Nnenna Okore Interviewed by RenderForest

Today our guest is artist Nnenna Okore.  Finding reusable value in discarded materials, Okore enriches her work with layers of meaning through familiar and painstaking processes.


Some of her processes including weaving, sewing, rolling, twisting and dyeing were learned by watching local Nigerians perform daily tasks. 


Okore is a Professor of Art at North Park University, Chicago, where she teaches sculpture.


She has received several national and international awards and her works have been shown in numerous prestigious galleries and museums within and outside the United States.


Q: Your career is long and eventful. What influenced you to become a sculptor?


A: Well, I started off as a painter though I always had a heavy obsession for tactile materials and alluring surfaces. I decided to adopt sculptural processes when I realized that my paintings could not adequately express the structural qualities that I sought to achieve in my works. Switching to sculpture afforded me the freedom to interact spatially with different organic materials and forms. Moreover, it was more gratifying and liberating to play with objects outside the confines of the rectangular space.


Q: Could you tell us about the various materials and medium you use?


A: I use environmentally friendly materials and byproducts of nature, such as fabric, burlap, clay, paper, manila ropes and sticks. I also use man-made dyes and acrylic paint to add color to my pieces.


Q: Every work of art is unique. Could you describe your process when it comes to starting a new work?


A: The concept, of course, begins in my head. I make quick sketches of the idea before it is lost. Next, I create varying elaborate sketches that explore different sculptural possibilities. Based on the selected design, I choose the materials and processes to employ. I also do some preliminary research to understand how others may have approached the same idea or stylistic approach. I begin to work on the piece, once I have figured out which visual element I intend to highlight in the work.


Q: So many works... Tell us about the piece of work you have memories of?


A: The works that hold the most memory for me are those that elicited human interaction, such as 'Twisted Ambience' or 'Nkata' or 'Sheer Audacity'. These installation compelled people to not only admire them, but walk into, under, above and around them. These immersive spatial environments relied on human interaction to activate and complete the experience.


Q: Which of your works is the closest to you as a human being, which one is the most personal and why?


A: Being a mum, my children often interfere with my processes and play with my works, at times. I welcome this because their innocent play often yields new ideas and allows me think of different possible outcomes for the work. The most personal works are those that engaged my children, including 'Ropes', 'Lamps', and 'Ripples'. I have found memories of my kids jumping into the works and wrapping themselves completely within them.


Q: Is most of your work planned or a result of by chance?


A: Both. I always begin with a plan, a sketch, an idea. However, I am open to chance and surprises during the creative process. It is important for artists to give the work permission to evolve and morph. My processes and ideas are never etched in stone. I am open to happy accidents and unplanned results as they sometimes add layers of richness to the overall result.


Q: In your opinion what is the key to success as an artist?


A: I think the key to success is self belief, focus and perseverance. The art environment can be very hostile and difficult at times, but I think it's important for artist to remain focused and devoted to developing unique ideas that sets them apart from others. Persistence always pays off. If an artistic idea or process is projected long enough, sooner than later they start to gain attention. Also, young artist need to read and expose themselves to histories, theories and practices in the art world. Without knowledge, it's difficult to be subjective and introspective about one's practice.


Q: What is the best advice you could give someone who will become an artist?


A: Read, sketch, practice, practice, practice. And be open to critique and developing the mind. Be ready to fail and try again- a million time. Be a problem solver, not a protester.