Nnenna Okore

At Nnenna Okore’s recent exhibition Ukwa Ruo Oge Ya O Daa – There’s Time for Everything at the October gallery in London, a mixture of exciting materiality titivates within the borderlines of exuberant colours, forms and an abiding philosophy immersed in her roots, Enekwachi Agwu writes

Nnenna Okore’s exhibition was framed by her allusion to the tropical Ukwa tree which among the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria is known for the proverbial fall of its fruits at maturation. The fall of the fruit is announced by a loud thud which, picked up or not, begins the stage of decay necessary for its seeds to be released for processing or a new life cycle. Okore says “The Igbo adage, Ukwa Ruo Oge Ya O Daa – There is Time for Everything, provides a rich metaphorical meaning for her recent body of work and underscores the intrinsic cycle of birth, growth, death and decay, which are governed by nature.”

An artist with a knack for organic migratory selection of materials, Okore’s eclectic sculptures challenge us to ponder on nature’s impetus, enigma, materiality and sublimity. Whether one perceives them as familiar or esoteric bodies, the artworks surely project the collective transience and transformation of earthly entities. One of the outstanding works in the exhibition is “Ihe di Ife” (Living Thing). It looks like a colourful nest of eggs or of fruits of cola nut placed on wraps of leaves. Also, her piece “Resonance”, which is delicate to the extent that it appears like a fading vision with its faded hue, paradoxically suggestive of a plucked flower left under the scorching sun or the scene of an ongoing fertilisation. Other titles include, “Here and Now”, “Things that Meet the Eye”, “On the Long Run(Roots)”, “Ethereal Beauty” and “The Seed”.

After specialising as a painter at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Okore would later begin a crossover to sculpture starting with an internship at El Anatsui’s Africa Studio in Nsukka. Since then her work has constantly shifted between painting and sculpture. By her rich colourfully-dyed materials, she achieves a spectrum of layering of earth colours, brown, red, crimson and orange. The highly-textured forms of her manifold mediums overlap variously resulting in more hues and biomorphic forms in an interplay of elements. Okore’s transnational influences – being of Nigerian origin, born in Australia, educated in Nigeria, Swaziland, and the United States, where she currently teaches art – surely add up to her aesthetics and the conversations they generate.

Okore continues to reference the texts and poetry of Igbo ethnic language in articulating the philosophy that drives her practice. “For many of my work titles, I have deferred to the Igbo language as a means of conveying eloquently my conceptual focus”, she says. “In ways not even the English language can.” So, is it possible to solely locate Okore’s practice within a single plane of influence? She says, “Living in the West has no doubt afforded me many opportunities to develop and flourish as an artist and I am fortunate to have had these unique international experiences.” Though she believes that none of those experiences are as significant as those from her formative years in Nigeria. “Because the memory of living in my home country continues to be alive in me and I often return to these reminiscences for comfort and inspiration, and this informs my aesthetics.” The piece “Deeply Rooted” echoes her words. The convoluted forms reference the significance of the roots that nourish us even when not visible. “I am drawn to the lyrical and poetic nature of Igbo expressions,” Okore says.

How does Okore discover her medium? By considering every object around her environment as a potential art medium: “I rely on those I can find within my immediate surroundings, like hessian, cloth or paper while taking their physical or symbolic attributes into account.” The questions that often precede her decision on any material include: “What visual connections do I want to capture – natural, architectural or social? What forms or textures will best reflect the idea? And is it going to be densely accumulated or loosely articulated?” Whichever the case, the physical character and aura of her materials get an assured revelation in her visual arrangements.

Process is an important part of contemporary art practice and it is at the centre of Nnenna Okore’s work. Through rigorous techniques such as twisting, dyeing, sewing and teasing, the potentials of her selected mediums’ for creative configurations are fully explored. The attributes and dimensions of these materials such as fabric, burlap, fibre and paper undergo infinite experiments. A major driving process involves ceding control to her materials; allowing them to form freely and dynamically. “I allow myself to become the observer, trusting the materials to fulfil their will and come into being.” Okore says that the relationships with her mediums exist because she has a physical and spiritual connection to them.

Concern for the environment is at the top of Okore’s artistic enquiry, given that this subject matter cannot receive enough attention from artists and activists. “So, my works subtly bring attention to the looming crisis that issues of climate change portend, by presenting new ways of perceiving the physical and ethereal spaces within our universe.”

• The exhibition ended on December 21, 2017 at October Gallery Bloomsbury, London, UK.

• Agwu is a PhD student in art history at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and lives in Abuja.