An installation of hip-hop theatre and visual art, discussing the controversial 'Oreo' label

The term Oreo has been used within society to define black people, regarding them as having adopted the attitudes, values and behaviour that are stereotypical of white people. But is this a racist slur or a schoolyard nickname? Is it detrimental either way? London-based artist Isaac Ouro-Gnao is set to explore this prominent issue as part of a new installation of hip-hop theatre and visual art entitled The Oreo Complex. We find out about his provocative showcase and why it’s important to be discussing this issue now.  


Can you explain what The Oreo Complex means?

 An Oreo is for many people a tasty and quite addictive cookie. And when used to describe people, is quite self-explanatory. Someone of black heritage (from any community of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora) described as black on the outside and white on the inside. The Oreo Complex is my way of looking at the label closer. The Oreo label is also known as Bounty - named after the chocolate bar; and coconut. Again, all having the look of black/brown colour on the outside and white on their inside.


What made you decide to explore The Oreo Complex?

I was called an Oreo around the age of 16-18  and I really didn't know what it truly meant. My surname Ouro-Gnao, quite distinct and unique to my native country Togo, lends itself quite nicely to make Oreo seem like a clever and cool nickname. Or so I thought. But as I grew into wearing it like a badge of honour, I became more and more aware of why it was used. More often than not, it would appear in a group of friends where I was the only black person. And of course we can protest and cry it's important not to see colour in order to truly accept all ethnicities (which is a whole other kettle of fish I won't digress into) but it's also quite hard to exist in an identity and ethnicity you can't help but be aware of when no one around you looks like you. More importantly, I realised I was being called an Oreo for the way I sounded. I sounded "white" presumably because I'm well-spoken. It's one of the first things noticed by new people I meet. "Oh wow, you're really well-spoken". The surprise at that makes the label even more interesting. Is being educated and being well-spoken synonymous to 'whiteness'? What does "white" sound and look like in my skin? What does being 'white' on the inside mean? Is it always a fun and innocent observation? Is it an issue of education, of colourism, of class?

Like many young adults in the formative years of their lives, I began questioning my environment and my identity. And the more I questioned the more I realised other black or mixed-black heritage people had experienced the same label without resolve. I've had conversations with people in their 30s through to 60s who told me that they have either been called it as they grew up in Britain, or still experience it to date. It's a seemingly small label with a huge everlasting effect on black identity, how we view ourselves, and how we're viewed by others. It's an unresolved and quite frankly traumatic label.


Why is it important to discuss this now?

 It's about time we stop carrying detrimental labels around with us. It's about time we question these labels and own our own identities. If people in their 60s still carry traumatic experiences with them, and young people are growing up experiencing what older generations have experienced, something's amiss. Something needs to break that cycle. Questioning in a nuanced manner to enable people to take ownership of their identities makes it a worthy and timely endeavour. 

We're also seeing a global rise of politically extreme beliefs against vulnerable people. Whether it be religious or ethnic groups, chances are someone somewhere is having their voice and identity dictated for them; without a fair chance to tell their own stories. I can't tell any other story but my own, but as an artist, I can make it relatable to all having a part of their identity discriminated against. It's always important to have the voice of those shunted heard and this is my way of owning everything that makes my identity mine, and empower those to own their identities rather than have others tell them what they are. The Oreo Complex is my way of discussing black identity on the personal micro level (and it's big enough to be macro!) and cultural identity on the macro level as the label leans on white culture meaning an inevitable exploration of that culture and its identities also.

 I also want to make discussing a heavy topic light and inclusive through using food.

Food has for millennia been a fun way to discriminate (curry, cracker, banana etc). Coconut (post-war commonwealth migration to the UK), Bounty chocolate, to Oreo all reject Black identity at the core of modern Black community & instead place white culture ("Caucasian mannerisms"- audience member).

The more diverse people we have involved in diffusing the label the better it can be unraveled. It's quite easy to preach to the converted or have conversations with just the affected. Things change when others outside of the label and experience can engage


Why choose the medium of visual art to explore The Oreo Complex? What’s your creative process?

The Oreo Complex is a multidisciplinary performance rooted in both hip-hop dance culture and contemporary art. I use hip-hop dance theatre, poetry, music, film, photography and visual art to explore the label. Black identity is complex, intricate and nuanced. And so is the label. To match that, I've chosen to not limit the exploration to just visual art or dance, but the array of mediums I've cultivated as an artist as they all have something to offer. It also allows my audience to experience the discussion of the label through many senses. There are cookies to eat, exhibitions to interact with, and dance and music to experience.

 I've had the chance to collaborate with incredible artists as well as to create the world of The Ore Complex. Any insight I'll leave to the feedback I've received and for people to experience my creative world first hand!


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For tickets to The Oreo Complex visit:

Photo: Carole Edrich