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Frieze New York 2021

Precious Okoyomon: ‘Poets Are Going to Save the World’

Making careful use of soil and seed, plants and poems the work of Precious Okoyomon has captured attention globally before the New York-based artist and poet have even turned 30

BY Jasmine Sanders AND Precious Okoyomon in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 27 APR 21

Early last year, the artist-poet Precious Okoyomon transported into the Frankfurt MMA museum space layers and layers of soil, six effigies constructed of raw, dark lambswool, yarn, and wire, and vines of Japanese arrowroot, or kudzu.

Then the pandemic ground the world to a halt and the museum, formerly a passport office, was forced to shutter. Inside, the kudzu – its rapaciousness so storied that it was colloquialized as ‘the vine that ate the south’– grew unabated.

When The exhibit, titled ‘Earthseed’, reopened in August, the imported fauna had become its own errant wilderness. Carpets of it thicketed underfoot. Foliage had ensnared the angel’s woollen torsos, embodying with fulsome literality the dictum which animates the spiritual belief system central to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), for which the show was named: ‘All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change’.

‘I work with natural elements a lot,’ they tell me on a warm-ish Saturday in Brooklyn. ‘I really like to make all of these things that decompose or rot.’ They jump rope, squat, lunge, or lift weights, responding to questions between reps. I sit and at one point, nap on a piece of gym equipment.

We discuss how modern botany emerged out of the empire’s ordering of the earthly realm and everything in it. The colonially imposed taxonomies, the arch, hierarchical ordering of the natural world, with the body an infallible/stable site, separate from the earth. The creation of monocultures imported species. Precious and I are both imported species.

‘I started making art because I wanted to give my poetry form’, they tell me. At eight years old, Okoyomon stopped speaking, communicating only in poems, scraps deposited into trees or buried outdoors. This act is recalled in Okoyomon’s accompanying performance in the MMA Space. They read from a selection of poems, discarding the sheets of paper along the way, littering the kudzu covered floor. ‘I’m interested in these sorts of portals to places that don’t exist’. ‘Did you go to Art school?’ I ask them. ‘Fuck no,' they say. ‘I went to the worst college in America. No really, Google it’.

– Jasmine Sanders

Precious Okoyomon in their studio, New York City, March 2021 Photographs: Davey Adesida.
Precious Okoyomon in their studio, New York City, March 2021

Photo: Davey Adesida

My material is everything that is living and dying, and decaying and growing. Usually, things that can’t be destroyed. Water. Rocks. Dirt. Life.

At Performance Space, I am showing FRAGMENTED BODY PERCEPTIONS AS HIGHER VIBRATION FREQUENCIES TO GOD (2021). This is a space for self-fragilization, for breathing. A space for whatever breakdown or joy, epiphany, you want to have. It’s a space just to be held, by yourself or by anybody that wants to hold you. It felt important to have a space to lay down something or grieve or just vibe.

When I’m asked what I make, I say: ‘I make portals into the world.’ And things that feel like poems. Just everyday moments really. This new piece for the Frieze Artist Award is about disassembling language. But also bringing it together to create some sort of symphony. It’s a tower of Babel. Throughout the day all my favourite poets will be reading on different platforms, with an orchestra playing around them. It’s a piece about how language is broken down and created. This project comes out of a disassembly, as the original piece I conceived for Frieze had to be reassembled into something new because of COVID-19. It’s about the power of creating intentional spaces with our manifestation of words. Words are literally how we make new worlds.

The most exciting thing about making this piece at The Shed, is that the space is truly limitless, so I can have fun thinking of what I can do and how it can be filled. And also, the fact that there hasn’t been

a gathering in such a long time! No one has actually been able to be in a space together for over a year to gather, and listen, and be with people that they love. That feels really important, to be able to create that space and the possibility of what all the people I love are going to say.

I hope that visitors to the piece will, at least, feel some type of break from the anxiety of the world in this moment, and from the primordial fear that strikes all of us. Being able to take a nice deep breath, I feel that’s important. For me, I’m really interested in what the poets who are part of the piece are going to say. I miss all my poets! Poets are going to save the world.

– Precious Okoyomon

This article appeared in Frieze Week, New York 2021

Jasmine Sanders is a writer based in New York City, USA.

Precious Okoyomon is an artist based in New York City, USA. Recipient of the 2021 Frieze Artist Award, supported by Luma Foundation, their solo exhibition is on view at Performance Space, New York until May 9th, 2021. Their new commission opens at The Aspen Art Museum (AAM) in June 2021.