Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

A Stubborn Imagination: Nnenna Okore


Blachere Foundation, France

“A woman writer must have an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual ones,” wrote the late Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera in her preface to Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women’s Writing. Vera’s astute observation is applicable not only to creative writing, but to all creative practice where the burden of expectation must confront the unexpected resources of the imagination. A stubborn imagination constantly sifts from the past, choosing to dwell on details of its own liking. It is unperturbed by facts and unthreatened by expectations. A stubborn imagination is not interested in the act of literal translation. Instead it celebrates priorities of its own choosing – images that are familiar as well as foreign, intimate and universal.

Nnenna Okore’s visual practice is an example of this. She has, for some years now, employed pedestrian materials  such as paper, rope, cloth, clay and sticks to create three-dimensional work inspired by, but rarely made of, textiles. Okore instead cites her own “captivation with the wear and tear of fabric” and the ability of these materials to resemble the weathered landscape of south-eastern Nigeria as recurring sources of inspiration. Born in Australia, Okore spent her childhood in Nigeria. Today, from her studio at North Park University, Chicago where she is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Art Department, she constructs sculptures drawn from a combination of childhood memories and adult concerns over the state of contemporary Nigeria.

To understand Okore’s choice of materials as solely a commentary on waste and recycling overlooks the context that continues to inform her current practice. “As a child I saw unique things made out of transformed materials by my contemporaries,” she recalls. Her use of modest materials reflects broader interests not only in the materials we live with, but also the meanings to be found in their making. As Polly Savage, in her 2008 introduction to Okore’s solo exhibition at the October Gallery in London notes, “Okore’s tactile installations expose the ways in which materials are intertwined in our lives, and perpetually implicated in the ways we understand ourselves and each other.”

Okore studied with the Ghanian artist, El Anatsu, earning a BA in Painting from the University of Nigeria with First Class Honours in 1999. El Anatsu’s celebrated work makes use of a repetitive construction process to produce large-scale sculptures that suggest West African strip woven textiles. Okore’s visual vocabulary continues this approach with the piecing together of small parts, but her materials have expanded to include a range of otherwise overlooked sources. She explains that “weaving, twisting, sewing, dyeing, waxing and rolling, which were learned by watching villagers perform everyday tasks” are the techniques she employs today. “I often travelled to my hometown with my parents and watching the weaving of baskets in the community is an image that continues to resonate with me. I learned that making is as important as the outcome,” she explains. An M.A and M.F.A. in Sculpture from the University of Iowa in 2004 and 2005 followed her first degree, confirming Okore’s commitment to the exploration of process-based work as sculptural practice. This priority is increasingly evident in her recent series of ‘cloths’ that turn the vibrant printed patterns of textiles into three-dimensional reliefs.

Okore’s interest in textiles can be found in the “embodiment and meaning” of cloth, rather than the duplication of pattern and acknowledges in herself a “strong affinity to put little bits together” which results in the “blanket or cloth quality and vocabulary of textiles” evident in her work. The themes that her work tends to cluster around explore the female experience making the personal an undeniable presence. But she explains that her use of Nigerian culture and experiences familiar to her are also intended to “cut across race and region” and when seen as a whole, her most recent works suggest an overriding attention to the geometries and rhythms of pattern. When considered individually, Okore expands on their Igbo titles, to reveal far more personal inspirations behind each work. Nwadda, for example, translates as the “princess of the family” in reference to the special treatment of the family’s first daughter, a role Okore occupies. “The first daughter is treated specially by family and the father may lavish gifts of fabrics or show favouritism at different occasions,” Okore explains of a tradition and memories “particularly of the way I was treated”.

“Juxtaposed textures” are a recurring visual strategy along with what she explains is a sense of “tatteredness that has an appeal”. These concerns also appear in her recent use of clay, which she handles as an “everyday process like cutting vegetables”. Textile and clay share a similar approach here: one by one, step-by-step, unit-by-unit the accumulation of small parts contributes to the whole. She describes this work is an “effortless, intuitive process that I could do in my spare time. The clay is cut without thinking twice.” From these natural, instinctive gestures, the textile surface is assembled and sewn into burlap to create a three-dimensional pattern. Instead of glazes, the natural colours of clay dominate and range from rich orange in Nwaada to natural white in Akwa Ocha. Titles suggest the people – often women – who wear these textiles, rather than the cloth itself. But the garment remains central to this process and Okore acknowledges an interest in the ability of cloth to provide the wearer with an “extra confidence. Fabric plays a huge role in what people feel about our place in society and we are defined by what we wear”.

Textiles need the body, which is why the fashion industry continues to invest so much attention in the spectacle of the catwalk. Garments are designed to flow, drape and shift with the movement of the body beneath. This simple point makes the display of textiles outside this context a challenge. In shops, shaped garments often drape from clothes hangers in deflated versions of their real selves. Okore explains that the weight of the clay in her burlap series means it “takes on a new shape when hung” and finds patterns such as The Vogue to be “not beautiful until folded”. She compares Pride to the magic “folding of peacock feathers”; Egwu Ukwu II seeks to capture the “elegance of fabric embodied by dance”. The latter refers to a hip or waist dance that young women would perform as a group and here variegated colours of brown and white clay are used to capture the body’s movement.

The long white rectangles of clay cubes that cover the surface of Akwa Ocha or White Cloth refer to the purity and innocence expected of a bride and the tradition known to many cultures of displaying the wedding night sheets as proof of a bride’s virginity. Following on from this theme, Bride Price reflects upon the institution of marriage. Here Okore explains the importance of the marriage ceremony as a representation of unity that comes with its own internal tensions: “The wedding ceremony means a lot to society in general, but this weight can also create problems,” she explains. Okore’s memories of other traditions are more specific to her childhood in Nigeria. For example, Mother’s Day which in Europe and North America tends to revolve around the family unit, is described by Okore as a far more public and collective community celebration in Nigeria. It is the day when “women are revered and come out in numbers wearing fabric to accentuate their motherhood”. Okore’s childhood memories of the patterns worn on this day appear in Uka nne or ‘mother’s day’.

Inheritance concludes this personal theme, referring to a cloth given to Okore by her Grandmother before she passed away. Okore explains the importance of this “worn but beautiful” fabric and here uses broken clay pieces to capture the spirit of the aging material. Elsewhere the patterns Okore creates are determined by small, at times obscure, details that her memory has chosen to keep vivid. Lined Cloth, for example, is inspired by blue and white stripes that adorned imported cloth seen during her childhood. The striped detail remains distinct in her memory as a cloth not woven locally, but set apart as a popular import to the region. Turned into clay, Okore solidifies this memory of pattern, creating a new version from personal memory that resists the temptation of simple reconstruction. Instead, the priorities of the artist’s own memory is made concrete and the warp and weft of fibre replaced by a pattern of unsure white lines traced by each clay unit.

To borrow from Vera, each of these examples banishes the ineffectual gods of visual practice in a brave search for new ways of working. The results are unexpected, as they should be. While the textile is always present, Okore also renders it curiously absent in a series conjured from the stubbornness – and beauty – of the artist’s imagination.

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Associate Director, Centre for Visual & Cultural Studies
Edinburgh College of Art

Unless otherwise states, all quotes from the artist are from a telephone interview with the author on March 30, 2010.