Experiencing Nnenna Okore’s abstract sculptural pieces made from burlap is not so much about looking at them as it is being surrounded by them – walking around, between and underneath them, and looking through one to the next.
A solo exhibition of the Chicago-based artist’s work, “Nkata: An Installation by Nnenna Okore,” opens Thursday at Krannert Art Museum.
Okore has shredded and frayed the burlap, dyed it in multiple colors and attached it to wire frames. The large forms hang from the ceiling.
Nnenna Okore watches as her work is installed at Krannert Art Museum.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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For Okore, this work is about discovery – finding out how the burlap works and exposing the transient qualities of it. The deconstructed burlap relates to aspects of life, “the process of existing, growing, shedding, thinning out. I feel like it reflects a beautiful process, taking something and deconstructing it, starting to thin it out to see other visual elements,” Okore said.
Her work explores themes of transformation and regeneration. Working mainly with paper, clay, wax and burlap – and often discarded and found materials such as old newspapers – she deconstructs and reconstructs them by chopping, shredding, ripping, sewing and dyeing them to shape them into something new.
She is inspired by natural and architectural textures, forms and colors, and her creations mimic the textures, contours and movement of the natural world. As a child growing up in Nigeria, Okore was attracted to plants, vines and branches that she found while exploring outdoors. The organic burlap-wire forms on display at Krannert Art Museum reflect her attraction to plants and materials found in nature, she said.
Likewise, she is fascinated by the dilapidation and aging that exposure to the elements imposes on those materials.
“No matter how long things exist, the forces of nature will ultimately cause aging, weathering, death and eventual decay to occur,” Okore said. “Because I too am aging with every passing day, I have come to embrace the idea that life is temporary. I see the aging process less as a problem and more as a beautiful bodily change that must occur for life to progress. For these reasons, I am astounded by surface or structural formations that emerge from aging, death and decay. I find the ephemeral and fluid nature of the ecology intriguing. “
While she begins with a sketch or plan of what she wants to achieve, she is less interested in reaching a certain finished product than she is in learning more about the materials and seeing where they lead her. For example, she said, if she is working with paper, rather than forcing a crooked surface to lay flat, she’ll let it warp and see what happens.
“The freedom of using any of these processes helps me discover what the materials are capable of doing, or how far they can be pushed to do unusual things,” Okore said.
“I find she’s able to exploit the nature of material so beautifully,” said Allyson Purpura, senior curator and curator of African art at the museum. “She respects the material but coaxes more out of it than you would expect, in ways that are transformative.”
While studying painting as an undergraduate, Okore became interested in using discarded objects in her work. She wanted to create unique relief artworks. Leaves, rocks, paper, clay and rope became her paint, and old cloth and burlap her canvas. She turned from painting to sculpture as a graduate student, earning her master’s of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa.
“The ability to transform an object with an existing function or surface into something unfamiliar or unusual was an exciting motivation for me,” she said. “I fell in love with paper when I realized I could twist, pulp, shred or braid it. With such possibilities, one can explore a range of sculptural experiments involving textures and form.”
Okore’s pieces at KAM include glass beakers, vials and Petri dishes attached to the burlap sculptures. Her use of glass in her work is new. She wanted to relate the translucence of the glass to the other elements.
“I was interested to see what happens when the fibrous material interacts with the glare of the glass, or the video projection passes through the glass,” she said.
Okore is incorporating video and sound into the spatial installation at the art museum. A circular video projection will point down from the ceiling to the floor, “amidst vibrantly floating and undulating organic structures.” The result, Okore said, will be interesting light and shadow effects.
Okore will participate in an Artist’s Talk at the museum at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 5, along with U. of I. graphic design professor Eric Benson and U. of I. art instructor and doctoral candidate in landscape architecture history and theory Molly Briggs. Purpura will moderate the discussion.