By Wana Udobang and Winnie Awa
For many years I have been fascinated by Nnenna Okore’s art works; massive yet delicate installation pieces, at times fluid and floaty and at other times static and imposing. Watching the metaphors she conjures from woven and strewn together pages of paper making somewhat epic wall pieces have fueled this fascination.
Okore is currently a Fulbright scholar at the University of Lagos in Nigeria
Great art I believe is a collaborative effort, from the sketches to the technicians, to the curators to how the audience interacts with the work. This is why this interview is a collaborative effort between Winnie of Ulimuseum.com and us here at Guerilla Basement. We hope you have a delightful read.
Part 1 – Ulimuseum.com (Winnie Awa)
Your work seems to take on a life of its own, creating or changing long after you are done with it. Could you tell us about that?
The life that my works assume after they have been created depends on who displays or acquires them. Because the mounting and installation process is so intuitive, they don’t easily retain the original form, and are constantly prone to structural changes, due to their ephemeral nature and materiality,.
They also appear to have a theme of aging and decay. Has this always been a point of fascination for you?
Absolutely, I am totally enthralled by the phenomenon of aging because it’s inevitable, and we must all pass through it at some point in our lives. Aging, death and decay, constantly reminds me of my mortality and to cherish every aspect of life. I also find beauty in maturity. When things age, they take on a new bodily or spiritual form. I celebrate in my works the transient nature of life- birth, growth, death and decay- and the cycle.
Utilising a myriad of biodegradable materials, your art works are incredibly detailed and intricate. How do you conceive a piece?
I don’t have to go far into my imagination to find ideas, as I tap them from my immediate surroundings- replicating different formations, occurrences, textures and even colors around me. Funnily, my inspirations are derivative of very mundane things such as, leaves, sticks, stones, fabric and fibers, which are all part of my physical environment.
What does your process look like from start to finish?
I usually begin with a series of sketches, which serve merely as a guide to creating the piece. More often than not, I am more beholding to my processes and let them lead me on. It is important to respond to my material’s will, than forcing my own intentions on it. I usually perform multiple layering processes on each piece before I arrive at a finished piece.
What drives you to create?
My creativity is driven by the love for materials and discovering new ways of transforming and representing mundane objects. Applying numerous processes that deconstruct yet reconstruct materials simultaneously is simply intriguing.
You are presently in Nigeria on the Fulbright Scholar Award this year. How are you finding the program? Particularly teaching in the University of Lagos.
It has been both a refreshing and gratifying experience for me. I have been privileged to work with a community of students and staff who deeply value what I bring to the table. My work with students has been mostly exploratory and environmental; and though many where unfamiliar with the trends in Environmental Art, with time, students started appreciating the power of the environment as a palette for art creation and inspiration. I have equally had the opportunity of collaborating with other scholars and artists in Lagos.
Returning to Nigeria, do you think the art scene has evolved?
Most certainly, it has.
If so, why and how do you think it has evolved?
First, I have noticed an increased interest by Nigerian artists to experiment with unconventional mediums and creative approaches. For instance, there has been greater involvement by artist in photography, new media and sound art, which is stimulating, to say the least. More importantly, more non-commercial galleries that encourage avant-garde artistic explorations have sprung up in impressive number within the Lagos urban landscape. There also seems to be an increased international presence of Nigerian artist on the global art scene via auctions, art fairs, and other international platforms.
Part 2 – Guerilla Basement (Wana Udobang)
I saw your exhibition Ulukububa a few years ago at the October gallery. Tell me what inspired that
Ulukububa, when directly translated from the Igbo dialect means butterfly. For me, the metaphor of the butterfly was very powerful in capturing the idea of fluidity, free movement and indefinite flow in nature and life, in general. My desire was to tap into the graceful and elegant movements and flow highlighted in cloth and natural forms; and to show how different materials, including found paper, hessian, jute and clay, could be used to reflect ideas of elegance and movement.
Tell me about the choice of materials you work with and why?
I am drawn to materials that have unique tactile offerings and possibilities, especially as I consider the processes that can be applied to them. Paper, for instance, can be twisted, dyed, shredded, pupped, and woven. The same applies to other materials and fibres including, sticks, clay, twine and cloth, which lend my works rich tangible qualities and range of formal attributes.
