Nnenna Okore’s complex work, which uses found and biodegradable materials to create masterful forms, comments on the interactions of the viewer with their culture and environment. Two of her installations were recently featured in the exhibition, Fuel for Thought: Perspectives from the Niger Delta, which was organised by the MA Curating Students from the University of Essex. The show ran from 3 May until 1 June 2019 at the Art Exchange Gallery in Colchester, UK. Nnenna Okore was interviewed for The Art Momentum by Justine Jean, Effrosyni Souvermezoglou, and Alexandra Torres.
Through your selection of abstract forms and specific materials in your body of work, how are you commenting on environmental issues?
My materials are used in a metaphorical sense. I am thinking about the natural environment as being very limited and only having so much life span before it starts to degenerate or decompose. My work, being fibre and fabric-based, has the propensity to be fleeting, delicate and, over time, reductive because of aging, tattering, and falling apart. Thus, when I am using the fibres, I have in mind the very fragile nature of our cosmos and how it needs to be handled carefully and lovingly to hold the fragmented pieces together. The action of fraying also represents the metaphor of human actions towards the natural environment and how we abuse the planet, without sometimes remembering to give back. In my works, I use colour to draw attention to the environment, both as a sublime entity and something that is phenomenological. I seek to draw attention to environmental subjects because I recognise that we all are related to this universe, and that we all have an experience of engaging with the world. Therefore, the solution to climatic problems has to be collective. It is our responsibility to treat and handle nature delicately, so that it can be sustained. A lot of my works are concerned with the material world and the fragility of mother nature.
With that being said, what was the inspiration for ‘Deeply Rooted’?
Deeply Rooted deals with culture, as well as the nature of roots and what they represent. The roots are the vessels through which life passes to produce more. I am thinking about my own roots and of where I come from. Even when I am not in my homestead, I still feel very connected to who I am as an African.
Deeply Rooted also comes from the perspective of rebirthing, holding onto new ideas that are about to come from it. When the roots are exposed in this way, we can relate to them. They are underground and surrounded by darkness, but when they come to the surface they can give a sense of the new things to come through growth. Alluding to the new experiences they embody, roots help us to stay grounded even as they promise new things. With my connection to African geography, cultures, and social life, I am always bound to this heritage. I might be in America, but I am still very connected to my history and my culture.
There is strength to be found in that connection between nature and culture, and this link was at the core of ‘Fuel for Thought’. ‘Deeply rooted’ was important to us, because it depicted how culture is intertwined with nature and the environment. We have to take care of both and no longer think them separately.
Yes, that is true. There are also cross-layers of being in all environments. All places are connected in a way, naturally, culturally, historically, and so on. It is hard to discuss cultural elements without thinking about the environment and the universe.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Everything Good Shall Come to Pass’?
Everything Good Shall Come to Pass has a dual meaning. On one hand, I am thinking about how ‘good things ultimately trump’ in our world, in spite of life’s unpredictability and abnormalities. It is my mantra – a way to remind myself that life events always tend to have cycles, so good things will definitely come to pass, even when life seems grim.
On the other hand, I am thinking of all the things that exist on the planet and how they will ‘fritter away’ and die someday. The natural environment is a very fragile part of our existence. It is a reminder, if we think about it, that we are only here for so long; all matter, all things, and our own existence will come to pass. Life is transient, so we need to make sure that we are watching out for our universe. This work embodies the hope that things will get better, especially in a country like Nigeria, where hardships and strife deeply affect a good portion of the masses. I am optimistic that things will get better.
Time and the process of decay seem to have a different effect on your works, working to enliven them. They are a metaphor for vibrant materiality and nature. What does that mean to you?
The idea of decay is for me a very personal one as I think about mortality, cosmic experiences, the cyclic nature of life, how things metamorphosise and are constantly changing. Nothing ever stays the same. I remember being very young and always thinking that I was invincible; that I could conquer the world forever. There were times in my life when I felt so powerful and didn’t realise how vulnerable I was as a human. I didn’t think that anything else mattered over what I believed. But over time, the body begins to change and deteriorate. Maturity sets in, and one begins to have kids, or experiences family members passing away; these experiences change one’s perception of life. I used to think that as long as you tried hard enough, you could hold life all together, but it doesn’t work that way.
There came a point when I started to grapple with these ideas, such as life being so fragile, transient, and ephemeral, that I wanted to embrace it and call attention to it. I was thinking of decay in a broader sense, as a metaphor of human effects on the environment. The idea of decay became a much bigger subject matter in my work. I was also intrigued by how my materials lent meaning and depth to the idea of degeneration, especially when my fibre materials appear to fall apart. Triggering and engaging dialogue about our collective transient journey is very powerful. I know that my materials would never really retain their original state forever because they naturally deteriorate as time passes. But that’s the point.
I really enjoyed how these two ideas and experiences collide – the materiality and the meaning of the work, and how they complement each other. Many of my ideas about decay stem from observing the organic activities around me. I reflect on how humans morph from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood and then death. And life’s cycle keeps going. Looking at the natural environment, we observe an identical cycle over space and time.
Environmental and climate change are taking their toll on the planet and everything is in a kind of flux. Even as the universe continues to experience these rough environmental patches, life in a new form must continue. However, I think that because the humans are not paying attention to their carbon footprint, these problems are being exacerbated and getting worse. The climatic changes we experience are forced changes, creating much damage to humankind and the natural habitat. I am hoping that my works will stimulate thoughts and decisions about “how we support the planet” and “what our responsibilities are in protecting it”; “what our civic duties are to help the environment and slow down the destructive path, in ways that are meaningful and necessarily beneficial to our long-term existence”.
