The Artist Who Transforms Galleries Into Forests and Fields

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Chaos is a concept that comes up often in conversation with Okoyomon. The artist was born in London but spent their early years with their mother in Lagos, Nigeria. From a young age, they read everything they could get their hands on, starting with the family Bible, and this passion soon led Okoyomon to compose small nuggets of writing that they call “little dismembered language drops.” “I would write poems and hide them all around the house and the backyard. I didn’t use my words for a year,” the artist says. “If I needed to say anything, I would write these really serious letters to my mom.” The family moved to Houston in 2000, and to West Chester, Ohio, six years later. In high school, Okoyomon had an emo phase and after striking a bully with a fencing saber, they were forced to transfer. The artist later relocated to Chicago to attend the Great Books college Shimer, where they studied philosophy. “It gave me a lot of freedom to get really weird,” they say. “And for my chaos to fully present itself.”

When they first moved to New York in 2017, they would go on exploratory walks and record their reactions to the city’s sights and sounds in notes on their iPhone, composing “crazy fanfic poems,” they recall. The artist incorporated these inventive writings into their first poetry collection, “Ajebota,” which was published by Bottlecap Press in 2016 and includes a piece composed entirely of screenshots of text messages. Today, Okoyomon works in a shared studio in an industrial complex in Park Slope that they describe as “a cozy little cave of my ideas.” Papers bearing snippets of poems are scattered across tables and stapled to the walls. There’s an earthworm farm and thus a constant supply of fresh dirt. And for one work in progress, Okoyomon is lovingly nurturing, in a glass jar, a crop of algae that glows in the dark. “I really want to make this piece that’s a whole bioluminescent floor,” they explain, “where you can sit and feel its communication.”

If Okoyomon’s work continually asks us to listen to the natural world, it also contains warnings of what might happen should we fail to act. “If we don’t start really imagining how things could be seriously different for us, the world will do it for us,” they say. “And then we’ll feel really bummed out when we didn’t do the very simple and small work of just dreaming.” But establishing a new order will involve some degree of destruction — namely the demolition of structures that suppress and exploit — which is why Okoyomon thinks often of the apocalypse. Their first play, a conceptual composition about four angels that fall to Earth, was commissioned in 2019 by the Serpentine Galleries and called “The End of the World.” And for the forthcoming iteration of Frieze New York, Okoyomon, who won this year’s Artist Award, has collaborated with the Los Angeles-based industrial designer Jonathan Olivares to fill the 17,000-square-foot McCourt performance hall at the Shed in midtown Manhattan with spire-like structures made of steel and camouflage netting arranged in a loose circle. Inspired by the Tower of Babel, an origin story for the world’s multiplicity of languages found in the Book of Genesis, Okoyomon recited a poem from their “Sky Songs” series from atop one of the platforms in late April, and a video of the performance, which also includes readings by other poets, including Eileen Myles and Diamond Stingily, will play at the Shed and in Frieze’s online viewing room starting May 5. The words clash and meld with the sound of a string trio performing the French composer Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 “Quartet for the End of Time.”

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