Saturday 6 April 2013

Confronting tradition in 'Flow'

 By Tajudeen Sowole
IN the mainstream of the Nigerian art space that is unapologetically traditional — indifferent to signs of emerging radical shift — a US-based artist, Nnenna Okore sneaks into it to bridge the traditional and the populist artforms.

For over seven years, Okore has projected her kind of art — a derivative of her former teacher, El-Anatsui’s well-known flavour in native textile depiction. 

Titled, Flow and showing at The Wheatbaker, Ikoyi, Lagos, till April 15; Okore’s new works, lightly sculptural, which are not entirely new to the Nigerian art space stole the show at ArtHouse’s Lagos auction in 2009 when her work Egwu Ukwu (2009), mixed media, 76.2 x 198.1cm emerged as the second highest sold work for N3. 3 million. It was also well received during her solo show at Goethe Institut, Lagos the same year.
Nnenna Okore's Nwaacha
Though her works have featured in nearly all the ArtHouse Contemporary auctions, the response after the impressive debut appearance seemed to have dropped so soon. With Flow, a show the artist describes as a ‘mini exhibition of wall pieces’, Lagos art scene has got another opportunity to look at some of Okore's works.

To a large extent, Okore’s works are synonymous with wave, using such materials as clay, burlap, paper and sometimes fabric. Ahead of the show, some of the works presented for preview suggest that even within the fragility of the artist’s work, there is an eclectic, perhaps varied taste to choose from. In fact, a thin line exists among most of her works seen in the past.

Two of the artist’s works, Igbo Nkwu and Predicament are not from the wave and modulating styles, on which Okore’s art thrived in the past few years. Though works in the non-modulation tones add diversity to her art.

As familiar as works such as Vogue, Nwaada Lined Cloth and Pride are in the family of wave aesthetic, on which the artist has established her identity; what looks like another form titled Consciousness appears distinct, even within this familiar group.
OKORE could have been trained anywhere outside the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka and still be seen within the shadow of El-Anatsui. However, the fragility of the assemblage clearly, makes the difference; a softer version of her teacher’s sea of flattened bottle tops or burn-effect wood.

Indeed, every piece of art has its share of fragility, no matter how small. But how the public appreciates and accepts the seemingly uniqueness of such an art, to a large extent, fuels the sustainability or otherwise of it.  “I don’t create for the sake of selling”, said Okore, who is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Art Department at North Park University, Chicago, Illinois, US.
Her perception about art appreciation, clearly sounded like an old, perhaps, long discarded argument in Nigeria where there is a frantic effort by artists to create their own wealth without waiting for government’s support that hardly comes. Okore is currently on a Fulbright Scholars award, lecturing at the University of Lagos (Unilag).

The curator of Flow, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago noted Okore’s new works “have taken on another identity through hardened textures.” Looking at what makes the content or context of art appreciation, Obiago disclosed that Flow is one of several efforts “we are using to get corporate support for art.” She listed The Wheabaker and Sterling Bank as two groups that supported the show.  

Her artist statement reads: “I am drawn to uniquely tactile characteristics of the collective physical world. 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.”
                                 The Vogue, one of Okore's familiar works

OKORE’S website states that after her B.A Degree in Painting from Nsukka, in 1999, she got an M.A and M.F.A. in Sculpture from the University of Iowa in 2004 and 2005. She has received several national and international awards and as well shown in numerous prestigious galleries and museums within and outside the United States.”

Her works have been exhibited internationally in museums and galleries in Chicago, New York City, London, Paris, Cancun, Sao Paulo and Copenhagen. She is recognised by the local media as well as the Chicago Tribune, BBC, the Financial Times and the New York Times among dozens of media outlets, for her exceptional use of materials, textures and colours in her works.

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