"Spirit Dance" artist Nnenna Okore and environmental historian Robert Rouphail were in conversation with curator Cory Gundhlach at the Stanley Museum of Art on November 16, 2023. The panel discussed the relationship between art, the environment and social justice.

Nnenna Okore posing with her artwork "Spirit Dance"
Nnenna Okore posing with her artwork  "Spirit Dance" at the Stanley Museum of Art
2023 © Stanley Museum of Art

Nnenna Okore is an internationally acclaimed artist and an alumna of UIowa's MA and MFA programs. She is involved in numerous environmental art projects and exhibitions designed to produce research, dialogue and artmaking about current waste issues. Largely deriving inspiration from her natural surroundings, Okore creates delicate works of art using biodegradable materials like bioplastics, cheesecloth and fibers to engender awareness about sustainable practices in the art field. Her work, “Spirit Dance,” is currently on display in the Stanley Museum of Art lightwell and has been one of the museum's most popular exhibits.

In her conversation with Rouphail, Okore discussed her process for creating her work as well as the themes and inspirations behind it. She spoke about how her work is informed by indigenous African perspectives.

Robert Rouphail is a historian of modern Africa and the Indian Ocean at the UIowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He teaches across the fields of African, global and environmental history. His courses range from surveys of modern African and global history to histories of race and empire in the Indian Ocean World to global environmental history and disaster studies courses.

Rouphail brought his expertise in environmental history to the conversation, exploring how Okore's work connects with broader themes of identity, community and the natural world.


Nnenna Okore discussed how ‘Spirit Dance’, among others, enlivens socio-material experiences that can interrupt material and immaterial alienations, disembodiments and dichotomies between art and life. She underscored how, in the face of ecological challenges and devastations, people can become more attuned to the planet and its ecosystems by intermingling with materials, people and spaces.