photo credit: Abhinaba Basu
The Freshness of Decay: An Interview with Nnenna Okore
Honors 280: Washington State University
Intro by Kim Burwick, Clinical Assistant Professor, Poet
Nnenna Okore, a renowned Nigerian artist, uses eco-friendly materials in her installations. The motivation behind her work, as she explains in the following interview, breaks away from cultural norms for women, further expanding that African spaces aren’t enabling for women to thrive in art practices, as they are supposed to raise children, put food on table, and pursue domestic labor. Though Nnenna Okore was born in Australia in 1975, her childhood in Nigeria has had the most impact on her pieces. She became highly perceptive of her surroundings by age four, after returning to Nigeria from Australia. Her materials have been noted for their rich and vibrant qualities, as she was enamored by her cultural and natural environment. During her college years, she became increasingly interested in the landscape, architecture, and culture. In 1999, she received her honors degree in painting at the University of Nigeria and is currently a professor at North Park University in Chicago.
Okore’s installations speak out about decay and the organic aspect of the aging process. Her artwork combines the concepts of life and death through the use of fabric, paper, rope, thread and other biodegradable materials that have been freshly created, yet simultaneously appear to be withering away. Utilizing the decomposing properties of her materials as symbols for intrinsic properties of life, she describes her pieces as having material integrity or physical energy despite their degeneration.
As a class, we were collectively interested in finding out how Nnenna Okore started her career as an artist. We are grateful to present the following interview.
Honors 280, Spring 2018
Honors 280: What would you most like to most impress upon your students? Over the years, how have you seen your students’ art appreciation evolve?
Okore: I try to impress up my students the importance of anchoring art making and art appreciation to everyday life. I believe that when students make life connections to their artist practice, it drives passion, commitment and validation.
Okore: I don’t think art appreciation for students has evolved as much as the approach to it has. The digital age means that students can easily access images, text and even form communities online; unlike before. With direct access to information, audiovisuals and art, it’s a lot easier to appreciate and discern art from all eras or regions.
Honors 280: Are there non-physical (i.e. spiritual, religious) inspirations for your art? Especially with your installations regarding life and death?
Okore: Not necessarily. My inspirations stem more from metaphysical or abstract reflections. I perceive life as being cyclic, cosmic and ephemeral. My works responds to the transient and transformative quality of our existence. I believe that every thing has a time to be born and a time to die; and that death gives rise to birth. These are cosmic orders that are inevitable.
Honors 280: Do you pull from the experience of motherhood in your work?
Okore: Yes, I do. Motherhood, especially from an African perspective, is highly regarded as the vessels through which life exists and passes. I often reflect on this and marvel at how my life revolves around three human beings I have brought into the world. Motherhood has made me more appreciative of and empathetic to others. It has also taught me a lot about the nurturing qualities of earth, which is the basis for most of my work.
Honors 280: How important is it (on a personal level) that your artwork is interpreted the way you intended?
Okore: How my works are perceived is important to me, though I take no offense if it doesn’t reflect as intended. I must note that because they are organic and esoteric in nature, they are open to various interpretations, which I very much welcome.
Honors 280: What first inspired you to pursue art in Nigeria? How have these inspirations changed since living and teaching in the US?
Okore: My creative drive really started in my childhood years. I was especially drawn to the wide range of colors and texture in the Nigerian environment. Since moving here, I have continued to tap inspirations from those memories, while layering aspects of my American experience into my work.
Honors 280: Has your art ever come under threat by political regimes and/or societal conflicts?
Honors 280: What happens to your installations after an exhibition is complete? Do you keep or recycle your materials? Are there any materials that you refuse to work with?
Okore: I keep most of them in storage. Though occasionally, I recycle pieces that can’t be reassembled or have strong similarities to another piece. Fortunately, most of my works are collapsible and easy to store.
Honors 280: How do you decide which materials to use for each project? Do you envision each project all at once or is does it evolve as you work?
Okore: The materials I use in my work depend the visual outcome I hope to achieve. For example, if I want the piece to appear sheer or skeletal, I might use wire or cheesecloth. If my desire is to have a textured or compact wall piece, I may use an accumulation of paper or clay units due to their propensity to create dense surfaces. I am also open to altering my materials or plans, if they choose to act differently than anticipated.