JUDITH BYFIELD: OK. Good afternoon, everyone. I'm so pleased to see you here, despite that brilliant wonderful sunny weather we are having in Ithaca. But you will get a chance to go back out and enjoy it after a very invigorating presentation this afternoon.
Good afternoon. My name is Judith Byfield. My pronouns are she and her. I am a Professor in the Department of History here at Cornell, and I write on women's social and economic history in Nigeria, hence I had actually already planned to come to this talk before I was asked to moderate our session this afternoon.
I'm moderating this session on behalf of the Johnson Museum of Art and the Campus Wide Migrations Global Grand Challenge. I welcome everyone to today's program from Cornell University, which sits on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohono, the Cayuga nation. Gayogohono are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogohono dispossession, and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogohono people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
Today's discussion is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Just Futures Initiative. Through this initiative, Cornell's Migrations Global Grand Challenge and the Mellon Foundation have established a partnership to support research and learning that bring a global focus to dispossession, racism, migration, and strategies for creating a just future.
Our speaker today uses multiple forms of creative expression to meditate on and explore the topics at the core of this collaboration between Cornell and the Mellon Foundation. Precious Okoyomon, whose pronouns are they and their, is a Nigerian-American poet and artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York City. They use poetry cooking and sculpture to explore and practice building communities, to reflect on our relationship with nature, the individual and existential angst produced by our extractive economies, as well as the kaleidoscope of language, foods, music, and cultural practices that are the outcome of and witness to the multiple pathways of migrations that define our contemporary world.
Regardless of the form and the medium, whether it's curated dinner parties with the collective Spiral Theory Test Kitchen, or a lush installation with plants that include kudzu and sugar cane and live butterflies, or a book of poetry, Okoyomon's work has stimulated interest and reflection.
They have had institutional solo exhibits at the Luma Westbau in Zurich in 2018., the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt 2020, and Performance Space in New York 2021, as well as the Aspen Art Museum, also in 2021. They are included in the 59th Venice Biennial in 2022, the 58th Belgrade Biennial in 2021, as well as group exhibits at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2021. Major performances have been commissioned by the Serpentine in London in 2019, as well as the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 2019. Their second book of poetry, But Did You Die, will be co-published by the Serpentine and Wonder Press in 2022.
Okoyomon was also a 2020 artist in residence at the Luma Arles in France. In addition, Precious has received several important awards. They are the 2021 recipient of the Frieze Art Fair Artist Award and the 2022 Chanel Next Art Prize. And so it is indeed my great pleasure to introduce you to our speaker today, Precious Okoyomon.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Hi, everyone. OK.
I like to start off by having us all be on the same type of vibrational page. So I'm going to just ask everyone to take a moment and close their eyes here and virtually, and we're all going to take a collective breath together and just like be in our bodies for the first time today, or maybe you were already in your body, but-- hmm, yeah. Feel yourself slowly tethered to the Earth. Remember, I am not this body. I am the universe, constantly.
It's nice to be here with you. I'm going to read you some poems.
So I've been working on this book for forever. If anyone's a writer, you know how long it takes to let your words go and be in the world. So this is my like four year, five-year-old baby, and she's coming out in a few months, actually, in October.
So a few years ago, I started writing these poems called "Sky Songs", and they're large influences on my installations and just how I think about the world and they're these prayers to the sky.
"Give your body for abstraction. Bite your tongue and eat it. This is a corrective therapy. Now into one alienated and alienating and alienated ahh, now into the meat of the world. Don't speak to me in obscurities, recreations stripped down. Carry nothing but light, only light. No longer clutch to guaranteed space, but recreate space.
Temporalize space, the universe as adapting space, a love that gives space, a love that is space, tactile, palatial, and self-immolating. Become the room. Let the silence undo you. Now release into the morning light.
Life rubs up against matter, inner core against inner core. Try not to be afraid. You don't have to be afraid. Now in your own loving words, no to the fragility of language, no to the ego, no to the colonial context of thought, no to fake tenderness, no to liberation without destruction, no to self-destruction, no to masters.
The light washes the body clean. Lay throbbing in the sky to live, a fix to the circuitry of the world. The body is pinned to the sky and blue, reborn in this energy caught and released, lucid, intangible tangible realities of dust. The sky sweeps it all away. Regulate the unconscious play of the mind. Have you ever seen pink moonlight? It's frightening."
And this is a sky song I wrote for my friend, Fred.
"Somewhere I read you long to dispossess yourself of yourself. Slowly adjust to the suffering in this shit again. The other day, watching the sky drowning in blue, I laid in the grass and I shouted a Dumas poem to the sun. Take the blood up from the grass, sun, take it up. These people do not thirst for it. Take up the insect children that play in the grass, sun. Take them away. These people are sick of them.