Moving to America and studying art there, can you tell us about how it influenced your work
My early years in the United States were especially hard considering that the environment and culture were radically different from that of Nigeria. But when one has live in a new milieu for some time, it begins to grow on one, I guess. And so, yes, the choice of materials and processes I adopted were somewhat inspired by the new surroundings. Even when I used stick, leaves or jute materials found abroad, they were often dissimilar in texture, smell and quality than those from in Nigeria. They especially lacked the wear and tear, physicality and even history that most ordinary items of Nigerian origin possessed — not negatively but distinctly.
Did it change the way you saw things or did it open your mind to something different
No, it didn’t necessarily change my perceptions as much as it forced me to confront and reconnect with the materials I found in a new way. My exposure to the western style and practice of art, no doubt expanded my views about art and enhanced my attentiveness to detail. Living away from home, distanced me from my old practice and familiar processes, and compelled me to rethink my use of materials and concepts.
I also got the chance to see ‘Of Earth, Barks and Topography’. Tell me a little about how that came about
The concept of the show grew out of my fascination for irregular surface textures found in the natural landscape. I wanted to reflect in my works the layering, weathering and metamorphosis embodied in plant life and the earth, in general. And while the works revealed the richness of texture and color of different kinds of tree bark and soil type, I sought to generate conversations about our natural environment, and how we preserve and protect it from destruction.
Besides the art, there is an ecological factor attached to your work. Is it your own personal politics coming through or is it something that you think people need to be aware of.
I don’t normally claim to make politically motivated art, though I think it’s an interesting question. Considering that my work sometimes touches on environmental issues, one can easily classify them as having a political undertone. I personally see the works as reflecting the present issues and experiences we all face on a daily basis. No doubt that I have a vested interest in drawing attention to the mysteries and beauties of our natural spaces, but I am more interested in highlighting various ways the environment could inspire our creativity, use of materials or ideas.
A lot of your pieces are somewhat installation pieces and never typical. What are the challenges you face?
You are correct, I love working spatially. One of my biggest challenges has been that of space- not having enough studio and storage space. It is my hope to acquire a much larger space that will afford me the freedom to be as spontaneous and ambitious as I would like.
What would you like to see happen for the artists in Africa and in diaspora?
Continental African artist and those in diaspora need to project themselves more actively on the global art scene. And while the west has done a good job of defining Africa and African traditional/contemporary art, we still need to take ownership of our identity, history and what we stand for. A lot has been done, but more needs to be done in shaping and defining our future.
Finally what do you think is lacking?
For many artists living in Africa, south of the sahara, the problem of access to resources, opportunities, information and galleries is a huge problem. Hopefully, with increased Internet access across the region, more artists will find ways to be in touch with the times, and involve themselves more aggressively in international events.
You had another exhibition recently in Lagos titled ‘Flow’. Tell us what inspired that collection of work and are there any new materials you would like to work with?
‘Flow’ was an exhibition of unique wall pieces that aimed at resurrecting aesthetic emotions resulting from the magical and graceful movements. I sought to uncover unbridled undulation of folds and drapes, which the material effortlessly assumed. Interpreted through fabric, paper, clay, plaster, resin and burlap, the concept of flow and fluidity were revealed in the delicate and simple forms that bore the semblance to various fibrous and organic matters in nature.
The exhibition was also intended to evoke thoughts and connections between cloth and environmental elements such as, water, bodily or plantlike forms and stimulate interesting conversations about the significance of fabric in our cultural and natural world.
Nnenna Okore Profile
Raised in Nsukka, Nigeria, Nnenna Okore has emerged as one of the foremost artists of her generation. Her largely abstract works are inspired by textures, colors and landscapes of her milieu. Finding reusable value in discarded materials, Okore enriches her work with layers of meaning through familiar processes. Both in her home country Nigeria and United States, she relies on the use of flotsam or discarded objects, which are transformed into intricate sculpture and installations through repetitive and labor-intensive techniques. Some of her processes include weaving, sewing, rolling, twisting and dyeing, which she learned by watching local Nigerians perform daily tasks. Most of Okore’s works explore detailed surfaces and organic formations.
Nnenna Okore is an Associate Professor and former chair of the Art Department at North Park University, Chicago, where she teaches Sculpture. She earned her B.A degree in Painting from the University of Nigeria (First Class Honors) in 1999, and an M.A and M.F.A. in Sculpture from the University of Iowa in 2004 and 2005. She has received several national and international awards and been shown in numerous prestigious galleries and museums within and outside the United States. As a recipient of the 2012/13 Fulbright Scholar Award, she will be spending a year in Nigeria teaching and creating new artwork.
This interview was originally published on April 29th 2013 on www.guerillabasement.com and on www.ullimuseaum.com