Nnenna Okore is an Australian-born Nigerian, who spent her early years at Nsukka Nigeria, picking up creative skills by observing the locals doing their daily business. As a painter and sculptor, she has gained international recognition for her largely abstract works which are inspired by the textures, colours and landscapes within her environment. She relies on the use of everyday found objects, which she repurposes, by transforming them into intricate sculptural installations using repetitive and labour-intensive techniques such as weaving, twisting, sewing, dyeing, waxing and rolling. The amazing wife and mother is currently a Professor of Art at the North Park University, Chicago, where she teaches Sculpture.
BY HELEN AJAYI
This conversation took place between the Windy City of Chicago and a sky-painted work space in Abeokuta, Nigeria.
Helen: Nnenna, how did you get involved with art? Was your decision influenced by the environment or it’s purely love for art?
Nnenna: Well, I’ve had an affinity for art since childhood, and studied and practiced art throughout my formative years until now. I think my decision was influenced both by my environment and my passion for art. One’s environment inevitably shapes how life is viewed or perceived, in other words, my environment informs how I navigate and sense the world; and I, in turn, create what I perceive around me.
Helen: I can say this is one beautiful tool in engaging in life’s warfare. There is a part of your art that I love so much—recycling; it carries so much power which is seen in your thought process of expressing the eminence of the beauty in life, death and new birth. At what point did you discover and decide to work with found objects?
Nnenna: Recycling became relevant to my practice over two decades ago, when I began noticing an abundance of waste in the environment. And as one who was already a champion for preserving the natural ecology, it occurred to me that I could use my art as a means of drawing attention to these issues as well as reflect metaphorically, the fragility of earth through found or recycled materials. I also wanted to manifest through the materials the levels of consumption and waste humans were turning over.
The reference to life and death is an extension of the awareness that the planet and our universe is so ephemeral, and as such, needs our care and attention. I was also interested in showing that fragility through the materials I used
Helen: It’s all encompassing. Every aspect of your art reflects passion and empathy for human existence—it’s a handful. Have you over the years been able to achieve this great feat? I mean drawing attention to this subject matter especially the part that the earth needs our care.
Nnenna: It is a feat, indeed, and not something I can claim to have accomplished. But as an artist who is passionate about the cause, my goal is to contribute to the conversation by engaging in stimulating dialogue about how we effect change and increasing awareness through art. And that’s what I am seeking to do with my works.
“And as one who was already a champion for preserving the natural ecology, it occurred to me that I could use my art as a means of drawing attention to these issues as well as reflect metaphorically, the fragility of earth through found or recycled materials.“
Helen: I hope everyone sees the need and embrace the cause, so we can all care for our home in our own little ways. Our journey on earth involves challenges and successes which we constantly need to review to understand how well we have improved or at least see how far we’ve come and ultimately be able to outline things we still need to accomplish.
You have come a long way. You’ve achieved a lot and I’m sure there are a lot more you aspire for. What are the challenges you’ve encountered over the years and how have you been walking through them?
Nnenna: Many thanks! Thinking about challenges, I think the most pressing for me and most female artists, might be the difficulty of straddling an art practice with being a woman and a mother. As you know, success in the art world demands time, flexibility and commitment to practice, participation in community engagements and ability to travel for artistic opportunities. Hence, it can be terribly challenging to do so when you have family to think about and cater for. I am not saying that men don’t have families to consider but the burden of raising a young family largely rests on the woman. A reason why many women struggle to keep up with their art careers, and sometimes stop entirely when it gets too tough. For instance, many of my male counterparts are at liberty to practice and travel freely, when compared to female counterparts. Unlike male artist, female artists with family are greatly limited in their ability to be fully involved in an active practice and exhibition practice. I wish that more art institutions and the art community, in general, can create more support for mothering artists.
Helen: You’re welcome. A big shout out to mothers and wives practicing art, their commitment to family is a career on it’s own. Creating support for women in art would be a very resourceful movement for this generation.
