Matter as Metaphor: The Art of Nnenna Okore

Raised in Nsukka, Nigeria, Nnenna Okore has emerged as one of the foremost artists of her generation. As a child, she was fascinated by the social, natural, and man-made conditions in bucolic dwellings around the university campus, where she resided. Okore’s techniques are observed from villagers performing their daily tasks, and at once lend to the highly evocative nature and unpredictability of her work. Her largely tactile installations are inspired by the textures, forms and colors of organic materials such as clay and wax or discarded materials like newspaper and rope.

Omenka got in touch with Nnenna Okore to discuss with her about her open approach to form and media, largely manipulated by hand and alluding to the traditional African way of ‘making’ in contrast to the mechanized or technological processes of the West.

Growing up as a child in south eastern Nigeria, watching your grandmother work, you learned about important processes of creating things, which still influence your work today. When did it occur to you that you would be an artist?

For as long as I can recall, I’ve been creatively minded and gifted. Even as a child, I was known to produce and churn out different forms of arts and crafts at such an uncontrollable rate that it was disturbing to my parents. I believe my artistic inclinations are inherent because I didn’t come to that sudden realization that I wanted to be an artist; the desire and drive were always present.

How have your varied experiences, being born in Australia, raised in Nigeria, and educated in Swaziland, influenced your art?

Well, I spent far less time in these other places that you mentioned, than I did in Nigeria; and therefore, I would not want to lay claims to having been sufficiently influenced by them. For instance, I was under five when my parents returned to Nigeria from Australia, and though I spent nearly 3 years in Swaziland receiving a robust and rich art education, the timing was barely adequate to grasp the cultural landscape and idiosyncrasies before my departure. Nigeria remains the place that I have had the longest contact and experience, and will continue to be my greatest source of inspiration.

Despite a first class in Painting, earned at the University of Nigeria, and a Masters in Sculpture from Iowa University, your technique revolves around traditional African ways of making art. Is there a connection between conventions of Western artistic practice and your work?

It’s interesting that you refer to my works as revolving around traditional African processes. I don’t necessarily perceive them in that light. But I agree that they reference some traditional practices from a craft-making standpoint. Also, the indigenous techniques adopted in my works in conjunction with materials, serve to highlight elements having to do with regeneration and re-purposing of urban mundane objects into visual forms with a socio-cultural locus. I believe that my approaches have less to do with traditional or Western practices, or affiliations, and more to do with reinvention, re-appropriation and re-imagination of materials and spaces.

Your work is constantly evolving from the early techniques such as sewing and weaving, to ripping, tearing and reconstituting. Are these processes just as significant as the art, and how are you able to combine these separate processes to achieve your aims?

It is true that my works have evolved over time. But what really excites me is how my processes have continued to overlap and interact in an enduring manner, albeit this evolution. I sometimes find myself responding to my techniques as though they were bodily processes – where multiple activities occur simultaneously or spontaneously – akin to breathing and sleeping; or running, clapping and shouting.

You work with discarded and found materials, reconstituting them to be relevant again. How do you conceive a piece, and what inspires you?

By interacting with found objects, I am able to perceive their attributes and what they are capable of doing as art mediums. Sometimes the materials being explored yield to the disposition of the techniques applied. Other times, the materials govern the processes altogether. For instance, if the material is susceptible to being twisted, I follow its lead rather than what I may have intended for it.

Many of your works are quite intricate, often involving a combination of several materials and techniques. How do you determine what the finished art would be, and do you imbibe accidental occurrences?

From start to finish, the creative process for me is highly intuitive. It is not a question of knowing when to stop, but engaging deeply with the piece, such that a final resolve is eventually achieved. Like most artists, some basic ideas and sketches guide the outcome of my work. However, they do not enslave my artistic outcome. I embrace mistakes and accidents because they are the radical elements that provide depth and layered histories of visual richness.

Your finished work draws from a deep understanding and knowledge of your media. What properties of each medium make it suitable to your art?

I am especially drawn to the organic and fibrous qualities of my materials; for instance, how malleable, ethereal or transient they are. I am often curious to know which tricks they can perform outside their known function. It is the quest for discovery that allows me to connect with the medium and expose its potentials or tenacity.

How permanent are the materials you employ, and ultimately the works produced from them?
When it comes to the subject of permanence and durability, which I understand is a major concern for collectors, I am not particularly troubled because my materials and ideas embody the essence of ephemerality and fragility. One point I must make is that, though my works appear fragile and gossamer, with dedicated care and attention, they can stand the test of time.

These materials reference history. Do you source them from particular places holding memories for you?

My reference to history is less about people or place, and more about the layered memories of processes captured within the inter-layered materials. In essence, places where the materials are harvested are not often as relevant to the creative process by which the pieces are made.

Your works often assume epic proportions, and you once famously quipped, I want to “animate” my space. Do you create each work alone, or with the help of assistants?

Majority of the time, I create my pieces single-handedly. But hiring assistants is a reality that I have to come to terms with in the near future due to the sheer load of work I need to get done.

Many of your works seem to encourage the audience to view the work from several angles, is there a particular way to view or display each work?

Not necessarily. Wall pieces are obviously viewed frontally, while the spatial installations require experiential interactions – walking into, under or around the piece. In any case, my works generally promote some form of contact and interaction in order to reveal the sensual elements, like texture, color or smell.

Your solo, Metamorphoses at October Gallery in 2011 remains one of your most successful exhibitions. Here, your chief interests lay in reconnecting the discarded, urban materials you employ back to nature. Many of the works themselves, are fragile and ephemeral, in reference to life’s transitory nature – aging, death, decay and decomposition. Are these aims still reflected in your present work and how far have you strayed from these concerns?

I think that these issues you mentioned continue to be relevant and prominent in my recent works, though it may be lost to some people, because my latest exhibition themes have adopted more philosophical undertones, which seem to deviate from my earlier emphases. For instance, in Akaraka, the Igbo word for ‘destiny’, I reflect on the essence of human existence and how our collective experiences are shaped by physical and metaphysical phenomena. I explore ideas of interconnectedness, transience and life cycles, including birth, aging, death and decay, which are not radically distinct from the concepts explored in Metamophoses.

Few artists have been able to combine an active teaching career with a thriving studio practice, how have you been able to achieve this successfully?

I feel truly blessed to be able to have such a successful art practice amidst my family life and teaching responsibilities. I think it all boils down to being extremely focused and structured, at least in my case, and making the time to accommodate the things that matter most, whether it is family or career. I also attribute my achievements to the incredible support of my family, who accommodate my unquenchable creative appetite and pursuits.

You were recently in Nigeria on a Fulbright Scholar Award, where you spent some time teaching. What is your assessment of the Nigerian educational sector with particular regards to art, and how much has changed since you left Nigeria for the United States?

The art climate in Nigeria is incredibly vibrant and encouraging at present. I had a wonderful and fruitful experience working with undergraduate students in the visual art programme at University of Lagos. However, my limited encounter with them gave me little exposure to the realities of the academic environment, at least not enough to make any strong assertions about the general quality of education in Nigerian art programmes. Perhaps, if I had the opportunity of working at my alma mata, I may have had a more balanced view on this matter. But my general perceptions were that students didn’t have enough infrastructural and instructional support to give them the rigorous education that was once the benchmark of Nigerian tertiary institutions. As a stopgap, I encouraged young students to discover inventive solutions to creative deficiencies by tapping into their social and natural environment.

When are you back in Nigeria, and what new projects or exhibitions are you working on?

My return to Nigeria remains in the plan. Presently, I am working on a series of projects and upcoming exhibitions at numerous venues including local galleries and museums.

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