Nnenna Okore is an artist, educator and environmentalist. She has received international acclaim for the ways in which she engages with the environment in her artistic practice. Her abstract sculptures are created using a range of methods; shredding, fraying, twisting, teasing, tying, weaving, stitching, and dyeing are all used to create rich, textured pieces. Her materials are all biodegradable and range from old newspapers, found paper, ropes, thread, yarn, fibres, burlap, dye, coffee, starch, clay and more.
She is a Professor of Art at Chicago’s North Park University, and has had her work featured at venues including the Museum of Art and Design, New York; Peabody Essex Museum at Salem, Salem; Tang Museum of Art, Skidmore College, NY; Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Art, New York.
In her artist’s statement, she writes that she is ‘astounded by natural phenomena that cause things to become weathered, dilapidated and lifeless – those events slowly triggered by aging, death, and decay – and subtly captured in the fluid and delicate nature of life’.
Could you give us some insight into who you are and what you do?
I consider myself an interdisciplinary artist-teacher who embraces diverse creative processes, contemporary art ideas and any opportunities to collaborate.
What do ‘craft’ and the ‘decorative’ mean to you?
Historically, craft has been associated with object-based, hand-made techniques that yield artefacts, which are valued for their functionality and tradability. And unlike contemporary fine art, craft de-emphasizes intellectual and conceptual implications of the form. Even with its lack of critical and theoretical attention, I deeply appreciate crafted objects because they bring a focus to bear on technicalities of making or articulating objects, which is the foundation of all creative processes. Decorative art, the close relative of craft, also resides in the same space as craft, and is purely designed for ornamental and practical uses. Though some art critics have viewed my works through the prism of craft, I hesitate to categorise my work in that light since they are highly conceptual and multi-faceted.
From the natural to man-made how do different environments shape your work?
When it come to ideological and philosophical positions, there’s no question that my established aesthetic and cultural philosophies are a function my lived experiences since childhood. From the microcosmic encounters of my childhood milieu in Nigeria to the global exposure attained while living in America, many puzzles within the cosmic macrocosm have become clearer. To put simplistically, I wouldn’t know to adopt or use burlap in my work, had it not been for an early exposure to the material growing up in the sleepy town of Nsukka, nor would I have thought of using phonebook pages in my art, if not that the materials became part of my visual apparatus during my studying years in the remote town of Iowa City. In essence, every experience and place has an impact, big and small on one’s life.
You incorporate both natural and mechanical techniques in your work. Why are these important binaries (man-made/natural, organic/mechanical) to engage with?
Most of my techniques and processes are manual and labor-intensive, not necessarily mechanical. The physical attributes of my materials, whether natural or man-made, depend on the concepts or desired visual outcomes of the art pieces. More often than not, I use materials that have manipulative potential of resembling something in nature. For instance, I may use twisted or shredded recycle paper to reference tree bark, branches or natural fibers. I am not particularly interested in creating material binaries in my works. That is antithetical to how I work. In fact, I would argue that my works tend to breakdown boundaries by promoting material synthesis and multi-layered spatial interactions.
The materials you use range from rope and thread to more non-traditional materials like coffee, starch and burlap – how do you decide which materials will work best? For example: incorporating hide and burlap into your ceramic work.
For starters, I love experimenting with different materials to uncover what they are capable of doing or how material hybrids can be formed. However, the material combinations are dependent on the visual and conceptual trajectories. Burlap and clay for instance, naturally work together because the burlap serves as an underlying fabric with which to attach the ceramic pieces. When I add coffee ground to my hand made paper, it is for the sole purpose of adding roughage and grainy textures to the surface of the final form. Likewise, when I interweave jute rope and recycled paper, it is intended to achieve a strong rope-paper tapestry. There are no set rules or exceptions in the order of synthesis. I play with different forms in search of material compatibility and dialogue.
Could you say a little more on how traditional women’s labour/work enters into your practice?
Yes. Those of us who were raised in traditional African setting know that women are central figures in the production of traditional arts and craft. They may seem invisible, but their powerful roles as makers and shapers of home and communities keep the fabric of society intact through their craft. They are the potters, weavers, adorners and makers of homes. My paternal grandmother was no exception. In her presence and that of the local women at my homestead, I learned many craft processes and how to make magic with little resources located around the house. From material collection to technique execution to object formation, every aspect of the process was painstakingly achieved. By observing her skills in basketry, pottery and weaving, for instance, I learned attentiveness, perseverance, and intentionality. Today, my practice relies on detailed and painstaking processes which emanated from these early influences.
Your work seems to mimic organic forms – for me, the fibre works are reminiscent of coral or flowers, the ceramic is bark-like – how does the natural world enter you into a conversation with colour, texture, shape and abstraction in your pieces?
Your observations are totally correct. My recent fiber works mostly allude to forms in nature. And the same is true for other sculptural forms that I produce. My affinity for nature comes from an interest in exploring the troves of shapes, colours and textures in the natural ecology. I am fascinated by the lifecycle of plants and aquatic animals. From an environmental perspective, I am interested in the metaphor they embody and the magnificence they exude.
I’m really interested in the way you note natural materials become ‘weathered, dilapidated and lifeless’. How does using biodegradable material change the nature of the art you create? Are you trying to keep these materials ‘alive’ in a way?
The biodegrade materials are in themselves a form of symbolism that references decomposition, death and decay. I embrace degenerative processes and materials because I recognize that ageing and death are imminent occurrences that all living things will undergo. in the same vein, the earth will degrade if we turn our backs from caring for, nurturing and preserve it. Even as I grow older, I am more alive to the processes of ageing which my body slowly and certainly is experiencing. By using materials and my art as a metaphor for short lifespan, I speak to the fleeting and transient nature of life. The works that emerge from these objects are reflective of the ephemeral natural of the material world.
You also mentioned being inspired by African environments and third-world economies – is invoking the environment in your craftwork a political undertaking and how do you use your work to comment on climate change?
If these kinds of influences lend my works a political undertone, it is not intentional. My allusion to African environment is simply designed to highlight the less controlled, or put differently, unadulterated ecological environment in rural African spaces. Insofar as these environmental references may reflect the glaring problem of instability and disorder in African nations, I am mostly interested in highlighting the material and environmental quality of specific virgin or rural spaces. The forms simply portray how different man-made objects interact with each other and coalesce with nature and vice-versa urban settings.
What do you hope an ideal viewer (if there is such a thing!) would take away from your work?
I prefer my works to speak for themselves; to espouse different feelings and understanding. It is important too, that the works resonate with the viewer critically, aesthetically and texturally. I would hope they leave a lasting visual and ethereal impression.
Finally, could you let us know what else you’re up to and if you have any upcoming projects you’d like us to share?
I am currently working on a year-long research project in Melbourne, Australia. I am hoping to forge new partnerships and collaborations while pursuing new knowledge and creative works.
Interview by Jade French