A Blessing in Clay – The Artwork of Nnamdi Okonkwo

A Blessing in Clay – The Artwork of Nnamdi Okonkwo

By Shantay Robinson 

When artist, Nnamdi Okonkwo was born in 1965, Nigeria had just been emancipated from British rule five years earlier. The country was anew, and its people were afforded unforeseen opportunities. When Nnamdi was 17 years old, he had the choice of attending art school, something most of his contemporaries weren’t thinking about. “I’ve always loved art, but as a kid in Nigeria and from my upbringing, I didn’t know people who did art as a career. But I knew that was what interested me. I loved it beyond words.”  

Nnamdi loved drawing since he was young but didn’t think he could be an artist for a living. “It was okay to make art a hobby, but it wasn’t okay to make art your profession. By the time I was 17, my mother somehow convinced me that was how I needed to proceed. I thank her every day. And I thank God for putting it in her mind to persuade me to do what I was called to do.” He graduated from the Institute of Management and Technology in Enugu with a Higher National Diploma in Painting. 


“I just didn’t feel painting was the right vehicle for me to express the things I really want to express through my art.” He says, “The things I was able to do with painting seemed rather shallow, but that’s how I viewed it when I compared it to the things I express in sculpture.” Nnamdi is inspired by the old master, Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor considered the founder of modern sculpture, who is especially known for his sculpture, The Thinker. Like Rodin, Nnamdi fashions the human body with character and physicality. His sculptures are lively and full of movement. He typically sculpts voluptuous women in sizes that may fit on a tabletop to some that are larger than the human form.


It was a calling from God that Nnamdi be a sculptor, that he celebrates the human form in the way that he does. Because he is 6 foot 9 inches tall, he learned how to play basketball, so he could be recruited on scholarship by an American college basketball team because his opportunities were running out in Nigeria. He lost his father at the age of 12 and, as the oldest son in his family, he wanted to be able to take care of his mother and his younger brothers. He did receive a scholarship to play basketball at Brigham Young University – Hawaii.

He remembers the first day in Hawaii at BYU, where he studied to earn his Bachelor of Fine Art in Sculpture. He says, “I had registered for my first sculpture class. I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I just wanted to try it. I remembered when I touched the clay, and I was working with it, it felt as if I‘d heard a voice, an audible voice, screaming at me. I felt these words in my mind. I was called by my name. ‘Nnamdi, this is why you are here’ and I heard another voice that said, ‘there is absolutely nothing you cannot do in this medium.’” After graduating, he went on to study at BYU – Utah, where he received his Master of Fine Art in Sculpture. 


Nnamdi doesn’t choose his art. His art chooses him. 


“Never have I thought to myself, I’m going to do something like this,” he says, “Ever since I can remember, even the first day that I touched clay in sculpture class, I knew what to do, but I was confident that something was going to come out.” Many of his sculptures are of buxom women. Some are of singular women, some are of sisters dancing or in an embrace. These sculptures are reminiscent of shapely African women. It is a long-held belief by African men that curvy women are beautiful as opposed to the lean bodies of European women in the West being the standard of beauty. Though it has been more than 30 years that Nnamdi has been in America, we can see through his work that he has not lost his affection for his culture or his people.

 

While in Utah, for instance, he visited a rest home every day to care for older people because he felt that, if he was caring for someone in America, someone would be caring for his mother in Nigeria. This is how he met his wife, Diedra. She offered him a ride to the rest home, and she knew then that he was a man of God. 


“I view life as being more important than art. The experiences I had in Nigeria prepared me to be a better person, which, in turn, I feel, prepared or helped me to be a better artist.” He says, “Even though money is important, there were other things that were more important— integrity, honesty, things like that. Treating people like you want to be treated, no matter the cost. Perhaps the humble circumstance that I grew up in prepared me to listen. I feel that art is a calling. I actually feel that someone is calling out to you, and you have to able to listen.”


Nnamdi feels he was blessed with very good art teachers who taught him not only art but how art and life intermingle. He feels that without these lessons he wouldn’t be able to make a living as an artist. That what he is creating is something bigger than himself. And it’s not an agenda, but maybe a passion. Struggling to find the words, he says if he could explain it with words, maybe he would be a writer instead. 


“When I sit with clay, the work that I do is cast in bronze because the time I spend on my work is astronomical, I don’t want to end up with a product that can easily be damaged. I want to create something that will stand the test of time,” he says. Nnamdi’s work is featured in Changsha, China; New York City; and in the homes of countless art lovers. 


It was a blessing from God that he made his flight from Lagos, Nigeria to New York City on January 17, 1989. Nnamdi’s request for a visa had been denied because of expired paperwork. But he made a trip to the American embassy the day of his flight, nevertheless. He had a nonrefundable ticket and a prayer to God. His faith in God is what has carried him throughout a successful artistic journey. 



Shantay Robinson has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

 

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