn a "blind eye". The third unreviewed promotional film is closer to the need for a solution. A few years ago, I wrote some informal articles that address the dynamics of relationships in a largely male dominated African culture and even then, I analyzed this from a fair point of view - abuse against anyone is never OK, so it was bothersome to read that I would advocate that. See link to articles below: