Q&A: Lodoe Laura

By Zora J Murff |  Published on June 22nd, 2017

Lodoe Laura is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Toronto, Canada. Through research-based practice that includes photography, printmaking, performance, and video, she examines themes of cultural crossover, collective memory, and the intersection of cultural and political practice. Lodoe Laura was a recipient of a Magnum Photo scholarship in 2015, and holds a BFA in Photography from Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. She is a recipient of the AIMIA | AGO Scholarship Price, and most recently was a winner of The Magenta Foundation’s 2016 Flash Forward Award. Lodoe Laura will be exhibiting work in Gallery 44’s international emerging photo-based artists exhibition, Proof this month. She has a keen interest in archives as sites that can be activated by the artist-researcher, and is currently pursuing an MA in Film + Photographic Preservation and Collections Management at Ryerson University. 

Zora J Murff: Hi Lodoe, let’s start by getting to know you.

Lodoe Laura: I am a multi-disciplinary artist living and working in Toronto, Canada. My work deals with themes of cultural crossover, collective memory, and the intersection of cultural and political practice.

I majored in Photography in my undergraduate studies. I started out using photography to document. A lot of my friends were activists, and I thought the work they were doing was important. With my camera, I began photographing the protests and the events they were organizing, and sharing the images online. Later, during the course of my studies, I was introduced to artists who used their artistic practice to engage with political practice, and slowly my own practice started to shift to include video, performance, printmaking, and sculpture.  


ZJM: I wanted to focus today on your series 158. Can you tell us about the work?

LL: To date, 158 people have self-immolated in protest of the conditions inside the Tibetan regions of China. Discussing or displaying images of the people that have set themselves on fire in protest of the current conditions inside Tibet is in direct opposition to the narrative authorities there attempt, one of a Shangri-la paradise in the Himalayas. Working with people inside Tibet, activists and advocacy groups in exile have compiled accounts of the self-immolations, along with photographs of the people who took the action. The images are usually recovered as low resolution cell phone images, but are important, as they function as testimony of an act of resistance, and a critique of the Chinese government’s account of life inside Tibet. For 158, I worked with these activist archives, and turned each low resolution image into a halftone, and then silkscreened each portrait in a handmade charcoal ink.


ZJM: One of the aspects of your work that draws me to it is the process, not only how time-intensive it is, but how immersive it becomes. It’s almost ritualistic, maybe even meditative in a way. I’d be interested to hear how you came up with this process, how it evolved over time, and what it was like to immerse yourself in it.

LL: Yes. Each image is printed using a handmade charcoal ink. The charcoal was collected from incense burnt in the Tibetan diaspora community, following their prayers. I milled and sifted the incense charcoal by hand, and then laid it to dry in the sun. Back in my studio in Toronto, I then hand mixed the incense charcoal with traditional gum mediums to make an ink, then used the silkscreen to hand print each of the 158 portraits onto paper. It was a labour-intensive process that took several months to complete.


ZJM: Another aspect of your work is the accessing of the archive and reinterpreting it through art-marking. I interviewed artist Andre Bradley last month about his use of the archive, and perhaps this hints at bias of the type of work I seek out for these interviews. However, I feel that understanding our past helps us better understand ourselves today. Why was the archive important to you, and how do you feel that reinterpreting it adds to your work?

LL: For this project, I worked with an alternative archive - the archives of activists and of advocacy groups. These images and accounts would not be collected by official archives, and so I find the work these groups do incredibly important. In this case, the archive is an active one. From the time when I started the work to today, ten more Tibetans have self-immolated, and their portraits have been added to the archive. Re-interpreting the context and presentation to a fine art context, the archive and the information is introduced to a wider audience. And viewing the images in gallery is different than how it usually encountered; that is, online. The physical presence of the portraits confront you differently than information on a screen. The gallery is a slower space, a quiet space, that allows contemplation.


ZJM: In your artist statement, you mention that witnessing is key to your work. This makes me think about the parade of digital footage of police officers killing African-American individuals. While I feel that this footage is definitely raises a lot of questions about violence enacted by those in positions of power, but it can also become a perpetuation of that form of societal dominance. In your work, you chose to not depict the violence itself, but rather hint at it through process and media. Do you feel that this becomes a more successful way of engaging difficult subject matter?

LL:  It’s an anxious territory to tread. It was important to me not to be sensationalistic or fetishistic in my portrayal of the self-immolation. And so it took some time to find the right way to present the work. To me, it was less important to focus on the obvious details of the event—the flames or fire—and more important to collect the dates and images of the actual self-immolators. I think there is a power, but also a difficulty, to images that explicitly show the act of self-immolation that is hard to access for many, and I don't necessarily know how productive they are in this setting. Instead, I wanted to acknowledge the self-immolators as individuals. It can be difficult to comprehend what 158 lives look like until they are presented together in one space. The starkness of the black and white, and the scale - the entire work is very large, but each image is quite small, so you have get close to the faces, which reveals the grit of the medium. It is an invitation to examine, rather than look away. The medium is important as well. By using incense as an ink, I try to both acknowledge the nature of the protest, and also present the prayers of the exile community.


ZJM: To expand on the viewer as witness, do you think your work can push them past simply witnessing and into action? I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts on the concept of this burden being placed on the artist.

LL: To me, the work that Tibetan rights activists are doing is so important, and it is made even more important because they are operating counter to a regime that is constantly attempting to gain more control. One of the biggest threat to oppressive regimes is information. I think it is my role as an artist to share this information, and I am compelled to because I think it is so important. It is up to the viewer, of course, to decide what to do with the information they receive.


ZJM: Given the nature of this work, I’m assuming that you could continually do it. Is the series finished? If not, how do you feel that you can end working on it, or do you feel that it has a concrete stopping point?

LL: Yes, as I mentioned, ten more people have self-immolated since I started working on the project a little over a year ago. I continually add to the work as information of another self-immolation is transmitted. Of course, it is a heartbreaking act every time; adding a new name, a new date, a new face to the archive - and knowing what that means. The work is complete when there are no more self-immolations in the Tibetan community. And the burden of this lies not with Tibetans, but rather the authorities who have stripped them of their basic rights.


ZJM: What’s next for you Lodoe?

LL: I am starting a Master of Arts in an archival program in the fall. I’d like to eventually study at an MFA program, but first I have some research projects that I need some time to pursue. The MA is a great opportunity for me to continue research into activist and alternative archives.


ZJM: Thank you for sharing your work with me, Lodoe.

LL: Thank you Zora.



All images © Lodoe Laura