Precious Okoyomon, Angel of death, 2020, raw lambswool, dirt, wire, yarn, 59 × 37 × 41 1/4".

Precious Okoyomon, Angel of death, 2020, raw lambswool, dirt, wire, yarn, 59 × 37 × 41 1/4".

Precious Okoyomon

Earlier this year, artist and poet Precious Okoyomon spent several weeks in Frankfurt, filling the modernist space of Zollamt MMK with a layer of topsoil, covering it with a carpet of young kudzu plants imported from Amsterdam, and finally populating it with six life-size effigies assembled out of black raw lambswool, dirt, and “a little bit” of the artist’s own blood. Each titled either Angel of the void or Angel of light (all works 2020), these figures raise their arms in prayer or lower them in protective stances, poised to brawl or break into dance. Both reinforced and restrained with various lengths of wire, thread, and red and orange woolen yarn, they can appear either as forceful guardians or as fragile children’s dolls.

In March, when the work was almost completed, the Covid-19 lockdown put the exhibition’s opening on hold, and the artist returned stateside. But while home confinement caused many humans to experience a sense of stasis, the plants at the Zollamt outpost of Frankfurt’s Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) thrived. By the time the show opened in August, they had used the five undisturbed months to grow and merge into a veritable thicket, climbing and enveloping the angels’ torsos until these were almost fully submerged. The windfall of an extended run time allowed the artwork to become a functioning ecosystem largely indifferent to museum etiquette. Snails and butterflies appeared, and an orchestra of newly arrived crickets provided a subtle, high-pitched soundtrack.

Observing things from across the Atlantic, Okoyomon was exhilarated to let it all happen. On the new timeline, the plants would begin to lose their leaves just as the show neared its conclusion at the beginning of November. The artist made plans to burn the dried leaves and use them for a future work. The show’s title, “Earthseed,” was a reference to Octavia E. Butler’s vision of a religion based on the embrace of constant change. In that light, the fact that these works transformed themselves beyond expectation seemed like a hopeful counterpoint to a historic moment when social and ecological ills, worsened by powerful individuals, are nonetheless insurmountable by mere personal effort.

Okoyomon’s meditations about change and migration and their relation to Blackness are as concrete and personal as they are historical. The kudzu vine spread through the American continent thanks to the US government’s desperate attempt to fortify soil ravaged by a cotton-based agricultural system that was as indifferent to the health of ecosystems as it was to the enslaved laborers who once formed its workforce. Soon, the prospering vine vastly outgrew its assigned task and became known as an invasive species, “the vine that ate the South.”

Today, harsh penalties for the cultivation of kudzu would have made it impossible to stage “Earthseed” in some US states. At Zollamt MMK, a former customs office, the show became powerfully site-specific precisely by being firmly out of place. Okoyomon, who was born in the UK in 1993 but moved to Ohio from Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of eleven, has been fascinated with kudzu since first encountering what they described to me as “monstrous” and “dancing” fields of it on a childhood trip to Georgia. Since then, the artist has used the plant to make tangible the intertwinements between the histories of slavery and resistance, nature, and personal diasporic experience.

Brute comparisons between migrations of people and the spread of invasive species or “foreign” viruses have long been part of the rhetorical arsenal of our most reprehensible politicians. Okoyomon responds not only by reformulating fear of change into its celebration, but also by quietly enlisting the audience in the process. When visitors stepped out into the street after spending time with “Earthseed,” their shoes were almost inevitably caked with bits of soil that might or might not have contained the seeds of vines eager to spread their runners and rhizomes into whatever fertile ground they could find.