Preceding Nigeria’s independence in 1960, owoko—areas where large vessels are installed and partly buried in the ground for storing water—were traditionally designed and produced by Igbo women. At the historic Comfort Station in Logan Square, the exhibition “owoko” is the first iteration of a series called “Creating Care-filled Igbo Architecture(s)” by ebere agwuncha.
“Owoko” is an interactive installation that honors Igbo women through a continuing ritual that concentrates on the element of water. The name owoko came to agwuncha after reading critical works by Eva Obodo and May Okafor in “Traditional Water Pot Installations and Functions in Parts of Igboland, Southeast Nigeria.” Fortuitously, the works within “Owoko” can be viewed up close thanks to Comfort Station’s intimate setting. Ceramics, natural fiber, photography, soil and wood are all components used by agwuncha.
The similarities between the artist’s work and Comfort Station’s interior coincided unexpectedly.
“Comfort Station was perfect based on the architecture and space, so the installation could be experienced on an intimate level, rather than within a white cube. My work cannot just exist in a white cube. I don’t think it’s responsible,” agwuncha says.
Near the central window of the space, sunlight gleams down on an installation of five large ceramic vessels that are adjacent to one another, with soil hugging the pedestal on which they sit. An accompanying piece is a functional ceramic water dispenser partially buried in soil that is located at the entrance, with tall slim glasses around it. Visitors are encouraged to fill a glass and pour water into the center vessel as an offering, hearing the vibrations of water with close listening. Serving as a soundscape and water reservoir while also calling to God to protect the space, the vessels are very much the focal point of the show.
The exhibition includes a video that compiles interviews, historical sites and archives. It dives into a contemplation of divergent anthropological perspective on women practicing ceramics. It includes the processes of Igbo women performing a large firing of work together. The women gather branches and place them in a shallow hole along with their handmade water pots. The process of owoko is not singular with one person alone performing the firing, but a community celebration and honor.
“Owoko” also speaks to and respects the momentous development of the Circular Stepped Pyramids in Nsude, which is in Northern Igboland. Noteworthy to the show, the Nsude Pyramids are a row of five pyramids. The number five is an important and spiritual number in the culture but its significance remains unknown. It is a repetitive number in “owoko” through the five vessels and a 5×5 grid of tiles with five circles and five lines.
The natural materials of the show (clay, soil, light, wood and water) provide a meditative space. More iterations will follow owoko through agwuncha’s series, “Creating Care-filled Igbo Architecture(s),” celebrating the Igbo sphere.
The artist will perform a water ritual in the space on May 21. This water ritual holds remembrance and a personal story for agwuncha’s family. (Hadia Shaikh)
“Owoko” will be on display at Comfort Station, 2579 North Milwaukee, through May 28.