Nnenna Okore (born in Australia, 1975) is an artist who works both in Nigeria and the United States. Her largely abstract sculptures are inspired by textures, colors and forms within her immediate milieu. Finding reusable value in discarded materials, Okore enriches her work with layers of meaning through familiar and painstaking processes. She sometimes relies on the use of flotsam or discarded objects, which are transformed into intricate sculpture and installations through repetitive and labor-intensive techniques. Some of her processes including weaving, sewing, rolling, twisting and dyeing were learned by watching local Nigerians perform daily tasks. Most of Okore’s works explore detailed surfaces and biomorphic formations.
Okore is a Professor of Art at North Park University, Chicago, where she teaches Sculpture. She earned her B.A degree in Painting from the University of Nigeria (First-Class Honors) in 1999, and an M.A and M.F.A. in Sculpture from the University of Iowa in 2004 and 2005. She has received several national and international awards and been shown in numerous prestigious galleries and museums within and outside the United States. She was a 2012/13 recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Scholar Award, which resulted in a year-long project in Nigeria. She was recently featured in the International Sculpture Magazine.
Though born to parents from Ututu, Abia State, Okore spent most of her childhood years growing up in the university town of Nsukka in south-eastern Nigeria, where both parents worked as academics. From the time she returned to Nigeria from Australia at the age of four, she became highly perceptive of her surroundings. The Nsukka environs helped her develop a consciousness for rich, tactile and vibrant materials. For most people living in her vicinity, the sights of dilapidated mud adobe houses with zinc roofing, or piles of firewood accumulated against a broken structure or even people clad in ragged cloths were familiar yet insignificant. For her, these were bewildering and captivating. She was also enamoured by the hilly and rugged terrain that possessed stimulating vegetation.
Living in the senior staff quarters located close to the campus borders and the rural population, she was in constant contact with the off-campus community. She was drawn to local activities in the market places not far from the campus borders. She found inspiration in the landscape, the architecture, culture and language. This social space shaped her visual sensibilities, enabled her to interact with the villagers on a daily basis and learn the processes of engaging everyday tasks. Beyond that, she was quiet fascinated with the natural setting and topography. Today, her works employ a range of environmental materials like clay, rope, fabric, sticks and paper, which she frequently came across while at Nsukka.
In her formative years, she attended the University of Nigeria Primary School; the University of Nigeria Secondary School (Junior Secondary School level), and Waterford Kamhlaba United World College, Swaziland (High School level). During her primary school, she was deeply enthralled with various kinds of craft and hands-made processes, such as knitting, crocheting and sewing; and completed numerous ambitious art projects on account of her enthused spirit. Her efforts earned her numerous first-prize art awards between her third to sixth grade. In secondary school, she continued to develop her drawing and painting abilities by creating daily still-life drawings and water color paintings. Her family, especially her late father, Professor A. O. Okore, were extremely supportive of her efforts and never discouraged her from pursuing her dreams of becoming an artist.
She received significant awards, including the First Prize for the African Child Art Competition, organized by UNESCO in 1993. By the time she graduated from high school in Swaziland, she was also proficient in printmaking, pottery, modeling and acrylic painting. A few years later, she won the UNIFEM Women’s Empowerment Art Competition, whose prize included trips to Dakar, Senegal; Abuja, Nigeria; and Beijing, China, to represent the African youth in the Women’s World Conferences. These experiences gave her a solid foundation and enormous confidence.
In 1995, Okore enrolled into the Fine and Applied Arts undergraduate program at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Her early mediums were oil and acrylic. Though she found the use of color fascinating, she was not satisfied with her painting projects, because she believed that the techniques practiced at the Nsukka school lacked originality, since everyone painted in a similar fashion or with the same concept. By her third year, she began experimenting with unusual materials on canvas. She employed leaves, jute, cloth, sticks, shredded photographs, broomsticks, recycled paper, leather and practically any material accessible within her surroundings. Subsequently, she started creating free-flowing surfaces that were characterized by their textural build-up of paint, soil, rope, fabric and other found objects. Rather than remain loyal to the flat angular surfaces, she became invested in the exploring of flow and movement through her media. By her final year, her works were largely focused on issues of consumption and inventive recycling as it related to the Nigerian experience. Some of her greatest influences at Nsukka were her teachers, Dr Chijioke Onuora, Prof. Chike Aniakor and Prof. El Anatsui. Okore received a Fine and Applied Arts B.A degree with First-Class Honors in 1999 from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Shortly after graduating and freelancing for two years, Okore relocated to the United States for an MFA program at the University of Iowa. Moving overseas obviously bore new challenges. While it estranged her from her family and the Nigerian cultural and political experience that largely informed her creative processes, it allowed her to explore new grounds — expanding her interests to include ideas about materiality, ephemerality and life cycles. Though her works have evolved in the last decade and a half, they continue to reveal uniquely diverse and tactile characteristics of the physical and natural world. Her works highlight imminent events such as aging, death and decay that catalize weathering and dilapidation of forms in the natural landscape – processes that subtly capture the fluid and delicate nature of life.