Take down the long slender reed, son. Cut them down. These people cannot make flutes any longer. Now, son, come closer to the Earth, even closer than that, closer. Now, son, take away the shape from the metal, sun. They are like stone, these people. Now make them lava.
I like there to be a space for destruction, a new spacetime, a crushed down pounding, suspension of a storm of articulation. I mean, no but yes, but no. Motherfuckers are always asking me too many questions. Dispossession of that individuality held in that unconscious that never given itself away.
What if it's not about putting shit together but how shit falls apart? Shit, open that void wide up. Open up, get in, lick it up.
It's the rationality of the decolonization, the brutalizing interplay of that sensuality and constrained motion. Reform, fade up. A dark empty room lit by only evening light a window set high up against a black wall no color, no percussion, footsteps the only sound.
Don't cry, baby. Dry your pretty eyes and smile at me. It's spacetime itself. Ever since I woke up this morning, I've had so many horrible thoughts. I thought about people on who I agree on 99% of what they say and who I share 99% of their desires. I've lost count. That's bad.
I really want to work on that. I really want to work on being a better person, but I can't do it in my head or in the interpersonal diorama. It's inside, it's outside, it's non-externalistable, a war of our own correlative images.
We comically fall off a cliff, wash into view. Now come into everyday life, now double that into open outer space, the performative and accumen of our always already being singing Hosanna in the ear of anarchist bliss, furiously falling into love, mysterious mischievous and always love the other day, lying in the green watching the everyday sky go from pitch to dim to violet to pink it settles."
Yeah, so I've been writing these prayers to the sky. and they really-- and they really like influence everything I've been kind of doing, because I see everything as this kind of endless poem. I kind of started making art through poetry as like a ritual practice of trying to track my everyday memory into shared coemergence, copious of like my friends asking me to play with them, really.
I'm going to go through-- I made like a slideshow of my work. And some of the first things I ever did are really actually with my friends. This first show I did with my friend a really long time ago, called I Need Help, my friend Hannah Black really needed help, and she asked me to make a show with her. Because sometimes artists can't do things by themselves, and we usually don't. That's what I'm always trying to remind people that is like, nobody's ever doing anything by themselves, even if they say they are. Nobody is a single being we're all just playing with each other.
So this is a co-made piece for me and Hannah, of raw lamb's wool, which appears over and over. And it's a motif in my work that when I was a child, my grandmother would make me these indestructible dolls of lamb's wool because I had this horrible habit of destroying all my toys. So she would make me toys that even if I destroyed them, they could be put back together. So it's always been this like return of this like undestroyable factor.
And this is made of raw lamb's wool and clay. It's the snake that continuously eats itself. And this is kind of the press release. And these are the smaller versions of the raw lamb's wool dolls that I've made. And Hannah wrote this lovely book called The Situation, which I honestly advise everyone to find on-- find my email after this or find me. Ask me for my email. I have a PDF of this book.
Hannah is one of my favorite living artists and writers, and she actually just released a new poetry book that everyone should get, Hannah Black, genius, actual living genius. And this book called The Situation, where she would interview people about their different situations. And she removed their names, and the whole book just became about this situation as the object. And then she shredded down the book and we threw the shreds everywhere. She had a show at the Chisenhale, and then all the shreds came and I mixed them with my wool and my dirt and the original nature memory. And together, we made the show of fragmented and help love.
And this is the result of that, a lot of stuffed Teddy Bears dripping out shreds of books, a lot of raw wool dolls leaking, bears, cuteness is its own violence.
This is a show I did with one of my best friends, Quinn Harrelson at his project space in Miami, called Making Me Blush, again another collaboration with one of my dear friends, Jade, Puppies and Puppies. Also an amazing artist, if you don't know their work. It's really like weird conceptual stuff.
They took lamb hearts and they shoved arrows through them. And if you look, that's what's like on the floor over there. You can see like a lamb heart with an arrow shoved through it. It was quite beautiful, and it was like-- the blood would leak upon the floor and these kind of voting booths. And then in the back was one of my first lynching trees, which are fruiting the fig trees with these angels I make on them, the always already motif of like, how could you kill an angel if it lives forever, which I constantly see as this minimal Black life that you can never destroy because, I mean, it is the quantum thing that moves the Earth. You can't really destroy dark matter. I can barely figure it out.
So my lynching trees are always this like ever expression of life. And the best thing is that you can secretly eat fruit off of them if you're in the gallery at the right time. And my lovely little bears. I had this bird that just flew through the gallery wildly at all times and would find itself perched in the tree. My little angel protector.
