Nnenna Okore is on a picturesque exploration of the cycle of life.

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Nnenna Okore, Ethereal Beauty, 2017
Nnenna Okore, Ethereal Beauty, 2017. Courtesy October Gallery London

Birth, growth, death, decay – This could be a gloomy philosophical essay on the cycle of life. That theme, with Nnenna Okore, becomes a picturesque quest that gives birth to vivid organic sculptures depicting each stage of life. A select dozen are at the October Gallery for her solo exhibition: ‘There is a time for everything’.

Nnenna Okoke’s Artwork reveals her deep love for nature and a profound sense of respect for the slow pace with which Mother Nature transforms itself. Her sculptures emulate that slow natural metamorphosis. They come alive after a lengthy and laborious process of transformation that requires the fibers to be dyed, woven, stitched, and twisted. What emerges are abstract organic sculptures that express the beauty of nature – even in death. Decay and Death have never looked so ineluctable yet so beautiful. In her sculptures, death and life stand beautifully together and are forever interwoven.

Nnena Okore was born in 1975 and raised in Nigeria. She lives now in the US and is an Art Professor at North Park University in Chicago. She credits her childhood, spent roaming free in the countryside of Nsukka (Southeastern Nigeria) to have ignited her curiosity about nature. That early connection with nature has left a deep imprint on her and continues to inform her art. We met her in London to learn more.

Obatala: You studied painting first, so how did you come to settle on sculpture as your main medium of expression?

Nnenna Okore: Intrinsically, I have always been drawn to very textural structures and surfaces and I just didn’t make paintings that were flat. Instead, I would use other materials to substitute paint. I would build-in all sorts of tactility into my work to make it more complex and interesting. So when I finished studying painting at the university, I decided that I wanted to face sculpture fully because I felt that was really where my heart was.

Obatala: In reference to your talk, you said you weren’t doing cultural African subjects per se, however, looking at the vibrancy of your work – even when talking about death, you can draw a parallel with some African cultures that celebrate life in death. Can you elaborate further?

Nnenna Okore: I don’t think my works are completely void of an African touch. It’s not that there aren’t references to African aspects in my work. However the broad concept of addressing nature or addressing the environment is not a topic that you find trending in the works of many African artists. There is a tendency for people to assume that being of African decent; your work should be about racial tensions, gender discrimination, and other cultural or political issues. These are the themes that are recurrent in today’s Contemporary African art.

However, there are some other kinds of African connections that I think are attributed to my experiences growing up in Nigeria. That’s what I tell people. My works are hinged on the memories and experiences of living there: the natural environment, the domestic space and vibrancy of the people. Like you said even the festivity and celebration of life at death are engrained within my work, maybe not so explicitly.

Obatala: You talk a lot about the cycle of life, how much of that has changed your own outlook on life and how has that changed your art?

Nnenna Okore: I connected with it a lot because when I was younger I used to think of myself as being invincible. I believed that I could conquer the world, I would always be strong and never grow old. Now I am in my forties and I am greying a little and dismayed by that. I thought that eating well, living well, following all the health guidelines meant that I would be fine. It is not so. I have nagging pains throughout my body in spite of all the things I have been doing to try and prevent all that. So I think I am coming to the realization that I am also going through that cycle as an individual, as a mortal, that it is inevitable. That personally has touched me. There have obviously been evolutions in my work. Where I started 10 years ago is not where I am now. The work is changing. I am beginning to respond to material and processes a lot more metaphorically and philosophically. Now I am thinking more about the in-depth associations, meanings and connections these processes and materials have with my own living experience. More so, than before, I am becoming more comfortable with what I do, really understanding why and how I do it.

Obatala: Thinking about the exhibition and the title, the falling of the Ukwa, can you talk to us about the origin of your artwork?

Nnenna Okore: My work usually starts as an idea in my head and sometimes I make sketches or visual representation of what I am thinking. I also notate words, meanings and thoughts that pass through my mind. I always write them down so I don’t forget what they are.

I usually think of materials that would provide the right attribute for the concept in mind. Would it be clay, would it fabric, would it be a combination of things? What kind of textures would embody these ideas? These are the beginning points.

Once I can identify all these, I assemble the materials and begin to play with different ways of articulating them. During that process, I am not fixated with my sketch or the idea. I usually give myself some leeway to try and see what else can develop in the process of playing with these materials. If it wasn’t working visually or not responding in the manner that I wanted it to, I wouldn’t get upset. I would try and see where that could go. It’s a conversation between the artist and the materials and trying to allow one to inform the other. It’s collaboration of sorts. It’s very spiritual, visceral and almost esoteric.

Obatala: Somebody mentioned the fragility of the sculptures. You see that, but what struck me is the resilience. You also mentioned spirituality. Are you seeking this duality in your work? Life and death, fragility and resilience, are you playing around with these themes?

Nnenna Okore: I am. You called it resilience; there is a structural integrity that the artworks possess, in spite of their very frail and dainty quality, they are not about to fall apart as one might think. So I do think about that a lot. And that connects me to that idea of life and death. Even though they look dead, they embody so much life on account of their color and structure. I perceive them breathing beings- looking as if they are about to jump and creep or crawl.

Obatala: In the spirit of cycle, you are a professor. You are passing the baton to the next generation of artists, how has that impacted on your art and on you as an artist?

Nnenna Okore: As a teacher I engage my student in the concepts or processes that I use in my work. Through their research I get to learn a little bit more about my own materials because as artists, we sometimes get limited in our scope of working with things. You work with and engage them within certain parameters, but once you open the ideas or materials to others, you begin to see new ways of responding to them.

When I engage my students, I try to encourage them to explore certain ideas or materials or concepts that I enjoy in my work. That exposes me to alternate ways of viewing and talking about those ideas. Being a teacher also teaches one to be introspective, disciplined and research orientated. I am always subjecting myself to new readings, genres or artists out there. That enriches my artistic practice as well.

Obatala: What is next for you after this exhibition?

Nnenna Okore: I am working on a few projects…. There are a few plans in the pipeline, nothing confirmed yet. I have a few installation projects that I am working on. I am trying to do a special mixed media installation. I have also been thinking of creating art pieces that would engage fashion ideas- use my sculptures to engage body movement and its extension into space. That’s the direction I am following right now.

Thank you for your time.

The exhibition ‘There is a time for everything’ is at the October Gallery until Dec 2nd.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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