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Nnenna: From rags to riches

What is your art about? The notion of giving relevance to the ‘unwanted’ materials is a major focus in my works. I am highly fascinated…

What is your art about?

The notion of giving relevance to the ‘unwanted’ materials is a major focus in my works. I am highly fascinated by ingenious inventions and improvisations practised by indigenous Africans. Simple living structures, furniture, cooking utensils and other things are devised from discarded materials. And to a large extent, these practices have enriched and directed my sensibilities.

For my work which is sculpture, I am interested in repossessing, deconstructing and reconstructing found paper and importing them into different spaces and circumstances in ways that draw attention to their new meaning within the space.

What exhibitions have you had and where?

To mention very a few of them, I was guest artist at Time Line Lecture series, Museum of African Art, New York and visiting artist at University of Madison, Madison, Wisconsin. I have also had many solo outings like Beyond the Lines, Didi Museum, Lagos and Metaphors at Alternative Space, Lagos. The group exhibitions I have had include Chance Encounters, Sakshi Gallery, India and Object of A Revolution, Galerie Dominique Fait, Paris.

What is your style?

I don’t have a distinct style or approach; rather, I work with a range of materials and techniques. What unifies my materials and forms are the intrinsic use of multiple found objects. Specific to the works in this show, the concept grew out of my interest for plant life and environmental relief. I was drawn to the repetitive and yet timeless patterns of biomorphic form; and fascinated by their temporariness, their physical integrities and their agelessness. I was interested in how natural processes such as decay, erosion and deformations regenerate into more stunning forms and wanted to reflect these patterns in my work and through my materials.

My teacher, El Anatsui, is one of Africa’s most celebrated artists. His works have brought much visibility to the continent, and more especially influenced a generation of young African artists who  have taken to his appropriative and contemporary approach to art. My experiences with El taught me about materials, process and concept. I learned from him to appropriate great ideas from simple things – hips of stone, sticks, rusted metal, piles of old clay pots, rolls of fabric, clusters of discarded bottles, etc. He constantly challenged us to think outside the box – to experiment with unconventional tools, mediums and approaches.

Do your works all have the same theme or they bear different messages?

My works don’t possess a directed or didactic message; rather, they draw attention to forms and textures derived from recycling or reconstructing discarded materials. In some cases, the works celebrate the beauty of cultural forms or symbols, like cloth and fabric.

Where do you source materials from and what kind do you use?

From newspapers, magazines, wax, cloth, rope, clay and sticks. They are objects mostly found within my surroundings with the exception of the clay which is supplied by a local distributor.

What inspires the themes you work on and what is your motivation to work?

My titles or themes are informed by imageries that inspire the piece. For instance, the piece ‘Bark’ was inspired by the textures of tree bark. And passion for art is what motivates me.

How would you describe yourself?

An artist, a wife, a mother, a teacher… (laughing)

What is your typical day like?

Generally, I work out early in the mornings, teach classes throughout the day or work in my studio every other day.

Starting off art in Nigeria and continuing in the US, how has that influenced or/and affected your art?

Most of my visual sensibilities and inspiration continued to be sustained by my past Nigerian experiences, which without doubt grounded me aesthetically and culturally. My journey in the United States has heightened my appreciation for my cultural aesthetics and values. Living within the constraints of a new and unfamiliar milieu has helped me to rediscover processes, materials and forms that may have otherwise been lost on me if I wasn’t distant from them.

How would you define art in Nigeria and the state of the visual art subsector?

I think there has been a steady growth and increase in awareness among Nigerian artists. More Nigerian artists are gaining international recognition for their creative contributions to the global contemporary art scene in expositions like, Dak’Art Biennale and African Remix. Having said that, I also believe that there’s much room for improvement within the visual arts.

What do you think are the challenges of art students in Nigeria?

I think that the average student is disadvantaged to compete with other western artists in the global scene due to the problem of access to information, art opportunities, mainstream art community and access to travel. Limited travel access, for instance, means that movement, participation in exhibitions and involvement in art opportunities are limited.

But I think that increasingly, Nigerian curators and gallerias that are collaborating with foreign institutions are making text, information and opportunities more accessible to students and artists.

I see that you are into photography and video. What are those for you – hobby or art?

Photography and video art are areas I teach and am passionate about. And as a result, I sometimes produce related work.