Nantume Violet on Jonathan Okoronkwo

Jonathan Okoronkwo’s “Some things stay broken” took viewers from the white-cube gallery to the scrapyards and, in doing so, translated the artist’s earlier sculptures into paintings. In his 2021 exhibition “CONDEM, CONDEM, Kɔ Ntɛm!,” Okoronkwo made sculptural installations within the Aboabo Nima Moke scrapyard in Kumasi, Ghana. Left behind in the yard after the exhibition, the sculptures blended in with their surroundings.

The paintings in Okoronkwo’s recent show took inspiration from the mechanical objects found in another Kumasi scrapyard known as Suame Magazine. The walls of the gallery were occupied by compositions in shades of rusty brown. These rectangular or composite polygonal wooden polyptychs bear constructed images of spare parts the artist photographed at Suame Magazine, the largest industrial cluster in Africa. Around two hundred thousand people work there in metal-engineering and vehicle-repair workshops. Car wreckers haul in decommissioned, disabled, and derelict cars; the vehicles are then dismantled, their functioning parts salvaged and sold. Nonreusable car parts are abandoned in a heap in the yard. Left to deteriorate, the objects embody the concept of entropy.

Using Adobe Photoshop, Okoronkwo distorted, fragmented, and reassembled his photographs into gridded compositions before drawing them onto plywood panels with motor oils and metal paste. The eight-panel Abossokai Macho and Co, 2022, depicts a robust interconnected machine spread across eight plywood panels, eight by four feet each. GallaWay, 2022, reconfigures tire-tread designs, while the series “We Comot the Berlins,” 2022, uses nuts and bolts to form a core hexagon, mounted with additional squares in a manner that references the spinning wheels and gears in an engine.

Okoronkwo paints with the metal paste extracted from rusted machine parts dissolved using hydrofluoric acid, a substance that keeps his surfaces in a state of continuous deterioration. As if to disturb the ecologies of standard commodities expected in commercial transactions, the chemical treatment and reaction on the wood counterintuitively render the paintings unable to stand the test of time: a conspiracy of artist and artwork against the impulse to collect and conserve. The works are titled in pidgin, an improvised language used for communication among people who do not share a common tongue. The fragmented nature of this means of communication, assimilating words from English and various local languages, suggests the splintering and reassignment of meaning in the paintings.

A pair of diesel engines in the center of the room sprouted a vortex of oil-stained hydraulic rubber hoses. These limbs crept up onto the gallery walls and ceiling and connected to some of the paintings. Aiming to leave the wrecked machines in their “pristine” state of decomposition, Okoronkwo contests the vitalist idea of an inherent difference between mechanical and organic entities. His work suggests eternal cosmic spontaneity and activity. It strategically capitalizes on the molecular interaction of deteriorating car parts and their surrounding environment, and emerges in paradoxes haunted by the recognition of the disintegration of space, man, and his works. Mortality is perceived not only as the end of life, but as something that renders our processes of making meaning futile. Yet mortal humans continue to work against chaos and entropy, establishing worlds that could possibly outlive us.

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