And from there, it kind of moved to my first solo show at Luma Westbau, which I made a forest of lynching trees and it rained a cotton snow as you walked through the galleries. And it was actually a really special space because it's inside of-- it's a Black room, and usually it's the white cubes we're in.
And it would rain, and snow every day, and my lynching trees, and as the installation started, the trees were barren. And slowly as it went, on you were able to pick the fruit off the trees and slowly watch them because in this forced environment of growth, they're forced to bloom which I always think is kind of special. And surprisingly, mushrooms popped up in here in their own little contained space.
I'm always surprised about the miracles that occur in my art that I never really plan. Surprise and chaos are my two favorite things.
I made these lanterns based on the 18th century lantern laws of raw blacks lamb's wool, which constantly I'm in love with the suffering of black lamb. And I made-- and none in the back of my little forest, I made this video with my-- I made this video with my little brother, where me and him together kind of came up with-- he has this-- he would always confess things to me whenever I was home and I'd be like, Wow, why didn't you tell me about that ever before?
So he would, like-- we would sit in his car and he would like tell me this really intense story. And I'd be like, Wow, you've been holding this in forever. So we kind of have this relationship where he'll be like, I have to tell you something. And like he'll bring me into his car, because he's like such a car boy. And then he'll like confess something deep and dark to me. So it was like, I guess I should start recording this or something. Like, how can I help?
So for years he had been having these really intense encounters with the cops, and he tells them in this really casual way, where he's like, that was crazy. So I started recording all of these and made this video of a little bear walking through the woods smoking a blunt. And that's-- let's see if I can make this work on both.
OK I'm going to figure this out. Bear with me.
For some reason, it doesn't want to play on the same screen. OK. Technology. OK, let's see.
AUDIENCE: Did you go to the tab to the HDTV, and you still try it again?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Yes, it's-- Let's see. Well. Help. Thank you. Here's the video.
SPEAKER 1: Perfect. Very cool. Let's just close this out. Here you go.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Amazing.
(SINGING) I serve the place. I serve the place. I serve the place.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: We're so lucky.
(SINGING) I serve the place. I serve the place.
SPEAKER 2: So none of us wants fun. I was just chilling hanging out with my friends [INAUDIBLE] And we were chilling, smoking weed, rolling backwards and [INAUDIBLE] All of a sudden, we just got the munchies.
(SINGING) A whole lot of leave my nutrition.
SPEAKER 2: And he was just like, all right. Let's go get some chicken wings.
(SINGING) They should have told you I think they mighty young. They should have told like that.
SPEAKER 2: I'll go get some chicken wings and shit. So boom.
(SINGING) I serve the place. I serve the place.
SPEAKER 2: We roll up two words for the way there, and we hop in my Mercedes. That we've been hotboxing and it reeks of weed.
(SINGING) Baby, I'm a franchise. [INAUDIBLE] and those hands got me aggravated.
SPEAKER 2: So we start heading towards the host of the wings restaurant.
(SINGING) They tried to take the soul out of me. They tried to take my confidence and they know I got it.
SPEAKER 2: And we're showing, smoking, listening to music and whatnot, jamming. And we're halfway there, and all of a sudden, a cop pulls us over.
(SINGING) Trying to make me a pop star, and they made a monster. I've posted with my niggas lending champagne for them. A nigga worth the press now my [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 2: So we fricking just panic because we had a bunch of weed on us. So I just think fast, and I told him to hand me all the weed. And I just tuck it under the back seat.
(SINGING) Should have told you I was on the lid.
SPEAKER 2: Boom.
(SINGING) Serve cocaine in some Reeboks.
SPEAKER 2: We pull over, and as we pull over, we're in the middle of a bridge.
(SINGING) I serve the place. I serve the place. I serve the place.
SPEAKER 2: We pulled up from the hotel.
(SINGING) I been the White House true crap, nigga. I gave up on my country.
SPEAKER 2: In front of everyone.
(SINGING) This reminds me of when I had nightmares.
SPEAKER 2: So the cop walks up to the car. We rolled the window down. The smoke just pours out the window.
(SINGING) They should have told you I was going back, niggas.
SPEAKER 2: So the cop immediately asked, where's the weed?
(SINGING) They fit together. Burn out the pig. They finally did admit it. I was drunk.
SPEAKER 2: We told them we had already smoked it. We didn't have anymore weed on us, but he wasn't trying to hear that. He walked up to the car with his hand on his gun. So whatever. We had our [INAUDIBLE] and we were just trying not to get shot. That shit was so fucked up, man.