Helen: You explained to a correspondent why you did Painting in your first degree and your MA and MFA degrees in Sculpture. I see the inclusion of lights, sound, shadow effects and space in your installations, even your works are titled in a poetic way which are deep and emotive. Is this as a result of the ambiguity of art or you just want to express art in every way possible?
Nnenna: Good question. First, I don’t think art is ambiguous, rather it has the potential to be abstract or metaphorical. Also, materials of different forms can be used unilaterally or collectively to reflect an artist’s style or perception. So, when I work in distinct mediums, it’s because they afford me the means to arrive at an idea, right? Sometimes, the use of a particular material may be intentional but as I build on the work and form the ideas around it, it might become pertinent to introduce a new object or form or experience. Art cannot exist without materials or metaphors.
Helen: Can we talk about your piece, Deeply Rooted? What is the inspiration and idea behind its creation?
Nnenna: Here I’m reflecting on a sense of unfolding within the universe. As the roots take shape within the earth, we wait patiently for nature’s gifts that rise to the surface. It also symbolizes a sense of belonging.
Helen: I also see the art of expression from within through experiences and ideologies. Powerful piece! You made it with burlap, jute, magazine pages, ceramics, newspapers and sticks. How do you collect these materials and transport to the studio for installations?
Nnenna: Thanks. I source many of my materials from my surrounding, and others I obtain from the hardware store.
Helen: It is quite exciting that you are not just practicing art but also a professor in the field. You have on your profile page at the North Park University’s website, a pre-professional track course which is included in the different area of course outline for your students, it is called Art Therapy—what is the function of art therapy in your field?
Nnenna: It is not necessarily my area of specialty, but I can speak to the focus a bit. Art Therapy is an interdisciplinary area whereby artist combine their creative skill with therapeutic approaches to assist people manage their emotions, feelings or self-worth using art as a tool for healing.
So, I work with students to develop their art focus, after which they take a cross disciplinary courses in the Psychology field to equip them with the skills to be art therapists.
Helen: Let’s talk about Fulbright Scholarship award, at the time of winning the award your aim was to teach environmental art – to teach artists how to use discarded materials to create works of art and raise attention for environmental restoration in your home country Nigeria. Were you able to achieve this and how can you rate the impact of the program on Nigerian Art?
Nnenna: Yes, I was in Nigeria for a teaching project at the University of Lagos. What I did during my project year was to expose students to alternative ways of making and finding ideas, materials and surfaces inspired by the physical and natural environment. To the extent that it made difference, it’s not for me to say. But given the short span of my project, I think it had a profound impact on students who participated in the project, as it changed their perspectives about the environment. They valued the experience of creating from nothing and seeing more broadly how their cosmos relates to their creative process.
Helen: Can you give us an update on your current projects, exhibitions and installations?
Nnenna: I’m doing some writing and working on a few collaborative projects and incoming exhibitions.
Helen: If not art, what would you rather be doing or what else do you do asides art?
Nnenna: Art is my passion. But I also love traveling.
Helen: Would you like to pass a comment on African Art, a word of encouragement to young artist and art lovers?
Nnenna: Art is like a gift that keeps giving. And though much has been communicated through art, there is always more light that can shed on old subjects. Young artist should not shy away from questioning and discovering the universe through their works. Also, when we strive to be less interpretive and more reflective, that is when great art manifests.
Helen: Thank you for sharing your thoughts, it’s a pleasure having this dialogue with you. I look forward to your works and especially the writing you mentioned earlier.
Helen Ajayi is an Aquaculture Consultant and an Aqua-Art enthusiast with a three years of handson experience working with farms and research institutes, she consults for small and medium sized Aquaculture businesses which may include hatching, breeding and rearing of aquatic organisms. Helen obtained a B. Tech. Honors in Fisheries and Aquaculture Technology from the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA). She is currently undergoing a one-year service through the Nation Youth Service Corp (NYSC), serving as a teacher and instructor of Basic Technology. She spends time listening to music and hanging out with friends, She does Nail Art and Photography equally, @Havilotta on IG.