Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Nnenna Okore: Ulukububa


Ulukububa: Infinite Flow
October Gallery, London
October 16 – December 6, 2008

The title of Nnenna Okore’s first solo exhibition in London, ulukububa, is an Igbo word that literally translates as “butterfly”. In the accompanying catalogue essay, Polly Savage explains that the reference suggests “the idea of a free-flowing, unbounded entity.” It is an interesting, but ambiguous, concept that in reality needs further development – an observation that applies to the bulk of work on display.

Okore now lives in America, but was a student of the Nigerian artist El Anatsui (see SDJ summer 2005) while studying for a BA in Painting from the University of Nigeria in the late 1990s. “El helped me broaden my scope beyond the canvas, beyond the paper, and challenged me to bring my environment and other experiences into my works,” Okore explains. “That was a turning point for me, when I started making sculptures and installations.” Ironically, El Anatsui’s influence may be this exhibition’s stumbling block, setting the viewers’ expectations of a developed practice unfairly high for this emerging artist.

Two distinct materials are present – paper and clay – and while the artist has used both to create her most recent work, the former reflects a more developed practice than the latter. Recycled paper is twisted and interwoven to create wall pieces that are simple but engaging as both surface and form. The second approach, which combines clay and woven cloth, is limited in its success, largely because the two materials struggle to feel integrated. Instead of adapting or challenging the woven structure, the textile becomes the backdrop upon which pieces of clay are imposed. In some cases the introduction of the clay pieces feels like an afterthought. Elsewhere, in works such as Uku Joju, the textile supports a striking pattern made from clay, but the potential of the woven background to interact with this pattern is overlooked.

El Anatsui’s influence is most palpable in works such as Rapa, a wall hanging comprised solely of clay rings of various sizes tied together. Here there is a continuity of materials, which intrigues the eye with their imperfect repetition. But attention to the way in which the rings connect feels underdeveloped. Arguably, this could be defended as an example of “messy craft” that has been debated, particularly in a Fine Art context, as an intentional and knowing critique of the previous decades attention to extreme detail. The trick with the messy craft debate, and an ongoing problem here, is the inability for the viewer to be able to confirm the intentions of the maker. Without evidence of intention (for example, if some sections were perfectly crafted and others imperfect), we are all left guessing.

Okore moved to the United States in 2002, studying for an MFA at the University of Iowa in 2005. The catalogue explains that her use of recycled materials has become more important after her move abroad, causing Okore to notice that “where I come from…. [materials] are not wasted as they are here. Although there is a big culture of recycling here, it isn’t driven by the same motives, or seen in the same light. There isn’t so much value attached to the materials, so they’re not reused, as they would be in relatively poor Nigerian communities.” The potential of recycling to become a trend-driven gesture rather than a necessary and considered approach to material waste is a topic in need of greater debate within the visual arts.

Themes of cultural waste and reuse are evident in the strongest works on display. Yellow Pages, for example, stands out as an integrated and cohesive work, perhaps because the variety of colour and content across the surface helps provide detail that sustains a closer viewing. Rope is another engaging work, but its location in the corner of the gallery detracts from the impact it could make if given a more prominent position. The piece suggests a number of contradictions. The fragility of a single sheet of paper has twisted and multiplied into an object that is now the embodiment of strength. Yet another example of whole that is far more than the sum of its modest parts.

Finally there is Baggage, a dense weaving of plastic bags that reminded me of the potholders children weave from stretched elastic cloth. The work is shown in the catalogue but not in the exhibition, but seemed from the image to suggest a curious tension between recycling for need and recycling for entertainment. It may be in explorations such as these that Okore’s practice, thematically and materially, matures.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2009: 58-59)