(SINGING) I serve the place. I serve the place.
SPEAKER 2: So the cop just orders us each out of the car after calling for backup. They search us, make us take our shoes off, and socks, and pat us down to see what we have But we don't have anything on us, so they start searching the car from top to bottom, looking at every crevice. The glove box, the trunk, the spare tire, and they don't find any weed.
Then, all of a sudden, another cop goes back up to the car, looks in the ashtray, and pulls out a roach. So they send me back to the car, telling me, I'm lucky that they know we were drug dealers. And that they were going to catch us.
So they sent me back to the car and wrote my friend a weed ticket, and took his picture, and then sent him back to the car. That shit was so fucked up. I try to forget about that night all the time.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Go back here. So I'm always making work. A lot of my work is with my family and my friends constantly unpacking family trauma. Thank you. No, I love help.
SPEAKER 1: I'm here to help.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: I love it.
SPEAKER 1: You tried to hide everything on us here, but we got it. OK?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Amazing.
SPEAKER 1: And we were on the video, which is like, bam.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Bam. Wow. Thank you. So a lot of the work is always unpacking family trauma, dealing with interpersonal relationships, thinking about this every day confession of--
So for me, working with my brother in the last few years, we've been making a lot of videos together, a lot of really-- it's confessions he makes to me, and I've archived them all. I think of it as relational aesthetics therapy that's really beautiful for us in a way that he doesn't have a lot of people.
I think with masculinity, it's hard to confess a lot of your inner things with people, so it's really working to unpack this generational stuff, too. That I think of as a practice of literal everyday things that I do.
And this work is really special to me, because I made this right before COVID, actually. I made this in Germany. It's after Octavia Butler's Earthseeds, and I installed this maybe three months before COVID. And nobody saw it for six months, which was really special.
It was a room of invasives for itself. Three people went in here, the museum director and the people who watered it. And I would just watch the videos, because they had a live stream. That was my only relation to it. I was like, that's crazy. This portal I made, it's just there in Germany happening while the world is slowly unfurling and crumbling.
This was just steadily growing there. It's a space of kudzu, which is a plant that I work with a lot. We have a very entangled relationship. It has a very special history. It was brought to the US after slavery because of the wild spread soil erosion that had happened from the overplanting of cotton.
And the US government was like, what if we gave these kudzu seeds to farmers to help them? And it will magically solve soil erosion. Obviously, that's not how things work. The kudzu completely ate all these plantations and all of these farms.
And it's quite beautiful, because even today when you drive through the South, you see these giant kudzu trees that just enwrap and snarl everything. I think it's really special. I always say, where you see-- I feel the most racism in the US, and it's always the kudzu leaking there.
And it's so beautifully intrinsic, because the roots are what hold the South together. And if you were to take away the kudzu, the soil would crumble, which is a very beautiful metaphor for where we see ourselves today. So I like making these spaces for-- I call them portals that are where things can thrive without any interference.
And things get pretty wild in there, and I truly never know what's going to happen in this installation. We had a snail problem. They just all appeared, and there were random moths that would fly through the windows and make little nests. And there was a mushroom.
Mushrooms are always appearing for me. Their root connectivity is-- and this is about four months in. And I never really trimmed back. So things really do disappear, and the ecosystem keeps building itself.
And since I work with a lot of invasive plants, we can't really replant after. So everything usually gets burned, and then, I make work with the ash. It's all a continuous ecosystem from the thing before. It has its lineage, and then, it continues.
I never really see it as ending, but evolving. The death, the decay, the life, it's all part of the next thing or what's leaking into the other thing. And these are the raw wool dolls that started off as the tiny dolls.
And then, after I burned all of that kudzu, this kudzu, I turned it into ash. And I made this really special show called fragmented body perceptions as higher vibration frequencies to God, which started off as a poem. And then, I felt that it actually needed to be a space, and I was asked to make the show a performance space in New York.
Which is actually a really amazing space, and if you're ever in New York, you should go there. Because I think it's one of the most special museum spaces that people don't know about. In this fall, they're actually doing a lot of workshops about body movement and care. I shout-out performance space a lot. I'm like, go.
And I made this special room to hold people. Really, whatever emotion they wanted to process from the immense grief that I felt that was in the air after COVID. Or just the immense loss that everyone had just experienced, and where do you put all that pain? How do you hold it? How do you allow yourself the space to break down? What are the spaces you can do that in?
So I made a space to just go, and it was interesting to see what people did there. I heard a lot of rumors. I would walk in all the time just to check on my little world, and I would see people crying, kids just playing, people holding each other.
