Gallery Talk with Nnenna Okore & Michelle Grabner

I have been interested in the art of Nnenna Okore for a few years now, and the artistic, curatorial and critical work of Michelle Grabner for a bit longer. The opportunity to hear both women speak in an informal gallery tour of new work by Okore at the Elmhurst Art Museum, a museum I have been meaning to visit, was too good to pass up.

Okore is from Nigeria. She is an Associate Professor of Art at North Park University in Chicago. I visited her studio there perhaps three years ago. At the time, I had hoped to do an exhibition of her work at the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph, Michigan, but the logistics of spaces and calendars did not mesh. In her studio, Okore had layers of work resting on top of one another that she would role out and separate for viewing. They were pieces made of compressed and painted newspaper that had been worked together to create a type of sculptural drapery.

In the exhibition On the Brink: New Work by Nnenna Okore, on view now at the Elmhurst Art Museum, evidence of this earlier style remains apparent. The start of the gallery talk began in a long rectangular multi-purposed space. A coffee cart sold beverages, a few tables and chairs were placed, as were modernist benches in a lobby-like passage between the entrance and the galleries. A bank of windows illuminated one side of the interior, offering views to the snow covered grounds and sculpture located outdoors, including a prominent placement of a work by sculptor Bob Emser. Hanging in front of the windows were four large circular forms by Okore that are wonderfully elegant and lovely. Made of newspaper as in previous works, the discs are not solid, but filled with line and movement, which is played out in the material and the spaces between. Grabner compared the artworks to a theatrical scrim and another viewer in the audience was reminded of the stained glass rose windows of Chartes Cathedral, having recently taught about them in her art history class for high school students.

Beginning with these works and continuing throughout the talk, Okore spoke to the metaphorical and philosophical content of her work. The circles and the weaving of the materials relate to the interconnectedness of life, as does the selection of cast off newspapers as her primary medium. Their shape and size in relation to the gallery space is symbolic of the sun. The natural light from the windows transforms the sculptures throughout the passage of time. The face of the artwork is colored a rusty, mud-like brown, giving them the feel of both bronze and earth at the same time. The backside of the artworks are diversely colored in blues, reds and gold and reveal the artist’s hand. The latter is viewed in a compact space placing the viewer between the work and windows, a contrast in viewing experiences that is equally enthralling.

The titles of the artworks reference Igbo culture and are significant to their interpretations, as is the process in which they are constructed. The talk did not delve into the cultural associations of the titles. However, Okore did talk about her process, describing the repetitive work of hand-forming the newspaper into one basic size and shape and piling the shapes on the floor of her studio. Once the forms are constructed, Okore lays them out, working on the floor’s surface to compose them before they are melded together. Okore likened the activity to chores she performed as a child when her family began farming to sustain the economic downturn of Nigeria’s economy. This led to an interesting exchange between Okore and Grabner about the role of labor to womanhood. Grabner noted the repetitive nature commonly found in women’s daily tasks. Okore recognized her agency within her compositional practice and that she does not adopt it with derision. Both women spoke to the ability of working in the studio and the act of repetition as an opportunity to find distance from the rest of the day, the rest of life, that allows thoughts to flow, meditations to happen and creative decisions to be made.

One of the most unique aspects of Okore’s process was revealed at the starting point of the gallery talk. Okore did not select the arrangement of the four circular forms creating the single artwork. Rather, she let the preparator decide how the forms were to be ordered within the space. In doing so, Okore allows herself to let go of a significant part of the artistic process and to learn from the work. This is a rare artistic choice. Okore is not letting someone decide whether to hang her art chronologically or thematically, she is inviting a secondary person to influence the art’s final composition. As Grabner noted, this requires significant trust in the person and the institution. Further, Okore is not doing this passively. She is actively inviting the opportunity for the art and its interaction with another to teach her, to show her something she did not know, to see it differently than how she imagined.

Moving into the interior galleries, Okore’s wall mounted structures using dyed burlap is discovered. This is a new technique by the artist. She uses burlap purchased from gardening departments in home improvement stores, teases it out and colors it using dyes from Nigeria and the U.S. Using a wire armature, she masterfully composes organic forms reminiscent of flora and fauna that are as dramatic as her gridded paper compositions and may continue to be linked to theater and the stage. Like earlier work, the wall pieces speak metaphorically and philosophically to the artist. The objects cast shadows that are difficult to separate from the physical artwork. Okore compared these to viewing objects in nature, whose forms become enmeshed with the natural light and shadows of their surroundings. Grabner thoughtfully related this dialogue to theoretical considerations of new materialism.

In the final viewing gallery a combination of mesh-like airy burlap elements floated above floor-strewn pieces of red threads and dark concave paper forms. The latter are in fact molds of the artist’s pregnant belly. The subject matter linked to Grabner’s final topic of discussion - one she personally receives questions about often - navigating being an artist, a professional and a mother. Okore spoke to three primary practices: priority, structure and letting go. With these in mind, she is able to build upon the circumstances of her life and achieve fulfillment. As Okore discussed this, both her daughter, who had been photographing the talk throughout, and Grabner’s daughter of similar age, stood beside their mothers. The museum director stood to their left with her teenage son alongside her. The talk closed with Nnenna Okore having eloquently described the meaning and process of her work, Grabner seamlessly and accessibly connecting the dialogue to contemporary artistic practices and academic theories and the audience enjoying both voices amid a dynamic and interesting new body of work by Okore.

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