Installation view, On the Brink: New Work by Nnenna Okore at Elmhurst Art Museum, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Elmhurst Art Museum. Photo by Allyson Purpura

This essay emerged out of ongoing conversations with Chicago-based artist, Nnenna Okore, as she conceptualized and began to fabricate the work for her KAM installation, Nkata. Thus much of what drives this essay is not discussion of the finished work, but rather of process, and of our shared anticipation of what was to come. 

Nnenna Okore has received international acclaim for installations in which she reclaims and reconfigures organic or discarded materials into abstract, richly-textured forms of extraordinary range and nuance. Okore is keenly sensitive to the rhythms and contours of everyday life. The repetitive acts of stitching, twisting, rolling, or weaving; the familiar sounds of sweeping, chopping, talking, and washing, all deeply inform her aesthetic, as they signal both the transience of human labor and its inevitable mark on the material world.

For her project at KAM, Okore builds on her recent investigations into the revelatory properties of burlap—a modest material that she frays, dyes, and transfigures into monumental, diaphanous forms that tumble and cascade from the gallery walls. Indeed, these works are not merely installed in the space; they “inhabit” it—a condition enhanced by the integration of a video projection into the installation that reflects Okore’s experiments with the sensorial and spatial translation of materiality into sound and light. Okore’s enduring interest in the sound and metaphoric power of language inspires the installation’s title—Nkata—an Igbo word meaning “conversation” and “basket.” Both are containers of sorts, whether of meanings or things, and both take form, like Okore’s art, through the entanglement of fibers, voices, and narrative strands. 

Born in Australia in 1975, Okore moved with her parents to the university town of Nsukka, in southeastern Nigeria at the age of 4. Though comfortable with Igbo, the native language of her parents, she did not speak much of it growing up. Thus, as an adult—particularly after moving to the U.S. for study—Okore’s relationship with the Igbo language is less as a primary language of communication and more as a poetic evocation of place, a conjuror of memory. As Okore puts it, “I know Igbo, but I don’t swim in it.” This relationship to language has had a subtle but enduring effect on her practice, a point that surfaced early on in our conversations about this show. “[Language] allows me to find a place in my past… I think as I’m getting older and maturing I’m getting to know my Igbo more… It phrases and parses things in ways English cannot do for me. Igbo helps me piece together what I want to say.” 

When I heard Okore speak of language in this way, I began to see her abstract forms as material clusters of words, a loose concatenation of visual phrases and utterances. Okore continued, “The sound of Igbo is very evocative, it gives me a picture. English doesn’t do that for me. It’s instrumental. But Igbo and its sounds are laced with memory; it’s not just for immediate talk.” Thus Igbo becomes a kind of technique or prompt for the artist—not only on a personal level, but also in her work. For the majority of American visitors, encountering the word itself—nkata—will begin their engagement with the installation. They will have to sound it out, work at it, enunciate and embody it. Provoking such activity is a subtle but central goal for Okore’s installation—to energize the neutrality of the gallery space. “I want to make people hypersensitive to the space around them.”—to create an immersive, sensorial experience for engaging the work.

Indeed, in addition to the evocative potential of language, Okore also works with the sound of language as abstract form. In the sound and light projection she prepared for the KAM installation, fragments of everyday ambient sounds recalled from her youth in Nsukka are spliced together, de-familiarized, and hover on the edge of recognition. “My videos have a looseness, a potential for reading in and speaking back… I want movement and flow, to abstract from the known.” Okore’s approach to the physical, sculptural dimensions of her work is much the same. She is not interested in making things per se, but rather in process and materiality. Thus her forms are abstract, made to enliven the inherent properties of materials, to show what they can do and what they can become. For Nkata, she incorporates glass test tubes and Petri dishes into the work, not as scientific objects per se but “to push light through and into the work… to bring glass into conversation with the space and material.” 

Though working with glass is new to her, Okore has long been attracted to ephemeral, pliable, organic materials partly for the ways in which they behave in her hands, but also for how they reference the cyclical nature of their own origin and end. The KAM installation, however, with its concentration on burlap and integration of sound and light elements, signals a moment of transition for the artist.

Okore received her BA from the University of Nigeria where she studied with acclaimed sculptor El Anatsui. Though she began as a painter, Okore recalls, “El helped me to broaden my scope beyond the canvas, and challenged me to bring my environment and other experiences into my work.” Okore went on to earn her MA and MFA at the University of Iowa, in 2004 and 2005. Turning her practice to sculpture and installation, she became particularly interested in the reclamation and repurposing of discarded materials. It was paper in particular, which she twisted and pulped, that gave her the language to engage critically with the hierarchies of value into which the consumption and waste of quotidian materials had been cast. In 2013, Okore returned to Nigeria as a Fulbright scholar, and produced a strong body of work that was more introspective in nature and vulnerable to the experience of her return. It was around this time that she discovered the shape-shifting possibilities of burlap, a deceptively generous and malleable fiber that turned her artistic attention to processes of transformation and to the creative tensions between transience and regeneration.

“I deconstruct the burlap fiber to give it a lacey, translucent quality; it’s like skin, or a skeleton. There’s a connection between the process of breaking down and embracing the sublimity of age.” Okore’s work also amplifies the unexpected potentiality of her materials. Made on a prodigious scale—as seen in a recent installation at Elmhurst Art Museum—the frail and undulating contours of Okore’s hand-worked burlap fibers become magnificent, looming, almost cartographic image-forms of enduring presence. To fabricate these dramatic works, Okore explains, “I first make the wire structures, then sew in and dye the burlap, then hang them and see how they move.” Indeed, despite their size they are light, resilient, almost kinetic structures with the capacity to expand into space in unpredictable ways.

Like lines drawn by hand, Okore’s gestural sculptures reveal the process of their making, their entangled threads creating forms that exist seemingly without surface. But as an installation, Nkata is truly a “conversation” among all its constituent elements. It is in the coming together of the material, visual, and aural textures, the interaction of the tangible and intangible, that Okore remains most invested.


Author: Allyson Purpura, senior curator and curator of Global African art, Krannert Art Museum, 2015.