I like to say, I just make the portals for the breakdown to happen in any way it occurs. And then, it rained the ash in here from the kudzu. It was nice. Because you really couldn't breathe it in, and you had your mask. And if you tried to, you'd end up coughing. It was this ash mist from bubbles. It was this bubble ash.
Which was nice, because you actually expect it to be rather heavy. But it's this light mist, and I had ladybugs in here and a slow garden of-- I just planted wildflowers, and what grew surprised me inside of the thick clay.
I had a little waterfall. It was just a nice space to have people go and be there. Some people really took this as a grieving space. Some people were like, I don't know what people are talking about. I had a great date in there. I was like, Wow. So I always say, it's whatever I can give people, and what they take from it is all. I can hope that there is just some love in there.
And for the last two years after this project, I started this garden, which I had never really made an outdoor work. It started from this poem. "Preserved sound into accelerationist light. Explosions into the black inferno. The last futures we would all become. The portal into the Quadraphonic playground of exploding hearts, of new, errant roots."
So I wrote this poem a really long time ago, and I had no idea where it was in the world. I just knew it was a place, and I wanted to make this root system playground of dreaming. And then, someone was like, do you want to make a garden? And I was like, yes. I think this is my Quadraphonic playground.
And for the last two years, I've been playing on the Aspen Rooftop Museum. I made a really crazy, invasive garden of indigenous wildflowers and then invasive plants and every season. I made a sculpture to protect my garden.
The first one was a black angel named Ditto Ditto with her heart is made of lamb's blood and concrete. A lot of my images are going back to I grew up extremely Christian in a really Christian household. And both of my parents are--
My mom is Ishan and my dad's Yoruba. So both bringing that influence of extremely religious Nigerian backgrounds into this work of ritual and meditation. It's been nice to create the figures I want to see that don't exist of protection.
They're always usually figures of Black women, non-human bodies. A little ghost. I love a little ghost.
It was really special to make space for all of these flowers that had-- that would have thrived otherwise in Aspen if they had space to do so, and people wanted them. Usually, it's a lot of things that people see as weeds and not usually super ornamental, beautiful flowers.
And it was interesting to have this space of cultivated lushness in a way that wasn't an organized garden in the way you would expect. And my friend, Gio, who's a great collaborator with me. He helps me make all my music.
He is an amazing jazz musician. He has a band called Standing on the Corner, which they are just, I say, time travelers, like futuristic time travelers. His music is so beautiful and special, and it's just been really interesting to collaborate and play with somebody, who is coming from a different sound space.
I think poetry is music constantly, because it's finding the language to anchor, and love, and play. And then, music comes in and is like the wind for me. So it's been wonderful working with somebody who I feel is a wind maker. And he made all the music for the last two seasons.
And we made a ceramic sculpture. It was the first time working with ceramics, which was super exciting for me. So a lot of the last few years have been learning and playing in public of figuring out what I want to make and just making it and playing.
Really, play's such a big part for me, because it's-- I honestly never like, this is what I know I want to make. It's always like, actually, what am I hungry for? And where do I want to dip my toes in? And then, I'm stumbled into a sculpture, and I'm like, am I working with ceramics or concrete?
It's all about a malleability for me. And I was trying to tell people to escape the rigidity of expectation of yourself of knowing. There's a real freedom to a non-knowing.
I got to make this really special treehouse of fragilization, because I think about a lot with soil, and migration, and plants. How we can find little safety spots. So, for me, I created this womb, where you entered. And then, after you brushed past this door of stuffed animals, you entered this womb where my poems are just being read to you in a loop for two hours.
And you just sit in there. It's like you're in a world of your own. It was cute, because last time I was in Aspen, I walked in there, and it was just these three little girls by themselves in the middle of the treehouse just listening to my poems looking at the sky. I was like, I'm obsessed.
And this is my little figure. And my latest project that I did was Venice, the Venice Biennale, which was really special. Because then, my relationship, again, with kudzu. And now, this new plant, sugar cane, which I also have an intrinsic history with. And a lot of, once again, migration and the history of how you really can't separate-- you can't separate the object from its history. It's impossible.
So the memory. Also, the soil memory, the plant memory. These things don't forget. We don't forget. I just try and hold space for that memory to come and teach us something new.
So I made this crazy forest in the middle of the biennial. And it's slowly been growing for the last six months, and it's been really interesting to me. Because I haven't been there back since it opened, and it's updated daily.
I get pictures on Instagram, and people are like, look. I can't see your exhibition anymore. And it's a joy to me. I'm like, it's disappeared. So the expectation of the surprise for me, and these are also made of raw lamb's wool.
