Nigerian artist Nnenna Okore’s beautifully draping, large, textile installation, Life Force (2011) is the first thing you’ll see when you walk into the gallery space at Craft Alliance on Delmar. Dyed a muted, orange-red, the intricately crafted fabric piece dominates the small space, hung from various points on the ceiling and walls with a gentleness and authority that make it so inviting. Life Force’s color and lithe qualities recall memories of childhood, but Okore’s rougher use of burlap and sense of utility make it feel at once like a part of a whimsical forest and like a shelter from the harsh and hardened realities of the outside world.
Although Life Force alone is enough to recommend this show, Okore’s other pieces, more traditional than Life Force and mounted on the wall provide an appealing visual landscape juxtaposing gentleness and severity. Intricately and carefully constructed of mixed media, the half a dozen other works including Life After, Gone But Not Forgotten, and Floral 2 hold their own in the space because of their easily accessible natural shapes like leaves and flowers, but more so their stunningly crafted intricacy. Okore, an internationally exhibiting artist that Craft Alliance should be extremely proud to exhibit, presents well-seasoned works drawing upon hand-made paper, pieces of old newspaper, and other materials that juxtapose the natural with the man-made and the temporal and the lasting in a way that is both familiar and startling.
Okore explores similar themes as the wildly popular Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s, who, mainly working in Nigeria, famously uses cast-off materials like discarded liquor bottle tops and stitches them together to create large, seemingly flowing textiles (his Fading Cloth is housed in the Saint Louis Art Museum) that draw upon the traditional art of weaving and the contemporary-day experience of addiction. That duality between whimsy and bleakness is one of the remarkable effects of working with utilitarian objects and in textiles, and something that Anatsui might have become famous for, but something that Okore gets just right by opening up even more to nature, loss, and hope.
The namesake of the exhibition, “Shokoloko,” is what Okore called the graceful egret bird as a child in Nigeria, and points to larger themes of nostalgia and innocent wonder at nature, but also to movement, space, and the interactions of man and the natural world. Okore’s employment of handmade paper as well as cast-off materials, such as newspaper, rope, and burlap creates a body of intricate and visually and thematically layered work. Indeed, a closer look at most of the works on view reveals scraps of newspaper, pointing to something more serious, desperate, and present. Knowing this, a second glance at Life Force can conjure up images more akin to a shantytown shelter than a fairy-tale one and prompts questions of how and what we choose to protect ourselves physically and emotionally.
“Nnenna Okore: Shokoloko” continues at Craft Alliance at 6640 Delmar Blvd, St. Louis until 23 October 2011. See http://www.craftalliance.org for more information