The exhibition referred to the Niger Delta and the impact of the oil industry on the surrounding environment. In relation to the destruction of the environment and its natural cycle, how do you think the oil industry might interrupt that natural cycle?
I think that human displacement is the most glaring result and effect of these productions, and bureaucracy in the Niger Delta. The oil companies tend to disregard the indigenous communities. They come into homesteads where communities have cohabited and depended on the land for survival, and they exploit the land, build facilities, disrupt the ecosystems, and throw residents into further poverty and dependency. This leaves many riverine communities in the Niger Delta fragmented and marginalised. They are also producing lots of toxic waste, that ends up affecting the natural environment and the eco-balance that these communities rely on. While these industrial activities stimulate the Nigerian economy, it also creates environmental injustice that gravely affects communities. As a result, the communities are stripped bare, with no voice. Only a tiny fraction of the profits and wealth of the oil industry go back to these communities. Their localities are not adequately supported or developed.
It is very unfortunate, but the most depressing part is how much these actions impact the environment, in the long run. In producing oil, they produce a lot of carbon waste that is discharged into the environment and affects these communities. The toxic crude oil waste gets into the water they drink. Animals and aquatic life are affected, and their natural habitats are being displaced too.
It is a lose-lose situation for these communities and a win-win for the oil industries that are also taking advantage of the socio-political and economic instabilities within these local milieus. Thus, many communities have been devastated. Even the structure of communal life, their manner of governing themselves, have been altered due to corruption in the system. The oil industries pay off leaders of different communities to pacify them or reward people for allowing them to take advantage. With such flawed structures in place, these community lose out and their environments bear the brunt of these exploitations. I think that it is a devastating problem that deserves attention. These ongoing occurrences in the Niger Delta are both pathetic and disastrous.
Through the curation of our show, we sought to make people aware of this environmental situation in the Niger Delta, but we also wanted to underline the fact that there is hope; we have to think about the future by acknowledging the current situation. In what way is hope implemented in your practice?
I project philosophies in my work which are based on the cycles of life and bringing newness and freshness to forms. Many of my works speak to the ideas of cycles. In discussing cycles, I’m not solely thinking about death or decay, I’m also thinking about what happens afterwards.
Like in my show at October Gallery, I highlighted in my works the idea that, when the breadfruit suddenly plunges or plummets to the ground, it dies. Yet, it also brings forth fruit and seeds that people can eat for nutrition. The death of the breadfruit brings about hope and survival. I think that the idea of metamorphoses, changes, cycles and phases, and hope are embodied within this concept. Through death, new forms are born. Even when it looks like something is diminishing or disappearing, it gives way to a whole new force. Death is always necessary for change to occur and for new life to come.
I believe there is hope in the Niger Delta, although they seem stifled and unjustly treated. I trust that it will get better, if not now, at least in the near future because the world is changing; and becoming more global. There is more awareness and alternative means of energy that are being propagated. Over time, I’m confident the Delta area will join the rest of the world in fighting corrupt and unjust forms of energy production and finding ways of producing cleaner energy that is more sustainable.
Your work refers to life in Nigeria, its culture, and the environment. How does it also relate to a global narrative?
I strive not to limit meaning in my work. That is why I refer to relatable ideas and themes like decay, transformation, regeneration, transience, ephemerality, and big abstract ideas that can be recognised and appreciated by anyone in any part of the world. I am interested in appealing to a broad audience and not specifically an African audience. I try not to limit the ideas or materials to my own culture. One’s culture would come through the work regardless of one’s concept.
In your statement, you say that “All my processes are adapted to or inspired by traditional women’s practice, the African environment, third-world economies, and recycled waste.” What does this discourse around the African environment, traditions, nature, politics, economy, and cultures mean to you?
Speaking of the first idea that you talked about, women’s work, I’m concerned with the craft making processes that involve women in many domestic spaces, such as weaving, sewing, pottery, and the making of small objects. Even during the acts of domestic chores in general, women are more actively involved in these processes. I grew up in such an environment. Around my mum and my aunt in a very communal setting, I watched these women make things on a regular basis. Within these spaces, there’s a huge emphasis on process and how things are made by hands, how they are activated, put together and then unpacked. So those experiences have had a huge impact on how I make things because that’s what I perceived and learned growing up.
The political, economic, and social environment are always inherent in my works, though in a subtle and non-confrontational way. For instance, in the cultural atmosphere of the marketplace – where people socialise while trading – there’s a sense of community, through conversation and dialogue, plus there’s a rich materiality of the space. Unlike Western societies, where you find a lot of organised stores and shopping centres, African markets are rather visceral, tactile, and very physical.
I celebrate and draw inspiration from these experiences and materiality, as reflected in my works. When you see me reference or assemble materials or textures, it is these memories coming to light. I normally start thinking about ideas by sifting through memories of certain places I have been to, and try to recapture the spatial quality of those environments. In a nutshell, I wouldn’t say that my works are specifically aimed at being political or particular to certain economic subject matters in the African context. I think however that because of my African experiences, there are various cultural, political, and social undertones that are specific to Africa in my work – some more than others. That said, it is the environmental aspect of my experiences that I tend to focus on.
An article by Justine Jean, Effrosyni Souvermezoglou, and Alexandra Torres
Featured Image : Nnenna Okore, “Deeply Rooted”, 2017. 92 x 92 x 23 cm, Cheesecloth, jute strings, dye and wire. Photo : Douglas Atfield. Courtesy October Gallery, London
→ Nnenna Okore’s website
→ Art Exchange’s website
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