We poured these concrete floors, and there's a black algae waterfall going through the whole space. So as you walk through-- and Gio, who I work with closely, made the music. And it sounds like this alarm of wind. Funny. If you go to Venice, send me some pictures.
And there are butterflies flying all around, and I've inverted night and day. So when people are in it, it's technically their nighttime, so they don't fly. But then, they only fly for themselves at night when no one's there, which I think is lovely. They're just doing their orchestrated dance just for them.
Sometimes, you see a butterfly, if you're lucky, in the darkness. The sugar cane and the kudzu are competing at the moment for who will survive inside of the garden of pleasure.
That's it. I wanted to open up to see if anyone had questions or just generally wanted to talk about stuff? I'm here to pollinate with you. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Do you know if this is seed?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: No. So, usually with the kudzu, it's one of those plants that's hard to grow from seed. So I work with local landscapers and farmers. And since I had made the show in Europe before, I worked with the same people who had cultivated my kudzu the last time.
Because it's really illegal to grow in the US. So when I do have it in shows in the US, I work-- there's this really lovely lady in North Carolina in Asheville, who is doing really important work going around and sending people. Spreading information about, how do we actually healthily entangle with kudzu in the South, especially? How to seed save with it? How to make medicine?
So she sends me all my US kudzu cuttings. Shh, don't tell the government. But I'm not growing kudzu in the US, definitely. But yes. Usually not from seeds at all.
It's one of my favorite plants in the world. It's a very special plant with a really complicated history. Yes. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Where did you first encounter kudzu, one? And two, I love that you-- where did you first encounter kudzu yourself? And I love that you-- when you're done using it that, yes, you have to burn it. But then, you take the ash and transform it into something else. So can you talk a little about that process?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: When I was 15, my parents had this obsession with going to oracles. And we went to see an oracle in Georgia, a Nigerian oracle who was there to give us family advice. And we were in this-- it was very hot, and we were in this parking lot.
And it was swallowed in kudzu. And I was like, what is this plant? This man was like, it's this demon plant. I was like, demon plant? What? My 15-year-old mind was blown. And I went furiously Googling demonic vine. And that's what started this hunger for me.
So it's always been a really intense relationship I've had with plants that are viewed as monstrous, or that have this connotation of being invasive. Because what does it mean to be invasive other than to thrive really well? And people not knowing how to be around that?
Working with it is like learning how to really entangle in this unshared way. And for me, the life and death of it is really important, too. So that's where the ash comes in, because it's like, how do I work with this thing that I can't put back into a place where it's not from?
So it's like, I have to kill it, but not in this way that it's dead forever. Because the ash travels into a lot of work. So it was in the performance-based show, and then, it's also in my Venice show in the water.
It's part of the poem, the notes for the poem that never end that's continuously flowing from one work to the next one. It's a lineage, a love lineage, really. Yes. Thanks for that question. I liked it.
AUDIENCE: Your figures have a very-- a very ancient quality to them. I can't explain it, and I'm trying to think where-- what they remind me of. Almost like Easter Island, things along those lines.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Yes, they're deities of protection. They have these non-gendered bodies of what are they? For me, they're these soft protector figures and also power figures of they seem like something that would have been in the past. But they're also the future. As I say, the past can't help but be the future.
So it's how do you see the thing that you have already known? It's a feel knowing, for me, of thinking about these matrixial figures of protection that always follow my work.
AUDIENCE: You're deeply connected to the past, the present, and the future very [INAUDIBLE].
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Times spiral. That's what I say. It's a deep time spiral. For me, I'm always trying to constantly analyze this deep connection I have with time. Of understanding how to move through it in this way that I'm not repeating the constant mistakes of the human in this way of I'm always trying to refigure how we get ourselves out of this little sticky mess that we're in.
Of the human can only reproduce what's come before it, and that's not of-- it's of no interest to me. I'm constantly looking for new ways to evolve and think of how we're a bit more malleable to make new time for ourselves. Time outside of time. Yes. That's how we make a new future world. Collectively dreaming time outside of time.
AUDIENCE: One of the things that you said that, I think, really is mindblowing or really resonating is to-- that a type of freedom is to escape the rigidity of the expectation of knowing. And I was wondering if you could talk a bit more?
Certainly, you delight in the unexpectedness of the evolution of your works, but I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about how you see that philosophy playing out in your work? And more generally in life? And how you see that part of what we could be open to if we didn't expect to know?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: That's a huge part of my everyday practice, or praxis, is the understanding of-- because I feel we're all constant. The neurosematics of our everyday wired motion helps us understand how we truly witness or communicate with everyone.
