Nnenna Okore's first solo show since her relocation to the US is a re-affirmation of her steadfast adherence to her trademark technique, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Flow, as the exhibition title, would do! Or, how else would those intriguing wall-hangings coalesce into a central theme? Thanks to Sterling Bank and the Ikoyi-based hotel called Wheatbaker, US-based Nnenna Okore is making a spectacular appearance on the Lagos art scene. Her solo exhibition, opening tomorrow at the Wheatbaker, lingers until April 15.
This is not exactly a comeback show. For, indeed, the artist remains an associate professor and chair of the Chicago-based North Park University's art department. Currently in Nigeria on a Fulbright Scholarship, she teaches at the University of Lagos's Creative Arts Department.
Flow is also her first solo show in Nigeria since her previous one in 2002 at Didi Museum, which she had titled Beyond the Lines. Obvious - rather too obvious - is her steadfast adherence to her abstraction. Her trademark technique - no product of some passing zeitgeist - has not only endured during her over a decade sojourn in the US, but has also matured like wine. Through her deft weaving, sewing, rolling, twisting and dyeing of fabrics, she conjures amazing and intriguing wall-hangings.
Things apparently have gone swimmingly for this former acolyte of the University of Nigeria-based high-priest of conceptual art, Professor El Anatsui. She has, for instance, held not less than 10 solo exhibitions as well as group shows since she left these shores about a decade ago. Indeed, museums and galleries in Chicago, New York City, London, Paris, Cancun, Sao Paulo and Copenhagen have hosted her works and she enjoys rave reviews in media outfits like the Chicago Tribune, BBC, the Financial Times and the New York Times, among others.
"I am drawn to uniquely tactile characteristics of the collective physical world," the exhibition catalogue quotes her as saying. "I am astounded by natural phenomena that cause things to become weathered, dilapidated and lifeless - those events slowly triggered by aging, death and decay - and subtly captured in the fluid and delicate nature of life."
There is an obvious referencing of the natural rows and patterns of African landscapes, markets and even fashion and hairdos in her offerings. Meanwhile, these works, spawned from found objects, had earned her an enviable recognition in the international art circuit. In her new environment, she acknowledges missing the sights and sounds of her homeland. This is even when she has, nonetheless, adapted her art practice to the new environment. Before a gathering of art journalists, she speaks of a "universality of media". "There are things which never change from one environment to another," she observes. "Talk about soil, for instance..."
Adaptability is well suited to Okore's temperament and conceptualism entrenched in her psyche. Textures and colours seem to suggest themselves to her each time her creative instincts home in on a theme. "As one who is perceptive of the versatile quality of textiles and its ability to assume new forms even when void of form, I have attempted to capture enticing and compelling texture, colours, forms that speak to the metaphor and materiality of cloth," she writes in her exhibition catalogue. "Enthralled by its diverse meaning and attribute, I have created several sculptural forms to reflect the rich tactile, fluid and complex nature of fabric as an object."
Credit the apparent fluidity of her works to an optical delusion. One example is her clay and burlap work, titled "Nwaada". Another is a clay and rope work, titled "Igba Nkwu". Through her intricate and meticulous weaving, she breathes new aesthetic life into discarded objects.
Aficionados have been guaranteed am exhilarating experience by the exhibition's curator, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago (a well-known filmmaker and art collector). "Walking through her Flow exhibition, art lovers will find themselves intrigued by ceramic wall hangings that flow like cloth, and cloth sculptures named 'Predicament' and 'Memory' that have taken on another identity through hardened textures," she says.
Okore's creative back story has, early enough in her life, set her firmly on a promising creative journey. The pathway currently leads through Chicago, which offers her a comfort zone and a needed platform on the global stage. Even on the local scene, Okore has done well for herself. Remember the New Energies young Turks, who stunned the Lagos art scene in 2001? Many bridled at their cheekiness. If Okore survived as one of that group's members standing, credit it to her originality and the curious timelessness of her offerings. In affirmation, her works have continued to sell above the one million-naira mark in virtually every edition of the ArtHouse Contemporary Limited's auction.
Behind every one of the works featuring in this solo lurks a simmering creative energy. The works, "Predicament" (cloth, resin and acrylic), "Heritage" (clay and rope), "Twist" (thread, resin and acrylic), "Linen Cloth" (clay and burlap) and "Agbogho" (clay and burlap), among others jolts the viewer with their profundity. Even as the mainly conservative Lagos collectors cast a wary eye at their seeming inaccessibility, they acknowledge their aesthetic intensity.
"I desire to heighten through my works, the perception of textures, undulating contours and movements that exist within our ephemeral world; and to evoke some reflection about how we can better preserve and care for our earthbound surroundings," she concludes her statement in the exhibition catalogue.