A career in academia followed after she graduated from the University of Iowa. She was recruited by North Park University to teach and oversee the Sculpture Unit of the Art department in 2005. She is presently a Professor of Art, instructing undergraduate students in Three-Dimensional Design, Sculptural Practices and Drawing, among other subjects.
Alongside her teaching experience, this young mother of four has maintained a vibrant art career – creating and exhibiting works that have attracted global audiences. To maintain her track record, she dedicates few days of the week to her studio practice, believing that the balance of one’s career with domestic demand is crucial to one’s success. According to her, “it all boils down to being organized and disciplined; creating and following a strict plan, and devoting ample time to each important facets.”
In her 10-year career, Okore has participated in over 80 solo and group shows combined, across international venues in Asia, Europe, North America, Africa and the far east. Her works continue to receive rave reviews in prestigious art publications, including Sculpture Magazine, The New York Times, Financial Times,Art South Africa and Ceramics: Art and Perception.
In 2012, Okore received a 2012/13 Fulbright Scholar Award. In fulfilment of this prestigious grant, she traveled to Nigeria for a year-long teaching project at the University of Lagos, while producing a series of new creative explorations. The experience also allowed her to interact and collaborate with artists and curators within the Lagos community. She returned to the United States after completing her project in 2013.
Her creative process usually begins with a series of sketches and reflective notes that serve simply as a guide. She often allows her processes to inform the work and she responds to the process by yielding to the materials’ will. At times, she employs certain traditional craft practices though the essence of her work has little to do with African traditional or western craft practices. They serve more as a means to achieve reinvention, re-appropriation and re-imagination of materials and spaces. From start to finish, her creative process is highly intuitive. She embraces mistakes and accidents because they feed into the depth, layered histories, and visual richness of her works. Albeit her work evolution, her processes continue to endure throughout her new works.
Okore’s early years in the United States presented her with environmental and cultural differences. While adopting new materials inspired by her surroundings, she incorporated similar objects as those she used in Nigeria, like stick, leaves or jute materials. Though similar, these materials felt dissimilar in texture, scent and qualities. They also lacked the wear and tear, physicality and human touch that ordinary items of Nigerian origin possessed. Her reference to history was less about people or place, and more about the layered memories captured within the materials. In essence, places where the materials are harvested are not often as relevant to the creative process by which the pieces are made.
She is drawn to the organic, fibrous, malleable and ethereal qualities of materials. In her present works, the materials capture the visual characteristics of transient, root-like or dense forms. She is particularly drawn to paper because it offers a range of possibilities, in terms of process. She also believes that symbolically, newspapers carry the narratives and histories of time. They report the misfortunes, successes and struggles of mankind. They embody the idea of our collective experiences. Another material called burlap, offers her visually stunning physical attributes – transient and delicate; with the ability to conjure ideas relating to ephemerality and transparencies. Sometimes, it can reference fluidity and movement, which points to ideas about the flow in life.
WORK AND CONCEPT
Themes of aging, death and decay are recurrent in Okore’s recent works. She is interested in exploring bodily or spiritual changes that occur with age. Her works celebrate the transient nature of life, birth, growth, death and decay. Though her works appear fragile and gossamer, with dedicated care and attention, they can stand the test of time.
- David Krut Gallery, New York, USA
- Contemporary African Art Gallery, New York, USA
- October Gallery, London, USA
- Bekris Gallery, California, USA
- Kuaba Gallery, Indianapolis, USA