BY Eric Otieno Sumba in One Takes | 21 SEP 21
Featured in
Issue 222

Frida Orupabo Flips the Script on the Trope of the Horse in Art History

Eric Otieno Sumba on the cultural and historical significance of new collage work by the Norwegian artist

BY Eric Otieno Sumba in One Takes | 21 SEP 21

Frida Orupabo, Girl on Horse, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

Few animals have left a more significant mark on art history than horses. In monuments, guild insignia, realist paintings and figurative sculptures – from George Stubb's Whistlejacket (1762) to Chana Orloff’s Amazone (1915) – the horse is often depicted as a war machine, a beast of burden or a conveyor of important white people posturing in actual or imagined eminence. One primary function of this trope, as Kehinde Wiley's Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) lays bare, has been to reify the legacies of men whose descendants needed to be remembered as ‘great’ in their triumphant patriarchy.

Frida Orupabo’s Girl on Horse (2020) undermines these onerous, art-historical codes by disrupting the figurative and symbolic grammar of the horse. Abstract, hairless and devoid of equestrian grandeur, Orupabo’s animal is anything but a fine breed. It courts ambivalence – it could pass for a lowly animal (donkey, goat) or even a toy (piñata) – while on its back, a Black girl sits, her arms apparently severed at the elbow.

Solange Knowles When I Get Home
Solange Knowles, When I Get Home, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist and © Criterion

One potential interpretation of the work is that it reifies the young Black female. At the helm of the Yeehaw Agenda in pop culture – inaugurated with Lil Nas X’s culture-shifting hit single ‘Old Town Road’ (2018) – Solange Knowles reclaimed the horse-and-cowboy aesthetic from country music and the Hollywood Western once and for all in her 2019 film When I Get Home. Orupabo’s Girl on Horse continues a corresponding, aesthetically discreet agenda in art history. Far removed from the rich, viral imagery advanced by US pop stars, Orupabo’s rendering is unobtrusive in its simplicity. Yet, Girl on Horse reminds us that, on the flipside of the relatively well-researched visual history of the horse, art history is only beginning to decisively grapple with the injustices – slavery, colonialism and capitalist patriarchy – symbolized by the girl’s severed limbs.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 with the headline ‘The Other Yeehaw Agenda´.

Main image: Frida Orupabo, Girl on Horse, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.