So we're already semantically synched to be, we're supposed to think this one way and know-- have a knowing knowledge the world is supposed to give us. And I'm constantly like, I want to be broken every day by opening wide, and that type of vulnerability is very hard to go around in this world that's constantly trying to tell you that you're an individual. And that there's nobody touching and changing you constantly.
So my thing is, how do you stay open and witness and being actually present in that practice to allow yourself to be open? Because it's very hard to be fragile in this world, and I'm always trying to help people re-soften. And it's a hard thing.
Once you get over the primordial fear of the world every day when you wake up, and then, the anxiety of the world. And then just remembering that, damn, this world is really moving. And how do I be in it? And also not being the world, but being here with other people grounded in the Earth?
And then, how do I just also see people? That's my thing. My hugest thing is I love art, but also, I love people more than I love art. And I love really seeing people, and communicating with them, and witnessing. And I feel like that actually teaches me a lot constantly.
The ability to have real conversations where people show me, and change me, and shift me. And that allows for me to be able to come up with new languages, new ways of continuously softening on that resistance, that everyday resistance, to the constant consent to not being a single being is what everything is about for me.
It's hard work. But it's work that I'm like, we can't do it alone. that's the copiosus of being with other people truly. It's work. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Can you tell us about being a chef? And if you have a restaurant in Brooklyn, I'll come to it.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: I don't have a restaurant. But come over, and I'll cook for you. Me and my friends for the last few years have a collective called spiral theory test kitchen, where we feed people in endless, perverse ways.
It's all about feeding play, and I always think one of the best ways to change people is by entering their bodies and feeding them. Because it changes their micro organ tiny little parts, and then, you're changed forever.
And I love that type of care work. It's like nurturing. It's like, what's the best way to say, you love you? It's let me nurture you and witness you and feed you. It's a big part of my love language is actually nurturing and care.
So food was one of those miracle ways of doing that and getting people, gathering people and feeding. And just having these chaotic, crazy meals, which we haven't been able to do in a while because of COVID. But I'm planning on doing some soup kitchen meals this fall.
So if you are in the city, once again, find me after this. Get my email. I will put you on my food list and come to Brooklyn. We'll have a little food fest.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for bringing us into your world here. There's just so much generosity in the work that's so stunning and in your words, too. But I'm struck, too, by you made a couple of references to what happens when there are no people in the spaces. But it's butterflies.
Do you design for the time when there is no human audience? Or is this a happy accident?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: The non-human is always doing their thing. It's just we're not always present for the communication that's happening. How could I not when the work is usually for itself? We just happen to be able to witness it.
I truly am making this for the plants, and they are doing their own root work. I wish I could listen in on their conversations. They're having fun in there. They're like, woo. We are dueling. There's butterflies. There's microorganisms doing their own thing.
I never know. When I make a portal like this, I am completely surprised. Even the garden, I was like, how did these voles get in here on a rooftop? And that communication is so special. The butterflies that only fly from themselves, the person who goes in, and waters, and organizes everything?
He sends me these videos. I'll show you on my phone. If you come to me, I'll show you on WhatsApp. They fly to the music at night just for themselves, and that's not for me to see or you. That's just them doing their own thing in their miraculous pattern. So I'm just cultivating and hoping that the miracles happen themselves, really.
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Mariah. It's wonderful to hear from you. I've never seen anything like this before in my life. I've read poetry but not like this, so I appreciate that.
First, there was a comment. I think the relationship you've got with your brother and in talks you've had with him. It's so reminiscent of what I feel towards family and towards my relationship with my brother.
We are in different places now, different countries. And we talk over the phone a lot, and he shares things with me. And sometimes, he goes, could record this? Because I'll forget. Or he wants me to remember it for him, which is--
But what I wanted to ask you is you referenced the word, play, a lot. And I can't say I've played since I was very little. I do work, and there's labor involved. And there's structures, and timelines, and schedules.
How do you conceive of this word, play, as somebody in your position? Because I don't know what it really means to play anymore as an adult. So tell me about that.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: So, constantly, I feel like we're living-- a lot of my focus is on love. And when I think of love, I think of how a lot of our love is coerced into labor of work and how to escape that. And I think the loophole out of that is finding ourselves, and grabbing on to each other, and hoping that we can play together.
And I mean that in the softest, everyday ways. It's like, how do you find time for yourself to free yourself and other people? And I'm in the littlest of way. So playing can literally be like you hum yourself a tiny song every morning when you wake up.
And you go outside, and you write yourself a poem. Not even a big poem. Something little just to tether yourself back to the motion of the world, and that's a little play. So it's finding little things that you don't remember how to give yourself freedom.
