Taking Shape: Nnenna Okore at BAM’s 2014 DanceAfrica Festival

Images of sculptures don’t exactly pop into one’s mind when thinking about dance or performance art. But for acclaimed visual artist Nnenna Okore, drawing parallels between the two art forms is easy to do when you consider their use of motion. Both employ labor-intensive techniques to enter another realm of creativity and form. Like dancers, the behind-the-scenes work of a sculpture is messy. This upcoming weekend, the Nigerian-born artist comes to Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) 2014 DanceAfrica Festival as a headline speaker, and will demonstrate her creative process at BAM’s Hillman Fisher Studio. Ahead of her artist talk, ArtInFact Magazine’s Semmi W. got in touch with Okore to learn more about her use of materials, her beginnings as sculptor, and her never-ending fascination with decay.

Semmi: You have a background in painting. What made you want to start working in sculpture?

Nnenna: Right from my childhood days, I was always attracted to the spatially composed, tactile, and organic environments. Then, even as a young painter, I was sculpturally minded. My paintings characteristically had a third dimension with supple buildups of paint, soil, rope, fabric, and other found objects. When these accumulative methods no longer satisfied my sensorial delight, I decided to embark on a full journey of immersing myself in [the field of] sculpture through my graduate degrees.

S: Your artist talk for BAM is part of DanceAfrica—the nation’s largest festival dedicated to African dance. How do you think performance art impacts sculpture or visual arts?

N: When I teach many rudimentary art classes, the first lesson I impart on my students is that they need to master the art of dancing with their materials and tools, in order to become expressive and fully engaged. For without learning to glide or feel the energy of movement, it is hard to free one’s self from the enslavement of fear, rigidity, and closed mindedness.
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S: You are known for using recycled materials. Why do you like working with discarded materials?

N: The thrill is in the ability to create intriguing or meaningful forms from useless articles… it’s equally satisfying to repurposing urban recyclia, knowing that in my own little way, I am drawing attention to problems of excessive production and material wastefulness, in addition to impacting the global discourse on environmental conservation.

S: Do have a favorite material to work with?

N: Yes, I am totally enthralled by paper — old newspapers, recycled print paper, cardboard paper, etc. The range of possibilities with this material, in terms of applicable processes, is limitless. For instance, as a material, it can be folded, twisted, shredded, pulped, braided, sewed, or self laminated. And these attributes keep me totally absorbed.

S: How do you think “green” culture or recycling differs between American cities and urban centers in Nigeria like Lagos and Kano?

N: Well, I can only speak for a place like Lagos, where economic and political challenges prevail and prevent industrial recycling from functioning properly. The shortage of resourses alone promotes a domestic kind of recycling, whereby discarded materials are re-appropriated for household uses. Some examples include, newspapers used as table and book covers; food cans as cooking utensils, and small milk gallons saved for fluid storage, like oils.

S: How do you discern between a great idea and a great project? For artists just starting out, I think it can be hard to differentiate.

N: That’s a very interesting question. As a rule, I try not to impose greatness on an idea from the onset of a creative project, because it is in the making process that the mediums and ideas interact and connect. And this is especially true for sculptural processes, where the result could either hit the mark or spin unexpected out of control. For this reason, I generally refrain from getting fixated with my ideas until its completion. Open-mindedness, also, to an extent guarantees no real failures.

Nnenna Okore will giver her artist talk at BAM’s 2014 DanceAfrica Festival on May 25th.