My thing is, I love rolling down hills. Which sounds crazy, but I tell you guys, it's good. Try it. I've done it a few times this week in Cornell. Your hills are big.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Oh my gosh, a dream. You roll with that. You let the equilibrium of the world shake you up, and then, you get back up. Nothing can break you down for the rest of the day. It's like finding your way to get a little loose and malleable.
And I think that's the freedom that allows you to fall back into the rhythm of yourself. And then, you can be like, I'm not just here by myself. Who else needs a little play today? It gets infective, and then, that's how you pollinate. A pollination play fantasy. I'm all about shared play.
AUDIENCE: You have to go deep inside and find your child curiosity. And you could then have to go on and play with your imagination. I don't own a cell phone. Put it away. Listen to the birds.
Go rent yourself a child for the day. Listen and just be. And go read children's poems. And just laugh, and take the leaves, and throw them up. And just let them cover you. Put your rubber boots on and goes splashing in puddles.
Or better yet, just splashing in puddles with no shoes.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: I love that.
AUDIENCE: --footprints and handprints. And just let it go.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Which is so, sometimes, hard to do in our rigid ways if you're like, I don't want to get messy. You're like, I have to go to work in a few hours. It's finding that adaptation to allow yourself a little space.
Which, once you get space, you can find some time. And then, you figure out your rituals. And then, from there, it gets a little easier, because you're like, this is what I need to survive but then, not survive. This is an everyday thing that should happen, because I shouldn't just be surviving and working.
It should be finding a way to make my life a beautiful rainstorm of a poem. So it's like, what are your rituals that keep you loose, malleable, and free? That's a good thing to figure out.
And then, from there, you know how to play. Because it's about softening to figure out. Because everyone's play is different. It's just like, how do you figure out what your rhythm is? Hi.
AUDIENCE: Hi. How are you?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Good.
AUDIENCE: Congratulations. This is great work. I have a question about the idea of invasiveness. Have you thought about this in relation to other aspects of other organisms? It struck me, the analogy of invasiveness.
And that was like, this kudzu was brought for a purpose. And then, now, it's being judged as this competing organism. For me, it relates a lot to this. I don't even have to tell you what it is, but we know the judgment about, now, you're invasive because less humans. Have you thought about this?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Yes. In the work of the idea of migration, when you think about slavery. And also kudzu literally is you've brought over this plant, and also, you think about the abduction of literal enslaved people in the US.
And the idea of to create, to magically fix this-- and build this land. Literally build this land with blood time. Also, the soil does not forget. The history does not forget. Those things don't disappear is what I'm constantly always saying.
It exists very much in our soil life and our plant life. They're holding these memories for us even if we don't hold the space to it. The natural world is literally showing us our world just literally reflected in fragments. So I'm like, yes. Obviously, continuously thinking about how that's echoing into everything. Always.
SPEAKER 3: I think we have time for one more question. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I have a simple question. So my question's pretty simple, but you said that Hannah is your favorite living artist. Who is your favorite artist that's no longer here?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: This is hard. I have a few. Can I give you a rundown? I love Cecilia Vicuna. If you don't know the work, it's really beautiful, powerful, raw work of just endless love, ritual, passion, thinking about the Earth.
So Cecilia Vicuna. Etel Adnan, rest in peace. She just died. I'm so blessed to have her as an ancestor now, but also, so sad she's not here. One of my favorite poets hands down, I say. I just started her poems and just deep dive down into her art, her videos. She's a genius.
I love Fischli and Weiss, also two of my favorite sculptors. One of them is no longer here with us, but also just a beautiful space to look into that work if you haven't.
And I'm a poet at heart, and I love Jack Spicer. So I'm going to throw out a Jack Spicer poetry. Because I'm like, poetry and art. They're the same. I'm tired of fighting the battle. Yes, that's my run down.
SPEAKER 3: Thank you so much.
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Thank you guys.
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This visiting artist talk at the Johnson Museum of Art is the second in an ongoing series with the campus-wide Migrations Global Grand Challenge, part of Global Cornell, with support from the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative. The Migrations initiative studies global migration of all living things through an interdisciplinary, multispecies lens, with a special focus on themes of racism, dispossession, and migration.
Nigerian American poet, sculptor, and avant-garde chef Precious Okoyomon discussed themes of migration, dispossession, and redress. Their large-scale, immersive artworks are especially concerned with the entangled fate of humans, plants, and animal species as they move from place to place across the planet. Approaching artmaking like a poet, Okoyomon mines the metaphorical associations of all manner of found objects and raw materials—from kudzu vine to lambswool—to elicit new reflections upon our complex, interconnected histories. Okoyomon was born in England in 1993, raised in Nigeria and the United States, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.